Tag Archives: writer

Me Time

cropped-rtemagicc_sue-healy.jpg

 

I’ve got a younger colleague who is rather plugged in to all things techie and ITish – and thanks to his urging, I’m now not only twittering, but also looking at doing some links to pdfs of my stories and perhaps a kindle collection down the line (thanks again, Dan!). In the meantime, if any of you are interested, here are some stories of mine already published online.

The Last of the Shower – A quirky and nostalgic punk looks to wake his dead bandmate: HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association Competition has ‘The Last of the Shower” on their site (which won the2011 Award).

Grapefruit – An over-privileged youth is accused of a sexual misdemeanour. Winner of the Meridian Award.

Ha-Ha A blackly comic story, with a twist. A runner up in the Limnisa/Bluethumbnail Competition:

The Pretender – A tale with a twist and intrigue, which was ‘highly commended’ in the Twisted Stringybark competition. ‘The Pretender’ can be downloaded as part of an anthology:

Thanks for the interest!


Word up

Bang!

As a linguist and a writer, I love words. However, as a teacher of creative writing, I know that the mis/over use of words, particularly adjectives and adverbs, is the most common ‘fault’ you’ll find in the work of novice writers.Insecurity will have new writers shoehorn as many descriptive words as they can get into a sentence – with the result akin to an over ‘bling-ed’ Christmas tree. The advanced writer will ‘show’ an emotion/atmosphere/interpretation without  resorting to a heavy-handed sprinkling of descriptive words.

It’s hard to ween yourself off adjectives and adverbs. Part of the problem is that there are so many words in the English language, a tongue with more word-families than any other language. This fact is rooted English having sprung from French and German, so there are English words that describe quite similarly (ie “loving” is from German and “amorous” is from French). And with such a lavish spread on offer, it is hard for the newbie writer to exercise restraint. Oh but, to improve, you must.

That is not to say you can’t enjoy words. English has magpied extensively from many languages. Most of my favourite words are ‘borrowed’ words and include: “pyjama” and “shampoo” which come from India (though I’m not sure of the specific languages), “Hacienda” and “siesta” which are Spanish. “Itsy-bitsy”, “paprika”, “coach”, “goulash”, “hussar” and “biro” which are Hungarian. “Smithereen”, “galore”, “banshee”, “slew”, “brogue”, “kibosh”, ‘hobo’ and “shanty” which come from Irish. I enjoy writing them, I love saying them – to paraphrase Frank McCourt, it feels like having jewels in your mouth. I’ve just got to be careful about over using ‘exotic’ words in my prose. It can look pretentious.

And you don’t only construct literary art from words but they also set the tone of the piece and there are certain words and phrases that are closely associated with particular genres of writing. Romance type novels I associate with “tawny” and “chiselled”. SciFi writers invent words to name their machines, planets and creatures such as “Klingons” and “Zogathons”.

Words are fun, go ahead and celebrate words – but do so in moderation…


Tweet Thing

Me, when I was at the vanguard of all technology (age 17)

I’m middle aged. I’m 42. And this side of ‘40’ has thus far resulted in reading glasses, having to wash the grey from my hair more frequently and more trips to the doctor in the past year than I’ve had in the past 20 years. Once I’ve finally got my head together, it’s my body that goes all Pete Tong.

Recently, however, I’ve become aware of another symptom of middle age – I’m no longer a product of the world in which I reside. The world of my youth is gone, a distant age symbolised by long dead VCRs, Pac-Mans and Walkmans, smoking in pubs, dial landline telephones, typewriters and cassettes. The new world, feels strange, disconnected from me. I do not want it to be this way. I want to be part of this world. I try.  Look at me, typing on my laptop, texting on my phone, updating my blog, uploading photos, linking stories to YouTube, TED and my Facebook page. Me.

Yes me, who was, I’ll have you know, the first journalist in my hometown of Waterford to report on this new-fangled phenomenon called the ‘Internet’ way back in 1994. I’d been to New York and had seen it in action, me myself, personally like – came home and spread the word via my column in a local paper. So, I’m no Luddite, I’m all for the new. I just resent its alien nature, and wish it was as natural to me as, say, satellite TV was to my generation. Which is a very long winded way of announcing that only thanks to a younger, hipper and more plugged in colleague, I’ve returned to Twitter.

I joined Twitter yonks ago, but could never see the point in it – unless you were a celebrity and (sad) people were actually interested in what you were having for breakfast. So, I sort of gave up and linked my Twitter account to my blog and never checked it, nor tweeted. My colleague, Dan, has cajoled me into giving it another go, to tweet daily and make contact with cyber people, cyber readers and writers and publisher and agents and reviewers and people who might help my career (is mentioning that you’re doing this for networking reasons breaking some sort of etiquette?). So, I’ve updated my Twitter profile et al and I’ll give it a go. I’ll not be growing old gracefully, dammit!


I won!

Flying high

If you’ll indulge me… a quick boast post…

This week, my story ‘Grapefruit’ placed first in the Meridian Autumn Competition, and another ‘Two Trees’ was shortlisted for the Wells Literary Festival Prize. And…. another radio drama I co-wrote, ‘Berlin to Balaton’,  has been shortlisted by the BBC… so all in all, it’s been a pretty full on, flying high week. They don’t come around that often, so I’m sure as hell going to enjoy this floaty feeling while I can… : )


Basic Instinct

Budapest chain bridge lion and moon

My gut has never lied to me. I might ignore my instinct (often do). But I know I shouldn’t, and time and time again, it shows me it knows what it is talking about. I’m in Budapest this weekend, in a farce – which I should have known better than to get myself entangled – my instinct had me well warned. But that’s what you get for not listening to your gut. Nevermind, at least I get to see my Budapest people, the greatest friends that ever walked the earth.

Instinct. Writers tap into something akin to instinct when we write. We usually do so via a freewriting exercise. Freewriting is what you write when there’s no one looking. Freewriting is instinct in control, 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….

It was the day the pumpkin appeared on the chair…


Streets Ahead

The Oldest Street in England, Wells, Somerset.

I received a phonecall during the week to tell me that I’d been short-listed for the Wells Literary Festival Short Story Award. I was shortlisted for the same last year, and though I didn’t win, I had a very groovy time down in Wells. Definitely worth a detour if you ever get the chance.

I’m often asked what ‘kind’ of writer I am. The truth is, I don’t see myself as a ‘novelist’ or a ‘short story writer’, ‘playwright’ or a ‘poet’. I see myself as a writer and believe that a writer should be able to (at least) try all written forms.

I write and enter short story competitions for the following reasons and it is good for me to have this list at hand – in case I ever question myself.

a) Being shortlisted encourages and motivates – when such stuff is difficult to come by in the writer’s life.

b) I can get published in literary magazines.

c) Money, if I win.

d) It keeps me on my toes and hones and polishes my craft.

e) By writing stories I build up a portfolio – ready to go in case I’m ever offered a collection.

f) It gives me an edge when applying for bursaries, residencies, funding etc..

g) It might bring  the attention of publishers.

h) Short stories are something I can work on when time is limited.

i) An agent once told me that it is important to build up your writing ‘credits’.

j) Agents are human and sometimes don’t trust their own judgement, so wins and commendations give you that ‘seal of approval’/credibility.

k) Short story writing is a better displacement activity than making a cup of tea.

M) Having good writing credits help when applying for writing jobs.

p) Writing short stories reminds me that I’m a writer.


The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Me at breakfast, Ireland, September 2012. Am I good or bad?

 

Probably the most common question a writer gets asked is ‘Where do you get your story ideas from?’ Well, from everywhere. From newspapers, from life, from events that upset, move you or fill you with passion, or anger. You can get a lot of good material from bad situations.

As a writer you have a built in advantage over non-writers in that you can put bad events in life to good use. A broken heart can (with some distance from the event) give plot and substance to a short story – as they say, no tears in the writer, no tears in the story. Ditto a betrayal or some such extreme circumstance.

These difficult personal experiences, often awful, also lend opportunity to observe human behaviour in its rawest form – a crucial study for any writer. Take note re who behaves in an altruistic manner (and does that even exist) in the circumstance? Who looks for the easy option? What type of person sticks their head in the sand and hides behind others? Who makes a stand despite risks of personal loss? The answers are often surprising. The meekest are often the bravest, the erstwhile idealistic often less so when faced with a truth that is inconvenient to their own life and circumstance. Bad situations make for rich people study material.

Alternatively, another story prompter is to use the ‘what if’ question. The ‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings to a real situation. 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. Apply the ‘what if’ scenario to your personal difficulty and see where it takes you storywise…


Try and Try Again

Watching the horizon, Brighton Beach, U.K.

 

I when I was 22, I wrote seven short stories. They were bad, really pretentious, crammed 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, 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 stuff, and then more stuff. And after six months, I won the Mary and Ted O’Regan Award, and then the Annaghmakerrig award and the Molly Keane Award, the HISSAC and the Sussex Playwrights’ and this year I’ve been shortlisted for an international award, published in two anthologies and it looks quite likely that a lot is about to bloom on the drama front for me (though I don’t want to jinx that by talking too soon).

Anyway, the moral is don’t give up – look at how you can improve your rejected story 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. Do a bit of research, try to find a suitable home and try and try again. You will get there in the end.


Wonderwall

My Wonderwall for ‘Sheila-na-Gig’

I recently blogged about feeling blocked. I had lost my productivity and inspiration and the realisation spun me into a six-week panic attack which was pretty horrible. Nonetheless, I got through it and a lot of pent up creativity burst through with me – coz, Reader, I’m creatin’.

It’s hard to say what pulled me through that scary time. There were a few ‘angels’ around me , but certainly one of the triggers was putting together  a ‘ Wonderwall’. My wonderwall is based on an exercise passed to me by a fellow artist who works in performance and uses the wall method to structure, hone and shape his thoughts when devising a new piece. The Wonderwall (my label, not his) is akin to a spidergram, but poster size, allowing you to lay out your thoughts visually, using text, images, colour, shape and form. The Wonderwall particularly appealed to me, coming as I do from an fine art background.

I began my own Wonderwall by pasting up names of characters, themes, titles and phrases and also sketching images that I felt were somehow intrinsic to a play I wanted to write. With these words and images before my eyes, rather than in my head, I began to see structure and connection where I had not seen any previously. I also noticed recurrent themes in my work that I had not deduced before and I realised I was most frequently writing about the role of women, belief systems, chance, and this knowledge  helped to clarify and solidify the main pull through themes in my new piece.

So, for those of you feeling a little blocked right now, I’d highly recommend this approach because…. after all….  you’re my wonderwaaallll… : )

PS: The house is being renovated at the moment, meaning there are builders in and out of my room every day – I can’t help musing re what they think on my ‘Wonderwall’ – I’m sure they’ve got me pegged as some sort of paranoid conspiracy theorist with a scary ‘thing’ for naked people with goats’ heads…. ah well…


Let the Show Flow

Showing or Telling? Post box, Norwich, England

 

Telling: “Close the door,” she said nervously.

Showing: Her cigarette trembled in her hand: “Close the door.”

Telling: Peter was a fussy, neat sort of man.

Showing: Every Monday, Peter ironed and folded his towels into perfect squares and stacked them in the airing press, according to size and colour.

“Showing” your reader what your protagonist is thinking/doing, encourages your reader to engage more with your book/story/play, to interpret and picture what is going on. Showing also allows for more atmosphere and lends insight into character. Conversely, “telling” tends to deliver all the information neatly wrapped and can deny the reader all the fun of involvement and imagining. Therefore, rather than telling the reader, ‘Bob was depressed,’ you might describe what Bob was doing and saying and the reader will also get a greater sense of ‘Bob’ if you do so.

Having said that, if the writer “shows” every inch of their novel it may bore the reader and slow the pace. There are times, for the sake of speed and economy, the writer needs to “tell”, so they can quickly move on to the next stage of the story.

If I could suggest a rule of thumb, it would be “show” the most important parts/events of the story and “tell” the minor linking passages. It’s your judgement call as to when and where to show or tell, but do give it thought. Finally, please bear in mind the general consensus is that you always avoid telling via adverbs in speech attribution: “he said arrogantly”, “she shouted defiantly”, “we mumbled apologetically”. Instead, try to think of ways you could show this arrogance, defiance or apology.