Tag Archives: inspiration

New Year, News Ideas

010

The New Year is a blank page, but a blank page can scare the artist; it is important to get the work flowing as soon as possible before the writer’s block sets in. The challenge is to find inspiration. Leonardo di Vinci used to stare at the walls in his studio until the damp patches formed scenes and figures he wanted to paint. If you look closely at some of his works, you can even see how those dark stains suggested the rock formations he conjured. Of course, you don’t so much ‘get’ ideas as you eek them out from your own subconscious .

Hopefully, you don’t have damp patches around your writer’s garret. You may have yesterday’s newspaper, however. I worked as a journalist for many years and love newspapers and appreciate them as a source of ideas and stories for the creative writer. For starters, you could just take an existing story and change the setting/gender etc… to make it your own. Ideas will come to you as you work on it.

Alternatively, you could apply the ‘what if’ question. The ‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings to news stories. A good example of this question is Stephen Fry’s Making History, in which he explores a world where Hitler was killed in WWI but an even more dastardly figure comes to prominence, and wins.

The small ads section can spur the imagination. Hemmingway once said his best work was one he wrote in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. It’s clever as there is clearly a heavy back story here but Hemmingway, being Papa, does not spell it out. My point is that you could operate in reverse, search the small ads and then write its back story. Think of the tale behind a novel that ends with that small ad.

Then there are photos. Ignore the captions/related stories. Look at the photos and guess what is going on. Develop an identity for someone in the background of a picture. Give them a problem. Imagine how they are being affected by the main event in the photo. The key is to go for the more obscure shots. Obviously, if it’s a picture of 9/11, the chances are you’re not going to come up with anything too original but if it’s a picture of a man biting a dog, you may be on to something.


Voice of an Angel Says: ‘Don’t Bother Praying’

There are all kinds of writers from poets thru playwrights, novelists thru short-story writers. And, all types of writers are influenced in turn by other forms of artistic expression, be it painting, film, dance, music and song. However, it is the marriage of word and music that creates the most immediate effect of any art form.

A couple of notes in a particular key wedded to carefully selected lyrics, can reach in and squeeze your heart, roil you memory, pump your tear ducts.

And to prove the point here is my cousin Fiona Flavin – who has one of the finest voices in Ireland –singing her own composition, a soul-blues number, ‘Don’t Bother Praying’. Enjoy!

 

 

 


Truth Will Set You Free

A Truthful Shop, Brighton.

Truth is not fact.  A fact is, well, a fact – something undeniable like ‘the sun rises in the east’. Truth is far less easy to quantify, to prove, to grasp. Truth is more subjective than fact, and depends on the belief system of the beholder.Truth is the reality you feel it to be and the artist’s job is to capture and communicate that truth.

Writing from truth, what you feel passionate about, can lend work real emotion, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader. And as an artist, it is often your job to stand naked in front of the world, truth in hand. Truth is writing what you believe.

Writing from fact is reportage, when you write using ‘truth’ you add extra spice and colour to the mixture to make it fiction, more interesting, and more moving.

And remember, an issue with writing from reality is that ironically, fact is often too weird and too unbelievable to work as fiction. Your readers will say, ‘oh, come on, that would never happen.’ And you can’t phone them all up and say, ‘actually, it did. I’m not making it up. I once knew this bloke…’ Instead, you’ve often got to tone down the story to make it more credible. Real-life coincidences can be particularly problematic here.

So, be careful with facts… but always write with truth.


New Year Ships’ Log

It’s 2014 – a year that still sounds to me like the title of a Sci-Fi movie. And I’m hoping the spaceships I encounter over the next twelve months will be of the friendly variety .Veterans of this blog will know that when I refer to ‘ships’ I’m talking about all the texts/scripts which I’ve sent out on spec re publication, staging or broadcast etc… I have always liked the idea of my work as ‘ships’ as it somewhat relieves me of responsibility – once launched, they are out there and I can only hope they return to port in some form, preferably laden with a win or publication.

Last year I sent out a total of 59 ships. Some 17 returned to port, 39 never made it. Rejections/disappointments/ non-runs/PFOs are part and parcel with the writer’s lot and learning how to handle them is one of the most important (and difficult) lessons a novice writer faces.

I when I was 22, I wrote seven short stories. They were bad, really pretentious, decorated with adjectives and adverbs and with no theme or character development or point to any of them at all but I thought they were pure genius. I sent them off to every magazine I could find in the bookstore. And waited. And waited. And waited… until I became convinced that they had all been lost in the post. It was the only explanation, surely, as any editor would recognize my genius immediately, no? A couple of months later, I received a single rejection letter. And the truth dawned. No one else even bothered replying. It was 100% rejection. I was floored. I burned the stories I was working on and I didn’t send anything else off for another ten years.

That was very stupid of me. I should have brushed myself off and tried again. I would be in a much better position and be a better writer now if I had. But I wasn’t strong or  mature enough to know that then. Ah, well. During my first year on my MA at UEA  (2009), I sent out another batch of stories. I’d had a few shorts published at this stage and was confident that I’d now win every competition going and it would pay my MA tuition. And, again I got nowhere. I was pretty down but I recalled how I’d let rejection defeat me before and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. I sent out more, and then more and after six months, I had bagged the Mary and Ted O’Regan Award, and then the Annaghmakerrig award and the Molly Keane Award, the HISSAC, the Sussex Playwrights’, the Meridian, the Escalator Award. I’ve now got two broadcast radio plays under my belt (and am working on a third)  as well as signing with an agent and my novel is currently on submission to publishers. My  short stories have been published in seven anthologies/literary publications. I’ve had staged readings of my work in Norfolk, Brighton and Cornwall. I’ve served as writer in residence on the Aran Islands, lead workshops in creative writing in Ireland and the UK and teach writing for a living. These are all ships that came home to mama over the past five years but believe me, many had to sink before I saw the slightest hint of success.

Don’t give up – look at how you can improve your rejected story/script/novel/play and send it out again. Remember, much depends on what the magazine or the competition judge is looking for at that particular time, it may not be a comment on your writing skills. It’s all about not giving up.

The 2013 stats:

Ships sent out: 56

Wins/acceptance/short-listings/publications:17

Ships sunk: 39

The 2014 stats thus far:

Awaiting news on 13 ships launched

Wins/acceptance/short-listings/publications: 1

Ships sunk: 3


You On Your Rocking Chair, Me On My Bench

Van Gogh’s Portrait of Gauguin’s Chair

Setting and character description are linked. A man who favours a torn leather armchair filled with cushions is  quite different from a man who rathers sleek minimalist designer furniture. The setting should complement and reflect the character.

It is often effective to draw around the character, sketch them in their absence. What type of chair do they favour? Wallpaper? House? What book is left on their bedside table? Is their office desk obsessively orderly or natty and neat?

I have a background in fine art painting and I find painting is a great way to understand this aspect of character description – the concept of describing your characters by drawing around them rather than delivering a direct portrait of the same. I like to compare these two portraits by Vincent Van Gogh: one a self portrait and the other Van Gogh’s portrait of Paul Gauguin.

What do you think Vincent is communicating regarding his own and Gauguin’s character and personality?

(Bear in mind that Van Gogh and Gauguin were close once but their relationship became strained when they house-shared at Arles – when these portraits were painted.)

And how would you paint these two portraits in words?

Van Gogh’s Chair, Self Portrait


I Read the News Today, oh Boy!

Image

Following a brain popping sojourn at the Edinburgh Fringe I had to whoosh to Kent for the wedding of two of my favourite people on earth. A perfect day, finishing a perfectly inspiring couple of weeks. I’m on my way back to Norwich and saw this headline advertised in a railway station and it made me think of how wonderful a source of story ideas newspapers are.

 I worked as a journalist for many years and believe that the paper press is the richest source of inspiration available to writers. For starters, take this headline, and without reading the story what do you think could lie behind it? Or, you could just take an existing story and change the setting/gender etc… to make it your own. Ideas will come to you as you work on it.

Alternatively, you could apply the ‘what if’ question to a story’s possible outcome. The‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings. A good example of this question is Stephen Fry’s Making History, in which he explores a world where Hitler was killed in WWI but an even more dastardly figure comes to prominence, and wins.

The small ads section can spur the imagination. Hemmingway once said his best work was one he wrote in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. It’s clever as there is clearly a heavy back story here but Hemmingway, being Papa, does not spell it out. My point is that you could operate in reverse, search the small ads and then write its back story. Think of the tale behind a novel that ends with that small ad.

Then there are photos. Ignore the captions/related stories. Look at the photos and guess what is going on. Develop an identity for someone in the background of a picture. Give them a problem. Imagine how they are being affected by the main event in the photo. The key is to go for the more obscure shots. Obviously, if it’s a picture of 9/11, the chances are you’re not going to come up with anything too original but if it’s a picture of a man biting a dog, you may be on to something.

Go hunting, Newshound!


I Left My Heart…

Image

A lock on Szabadsag Bridge over the River Danube

I’ve now spent the majority of the summer back in Hungary and I’m not done yet. I previously spent eleven years in Budapest. They were heady years when I grew up in many ways, fell in love, got a proper job, learned to drive, took my degree, first published my creative writing, bought my first properties and found my closest friends. All the above are milestones in one’s life and mine all happened in Hungary.

 

Image

Budapest is an intoxicatingly beautiful city. In my pretty informed opinion it is the most beautiful in Europe. It is also an entertaining, lively, full on, sometimes maddening, never boring, place to live. I think I needed to step away from the Danube for some years to digest my time here and to write about her with some objectivity.

I am now close to finishing the first draft of my novel which is set between Dublin and Budapest (and Kali medence – which is a beauty spot near Lake Balaton attributed spiritual energy) and the words are flowing. Hungary grabs the imagination and shakes it up in a way I’ve only ever previously experienced in Ireland. I’m enjoyed having Hungary as my muse this summer and grateful also for the years I spent in England which gave me the distance and silence I needed to appreciate Hungary properly and to digest the significance of my time here.

My next stop is Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival… wonder what impact that will have…


Insane in the Membrane (theory)

Image

There are writers feel story and character ideas are fed to them from “somewhere else”, a parallel universe perhaps, where these characters and stories truly exist.

Clearly, that “somewhere else” is a very vague concept and means different things to different scribes: it could be a religious concept, a spiritual one, or even tied in with scientific theory such as ‘brane cosmology’. Whatever your persuasion, writers who hold such beliefs say it is very important to allow your mind to be open to receiving these ideas – wherever they come from.

Personally, I’ve had moments when I felt plugged into a conduit, receiving stories, characters and ideas fully formed, all wrapped up and ready to go – though I hesitate to say if this was a spiritual event or just the  way the brain works in creative mode.

And it is a rare enough event – I can never conjure ‘the writing rapture’ but if I write often it’ll roll around every now and again. And when it does, it’s a  magical moment when stories and characters cascade.

All we can do is sit down to write every day and hope for the best – most days you’ll get coal but if you keep at it, the diamond muse will show up sooner or later.


Freestylin’

 

Freewriting is what you write when there’s no one looking. Freewriting is the madman in your brain taking the controls and sending words all the way down to the tips of your fingers. Freewriting is where you’ll find the most brilliant story ideas, if you look hard enough.

To freewrite, just write. Write the first word that comes to mind and then follow it with another. Set an alarm if you can. Don’t worry about grammar, structure, character development – just write. And when you’re done, stand back and take a look. Is there anything in there you can use. I’ll say there is!

Here’s an example:

‘Right now I’m sitting at my computer and the coffee cup is on the edge of my desk. It looks a little like an iceberg, as it is white and chipped and cold because the coffee has been in it since the morning as I didn’t do the washing up last night and the sink is full of plates and saucers. All those plates look surreal sitting unwashed in the sink like that. All at different angles like a Picasso painting with ketchup instead of paint dribbled over the plates. I wonder if Picasso got his ideas from waking up one morning and seeing his jumble of washing up in the sink I wonder if all the museums in the world actually have pictures of Picasso’s washing up and not his mistresses and Guernica and does that mean the joke is on us?’

The above freewrite might seem silly but it’s also an example of how freewriting could, potentially, inspire a proper piece of writing. This daft thought about Picasso’s washing up could easily be worked into a comedy radio play where a hung-over Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse wake up after a night out on the town and dare each other to paint a picture of the mess of washing up in the sink. Thus, the modern art movement is accidentally launched. Another possibility you could take from this freewrite is the concept that something generally considered ugly and in need of repair or attention (washing up) can lead to tremendous artistic inspiration – and this idea could form the kernel of a short story or a poem.

Here, chose one of the prompts below and let it lead you into a three minute freewrite.

I wish I had said….

It was no use pretending….

A long time ago…

For the first time ever….


There You Are

Image

I recently spent a month as artist-in-residence on Inis Oirr, one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. It has a bleak beauty and I was struck by how ‘man-made’ the place is. A rock in the Atlantic, all top soil has been built up over the centuries by islanders hauling up to the hinterland seaweed, sand and clay scraped from crevices. Stone walls then divide this carpet of top soil into a patchwork of fields.

Image

Agriculture and the labour of men no longer drive this ‘man-made’ island however, today it is the women of the islands who are spinning, weaving, potting, knitting and sewing craftware for tourists and this sector is what currently supplies the main source of income. The semi-disenfranchisement of the men and the industry of the women which has the succeeded male labour, has given me an idea for a play which I’m hoping to take to the Edinburgh Fringe. My stay on the island has also allowed me to explore how important environments are for inspiration. So much so, that I am now mulling an offer I had this week to return to the island for six months next year.

Image

Writing what you know

It is often said you should “write what you know”. A sensible approach, especially for the new writer. By placing your characters in scenes and situations with which you are familiar, you are more likely to invest a sense of realism in the story. Also, practically speaking, writing about familiar territory will save on research you might otherwise have to do on a subject/setting.

Some writers resist writing what they know as they feel their own environments are not “glamorous” or “extraordinary” enough to merit such attention. This is nonsense. Whatever you do and whoever you are, your life will seem exotic to someone else. The fact that you grew up on a council estate/project developent in Bolton/Kalamazoo is interesting to someone living on a farm in Siberia. Remember, the life of an immigrant taxi-driver would quite likely fascinate the Queen of England.

inisoirraraseanna

Also, you don’t necessarily have to set your story in your street or your workplace. Think of your Saturday morning football team, your chool, the nightclubs you frequent, a hospital you’ve spent time in or a prison. All are equally valuable settings for a short story, novel, play, film script or even poem or song. Your environment is your gold, mine it.

But I don’t want to write about my environment…

That’s fine too. There is also case for “writing what you don’t know”. Fantasy writers, for example, are (usually) not elves living in Middle Earth. Historical fiction writers have not lived in Tudor England. Yet, Fantasy/SciFi/Historical novels are written and enjoyed every year. For Fantasy/SciFi you need a familiarity with the genre and a vivid imagination. For historical fiction you need to like research. For all the above you’ll require the ability to convincingly create an unfamiliar world.

inisoirrchurch

Bear in mind, however, that while a Fantasy writer won’t get complaints from angry elves about his misinformed stereotypes. A novelist who sets a story in a modern French monastery, and knows nothing about France or monks – is asking for trouble. Firstly, their prose may be riddled with (skewed) perceptions of France and the French, monks/Catholicism/wine-making etc… And not only is there danger of rehashing clichés, their writing might lack the detailed realism a reader finds so reassuring and intriguing.

So, if you want to write about banditos in the mountains of Sardinia, and you can’t go and live there for a year – then research, research, research. Read as much as you can on the topic, as well as any other fiction that has used the same environment as a setting.