What Does it All MEAN?

Life’s twisting path

(Oystermouth Castle, Mumbles, Wales)

Theme is the main idea behind a story/poem/song. It is often a universal idea or philosophy. Think of Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf). On one level fables are simple tales that amuse children but they also carry a second, deeper message – a universal truth. This moral is the theme. Such themes are often relevant to everyone, everywhere, in every language, in every culture.

You’ll find that for your writing to be considered ‘art’ you ought to have a theme. Therefore, as well as writing a story whereby Joe wants Natalie, Joe gets Natalie, Joe loses Natalie – you include an underlying universal message like: “jealousy kills love’.

As you write your story, don’t lose sight of your theme. Some writers use the theme as their title (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Though this is not common, nor encouraged, using your theme as a provisional title on your Work In Progress might keep you focused on your message as you are writing. It is also possible that your theme  may become a tagline or catchphrase associated with your story, like “Greed is good” for Wallstreet (albeit in contrary form).

Examples: your theme could be a comment on the role that luck plays in a person’s life, or your belief that all beings are interconnected. Moralistic writers might warn against the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Alternatively, a writer may want to say such indulgences make the world go around. Whatever your theme is, it is your “message” or “philosophy” and ought to be consistently evident in your story.

Once you have found your theme, a way of reminding the reader of its centrality to your story is to place symbolic “motifs” throughout your work. That is to say, if your theme is jealousy, and a widely known symbol of jealousy is “green eyes” – you could give your character green eyes and/or have him own a green eyed statue that unnerves him. You might also have a lot of “green” in your story. Thus, green becomes your story’s “motif” and will help to create a sense of unity in the piece.

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Cúpla Focal (A Few Words)

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FEICIM, Irish language immersion courses on Inis Oirr

Few can argue with the fact that Ireland has contributed a wildly disproportionate number of towering literary works to the English language canon. Our writers have included James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, Sean O’Casey, C.S. Lewis, WB Yeats, Molly Keane, JM Synge, Elizabeth Bowen and Flann O’Brien,– to name but a few. And this is before considering contemporary writers such as William Trevor, Brian Friel, Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Joseph O’Connor, Kevin Barry. How come a small island of around four million people has produced scribes who wield the English language (and therefore, a non-native tongue) with such aplomb?

It is often proposed that the Irish are simply far more playful and experimental with the English language than other Anglophone peoples. And the reason is because in Ireland, the Irish language remains a palimpsest underscoring the use of English in Ireland (a branch of the Anglophone tree known as Hiberno-English).

As an Irish writer who also speaks Hungarian and French, I would have to agree that multi-lingualism, or at least the existence of another language in proximity to the vernacular will have an impact, and usually that impact will be positive, playful and fruitful. Every language I have learned has taught me to regard another aspect of English in a fresh way.

Some years ago, I had the honour of being Artist in Residence on Inis Oirr, one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Irish is the first language on the island. Like all Irish people, I studied Irish for thirteen years as a schoolgirl. However, coming from the East of Ireland, my home language was English and since leaving school, I’ve had little opportunity to practice the ancient tongue. However, my time on Inis Oirr allowed the re-awakening of my dormant Irish and I was surprised at how quickly it came back – and I was struck at how it began to colour my writings, as they became more lyrical, poetic and playful.

There, I had the fortune to meet Brid Ni Chualain, a native Irish speaker from the island. Brid is also a writer. Her love of the native language coupled with her easy-going, friendly approach to language tutoring has meant she’s gained quite a following as an Irish language tutor and now runs FEICIM, immersion courses on Inis Oirr for beginners through to advanced. Moreover, she’s willing to do skype lessons, so I might be taking her up on that score.  You don’t have to learn Irish to be a great English language writer – but it does appear to help ; )


Beginning, Muddle, End

The 'Anonymous' statue in City Park, Budapest. Commemorating the unknown scribe who recorded the story of the Magyars. Rubbing his pen brings inspiration.

The ‘Anonymous’ statue in City Park, Budapest. Commemorating the unknown scribe who recorded the story of the Magyars. Rubbing his pen brings inspiration.

A good exercise in plotting is to take a book, a play or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.To have a story, you have to have some sort of muddle or conflict, which fall into one or more of the following categories:

man vs. nature

man vs. man

man vs. the environment

man vs. machines/technology

man vs. the supernatural

man vs. self

man vs. god/religion

Steps to structure your story could follow the classic Hollywood example below:

Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.

Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.

The main character is affected by the disturbance.

The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.

Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.

Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.

These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.

The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.

Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.

The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.

So, a ‘Beginning, a Muddle and an End’.


Make your lines stand out

Amelia stands out from the line

Amelia stands out from the line

Those new to writing will often fall in love with words and become over-enthusiastic in their application. However, overly verbose writing negates the impact. Use adjectives but go easy, less is more.

An example of an adjective/adverb heavy sentence:

‘A dark grey, crinkled brow of solemn cloud crept sluggishly over the majestic hills that were patchily bruised with a blackish purple moss and randomly spiked with prickly yellow furze.’

There is too much going on in this sentence, far too much colour. Each individual image is in competition for the reader’s attention. The result is a confusing clash. Think about what is necessary here. Everyone knows furze is yellow and prickly. Do you need to inform the reader of these facts? “Majestic” doesn’t really do anything here – except communicate that the hill is big, which one would assume. Edit that sentence down.

‘A cloud slugged over the hills,’ has far more impact.

A note on adverbs:

Adverbs have a bad reputation in the literary world. Many writers avoid them completely (there’s one right there). I would suggest you use them with caution and very, very sparingly (see, another one) and never, ever with speech attribution (“she said nervously”). Adverbs like “suddenly” or “immediately” are thought of as cliché traffic lights. If something happens unexpectedly in a story, you don’t need to “flag it” to make the reader aware that this was a “sudden” action – it should be obvious. “A bomb exploded” is more striking than “Suddenly, a bomb exploded”.

Over reliance on adjectives and adverbs is a typical, and some would say necessary, phase for those beginning their writing journey. So, don’t worry if you recognize your own writing here. As “mistakes” go, the over use of adjectives and adverbs is a useful one, as it serves to build your vocabulary. All good writers should have this phase. Just keep calm, carry on, edit down the adjectives and remove the adverbs – and you’re on your way.


COW – A Sold-Out Success!!!

 

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Phenomenal response to COW! SOLD OUT!! Full house and heartfelt curtain calls. We’re now mulling its further life. Many thanks to all involved and to those who came. COW will be back!

Play:

When a mysterious and beautiful Hungarian woman arrives in Glenmore, Co. Kilkenny to work as a mushroom picker, the Clearys’ strained, childless marriage comes under further threat…

An entertaining light comedy that also mulls contemporary issues including immigration, perceptions of women and infertility – and there’s ongoing consternation about hurling, camogie and Irish weather! The play is directed by Catríona Clancy. COW also features acclaimed Irish actor Michael Quinlan as Damien Cleary, Firetrap Theatre’s Geraldine Crowley as Marie Cleary and Emma Lyndon-Stanford as Ági Kovács. 


2017 Claremorris Fringe Award!

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Mayo magic: The Dog in the Treehouse wins the 2017 Claremorris Fringe Award

What could top two weeks at the Heinrich Boll cottage on Achill Island? Very little, but picking up the 2017 Claremorris Fringe Award for my short play “The Dog in the Treehouse” on the day of my departure comes close.

Not only does this win supply prestige and very welcome prize money, but I also was presented with an excellent staged version of my play, and treated with royal hospitality by the event organisers and theatre lovers from every corner of Ireland. What a March you’ve provided Mayo!


In Boll’s Retreat on Achill Island

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An inspiring Irish speciality, a seaweed bath

Two weeks at the Heinrich Boll cottage in Achill, two whole weeks of wonderful industry and contemplation on Ireland’s wild Atlantic shores, in one of Mayo’s most scenic corners in the home of one of the 20th century’s most famous authors. That is how lucky I am. And yes, it was very fruitful. Nothing compares to time spent on a writers’ residency.

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Achill Island

I’ve had residencies at four institutions. They’ve all been great and interesting and why wouldn’t they be, providing time and distance from routine to concentrate on your art alone or in the company of other creatives. Each institution has provided something unique, whether it be conversation with the other artists, inspiration from the environment, tuition or the calm and stillness that lends itself so well to the creative process. For all these reasons, I’d also recommend the following: Tyrone Guthrie Centre (Ireland), Aras Eanna (Ireland), The Hurst (UK) and last year Ginestrelle, (Italy). I’ve also rented friends’ holiday homes in low season, which is a way artists can enjoy a focused way to write, without breaking the bank.

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Castle of Graunuaile (the pirate Queen of Connaught), on Achill Island.

I’m going to reblog below, a list of residencies/retreats I drew up some years ago. I haven’t had time recently to check, expand or prune this list, but please feel free to add your own comments/suggestions. And apologies if some of the links are out of date.

Do note that America is where the writers’ colony was born, hence its dominance of the list. The U.S. still provides the best, the most prestigious and the most difficult colonies to get into. Yes, “get into”. Therein lies the difference between a “residency” and a “retreat”  (which I explain below):

Residencies are institutions to which you must apply and demonstrate your professionalism as an artist via a portfolio, and perhaps references and a CV that shows you are considered by your peers to be a practicing artist. Residencies are often funded by an arts and/or educational body and can mean you must also provide a service such as creative writing classes in the locality. Residencies can last from two weeks to a year.  In Ireland, prestigious residencies include The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Cill Rialaig and the Heinrich Boll Cottage. Even if accepted, you may have to pay for your stay. However, attending one of these establishments is an impressive addition to your C.V. Moreover, you may meet artists of international renown.

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Then you get Retreats. These are institutions that sometimes offer courses – the UK’s ‘Arvon Foundation’ is a good example which has three properties around England and holds intensive writing courses throughout the year. Other retreats might just offer room and board to writers for a fee, somewhat like a hotel but with an emphasis on creativity and productivity during your stay. Anam Cara and the Molly Keane house are Irish examples. They’re not as prestigious residencies, although such places tend not to attract those at the peak of their career, you might still meet some interesting creative, supportive people and the surrounds are usually very picturesque and perhaps inspiring. Retreats are good for novice or emerging writers who are not yet at the stage in their career where they might gain acceptance on a “residency”, or if you simply want to try the set up out for a week or so, but can’t commit to a residency.

Finally, if all you want is some peace and quiet, why not rent some respite, a holiday cottage in the wilds of Connemara in autumn, or stay in a B&B on Dartmoor or a shack in the Catskills – you may be able to get a ‘low season deal’ and it may provide the inspiration you seek.

 

A sample (and by no means exhaustive) list:

Ireland

Residencies:
Heinrich Böll cottage
Cill Rialaig
Dublin Writer in Residence

Tyrone Guthrie Centre

Retreats:

anam cara

Molly Keane Writers Retreat

France

Residencies:

Chateau la Napoule

Centre Culture lrlandais

Aerogramme Studio Brown’s

Retreats:

La Muse Inn

UK

Residencies:

Gladstone’s Library

Hawkwood College

Hawthornden Castle

Cove Park

Retreats

Arvon Foundation

Urban Writers’

Germany

Schwarndorf

Italy

Ginestrelle

USA

Residencies:

Anderson Centre (Minnesota)

Art Croft (Kentucky)

Atlantic Centre (Florida)

Caldera Arts (Oregon)

Saltonstall (New York State)

Djerassi (California)

Dorland (California)

Exeter (New Hampshire)

Albee Foundation (New York State)

Cambridge (Georgia)

Headlands (California)

Hedge brook (Washington State)

Jentle (Wyoming)

Kerouac (Florida)

Kimmel (Nebraska)

OMI (New York)

Macdowell (New Hampshire)

Millay (New York State)

Spring creek (Oregon)

KFW (Kentucky)

Kulcher (Minnesota)

Lynchburg (Virginia)

Norman Mailer Centre (NY, Wyoming, California)

Montalvo Arts (California)

Radcliffe (Massachusetts)

Red Cinder (Hawaii)

Rocky Mountain (Colorado)

Stanford (Connecticut)

Studio in the Woods (New Orleans)

Poetry Centre (Arizona)

Virginia Centre (Virginia)

Ucross (Wyoming)

Vermont Studio (Vermont)

Wild Acres (North Carolina)

Woodstock (New York)

Wurlitzer (New Mexico)

Yaddo (New York state)

Retreats (also offer a limited number of fellowships)

Nantucket (Massachusetts)

Ragdale (Illinois)

Dairy Hollow (Arkansas)

Canada

Banff

Saskatchewan

Australia

Varuna

If you know of more, please let me know. If possible specify if it’s a residency (free or subsidised) or a retreat (self funded).


How Long is a Piece of String?

 

Seaweed tangle on the island of Inis Oirr, Co.Galway

One of the questions most frequently asked in creative writing classes is “how long is a novel/play/short story/screenplay?” And, as is often the case in creative writing, the answer is that there are no rules but… there kind of are.

There is not an official cut off word count for any of the above literary forms but the publishing industry has generally accepted average lengths. Know that just because your word count has hit the “magic number”, it does not follow that you are finished. Apart from the fact you’ll be lobbing off at least a third in edits, you also need be sure that you have brought all the strands of your story to satisfactory conclusion, have made your point and your character has undergone some sort of change / journey / learning arc in the process. Otherwise, to paraphrase Truman Capote, you’re just typing.

What follows is a rough guide/ballpark figure for each literary form:

 Novel

The average commercial novel is 78,000 words in length; this roughly amounts to 300 A4 pages in double spaced twelve-point font. However, a novel can be anything from 45,000 words onwards. A book between 20,000 – 45,000 is usually marketed as a “novella”.

 Short Story

Traditionally, a short story is meant to be read in one sitting. Normally, this narrative form is quite pointed in its message, involves a single setting and few characters. A short story can be anything from 1,000-20,000 words.Writing short stories is a good way of building up your story telling skills, honing your craft as a writer and amassing a writing portfolio. Also, the short story is the literary form favoured by writing competitions. Such competitions usually look for stories in the 2,000-5,000 word bracket.

Flash Fiction

This is the short story’s kid brother. Somewhat akin to the Haiku, a flash fiction story often aims to capture a fleeting moment. It can be any thing between 100-1,000 words. Flash fiction is becoming very popular in competitions these days. Personally, I think this may be to save reading time for judges.

Screenplay

The standard “Hollywood” screenplay is 90 minutes long. Given the rule of thumb that one page equals one minute of movie, you should be aiming for a90-page long screen play. Obviously, this is an approximation.

 TV/Play

Likewise, the page per minute rule applies here too. Bear in mind the slot your are aiming for. commercial TV and radio stations will include advert breaks in their schedule – so a half hour comedy show might in fact be only 22 minutes long etc… If you have a slot in mind, time the duration of the actual show (excluding theme music and commercial breaks.)

 Stageplay

The page per minute rule can roughly be applied to stage plays too. If a stage play were to last an hour and a half, it should be 20,000 words long and span 90 pages.

 Poem

A poem can be as short or as long as you like. A  haiku is traditionally 17 syllables over three line. The Iliad is 25,000 lines long. For the try outs, however, you might aim for two or three verses.


It’s How I Roll, baby

writing woman

I’m at my professional best when I’m stressed, with a to-do list in hand and no time to take a break.

We all work in different ways. Some writers need planning and easy, soft pacing. My approach is broad stroke, manic, if slightly anarchic – but I get stuff done. Likewise, we all perform better at different times of the day. Many writers keep their notepad by their beds and make sure that the very first thing they do when they open their eyes each morning, is write, hoping the dream state will have left a creative legacy. The resultant notes are called “morning pages”. Morning pages might contain what a writer remembers of their dreams or perhaps the writer will simply jot down the very first words that come to mind that day. There are writers who say that this exercise helps them ‘slip’ more easily into what writers’ call the “rapture” when a writer feels ideas are pouring into their mind from elsewhere.

Just as the waking moments are a bridge from the sleeping state into sober reality – the hour before you go to bed is often a creative time with the brain slipping into that semi conscious state.  Hence there are plenty of writers who write late at night.

And to show that there are no rules, there are other writers who find their most productive hours are in the middle of the day when all of life’s busyness is in full swing (the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling is a good example. She wrote her first book in a busy Edinburgh café).

What is important is that you write and that you find your ideal writing time. Experiment. Find what works for you and then set an hour aside each day at that time and write. Likewise, writers have very personal tastes regarding an environment conducive to writing. There are those who like music or TV buzz in the background and those who can only write in silence. Manic or meditative, find whatever works for you.


Saying Goodbye!

bedroom

Today, the last of my belongings were moved from my first ever property, a flat in Budapest. It was my first home, and in many ways, my first ever major art project. It breaks my heart see the keys handed to the new owner. However, I hadn’t even been inside the flat since 2009, and it was a headache to manage it from where I live now in the UK. So, when a very reasonable offer came my way, hesitant though I was, I knew I would have been dumb to say no. When it’s time, it’s time. So, today I say goodbye to Baross utca!

Saying goodbye is equally important when you are writing. It’s crucial to know when you’re done writing your particular text, be it a play, short story or novel… there’s only so much mo tweaking you can do, you’ve sometimes just got to say “it’s done” and send it out there. Here are some tips to help you decide if you’re done:

1) Have you read through your piece a number of times, each revision focusing on different aspects (character, theme, structure, tone, language, punctuation, grammar etc…)?

2) Have you shown your piece to at least one person and received informed and HONEST feedback, and have you then addressed any issues that have been highlighted?

3) Are you now re-reading your work, doing nothing but shifting around commas (and back again)?

If the answer to the above is ‘Yes’, then you’re done and the only reason you’re hesitating sending it off to the agent/theatre/broadcaster/publisher/magazine/competition, is that you’re scared of rejection.

Get over that. If you’re going to be a published writer, you’re going to have to suck up a lot of rejection. Be brave. Take the leap. And good luck!