Tag Archives: inspiration

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

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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!

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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…

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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.

 

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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)

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


It’s The Way You Tell ‘Em

Jokes! Jokes are a great source of plot ideas. An established writer gave me this tip years ago and it has served me well.

Jokes, you see, are plots in miniature. Stories sealed up and ready to go. You’ve got your beginning, middle, end, your conflict, your characters – flaws and all. All you’ve got to do is flesh it out. Expland on it. Change gender and setting if possible. And no, it doesn’t have to be funny because many jokes (indeed, stories) need an element of tragedy to make comedy (and vice vearsa) and you can just crank up the aspect you want to emphasize.

Here’s a joke that gave me an idea for a short story recently shortlisted for a competition:

“It was Ryan’s funeral and the pallbearers were carrying the casket out from the church. When they bumped into a pillar, one of them heard a moan from inside the coffin. They opened the lid and found Ryan alive. He lived for another ten years before he properly died. Another funeral was held for him and, as the pallbearers were carrying out the coffin, Mrs Ryan shouted “Now, watch out for that pillar!”

OK, it’s the way ya tell ‘em… But the point is that they don’t have to be the funniest jokes – just so long as there is a story in there, a universal truth with which your readers will react and engage. Wordplay/puns won’t work so well, go for the story…

Here’s another one you can chew on for a story idea (it goes down well in the creative writing classes I give in an English prison…)

The defendant knew he didn’t have a prayer of beating the murder rap, so he bribed one of the jurors to find him guilty of manslaughter. The jury was out for days before they finally returned a verdict of manslaughter. Afterward the defendant asked, ‘How come it took you so long?’ the juror said, ‘All the others wanted to acquit’.Image


All Hail Snails

Candles in Budapest

Snails. I have a thing for snails. It’s odd, I know, but we’ve all got something… Snails feature in my writing a lot. My award winning play was called ‘shellakybooky’ – a child’s word for ‘snail’ in Ireland. My Molly Keane Winning story featured a sock stuffed with snails and my latest stageplay has snails’ trails predicting the future in their particular weird, silvery fashion.

I love the oddness of snails’ appearance, their independence (carrying their homes on their back) and the fact that they leave a magical trail behind them. I envy their slowness, their lack of need to rush (and wish I had that confidence of approach). And even the word ‘snail’ has private significance for me. So when snails appear, I feel the muse is at hand.

Today, I arrived in from the garden and a housemate noted a baby snail was crawling across my head. I admit not everyone would be delighted to find a snail in their hair, however, this occured just after I’d been told a story about Buddha’s alleged debt to snails. I’m not a Buddhist but the story appeals:

“During a severe summer, a group of snails crept onto Buddha’s head and shielded him from sunstroke, their horns drawing enlightenment for the Master.  And these snails gave up their lives in the process. In gratitude, the Master bore their shells on his head for the rest of his life.”

So, having a snail on my head puts me in pretty serious enlightened company.

There are writers feel story and character ideas are fed to them from “somewhere else”. Clearly, that “somewhere else” is a very vague concept and means different things to different scribes. Nonetheless, 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.

I find it a comfort to think that ideas come to me from some external source – and if that slow and steady, methodical snail is the one inspiring me or bringing me enlightenment – then I’m cool with the magic.


‘Agnes and Walter’ And the Shed…

I’ve blogged before about the writer finding inspiration via other art forms, be it visual art, poetry or even comedy.

Recently, I’ve gained a lot of inspiration from the dance world. And one of the shows  that started this interest, ‘Agnes and Walter’ has just launched a UK tour.

‘Agnes and Walter’ is compelling dance theatre. A love story tinkling with magic and fun, the piece is accessible to a broad audience.

However, for me, the most significant aspect of ‘Agnes and Walter’ is the exploration of human playfulness, creativity and imagination (i.e. art) which provide pockets of escape along life’s mundane path. And importantly, the show does not shy from investigating the close proximity of fantasy and insanity. It also encourages reflection on relationships, gender roles, and the passing and impact of time.

‘Agnes and Walter’ is punctuated by an eclectic musical score which includes live chansons, rock music and a specifically composed piano accompaniment. This music supplies moments of reflection and forms the bridges and borders between the quotidian world, the fantasy and beyond.

The relationship between reality and fantasy is perfectly symbolized in the show’s focal prop, a weathered garden shed that plays host to dreams, dance and love-making.

A blend of moving and comic theatre, ‘Agnes and Walter’ succeeds because it is quietly clever and thought provoking, yet remains all the while entertaining.

‘Agnes and Walter’ is devised by dance maker Neil Paris of SMITH Dance Theatre and is a must see if you’re in or near any of the following UK cities:

Norwich, Cambridge, Corby, Bridport, Lancaster, Nottingham, Luton, Bornemouth, Frome, Halifax, Stockton, Newcastle, Edinburgh and North Hykeham.

http://link.event.ly/v/262/2ef2a15113a476798cf9bf5e4f4c6e0cce60331af77e512c