Tag Archives: Creative Writing

Pride and Petulance

dream

 

By Diana Friedman

A petulant writer confession: I almost didn’t make it to Dublin this trip. Many years ago, a good friend asked me: when is the last time you really let yourself feel desire for something you want? We weren’t talking designer shoes or beachfront holiday property but deep soul-wrenching desire, the kind that makes your heart swell and expand into your cavity when you finally give yourself permission to chase that long-elusive dream.

I answered that question by diving into my novel. With two young children and a demanding job, it was no small feat researching and writing a story partially set in another country. Never mind facing down all the fears that had kept me from attempting it up until then.

During the time spent writing the book, I’ve learned that the heart is a sensitive little creature. One of the consequences of reaching inside so you can hold this lovely little pulsating, squirming core of self in your hands is that when you hit a road block, as I did a few weeks ago, it truly can disintegrate, leaving you vulnerable to falling to pieces.

Back in October 2012 I submitted the first four chapters of my novel to the Novel Fair at the Irish Writers’ Centre. I knew it was a long shot—the first year of the competition, the Centre had over 500 entries. In general, odds are never good in contests like these.

lepglassesI wasn’t planning to submit, but a number of friends encouraged me to apply, as I’d already invested so much time researching the book and doing due diligence to make sure I captured Dublin as is, not just as a city rich in its past and pubs or, as portrayed through the typical Americanist-leprechauny-four-leaf-cloverly-Guiness-tinted glasses.

And, I was no longer a neophyte. I’d been at the book for six years, was working with a professional editor, and had just placed an excerpt for publication. Three pieces of my work had recently been shortlisted in competitions in the States.

So, what was to lose? For 40 euros—a lot of money for one contest, yes, but as a donation to a Writer’s Centre, particularly to the Irish Writers’ Centre and all it offers, not very much at all—authors were to submit the first 10,000 words of a novel, and two judges would pick the top ten entries. Those ten authors would then receive the privilege of one full day of pitching directly to agents and editors from Ireland and the UK. For the non-writers among us, this is the equivalent of being handed an all-you-can-eat card at ten five-star restaurants in France.

As the date approached, I grew more excited about the prospect of being selected. A year earlier, I had attended the Algonkian Pitch Conference in New York City. If I could survive pitching to New York editors, Dublin, I imagined, would be a breeze.

The format for the New York pitch conference was completely different than Dublin. After submitting a synopsis to the conference organizers, applicants were either accepted or denied. If accepted, for the price of trip to Europe, plus some, attendees registered to spend a day and a half learning how to hone their 30 second pitch, and were then given two and a half days to pitch directly to four editors from the New York City publishing world.

It was hard to delineate where the adrenaline bled into the anxiety at the New York conference, except to say that by day four, the hallways smelled like a slaughterhouse just before the cows went under the blade. I have relatives in New York, so I got off easy, financially speaking, but most attendees had spent thousands of dollars to get to and stay in the city. Furthering the tension, we were meeting at the Horace Greely studios in Midtown Manhattan, home to dance and theatre audition spaces. The two groups were easy to distinguish—the dancers cavorted in hot colored spandex with beautiful erect posture, while the writers slouched around in baggy pants, hunched over their manuscripts and laptops. The entire atmosphere was choose me, choose me, choose me, a cramped and antiquated New York City building jammed with dozens of people sharing the same fantasy—that all their years of hard work would finally be met with reward.

We were divided into four sections of 15 writers each, and lucky for me, I wound up with a remarkable group of supportive and encouraging women. We didn’t start menstruating together, but it was the kind of group that had we been there longer, I’m sure we would have. Under the guidance of our very able workshop leader, we were primed, edited, and then instructed in the basics—be polite, articulate, look the editor in the eye, keep the responses brief and focused. And dress nicely. It was a bit like finishing school for writers. By the end of the first day, excitement was running high.

And then the editors arrived.

The first one was from Penguin. She listened to our pitches, asked questions, told us what she liked and what she didn’t, and gave us suggestions for improvement. Over lunch she talked with our workshop leader and gave her the list of books she wanted to see. She selected three.

But as the editors made their selections, and people realized they might not get chosen, the mood shifted. The conference organisers had clearly stated that if your book was not getting selected, it probably meant your pitch was too unfocused, which in turn, was a reflection on the state of your book. This was, not surprisingly, very hard for people to hear. In the hallways, people insisted they’d been put in the wrong group and hence were pitching to the wrong editor, or, blamed the editors for being too narrow-minded. The environment truly was a bit like Survivor for Writers—there were only so many people who were going to be selected—but our group supported and cheered one another on so that by the end most of us felt that the impromptu community we formed was probably the most valuable part of the conference.

Before the New York Pitch conference, my novel had received interest from a prominent agent, who later rejected it after I completed significant rewrites, suggesting I work with a different kind of agent to bring it to publication. I suspected that this meant that the book was good, but not quite good enough for the big leagues. And I knew that selling a book at this conference—despite what the web site promised—was going to be next to impossible, so I entered with somewhat low expectations, which made the landing somewhat easier for me. I wanted to test the market potential of my idea, learn how to pitch the book, and then, if I was lucky, get the manuscript into the hands of an editor who could tell me what precisely the book needed. I was very lucky; I managed all three. The editor who read my novel gave me very concrete feedback on what the novel needed to come to full strength. She offered to look at it following rewrites and point me to some agents. It was a rejection, but as far as rejections go, it was as good as they get.

The Dublin Novel Fair was completely different. The price was right, but only ten lucky writers were going to be selected. It was pretty clear that anyone who made that cut would have a very good chance of getting their book into the hands of agents and editors, since the vetting had already been done.

anxI waited, waited, waited, my mind spiraling with anticipation and anxiety. And layered below my excitement percolated a question that I really wanted answered: had any of the passion I experienced in writing the book come through in the story telling in a way that would resonate on the other side of the pond (this side, that is)? In November, a very kind relative bought me a plane ticket as a birthday present, under the assumption that I would go to Dublin either way, as I was once again tackling significant rewrites. I made a hotel reservation and I was all set.

When I learned I was not selected, though, all I could manage was to reach for the phone, from very deep underneath the covers, to turn in my ticket. For days, I could not bear the thought of being in Dublin knowing that there would be ten lucky bastards eating fillet while I would be sucking up crumbs across town.

And, so, such is the nature of desire; when we heed its call, it takes us to amazing new heights, but how much harder the fall when we don’t reach the destination.

And yet, forcing myself to take my book to completion has taught me a few things about surviving this business. In particular, I’ve had to learn that staying the course sometimes means surrendering to the immaturity of my artist self.  It is a child-like and vulnerable being. It has to be. How else to open myself up and get under and inside the skin of the characters and scenarios I’m creating?

But when it comes time to face the world—the rejections and cruelties and dismissals, that artist self needs quite a bit of help. Because it is also petulant. And irritable. It becomes a delicate balancing act, allowing the artist-self some tantrum time, and then knowing when it’s time for the adult self to step in—first with compassion, and then a gentle shove back into the world, the same way a parent helps a child along with a skinned knee or a failed exam. And, most importantly, making sure that no matter how bad things feel, that the adult self is the one who faces the world in those hard times—with professionalism and decorum.

Somehow, this time I missed that part about the adult self. It wasn’t until after watching me drown my head in my seventh batch of chocolate chip cookies, that my very same good friend poked me in the ribs and asked: what exactly would be the downside to going? 

And this is why she is such a good friend. Because once I put away the chocolate I knew she was right. In fact, I realized, all the contest had done was paralyse me. I had two directions to take the rewrites of the book, one focused for an Irish audience, and one for the American women’s fiction market. In the three months while waiting for the response, unable to decide which one I was going forward with, I worked on precisely neither of them.

So I stuffed my suitcase with rain gear and then, for reinforcement, made a quick pit stop at my neighborhood hippie haven. Hillary, local Goddess extraordinaire, smudged me with sage and cedar for creative inspiration and good luck. Holly, a massage therapist of zero balancing expertise, passed along visions of me grounded inside a huge pyramid while on the plane. It was an image, I have to confess, I had never considered, but rather liked. It made take-off and landing a bit less traumatic.

By the time I arrived to Dublin, I had mostly forgotten about the Novel Fair. June Caldwell welcomed me warmly and has been an enormous help with my project, as have so many others around the Centre, including random writers popping in and out to talk with me, and the Ink Splinters, a writer’s group that so kindly opened their circle to me one night.

As the Novel Fair date approached and I watched the staff move chairs and tables around the Centre in preparation, I admit to some curiosity, but it was more fly-on-the-wall type.

Happily clicking away on my laptop on this blog and my book, what I mostly felt was relief that I wasn’t going through it again. Eventually I will be pushing the novel at US conferences when it’s ready, but for now, how much more fun it was to be in Dublin,  and, rather than suffer the anguish of selling, bask in the pleasure of writing.

The publishing industry may be fickle and arbitrary, but such is the nature of art;  no voice will ever speak to everyone. Expecting any work of art to resonate across the board is simply setting yourself up for disappointment. As artists, when we become dependent on others to validate our voices, it’s easy to freeze and lose ourselves.

I’ll close out with another confession: Halfway through writing this blog I still have no idea what it means to be an American writer in Dublin, as June dubbed me, but it’s a label I’ve happily worn and enjoyed. Because while the blog format will most likely never attain the same status as the short story or essay, it’s a powerful tool for a writer—pure voice, unadulterated and luminous and radiant as voice comes.

windowIndeed, gazing out from the Centre’s top floor classroom window over the rooftops and chimneys and historic buildings of Dublin, my heart once again thumping safely and softly, the words and stories erupting non-stop in an almost mystical energetic flow, I re-discovered one critically important thing: losing one’s voice may be misery-inducing, indeed, but in the whole entire world, for this writer anyway, there is absolutely and truly nothing better than getting it back.

 

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diana

Diana Friedman’s work has received several awards, including being selected as a finalist for the Howard Frank Mosher Fiction Prize, a top 25 pick for Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Contest, third place in Bethesda Magazine’s Annual Short Story Competition, and as a finalist in Sport Literate’s essay contest. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications, including Sport Literate, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Whole Earth Review, the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek, Bethesda Magazine, Stone Highway Review and the Legendary, among others. An excerpt of her novel will be published in a forthcoming anthology of Washington, D.C. writers, Defying Gravity, available from Paycock Press in 2013.  www.dianafriedmanwriter.com  and to keep up with her newest writings or hang out with her in cyberspace, you can “like” her on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/DianaFriedmanwriter or follow her on Twitter @Dfriedmanwriter

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Creative Writing, Dublin Event, new writing, Novel Fair, novels, publishing, writing groups

On Never Having Been Struck By Lightning

coloured lightning

I have been waiting almost 50 years now to be struck by lightning. It hasn’t happened yet. And I don’t expect it will anytime soon. So in the meantime I have simply been reading and writing. Waiting. For? Something. The tap on the shoulder. That moment of self-recognition. The moment when I become a true writer: someone inspired.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m misinterpreting the signs, missing the signals. Writers are inspired, of course – all the time. They are kissed by the gods. Beloved by their muses. Seduced by characters. Overwhelmed by plots. Overcome with ideas. To be honest, I’ve not had an idea since … I don’t know when. And the closest I’ve come to inspiration is a slight physical discomfort.

So, in the absence of all else, I have had to rely on my own resources – a little common-sense, some self-discipline, a few books. I have also sought out the example of other writers who seem as utterly uninspired as me. I have turned often, for example, to the work of the Oulipo group of writers – Raymond Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, the truly inspiration-deficient. (Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, the ‘Workshop for potential literature’.) ‘The goal of potential literature’, according to the Oulipo writers, ‘is to furnish future writers with new techniques which can dismiss inspiration from their affectivity.’ To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what this means. But it makes sense.

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iansansomIan Sansom will be teaching a Writing Fiction workshop on 23rd & 24th March: Sat & Sun 10.30am-4.30pm. €150/135 members. The course will seek to debunk some common myths about creative writing and will provide some simple methods and techniques that can be used by writers at any stage of their writing careers. Using class exercises, examples and reading, the course will explore some of the different ways in which writers appropriate, recycle and steal ideas. There will be no discussion of inspiration or story arcs, nor any profound insights into the meaning of life or the human condition.

Ian is a novelist, journalist and broadcaster who currently teaches creative writing at Warwick University. He has been a columnist for The Guardian and has written also for The Irish Times, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The London Review of Books, The Spectator, and The New Statesman. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous international magazines and journals, including The New York Times. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4. Books include The Truth About Babies (Granta, 2002), Ring Road (4th Estate/Harper Collins, 2004), and the Mobile Library series of novels including The Case of the Missing Books (2007), Mr. Dixon Disappears (2007), The Delegates’ Choice (2008) The Book Stops Here (2008), The Bad Book Affair (2010). A cultural history of paper, Paper: An Elegy (4th Estate/Harper Collins), is due for publication in October 2012. The first in a new series of novels, The County Guides: Norfolk (4th Estate/Harper Collins) is due for publication in June 2013.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, courses, Creative Writing, creative writing course, Irish Writers, Irish Writers Centre, literature, new writing, novels

Janet E. Cameron on bagel-hating ghosts, novel writing and cinnamon toast

Writers are often said to have something ‘missing’ from the sane storehouse of life, but paradoxically have also something ‘added’ in terms of perception – the ability to scrutinise human behaviour and the connections between people and events. Where are you on the scale? What persuaded you to write? It’s true that a lot of writers have something socially weird about them, and I’m no exception. I was extremely shy as a teenager – still find other people a bit mystifying. As for what persuaded me to write…well, from the time I could read I thought stories were the best thing on earth, and the idea that they actually came out of a person’s head seemed like a miracle. So I’d find myself trying to imitate my favourite authors, with mixed results. 

What makes your heart fly? The cliff walk at Howth, and the woods on the North Mountain in Nova Scotia. I’m happy when the writing’s going well, grouchy when it isn’t.

A book that made you cry? After I read Skippy Dies I walked around feeling like I’d been punched in the chest for about a week. Also the scene in The Brothers Karamazov where Alyosha has a dream about Zossima in heaven. That always gets me for some reason.

Your working day, bring us through it? If I don’t have to teach, I’ll get up around seven or eight, spend some time getting coherent, and then go to my desk in the study/laundry room and work for three or four hours. The afternoon’s mostly a write-off because my brain’s fried by then, so I’ll do errands and housework, and then I’ll fall asleep for an hour around four or five o’clock. Then if it’s not my turn to cook, I’ll get in a few more hours before supper and a few hours after. I’m the most boring person on earth, in other words. And I get very antsy if anyone messes with that nap.

Strange avoidance strategies that pull you away from writing? For a while it was baking: bread, pies, cakes, muffins, bagels, pizza dough, pasta, gingerbread…when I finally got serious about the writing I lost a lot of weight.

Originally you wrote plays, how did you make the switch to fiction? The switch actually happened because I couldn’t find any night classes in writing drama after I moved to Dublin, and at that point I was still dependent on taking courses for motivation. So I decided to try stories like everyone else, and I found it was a lot less constraining. Sometimes I still write in dialogue and stage directions when I’m taking down ideas quickly, and I think the bits that work best in Cinnamon Toast were first written almost as play scenes and then I filled in the blanks with descriptive loveliness.

Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is your first novel which will be published by Hachette Ireland, what is it about? It’s about a bright, restless kid named Stephen who lives in a small town in rural Nova Scotia in 1987 and is counting down the last three months of high school so he can escape. But he realises he can’t leave until he’s dealt with certain problems – the most serious being that he’s secretly in love with his best friend Mark. For a lot of the book he deals with this by not dealing with it, but events keep pushing him towards the climax anyway. Sort of like Hamlet but with more 80′s song references.

Growing up in Nova Scotia sounds positively exotic! Living in a cabin in Nova Scotia, moving to Vancouver, working as a teacher in Montreal, etc. Tell us more! Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Exotic! The town where I went to high school had less than a thousand people. Until I was fifteen there were only two TV channels and most of us ordered our clothes off the same pages of the Sears catalogue. The cabin was a geodesic dome built by draft dodgers in the late sixties, no electricity or running water. My best friend and I were going through a back-to-the-land hippy phase around 1991, so we just had to try living there. I’d wake up every morning, chop wood, make a fire in the stove to heat up some coffee, and walk in the woods for hours. We spent the fall there, September to December, and then the next year I went back on my own. After that I moved around a lot. The teaching degree in ESL made that possible. Seven cities in fifteen years. I just couldn’t seem to stay put. Maybe it was because I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do.

You were chosen as one of the 20 ‘winners’ of last year’s Novel Fair (this year there will only be ten!), what was the process like, what was the day itself like? I was very impressed with the organisation and planning that went into the day. All the writers had tables where we stayed with our sample chapters and every fifteen minutes someone new would sit opposite and chat, a good mix of publishers and agents. I’d expected it to be nerve-wracking, but to my surprise I found I loved it. Going back to real life afterwards was such a let-down!

How long afterwards did it take to get a book deal? The Fair was in March and I was contacted by Hachette in May with a request to see the rest of the novel. The offer for the book came through a couple of months later. But it didn’t feel like a done deal until August.

What are you writing now? I’m working on a second novel and have a very, very rough draft finished. It’s about a family dealing with the aftermath of a suicide, based on a play I wrote in 1996, and set in the same town as Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World.

Have you ever talked to a ghost? In college in Montreal someone brought out a Ouija board at a party, and we contacted a spirit named Zola who had nine kids. Nobody could think of any decent questions about the afterlife – so we asked him if he liked bagels. Zola told us it was a stupid question, which I still find difficult to dispute.

What do you hate most in life? Currently I’m a bit sickened by this whole culture of self-promotion: collecting people on Twitter so you can bribe them into being mouthpieces for your product, making yourself into a ‘brand’, building an ‘author platform’…barf. But, that said, I’m having fun messing around with my website lately.

If not writing, what else would you do/be? It’s taken me most of my life to commit to writing, so…no. This is it. It might be nice to be Robert Smith or somebody, but only for a few days.

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Janet E. Cameron was one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre inaugural Novel Fair in 2012 which gave writers the opportunity to meet with and present their work to publishers and agents. Her forthcoming book Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is set in a small town in rural Nova Scotia, Canada during the spring of 1987. The protagonist, Stephen Shulevitz, is a socially awkward seventeen-year-old who has less than three months before he leaves for college. As Stephen prepares for the rest of his life, he finds himself in falling in love with the wrong person and, just like that, everything changes. It is a quirky, subtly humorous exploration of burgeoning sexuality, growing up in the confines of a small town community in the 80s while trying to come to terms with who you are. Born in Nova Scotia, Janet moved to Ireland in 2002 after she met her husband, an Irish journalist, while travelling in Japan. In November 2011, she completed a Master’s of Philosophy in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin. She has been short-listed for the Fish Short Story Prize (2008) and the Fish Short Memoir Prize (2012) and has published an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for younger ESL learners (2010, Black Cat Publishing, Genoa).  She now teaches part-time at Dublin Business School and is working on her second novel.

 

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Irish Writers Centre, Novel Fair, writing

Let the darkness in, get to grips with horror writing…

The Irish Writers’ Centre is running a horror writing course for the first time this weekend. Here accomplished spook writer Derek Gunn talks about the challenges of the genre, Irish ghost stories, zombies, Dystopian tours and the approaching apocalypse!

Horror fiction and Halloween just seem to go together. I suppose it has something to do with Autumn sighing its final gasp, the cold seeping through our clothes with icy fingers, making us shiver, and the leaves falling in carpets of brown and gold everywhere we go. Very picturesque to be sure, but beneath that golden carpet, decay and rot reign supreme. Night falls earlier so the things that are uncomfortable during the daylight hours have more time to find us in the dark. It is a great time; filled with myth and legends, fables and stories. It is a time for imagination to overcome common sense, for us to imagine that that pillow at the end of the bed is not really a pillow but something else. Something not quite of this earth … If you find yourself beginning to look behind you as you walk in the dark or increasing your gait as the dark oozes from the shadows then you will know what I am talking about. Curling up in October with a good chiller is the best time. The rain lashing against the window sets the mood and the dipping of the lights for no accountable reason adds to our unease.

There’s only one better way to spend an afternoon reading horror and that is to spend an afternoon writing horror. Let your imagination flow, let the darkness in and use it to terrify others. Dublin is soon to be gripped by the Bram Stoker Festival. All things vampiric will be let loose within our fair city and that person next to you may just be something more than human. In to this surreal cityscape I invite you to come to the Irish Writers Centre, that last bastion of safety from the growing evil of the month. Here you will learn more about the dark secrets of writing horror, how to survive while those outside are lost to ignorance and how to go about creating your own horror to unleash upon the unsuspecting world. [To book a place on the course, click here]

Q1: Has the Irish horror genre fiction successfully exploited our connection to the Dracula phenomenon? Is the resurrection of Bram Stoker as a Dublin writer going to help the genre? It is hard to tell as the Irish Horror fiction genre is almost invisible. There is a very limited market in Ireland in isolation, any writer needs to make their mark internationally to have any hope of making a living in this fickle market. The upcoming Bram Stoker Festival may shed some light on the city and the genre but there seems to be little appetite to include local writing or authors in the festivities.

Q2: Is there too much concentration on the Irish ghost story on rural localities like the big country house, the convent in the midlands, the haunted woodland at the edge of the Offaly village? Why are the city streets of Dublin, Cork, Galway etc., not filled at night with ghosts, ghouls and zombies. It is a number of things. For one, we don’t teach creative writing in our schools while in America it is widely encouraged. I received an e-mail from a high school student in America just last week where they are studying one of my stories in their class and he was looking for some extracurricular background. This is amazing – not just because they were studying my story, and let’s face it that is very humbling, but this is in America, not Dublin. Why don’t we encourage creative writing. Certainly when I was in school short stories were frowned upon. For another the market is very limited in Ireland and setting a story in a larger populated country gives you access to a larger market. I set one of my novels in Ireland and the streets were indeed filled with zombies but the setting was restrictive and sales would suggest that setting is important. My Vampire Apocalypse series is set in America and it sold far more copies.

Q3: Given the zombified nature of our economy and society at present, that pervading sense of doom/gloom, is there room for a Dystopian Zombie tale set in recession-stricken Dublin? There is always room. In fact I have planned a sequel to my zombie novel, The Estuary, where the plague spreads to the cities. It is on my list of things to do and I would love to write it but must wait until other projects, unfortunately more popular projects, are finished before I get back to the story. It is a well discussed topic that zombies tend to do well in recessions and vampires during boom times. Whether that is true or not I do not know but there is an argument. Personally I love zombie stories. I have a new anthology coming out this month with a zombie novella included where the survivors hole up on Ireland’s Eye but the water is slowly evaporating in a heat wave and the zombies are straining to get to the survivors. It is one of those occasions where the setting in Ireland is perfect – no guns, small village and impending doom. It’s great fun.

Q4: Is there a snootiness in Irish letters towards the horror genre fiction, a sense that somehow this kind of writing just ain’t literature? Certainly there has been many ‘pulp’ horror novels through the years and the proliferation of these may have prompted your question but horror has always had its share of literary writers. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein and The Pit and the Pendulum are just some of the works that have shone in the genre. Yes, there are a lot of authors who rely on shock value to make their story different or interesting but there are always some authors who rely on talent to entertain us, even today.

Q5: Will the proliferation of things like the Ghost Bus tours around Dublin help the market for Irish horror? It certainly can’t harm. Though Ghost Tours is still keeping the genre too tight. There is a wealth of myth and legend in Ireland that could be included. Roisin Dubh is a new graphic novel from Irish Authors Rob Curley and Maura McHugh which successfully marries legend and horror in an Irish setting. We need to be more broad and celebrate the talent we have in Ireland.

Q6: In terms of the subset of horror fiction what is the next big thing? We have had the vampires and the zombies, whatever next? That’s the million dollar question. Certainly there are a lot of novels on the impending Mayan apocalypse set for later this year but once December 21st comes and goes we will have to worry about the next end of the world drama. I’m not sure what it will be but hopefully it will include one of the settings in one of my novels so I can be ahead of the wave.

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Writing Desire: Flesh Made Word

 

“Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, or outright lunatics,” the physician and journalist Max Nordau cautioned in 1893, “they are often writers and artists”…is there any truth in this statement!? In the current situation in Ireland, where the arts seem to be a branch of tourism, of green jersey consensus, yes, it’s important to remember that the artist may be an outsider, an angry voice, a twisted voice, a moral outlaw, jailed and loathed, or a voice that doesn’t give a damn.

What empowered you to want to teach a ‘writing desire’ course at the Irish Writers’ Centre…was there a literary gap that needed to be filled (no pun intended)? Not sure what ‘empowered’ means. I’m interested in desire as a literary theme. As a subject. A premise. As the basic predicament for story. The question of pleasure for example. Anybody doing a deal with the devil will have erotic pleasure high on their list of demands. Or seduction. The magic of seduction. What is it to seduce, to cast a spell, to invade the fantasy life of another person? The story of a character’s desire-life is as interesting as the story of their intellectual or spiritual development. Or emotional. As morally interesting. In this course, I’d like us to look at how desire is represented in fiction, at how erotic tension is created, at descriptions of sexual fulfillment and disenchantment, at the body and its tastes but all of this with the aim of inspiring, reading and talking to inspire writing around these themes. People are there to write at the end of the day. 

What is the core difference between ‘romantica’ and ‘erotica’ in fiction, given that our romantic and sexual lives are so inherently fused in real life? Are they? All I can say is good erotic writing is an investigation of the character’s world. The foundations and the Iimits of the self. Power. Society. The Law, the inner legislator. Bernard Schlink’s, The Reader, for example. Or Kundera’s hedonists in occupied Prague . Or Edna O Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation. Books exploring a culture, a time, through the story of desire. Or Angela Carter’s work; the sense we are backstage with the dramatis personae of desire, the bored divas, the villains with their false moustaches, the acrobats, the broken-hearted, all our dreams dripping with greasepaint. Or those poets interested in the physicality of the line, the tactility of the spoken.

Is there a long-strong tradition of good erotic writing that we’re not particularly aware of? There’s been writing about sex and sensuality for as long as there’s been storytelling. For as long as we’ve wondered about what the meaning of life is or been curious about other people. Long before there was even a notion of the individual self. We have some erotically charged early Irish poetry. Chinese literature has some very early examples. Boccaccio’s Decameron, published in the 1400’s, the source for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a good starting point for the European stuff. Or you can go right back to the some of the stories in the Old Testament. What was happening in Sodom that had to be stopped? Aside from the Marquis de Sade, and his forensic encyclopedias of pleasure, and censorship, I’d say the most powerful effect on the development of erotic writing in the West has been psycho-analytic theory. I’d point to Philip Roth, and books like Sabbath’s Theatre, as an example of a modern writer using desire as the driving force of his characters.   

The ‘Writing Desire: Flesh to Word’ course will be taught by both you and poet Kimberly Campanello, how will this work in practice? Will participants have to be au fait at both prose and poetry or can they simply write in one genre if they prefer? The basic idea is to use the reading of both prose and poetry to inspire writing. Participants can write in whatever form they want but shouldn’t be afraid to read across a whole range of sources. For example I would encourage anyone to read Jean Genet’s play The Balcony. The course will suit anyone who is already working on/thinking about a piece of work with desire as the main issue. Each week there’ll be a loose theme, we’ll try to identify some of the different currents in erotic writing, the celebratory approach, the big Yes, as opposed to the more conflicted erotic text. Kimberly and I will take alternate weeks, using extracts from prose and poetry for discussion before we look at participant’s own work. Like I said, people should be there to write.

What do you think of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon? I think we’ll have to make it the starting point of the course. “This is wrong,” Anastasia says early in the first book during a romp with Mr Grey, “but holy hell is it erotic”. We’ll have a look to see if the writing actually manages to get above clichés and create any erotic tension, what makes a bad sex scene. And we’ll look at this notion of wrongness, of transgression, a common ingredient of erotic writing. But then again it’s interesting to think about reading and pleasure. Reading is sexy again. That can’t be bad. The book has now become a fetish object; it means much more than the words inside the covers. There was a story recently in the papers about a court case involving a couple who had a row about the book, the man annoyed at the woman for reading the book again, for talking about it too much. The woman went round to her mothers. After a while, there was a knock at the door and when she opened it there was her boyfriend who, she told the judge attacked her with a bottle of brown sauce, pouring it over her head. Saucy? the man was shouting, You like saucy? I’ll show you what saucy means.

How do you delineate between the erotic and the downright pornographic? Or are we being unfair to porn….discuss? Does some porn contain literary value? I don’t think there’s any need to delineate anymore when artists in every medium play freely with them. Filmmakers, writers, cabaret, hip-hop, painters. Porn, like erotic art, wants to arouse. To stimulate. To turn the reader on. That used to be seen as not a fit ambition for literary art. A half-decent sex-scene should cause a bit of a stir in the reader. But when it’s a very good scene, I’d say, it should also be telling us something about the characters involved, about the meaning of the sex between them, and about the context in which it’s happening.

Is the widespread availability of internet pornography ruining natural erotic thinking/feeling, i.e., expectations of what a sex life should/could involve, the pull/drive that gets people together, how this is then expressed in literature & art? I’ve heard it said the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon is a reaction against men and online porn. Against the infidelity of men on their machines. A rebellion. I’ve also heard it argued porn helps men NOT do certain things, a palliative so to speak. It keeps them off the streets. But the same was said about the use of prostitutes. And about sport! It could be entertaining to wonder what the 50 shades of Grey trilogy will help women NOT to do? Hopefully the internet is educating as much as it is ruining appetite. The sexual appetite, like any other appetite, can be sated and overindulged. It’s an old parable. The parable of excess. Think of Casanova. Those who have searched for wisdom in sensual experience. Enlightenment. Ecstasy. Think of Yeats poem, The Pilgrim. The sensualist, after years of erotic wandering, turns to fasting on Lough Derg, tired of “…passing around the bottle with girls in rags or silk/ in country shawl or Paris cloak” but by the end of it all, after excess and austerity, he concludes on his life’s journey, “I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say / Is fol de rol de rolly O.“

What is your favourite piece of erotic writing and why? It would have to be JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Published in Paris in 1955, it’s part of the uninhibited big Yes style of erotic writing. It was banned for obscenity. The central character is an American in Dublin, he’s got a wife and a kid, and money troubles. And when it comes to women, he just can’t stop himself. That’s his crime and his innocence. He can’t control himself. He is comically beyond any moral judgement or censor. His lust is all he has and leads him round in circles and deeper into the world of Dublin at the time, giving us a very real picture of the place, and even the predicament of women at the time. It’s the Dublin of Behan, Kavanagh, etc., and Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. He’s got a bigger appetite than any of them, free, guiltless. The writing, moving from sparse, short imagist sentences to rampant flows of interior randy monologues, will make you laugh from your guts as you savour and feel – and admire – his hunger: a powerful concoction. The flesh made word. I wish I’d been around to see Richard Harris in the stage version. Three nights it lasted in Dublin in 1959 before it was shut down!

Thanks to Sean O’Reilly for this Q&A. His published work includes Curfew and Other Stories, the novels Love and Sleep, The Swing of Things and an experimental erotic novella: Watermark. [Click the book cover on the right to buy Sean's book]. The Writing Desire: Flesh Made Word course with Sean & Kimberly Campanello runs from 25th September, on Tuesdays for ten weeks – 6.30pm to 8.30pm – and costs €280 or €260 for members. 

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Emma Leavy on her love of lists

Emma Leavy is an Intern at the Irish Writers’ Centre this summer. She is a rising senior at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC where she majors in Culture and Politics. Emma fell in love with Ireland as a study abroad student at UCD this past fall. She is delighted to be back for the summer as a part of the IWC team. In her free time, she dabbles in short stories and spends inordinate amounts of time poking around used book stores.

As a lover of words, I am fascinated by lists. I find them inexplicably comforting: lists of the top ten liveliest pubs in Dublin, lists of books that will change my life, lists of the most gruesome serial killers to roam the streets of Edinburgh. I take a sick delight in to-do lists, scribbled on loose leaf with little boxes I can check off. The anticipation of checking off one of those tiny boxes is enough to get me through a first draft or a sinkful of dishes. Some of my very favourite writing exercises involve lists. For example, I find it helpful to list the contents of my characters’ nightstand drawer or CDs which line their shelves. Lists like these help me grasp onto the shadowy details of the characters lurking in the crevices of my brain, transforming them into a living and breathing imaginary friends. This bizarre interest of mine bubbled to the surface whilst looking for online resources for writers. The internet is chock full of lists. So my fellow neurotic writers, I present to you a LIST of the top lists for writers on the internet:

12 Essential TED Talks for Writers

I have a confession: I love trashy television. I find the antics of reality television stars incredibly therapeutic. My life seems instantly normal and organized in comparison. TED Talks are the perfect antidote to the delights of reality TV. It’s a non-for-profit organization which holds conferences where people from all walks of life give fantastic talks on their passions. These informative and moving talks are then uploaded on their free website. Here’s a list of the best TED talks for writers.

1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list

This list of 1000 novels both terrifies and delights me. The folks at The Guardian really know their stuff and the list contains both well-known literary classics and a few mysterious gems. I intend to post this on my desk and tick off my reads one by one.

The 18 Most Popular Articles on Writing of 2011

A direct channel into some great and varied advice for writers. There’s a bit of business sense and some solid words of wisdom on the nuts and bolts of writing. Your writing will thank you for poking around this website.

Best Creative Writing Exercises

An entertaining and useful list of writing exercises. Some of them are silly, but all will make you smile. Some might even make you write. My favourite? “Open the dictionary to a random page. Find a word that you do not know how to define. Write an imaginary definition for it. Repeat.”

Top Tens

This is a list lover’s wet dream: over 400 “Top Ten” Lists of Books. Searching for the top ten bedtime stories, the best tales of Americans in Europe, or the ten best deranged characters? Look no further! Some author has contemplate the same bizarre theme and made a list for The Guardian.

Thirty-Three Twitter Feeds to Follow

Twitter is a virtual treasure mine of literary advice, suggestions and ideas. If you’re having trouble sorting through the endless amount of feeds, this list will give you a sold starting point.

The Joy of Lists

A wonderful mediation on lists in literature and why we enjoy them. I would love to have lunch with the author, Arthur Krystal. I have a feeling we would have a lot to talk about. Favourite line: ‘Isn’t every list in reality a ceremonial flourish against amnesia and chaos?’

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Poetry as a performative act

Paul Perry is the author and editor of a number of critically acclaimed books including The Drowning of the Saints, Goldsmith’s Ghost, 108 Moons and The Orchid Keeper. A recipient of the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Award for his short story The Judge, which was later collected in The New Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction, Perry’s first book of poetry The Drowning of the Saints was published in 2003 to critical acclaim and was short-listed for the Rupert and Eithne Strong Award for Best First Collection at the Poetry Now Festival in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin. It was subsequently awarded The Listowel Prize for Poetry. He is also the editor of Heartland, an anthology of contemporary writing from Co. Longford, and Goldsmith’s Ghost, a collaborative novel which he devised and to which he also contributed, published by Heartland Press. Paul teaches creative writing for Kingston University, London, and University College Dublin and is Course Director in Poetry for the Faber Academy in Dublin. He will take part in the Irish Writers’ Centre Lunctime Reading series this Friday, 16th March. All welcome!

Each poem bristles with life and longing, intelligence and wit. These are lines and stanzas and peoms that signal wisdom beyond his youth. In this sense he is a prodigiously gifted poet.

When did the writing start!? I started writing when I was a child. I had to take extra English classes at school as a 7 year old. I remember the teacher helping me with the spelling of the word ‘breakfast.’  ’Look it’s really two words: break and fast. Anglo saxon. To break your fast.’ That and the German language all around me – it was a German school – was enough to get me hooked on language.

What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? Earning a living.

How did you go about getting your poetry published? Sent it out, was rejected, wrote, rewrote, discarded, reimagined it, rewrote it, sent it out again …

How important is it to read your work aloud to an audience? Poetry for me is not the declarative exclamation of social realism – read, read out loud, filmed, whatever, it’s all a performative act, one which acknowledges the human voice, and intimately reveals our humanity to each other. So, yes, it’s important.

Should poets, as Shelley argued, act as ‘unofficial legislators’? No, as Larkin said, this describes better the secret police.

Have you ever published poems which now you wish you hadn’t had published? Yes, but you move on.

You’ve written a fair bit about Longford (i.e. the Irish midlands) – an area that is often neglected in modern Irish literature – was this deliberate or is the rural landscape a more challenging topic than cityscape? Not deliberate no. I found myself after a decade of living in the US – Houston, Chicago, Providence, Miami – returned to Ireland. My first job was Writer in Residence in Longford. I was responding to the two years I lived there over the Camlin river.

You’ve written a collaborative novel: Goldsmith’s Ghost, was this a particularly challenging project, clashing styles, varied tastes, etc? I relish the opportunity to work with others on collaborative projects. I recently edited two collaborative teenage novels for dlr libraries and like Maureen Seaton, I’m interested in the frisson which can result from writing with others. Goldsmiths Ghost was great fun. I can still remember the drives I took with the arts officer to meet and discuss the next chapter with the next writer. It’s a funny novel and I still have a soft spot for it.

What are you writing next? I’ve just finished editing Beyond the Workshop, published by Kingston University press. It’s a book on the evolution and future of the creative writing workshop. More details on my blog.I’m also working on new poems and translations and an experimental prose project.

Any advice for emerging writers? Keep things up in the air.

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NOVEL AS JIGSAW

Writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir is guest blogging at the Irish Writers’ Centre Blog for the month of June. Today we host her final post.

My last blog post for the IWC today – aw! So I am back to where I began: with novels. Thanks for reading and commenting over the past month; it has been a pleasure. To round off my stint here I am giving away a copy of the brand new Stinging Fly magazine. Leave a comment to win! I will post to anywhere in the world.

~ * ~

Writing a novel is like making a jigsaw with blank pieces – not only do you have to fit all the shapes together, you have to paint the picture too. That is hard and it can feel very confusing and frustrating early on in the work. And the sorriest bit of the whole game is that each time you start, it is like starting over. No two novels come together in the same way.

So, as a budding novelist, what can you learn from those who have gone before you? Maybe the most helpful thing I can say is that there is no one way to write a novel. There is no right way. Just start writing, continue with it and push through to the end. You will learn more by finishing one novel than by starting ten. Whatever way you do it, as long as you end up with a novel at the end, you’ve done it ‘right’.

It takes me about a year to write a novel. It might take you three months (like Kevin Barry) or it might take you ten years (like Arundhati Roy). How long it takes depends on lots of things: family and work commitments; time issues; your personal pace as a writer. I would definitely write books quicker if I had less children and therefore more time, but things are how they are and, truly, I wouldn’t want them any other way. )Though it will be nice when they are all at school and I have five blissful mornings to call my own. Only three years to wait…)

Some writers lay plans for a long time before they even begin to write their book: they think about their characters and their plot, they gather lots of notes and do research. Some write the end first and then compose the rest of the novel to work towards the ending. Others – like myself – have only the vaguest notions of who their characters are or what is going to happen to them when they begin the novel, and they write to tell themselves the story of these characters. I never know how a novel or story will proceed before I write it. I rarely know until I am near the end how it is all going to turn out. I can write scenes out of sequence and then slot the whole together, though I become more linear at points. It suits me to write that way but it may not suit you. Try things out and you will hit on the best way for yourself.

In a sense it surprises me that I wade in so blindly at the start, but perhaps if I didn’t, I wouldn’t write at all. I am super organised in so many areas of my life but when it comes to writing fiction, I free fall. It is a great feeling because when it is going well the act of writing is the best sort of relaxation for me.

To expand the jigsaw analogy I started with, most novels are made up of lots of different pieces that fit together well. You have gathered many of these pieces – ideas, phrases, fragments, observations, passions, interests – over the years and you will gather more of them as your novel progresses. Our brains are tuned in to disparate things as we write and so is our subconscious. It is important that you keep a notebook and that you jot down anything that occurs to you, whether it seems relevant to your novel-in-progress (NIP) or not. If you bring these snippets to your desk, you might be surprised where they can be woven into the narrative, or how they are relevant. Our antennae is out and probing for stuff that will fit, whether we realise it or not.

Novels are not sounded on the one note and it is best if they aren’t. If your novel is sad, you don’t want it to be sad on every page or you will wear the reader out, so make sure when you are fitting together the pieces – paragraphs, chapters – that you mix it up a bit. Lighten the tone after a dark scene; pick up the pace when things slow down; mix dialogue with narrative blocks; vary the conversation (repeated chats about the same topic are dull); get your characters moving – change the location from time to time. Think of it this way: your novel needs to be a little bit bipolar. There should be ups and downs, positives and negatives. These will create an energy within the story that helps move it along while keeping the reader interested.

Learn to love editing. You must, must, must be your own best editor. On re-reading your glorious NIP, if the prose seems a bit pedestrian or flat, liven it up with the senses. Readers love the sensuality involved in scenes where characters smell, touch and taste things – including one another. Don’t be afraid to show your characters enjoying food, or sex, or both.

I began with jigsaws, so I’ll end on them too: when the pieces of your NIP start to fall into place, there is nothing like the self-satisfied glow you get. Hell, you might even find yourself being nice to people. Good humour and literary novel writing rarely share the same space. (Or maybe that’s just me?) Suddenly, you understand what the book is about and why you have bothered to write it. Enjoy the glow, you won’t feel it again until the next novel is neatly slotted together and ready to be abandoned for the next one after that, and so on. Good luck!

Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin and lives in Galway. She has published three collections of short fiction, including Nude (Salt, 2009) which was shortlisted for the 2010 Edge Hill Short Story Prize; three poetry collections – one in an anthology, one a pamphlet – and one novel, You (New Island, 2010). Nuala’s third full poetry collection The Juno Charm is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2011.

Blog: www.womenrulewriter.blogspot.com Website: www.nualanichonchuir.com

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SO, YOU WANT TO WRITE SHORT FICTION?

Writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir is guest blogging at the Irish Writers’ Centre Blog for the month of June to coincide with the short story course she will teach at the Centre on the 25th and 26th of June. Tune in here every Wednesday to see what she has to say.

Short story writer supreme, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Short fiction this week, ahead of the course I teach at the Irish Writers’ Centre this week-end. All welcome!

I think the first thing any budding short story writer must do is read good short stories. Read your contemporaries – Claire Keegan, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Yiyun Li, David Means, Wells Tower, Anne Enright. Read the greats – Chekhov, Alice Munro, Frank O’Connor, Raymond Carver. Read anthologies and journals that love and respect the short story form – The Stinging Fly, The New Yorker, Southword, The Moth. Seek out publications from those publishers who support and publish short stories: Salt, Comma Press, Faber, Cape, Granta. It is only by reading the masters and mistresses of the form that we learn what good short fiction is all about. So, read widely and, while you are reading, write and write and write.

The short story is a personal form in the same way that poetry is – it deals, often, with the individual passions of the writer. Figure out what you love to read and think about, what excites you and interests you. Chances are those are also the things that you will love to write about. For me, those things include visual art and artists, sex and relationships, and the breakdown of love. Throw in a baby, Paris or Dublin, and a river and I could write all day. Make a list of the objects, scenery, type of people – and their dynamics – and the places that interest you the most. Some of these combined will make good fodder for stories or, at least, good jumping-off points.

What will make your short story succeed? Well, resist the urge to write about the mundane. Ordinary things happening to ordinary people rarely make interesting reading. Something must happen in your short story; not something huge or life-changing, just something that’s maybe out of the ordinary for that particular character. So, bear in mind that although the short story is an urgent, concise form it cannot be about nothing in particular. Usually, the story is about a small number of characters and something happens to one or all of them; that event brings about a shift in circumstances or outlook.

Put a notice over your desk: ‘What happened next? Or what happened before?’. This will keep you focussed on the crux of your story – the tension. If you are floundering, read this notice aloud to yourself and write down your answers.

Don’t shy away from creating scenes – readers love to hear dialogue, particularly difficult conversations. Let us hear and see your characters speaking and reacting to each other. It is probably best not to provide oodles of background information. Set the scene briefly, then cut to the action. As Jim Dickey said, ‘If the story is about a bear, bring on the damn bear.’ There isn’t room in the short story for piles of personal history, long descriptive passages or lots of characters. Keep it all to the point. Raymond Carver aptly advised: ‘Get in, get out, don’t linger, go on.’

There is an immediacy to the short story that is unique to the form: it should open quickly, have a relevant mid-section and move at a good pace to the end. As I’ve said, there isn’t room for lots of characters, reams of back story and endless wads of descriptive prose. You want to intrigue your reader, not bore her. The details of the story need to be drip-fed in digestible and interesting lumps. Do what Charles Reade recommended and ‘make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait.’

Stories possess an intensity that is just not possible in the vast space of the novel. They often contain a delicious surprise – they are beautifully unpredictable when done well. Lovers of the short story hope to be moved in some way by what happens in stories – they want the hairs on their neck to stand on end with the unknowable yet perfect beauty of the story they are reading. Readers of literary short fiction do not mind discomfort and they enjoy characters who are mavericks – be daring in what you write, don’t censor yourself.

Short story writing is fairly instinctive, mostly you don’t need to plot and plan meticulously. To paraphrase Haruki Murakami, if you plan everything in a short story it will never find its own way. So you mustn’t worry if you start to write and don’t know where things are going. Just write your way into it – tell the story to yourself – and see what your characters get up to. What you are aiming for is some sort of tension – remember, something must happen! You want to seduce the reader; to have her believe in the small world you have created.

Be specific in your writing always. The more concrete detail you have in your work, the more real the story will seem to the reader. Unique and specific detail in stories makes them more vivid and interesting. Name things: give proper names to settings and characters as much as possible. Good naming anchors the reader to the story.

All writers love language and words – as a writer you delight in unusual word pairings and odd sentences. Don’t be afraid of your own language: the vernacular of your childhood or your home-place is full of authentic turns of phrase: use them. Mine your parents’ – or other older people’s – store of words for interesting sayings.

Each part of a short story must fit with the rest: so the tone fits with the language which also fits with what happens to the characters. This creates a unity within the story that is like the unity within a poem: everything works together to create a pleasing whole. Read some poetry to see how words and intent and content can meld together perfectly.

Readers pick up books to be entertained, to learn and/or for escapism; they want to feel along with your characters. Your story should resonate emotionally with the reader and will ideally have the power to smack her with its truthfulness. Flannery O’Connor said that stories should be ‘short but deep’, so the something that happens in the story will ideally illuminate the human condition in some way. Just because short stories are short doesn’t mean that they can’t be profound or make a deep impact – you can say a lot in a handful of pages.

The short story writer loves concision and brevity; she is willing and able to trim her sentences and paragraphs, to get the best out of them. We all overwrite to start with – this is normal. You just have to learn to edit well.

As a writer, I empathise and agree with John Banville’s feeling of separateness with life, which he often mentions in interviews. It’s what makes a writer in the end, I feel: a sort of aloofness, a feeling of not being wholly in the world. The writer is an observer on the sidelines: she is unobtrusively nosey and notes everything; she gathers up all the bits that other people miss and throws them into the mix of her stories. Joseph O’Connor noted that ‘a writer is always quietly looking and thinking. Not willing inspiration but just being open to the world. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination. It’s letting in ideas. It’s trying, I suppose, to make some sense of things.’

Most writers procrastinate but you can feed your inner writer with good things. Stephen King says that ‘writing is at its best – always, always, always – when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer’. If you are struggling to find inspiration, or if you are trying to force a story out of yourself, move away from your desk. Take yourself out for a walk, or to the theatre, or a gig, or an art gallery. Freshen your mind with a good short story by your favourite writer. Hopefully, when you return to the page, you will have something new to offer yourself and your writing will be ‘inspired play’.

Writing is an apprenticeship; it takes lots of practice – years and years worth. But hard work and tenacity pay off, so stick with it and you will improve your art. Good luck!

Recommended reading:

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King (New English Library, 2001)

Self Editing For Fiction Writers – Browne & King (Harper, 2004)

Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story – Vanessa Gebbie (ed.) (Salt, Nov 2009)

The Portable Creative Writing Workshop – Pat Boran (New Island, 2005)

Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular – Rust Hills (Mariner Books, 2000)

Making Shapely Fiction – Jerome Stern (WW Norton, 1991)

This article was first published at www.writing4all.ie under the title ‘Tips on How to Get Started as a Short Story Writer’

Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin and lives in Galway. She has published three collections of short fiction, including Nude (Salt, 2009) which was shortlisted for the 2010 Edge Hill Short Story Prize; three poetry collections – one in an anthology, one a pamphlet – and one novel, You (New Island, 2010). Nuala’s third full poetry collection The Juno Charm is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2011.

Blog: www.womenrulewriter.blogspot.com Website: www.nualanichonchuir.com

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The long & short of the short story

Earlier this month author John McKenna (who’s written a whopping 14 books!) ran a discussion on the short-story – from garnering ideas to plotting the story; from the development of character to the setting of landscape. The session focused on the discipline necessary to create and complete a piece of short fiction – how to forget the manic ironing and concentrate on the writing! I caught up with him to ask a few questions, including why Ireland is so renowned for the short story form and what it takes to get started:

A lot of people starting out on the creative writing road assume the short story is akin to its name, any form of ‘short’ fiction that has a punchy or ‘surprising’ ending, but in reality it’s a lot more intricate than that. How do you define the short story? To me the short story is the literary photograph – the novel is the film but the short story is that moment we capture – we don’t know what has come before and we don’t know what will follow. We only know what we glimpse in passing – figures caught in a moment. To attempt to do more (or less) with the story is to be in a different form of fiction. And there’s nothing flash about short fiction – it’s true to its characters – as it should be.

Why are Irish people, per se, renowned for this particular writing form? Is it to do with our oral history past and a tendency for telling stories? We have areputation but we don’t actually read or buy short stories so I think that hangs on two things – the fine short story writers we have produced and the presumption that the short story is a step towards the serious business of novel writing – which really annoys me.

What subject matters/topics are best suited to the short story compared to say lengthier works such as the novella or novel? I think that’s impossible or easy to answer – anything is fair subject matter – and nothing. Presence and absence are equally important – as is the ability to focus the writing. No room for padding – no room for the unnecessary.

Is there a formula for writing the short story, i.e. some basic rules? Remember you’re writing a story – take care; be true to your characters; focus your work and write as well as you can and then edit, edit, edit.

In your opinion, who are the all-time greats of the short story and why? Chekov; D H Lawrence; H.E Bates; Hemingway;  Alice Munro; Frank O Connor; Liam O Flaherty; John McGahern; Alistair MacLeod. They all write great stories and write them powerfully.

In reality how short can a short story be and when does one become too long? Well supposedly Hemingway did it in six words. Somewhere around eighty pages it may become a novella – who knows?

How/why did you start off writing short stories? I started in secondary school because I fell in love with the stories in Exploring English.

What is the best short story you ever read? Guests of the Nation – Frank O Connor.

Any tips for anyone wanting to try their hand at this genre? Listen to the voices of your characters – let them tell their story.

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