La Muse Retreat (Wk 2): The learning Curve…

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One of the local forest walks – I saw hoopoes and golden eagles

I’m not one of those writers that hates writing. Nor do I think it is difficult and awful. I love what I do but there are, of course, challenges, and sometimes it can be difficult to motivate yourself, get a balance, or keep your energy levels in check. I’m always reflecting on my work and my process and I try to streamline things to work smarter, rather than harder. After all, I have money to earn and a life to live too.

Well, there’s nothing like being in your own company for two solid weeks to help you reflect. This doesn’t mean sitting and waiting for inspiration to hit – like Ann Patchett says in her fantastic essay, The Getaway Car – A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, I sit down and work and that’s my inspiration right there – but it does mean looking for clues on what saps energy, what wastes time, what feels different. And for me, part of being on a residency is looking at how positive elements can be brought home and incorporated into the everyday to improve the real life practice of being a writer.

So, two weeks into my residency at the glorious La Muse Retreat, this is what I have learned…

  • I always feel better when I have walked 10 km or more. Short walks add up, but do not give the same feeling of exhilaration or accomplishment, or let the mind switch off.
  • I love this novel that I’m working on, but it also scares me – and I think this fear is positive. It means I have something worth working on, something that challenges me and makes we want to keep going. Which is good, because there is a long, long way to go yet.
  • Afternoon tiredness is linked to digestion. When I have eaten heavier foods, I get an afternoon slump.
  • About halfway through a residency, I get a day of melancholy. And that’s OK – it’s a day of evaluating… Have I done enough? How can I make things better? I find I overcome this best with long walks and an even longer night of reading.
  • Breakfast does not work for me, ever – I’m listening to my body and sticking with brunch.
  • Yoga or stretching is just as effective in regular 10 minutes bursts to let go of shoulder/neck cramps as it is in hour-long sessions. Which is good seeing as writing/walks need long stretches of time and I have a low boredom threshold.
  • My average daily output of writing on this residency has been six to eight hours. Reading, around three hours, hiking, four hours. Sleep, eight hours – I have needed more sleep than usual and am glad of it.
  • The boring minutiae of home becomes gloriously shiny rituals on a retreat/residency – this is something I need to remember so when routine hits (which I find demotivating) I can kick its butt.
  • You should be open to people’s book recommendations and try new reads. You’ll always be drawn to those that suit your tastes anyway.
  • Missing home now and again means I’m blessed to have a home to go to.

As for my output, I have now edited (and we’re talking about going deep here) 18,000 words (76 pages) of my novel, I have written a new 1200 word short story and the first drafts of two separate essays of 1500-2000 words each.

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The beautiful church in nearby village, Mas Cabardes.

Although I am always productive at home, it’s the depth that’s invaluable when you’re on a retreat or residency and at La Muse, the thinking space, the hikes in wooded mountains, the wonderful living library, the conversations with others, have all enabled room to explore and grow. It’s a springboard for later work and that’s exciting. However…

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Enjoying some fresh mountain air.

I am now on my final week and I’m trying not to let the inevitable panic set in. Six days is a lot of time, I am telling myself. It’s plenty of time to go deeper into my novel and to fix my broken timeline, my meandering plot.

Things always look different with hindsight and so a simple trick I often use is this… If I looked back on this experience in ten years’ time, what would I see as the most important learning curves for me in the coming week? Let’s hope this trick helps. I’m going in…

How is your own writing going? Do you find residencies useful? Or it something you dream of doing but haven’t managed yet? 

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La Muse Retreat (Wk 1) – The Warm-Up

The first week of my writing residency is complete and there’s a change in dynamics as some people leave, so it’s feels like the right time to pause and reflect. Have I met my expectations, have I found any challenges, and how do I feel? What can I do better to get the most from my stay?

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My workspace for three weeks (Urania)

I’m a retreat/residency regular and so I know by now that when I have an extended period of time to concentrate on my writing (in this instance, three weeks), the first week is the perfect opportunity to ‘warm up’ before throwing myself deeply into my work. I also make sure I have some goals in mind.

Before arriving, my goals were:

  • Complete Part One of my WIP (adult fiction) which means reducing 40K words to about 30K (the excess to be included in Part Two), then a complete rewrite.
  • Write, then edit, a commissioned 1200 word short story
  • 3) maintain freelance work and planning/creating events booked for April-May.

After getting up at 4am for a very early flight to Carcassonne, I immediately added another:

  • Feel rested.

I always forget this part as I get excited by ideas and opportunities and I love variety and change. But self care something I am much more aware of these days and so I actually began the residency by taking a whole day off. I hiked, I read books, and I found it really difficult not to flip open the laptop – but the next day I was raring to go.

For me, residencies are about two things:

  • Finding your rhythm (this can differ on every residency)
  • Regaining balance (for when you return to your everyday life).
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Mountain hikes in glorious sunshine

It’s inevitable that during the day-to-day, business takes over – freelance deadlines, pitching events, preparing events, teaching, chasing invoices, marketing books etc. The writing continues always, but over time, it accidentally slips into the back seat. I see residencies as a way to flip this on its head for a while, so the writing comes first in the day. Yes, I’m still working while I’m here, but my approach is different – the creative stuff comes first.

In terms of structure, I like the set-up at la Muse. There are set quiet hours throughout the day and then from 10pm. It allows for plenty of focused solitude but also some lovely interactions with others – sometimes organised, sometimes by chance. We did share our work one evening before people were leaving, around the fire, wine in hand, but some of the best conversations (and book recommendations) have come from chance meetings whilst cooking or taking a hike.

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Books donated from this retreat

The living library has grown somewhat since I was last here in 2015. On each residency, every person brings two books to donate to the library. These are presented to the group over crepes and it’s wonderful. Two incredible books I was introduced to by fellow Musers were the short story collection For Esme With Love and Squalor by J.D. Salinger and Ann Patchett’s collection of essays This is The Story of a Happy Marriage. I’ve also been dipping in to random stuff at will. Before arriving, I expected lots of early nights, but I’ve found myself reading until 2am every day. This has been a blissful surprise.

I’ve also spent several hours a day outdoors, hiking in the woods and mountains –today was a 11km hike to view an entirely hand-painted church, its ceiling blue with gold stars. Regular trips to the spring to fill up water bottles is a joyful routine. The scenery here is spectacular and the trails incredibly well marked so it’s fairly easy to find your way back – and the amount of stuff unravelled in my head as I wander is just what I need. It’s making me think about how I can extend my daily walks at home, where the familiar quickly becomes less enticing.

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Seeking waterfalls in a sudden blizzard

But what about the work? The initial goals? Well, I have written and redrafted the short story to a point where feedback is needed. It’s almost there, but there’s something I can’t put my finger on that isn’t working, so I’ve sent it to some fellow authors for feedback. I’ve delved into the first four chapters of my manuscript and I’ve read a tonne of LGBTQ+ literature for a teen event. I’m on top of all my interviews, freelance articles, manuscript reports, online workshops etc. And, I feel rested.

But the warm-up is over and it’s time to up the tempo. It’s time to go deep into that novel and prise out the unnecessary. Then make it better. This will be the uphill struggle, the hair-tearing part. But with the warm-up complete, I can’t wait to get my teeth into it.

What can I do better? Work my socks off. Wish me luck!

Happy reading, happy writing all. x

The Nine Lives Trilogy, Snowmageddon, Autonomy & other updates…

IMG_4383It’s been a while since I posted and I apologise, though I’m guessing that with the crazily long winter and weird weather, everyone else has been just as busy. Between snowmageddon destroying pipes and trashing our car (engine seized – write off!), my MacBook finally dying (meaning new computer, programmes, the lot!), and the double book launch of The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3, things have been hectic! So here’s a little update to get back on track…

I have a few articles/interviews/podcasts you might be interested in as part of The Book of Revenge blog tour…

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Usually I’d be posting my vegetable garden updates around this time, but there’ll be none of that until end of April as my garden is not in a happy place. Unfortunately, the crazy snow also made World Book Day on March 1st a complete wipeout. I managed to do the first 2018 Biggest Book Show on Earth event with some great #kidlit people (Derek Landy, David Doherty, Chris Judge, Sarah Moore-Fitzgerald, Ger Siggins) and a day of workshops in a very friendly and creative Educate Together school, but other than that, everything was cancelled. I really felt for the Ennis Book Club Festival team – a big cheer goes out to them for handling the situation so well, especially after all the effort it takes to put such a great programme together.

I ended up trapped in Dublin during the snow so I didn’t even get to wander the deserted country roads or throw snowballs with my dog. Luckily, I have great friends who were willing to put me up, give me books, and drive me to the station when transport finally opened. How lucky am I? Friends are everything. Truly. 

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Thankfully, I did manage to reschedule two fantastic WBD events in Hodges Figgis (celebrating 250 years in business in 2018!) and Dubray Books on Grafton St last week – so some of those pesky cancellations are back on track.

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And I’m delighted to announce that I have an essay published in the Autonomy anthology from New Binary Press, a women-led collection of stories, poems, memoirs, essays, articles, screenplays and more, exploring what it means to have bodily autonomy. Some of my favourite Irish writers have also contributed, including Claire Hennessy, Elaine Feeney and Sinead Gleeson, so do go take a look – my essay is on the taboo subject of being a woman who doesn’t want children. I can’t wait to read the other pieces as I know they’re all going to be full of heart – and what more to do we want from any read?

And so… what next? Broken stuff and weather troubles have meant I’m way behind in my writing. ‘Behind’ meaning I’ve done nothing for weeks. It’s frustrating, but sometimes, you just have to let go and make the best of the situation. I have my health and a great life, and I knew the mess was only temporary. Now everything has been fixed or replaced, I am looking forward to returning to my writing. And seeing as I’ve been invited to be a three-week Writer in Residence just outside Carcassonne, I have nothing to complain about AT ALL. More on that soon…

In the meantime, happy reading, happy writing x

 

Dublin launch reminder – The Book of Revenge!

Just a quick reminder that if you’re in Dublin this Thursday (Feb 15th), please join us in Grafton Street Dubray Books at 6.30pm to send The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 out into the world.

It’ll be helped by an intro from Sinead Gleeson, and Caroline Busher is going to do a quick interrogation interview too!  Everyone welcome! After drinks in Neary’s!

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Publication day: The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3

BookofRevengecoverIt’s official – publication day for The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 is here! It’s a week earlier than I expected and the nerves have kicked in… let’s hope you all love Ebony Smart’s biggest adventure yet!

So, does publication day feel any different when it’s your fourth book? The answer is no! It’s just as exciting, nerve-wracking, strange, unbelievable, wild and bizarre as every other time. It’s also a whimper, rather than a bang, as all the build-up is towards the launch. But seeing people reading the book, pictures of it on shelves, in hands, on TBR piles is a crazy good feeling. So keep the pictures coming!

I haven’t even seen a copy yet, but hopefully they’ll arrive today! It’s such a great experience, holding your book in your hand for the first time. Until I do, it still feels like an unruly manuscript that has to be kicked into shape!

And so, here’s to the final piece of the Nine Lives Trilogy – off you go, out into the world, The Book of Revenge!

Polish Your Manuscript Ready for Submission

I hope 2018 is off to a great start for you! From the beginning, straight to the end, following on from the last post on motivation, here’s my advice on getting your manuscript ready for submission. This article was originally written for Writers & Artists, but it received such a good response, I thought I’d share it with readers here…

BookofRevengecoverPublishing is one of the most competitive industries in the world, so when you send your manuscript out on submission, you need to make sure it is as polished as possible. You also need to provide an insight into you as an author. A publisher or agent will be looking for talent, but they also need to know that you are professional, that you are dedicated to your writing, and that you will be agreeable to work with. Although the manuscript is ultimately yours, a published book requires collaborative effort and so when an agent or publisher reads your submission, they will be considering all of these aspects. Here are a few practical things to look for before you send out your manuscript, to give it the best possible chance of success.

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You’ve redrafted and redrafted your manuscript and are too close to see any glaring mistakes; here are some common editorial issues to look out for, so you can really polish your manuscript before you hit send.

One Line Pitch

Reducing your manuscript into one line is challenging, but it gives you focus. It also functions in two useful ways; it provides you with a succinct description of your book for your cover letter, and it also serves as a reference point for your own writing. When you reread your manuscript, does it match your one liner? If not, something is wrong – it could be a simple fix or another rewrite, but if alarm bells are ringing, give your manuscript more time.

Read Out Your Dialogue

This sounds obvious but there is no better way to know whether your dialogue is working than to read it aloud. If any dialogue is tricky to say or sounds out of place, it needs more work. This is slow and time consuming, but essential: flabby or unconvincing dialogue pops off the page and can really let a good story down.

Pacing

Look out for sections that slow the action down or cause distraction, such as unnecessary descriptions or information dumping. Are your chapters fluid and do they end in a way that makes you want to read on? The middle section of a manuscript is typically where pace suffers before editorial input – see if you can tighten and prune before hitting send.

Capitalise on Emotion

Every story takes a reader on an emotional journey – so what do you want your readers to feel? Do you want them to be blubbing, splitting their sides laughing or too scared to read on but too hooked not to? Once you have your story, your characters, your redrafted manuscript, reread to see whether you have managed to evoke the desired emotions. If it’s not working for you, it won’t work for your reader either.

Logistics

When you submit your book, it’s not just about your manuscript – you also need to make sure that you are sending desirable material to the right people, in the right way.

Choose Wisely

Is the agent or publisher you are approaching even interested in your genre or the age group you are writing for? This may sound like an obvious question, but despite the wealth of information available online, publishers and agents are constantly bombarded with manuscripts that don’t fit their criteria. It may seem time consuming to check every detail, but submitting work that is not relevant to an agent or publisher will result in instant rejection. Save embarrassment and unnecessary heartache by doing your research.

Presentation is Important

Have you studied and adhered to the submission guidelines requested by the publisher or agent you are approaching? Each will have their own way of working and their own requirements and it is important you follow these exactly. Agents and editors are extremely busy, so they expect to receive manuscripts in the format requested; submissions that do not meet the requirements may go unread. Make sure that you double-check everything on the submissions page of the website before you hit send.

Be Patient

Although it might be tempting to send your manuscript on submission because you’re hungry to get published, sending it out too early will be detrimental to your chances of success. You only have one opportunity to submit your book to a publisher or agent, so don’t send it anywhere until you are completely sure that you have made every improvements possible.

Remember

Literature is subjective and so not every agent or publisher is going to like what you send – they have to be behind it 100% to be able to take you on. So if someone takes time to give you feedback, read their suggestions objectively and see what you can learn. Everyone experiences rejection in the publishing industry, so try not to let it dampen your spirits. I’d love to hear all about your progress – and I guarantee, if you dedicate your time, if you strive to become better at your craft, if you write your stories with heart and keep going, you will make progress.

Keep writing, keep improving and never give up!