Week 2 in Iceland: Notebooks & flower crowns

This past week has been about exploring. I’ve been hiking the local hills, walking to dairy farms and tiny churches, testing out new flash fiction ideas and completing old stories that I thought I’d abandoned. I’ve also put into practice what I learned on a recent travel-writing workshop (with the incredible Phoebe Smith – if this is something you’re interested in, I’d highly recommend her) and finished my first travel article, a second one on its way. And yes, I’ve got past the fear of the unknown that was so prevalent last week and allotted time to figuring out which new novels I would like to work on. The week was a slow burner. Not my usual outpouring or word count, but it’s been necessary.

IMG_2156 (2)After being under deadline for so long, one of my hopes for this residency was to discover play again. To experiment. I recently realised that I’ve been using notebooks a lot less for capturing ideas, doodles, etc; everything I wrote down had a purpose and was linked to editing my books in some way. The novels combined with my workload left little time for short stories or flash fiction, so at some point, I somehow stopped collecting random ideas. I had intended to remind myself how to play with words and ideas, but when one of my fellow residents suggested weaving flowers, how could I resist? We spent a relaxing few hours in the wilds, and it was exactly what was needed. In fact, it unexpectedly triggered a story that may or may not work out, but that’s the beauty of it.

And so, the notebook is once again in use. I’ve been collecting sounds, scenery, conversations, people’s faces and habits, random thoughts, possible titles. The notebook has travelled to little churches, up hillsides, and to the thermal spa. It has collected facts and whimsies and everything in between. I’ve allowed myself a slower pace to pick up the missing threads again – and it feels really good. Some of my notes are, of course, linked to my new WIPs, but not all – and that for me is the magic ingredient. Allowing myself room to let ideas grow or fail.

IMG_2047Because writing is an odd beast in that unless you have a finished product, or you create goals like daily word count, it’s difficult to see progress. We’re used to progress being measurable – in daily life, in education, in business, in language – and when it isn’t, it can sometimes feel like we’re flailing. Or, indeed, failing. And sometimes we need to remind ourselves that failing is OK, especially if it means shedding an idea that doesn’t work or a voice you can’t get quite right, so you can move on to something better.

It’s difficult to allow the play side to come to the fore, yet it’s a necessary part of the process. Ideas are everywhere and in abundance, but capturing a really great idea and then forging the links and pathways that lead to great characters and story is not a linear journey. There needs to be blips and sidesteps and ravines to fall into. And this comes through play. Even though the progress may not be felt, it’s there.

So although I was struggling at times with the slowness of last week, I’ve come out of it in a positive space. I know what my next definite projects are and the bonus of discovering new flash fiction and completing old stories I’d given up on is a pleasant surprise. And the notebook becoming a habit again has made things soar. Now, it’s time to continue to play while getting deep into the novels. For my children’s manuscript, I want to get some decent word count down, and for the adult manuscript, I want some serious world building in place – deep breath, I’m going in.

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Movement & calm, earth & water: a residency in Iceland

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Home for the month

I’ve been in Iceland for one week, and I’m five days into the retreat. My place here was booked last year, when I realised that I would be coming out of contract with publishers and probably panicking about what’s next. A change of surroundings is, for me, the best way to calm a racing mind, so I thought it would be useful.

Many people think that as an author, you continue to write for the same publisher over and over, with an unending supply of work. While this may happen, it probably means you are continuing to work within a certain genre or you’ve made it as an international bestseller. Usually, you work to a contract and once that contract is up, it’s up.

And so, this is where I’m at… The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 is officially completed. I cannot tell you what a relief this is. The slog was tough but I got there and I’m feeling really proud of that as the challenge was unreal. There’s just the proofing to go and that will be in October. So… what happens next? Basically, it’s back to square one.

Write a book. Edit the book without killing it. Try and sell the book.

Now, this is a daunting time for any author. The reality is, you may never sell a book again. Or even be able to come up with a strong enough idea in the first place. And whatever you do choose to work on, you had better be passionate about it, because it’s about to take up a minimum of one year of your life, before you even try and convince a publisher that they like it enough to buy it.
IMG_1889And so, Iceland has come at the perfect time. I have The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 coming out in February 2018, the freedom to work on what I want, and a fantastic agent to support and guide me. But my brain is restless, my ideas are too plentiful, and although I’m excited, my nerves are frayed.

Is there anyone else out there feeling the same right now? I bet there is. Whether you make stories through words, art, music, dance, theatre, film, animation … I think it’s a cyclical feeling that will never go away. All we can do is embrace it and ride it through. See where it leads.

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Natural hot spring

Thankfully, I have a new landscape to discover, new foods to eat, a language to try and understand (it’s not intuitive to hear/see written down), some cool new housemates to get to know, and lots of time to write. Even though I’m not 100% certain what it is I’m working on next. That’s part of my mission; to make sure the passion for the projects I *think* I want to work on is real. 

Somehow, I’ve found my idea for a commissioned piece of flash fiction; also, a short story I was stuck on is edited & submitted. So it’s a start. And it’s productive. But is it avoiding the question of which novels (I always work on two project simultaneously) to work on next?

I’m also enjoying hiking the hills and relaxing in the natural hot springs every day, and spending lots of time near the lake, appreciating its stillness. Movement and calm, earth and water: the perfect combination for settling a restless mind. Today, a new week begins and I’m determined to break into the novel. If there’s one thing I need, it’s to know what my next focus is – let’s see if Iceland can help coax it out.

What stage are you at right now? And how does it feel? I’d love to hear about your journey too. 

 

 

Ten Classic Books to Read & Reread

Writers write, but writers also read. And we read lots. We’re talking piles of books, no, mountains of books! If you tell me you’re writing a book, don’t tell me that you don’t have time to read. It’s an essential part of the job – and it’s delicious!

Every book is a personal journey and sometimes we want to travel a new route, while other times we want to revisit the familiar. I love rereading books because you always notice new things; and I find this is especially true when it’s a book I read as a youngster.

Here are a few classic children’s fiction books that I highly recommend. I consider them old friends; stories and characters that I read as a child and revisit time and again. They always remind me of where my love for stories came from and why I want to write.

Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines: This is the only book that ever made me cry. The setting was similar to where I grew up, and as I’ve always loved nature, I was completely engrossed in Billy’s journey. I spent many days searching for my own kestrel to nurture! Set in a single day, the range of emotions you’re pulled through is truly intense. I could read this book over and over for the rest of my life.

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodges Burnett: I could never quite understand how I could love a book with such a despicable main character – the opening lines say it all! But this is a beautiful book about discovery; of gardens, of self, of how to trust and how to make friendships. A remarkable coming of age tale with all the necessary ingredients for a tug at the heartstrings – and don’t worry, you’ll like Mary by the end.

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit: travel is one of my favourite things and when I was a child I always dreamed of taking long journeys. We had an old, abandoned rail track called ‘The Black Path’ near my home and I used to love rambling under its bridges, past the banks of briars, conjuring up images of this book. The ending is so satisfying that when you finish, you just want to start over again.

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian: Set during World War II, this historical fiction novel is a real page turner. I love the dual settings of city and countryside, the steadfastness of Mr Tom (I kept him in mind when I created Grandpa Tobias in The Book of Learning), and how the book deals with an abusive home life. The way each of the characters grow is just wonderful.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White: this story of Fern Arable, a pig called Wilbur and his spider pal Charlotte is just so beautiful and yet so sad; and it is still completely unique. I grew up in a council estate so the farm setting really appealed to my love of nature. There’s just enough tension and a sprinkling of hope – perfect!

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: I adore the characters that Dickens creates – especially the mean ones, they’re so vile! And the way he uses the environment to depict mood is stunning. I read my first Dickens book aged ten (Hard Times), and I was hooked – but this is the one I return to time and again. A dark yet heartwarming tale of rags to riches.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodges Burnett: a riches to rags tale, I was attracted to this book as a child because I loved the way it showed how delicate our fortunes are, and the impact this has on the people around us. I admired the way that Sara kept her resilience and good nature, even though her fortunes had changed so much. The fact that she makes friends with a monkey was a real draw also, and the ending is sublime. I love a story where people get their comeuppance!

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: Anne is such a vibrant, bubbly, and enigmatic character, I was drawn to her right away. I remember feeling like I had lots in common with her, and I think she’s still one of the best female characters in children’s fiction today. Her antics always make me smile – she’s a ray of sunshine.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson: buccaneers, buried gold, mutinies, kidnappings and a one legged pirate – what’s not to love? I remember my heart pumping when I was reading this epic book as a child, and it still has the same effect today. The ending makes me want to jump on a boat and go searching for the buried treasure.

Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graeme: although the language is a little old-fashioned now, I still adore this tale and would recommend it to any young reader that loves animals and nature The characters are wonderfully colourful; wise yet grumpy badger, naive mole, clever ratty and barmy toad – they’re unforgettable. The setting is also incredible. Reading this always makes me want to go off on long countryside treks, foraging.

What are your favourite classic books that you revisit time and again? What is it about them that you love?

Finding Your Special Place: Writing in Nature

I believe that when you write, if it’s something you love and feel passionate about, you’ll make time for writing, no matter how busy your schedule. But I also know that sometimes we need a special place to kick start our energy levels, think about our process, or to help us rediscover the joy.

Nature and animals play a big part of my everyday life; I live in rural West Cork on a farm next to the sea, and I also grow my own vegetables and catch my own fish. This is a dream come true for me and it helps me get lots of exercise and fresh air in between my writing sessions. It provides balance.

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One of the views from the Blue Mountains National Park during my Varuna Residency

Even though I grew up in a council estate with very little greenery, I was always fascinated by nature and managed to find it in the unlikeliest of places: weeds growing in pavement cracks, ladybirds on the fence, caterpillars hiding under dock leaves, moths behind the curtains, the robin that came to steal the milk by pecking its way through the bottle top. Wherever you are, nature can be found.

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My dog & a newt that I rescued from his water bowl

Nature makes me feel settled and calm, and even though I love city life too, I find the countryside provides more headspace and also less distractions, so I get lots of writing and lots of reading done. I work from home so I don’t have a commute, which means that breaks can be used for weeding, or walking the dog on the hills or the nearest beach.

The beauty of books is that they transport you to other worlds, and no matter where you are, you can travel to anywhere you want. This is how I feel about being in nature also – I find it freeing. It allows a release. Sometimes it can be difficult to tune in, but walk somewhere wild and soon your surroundings will mesmerize you; whatever worries or concerns you have will melt away.

Although I love it, I can’t always be outdoors – it’s not practical. I’d never get a book finished! I have a room where I write – it’s a tiny room in a mobile home, but it’s mine. Undisturbed, organised, filled with small inspiring trinkets like pebbles collected from beaches and paintings by friends. When I walk in this room I switch my brain to writing – I can leave my other duties and responsibilities outside. My desk faces a (sky blue) wall and, unsurprisingly, there are four framed flower pictures at eye level, so whenever I look up, I still see nature.

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Deadlines looming – a long walk always helps, whatever the weather

I type my novels directly onto my computer, but one of my biggest pleasures is getting away from the desk, and taking long walks with a notebook. Sometimes it is to unravel a plot problem, but usually, it’s to find new ideas or start new projects. Sitting on a grass bank, with rushes whispering behind me, the words flow. And they’re different words to those I would find at my desk. There’s a freedom in going where your feet take you, letting your mind wander too.

Not everyone will be inspired by nature, but I do believe that everyone needs a special place where they can retreat to – to reenergize, to concentrate, to think freely. It could be a busy café, an art gallery, a train; whatever works for you. Understanding your own process and what inspires you and your writing is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. I’d love to know – what is your special creative space?

A Very Special School Project

Today I have something very special to share.

A lovely young lady contacted me recently to see if I would do an interview for her school project: People Who Inspire Us. Of course, I said yes – what an honour!

I was sent a fantastic list of interview questions (see below) and then she put together a gorgeous display based on my Nine Lives Trilogy.

With her mum’s permission (please note: I have kept anonymity for online security), here are some photos. I regularly get asked why I write. People – THIS is what it’s all about.

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And here’s the thoughtful interview…

  1. What inspired you to write especially in your genre and who were your influences?

I think we take our influences from the world around us, so we’re always digesting stuff that adds to our creativity, without even realising. Art, film, music, people, the natural world; they all have stories to tell and these become part of our self and our understanding. I love travel and this inspires me greatly – the physicality of the journey helps free up the mind and creative thinking, and then the new sights, sounds, smells, tastes – it’s all soakage. In terms of books, Roald Dahl made me think about writing stories differently when I was a kid (they became much more gruesome) and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials really inspired me. I like fiction that’s dark, real, and emotional. But every book I read makes me think about my own work – what I like, what I don’t like, pacing, tone, etc. It’s wonderful.

  1. How do you hope your books will inspire young people and influence them?

I hope my books provide some entertainment and some escapism; but if they make young people think about different viewpoints or ask questions, then that’s also good. I don’t think stories should have a moral or a message, but if they engage readers in a way they hadn’t thought about before, then I think that’s positive. For instance, you might not agree with a character’s behaviour but you can understand why they’re acting that way – and that empathy and understanding is really special.

  1. Growing up did you always want to be a writer?

I always said I wanted to be a teacher or a poet, but in truth, I didn’t think it was possible. It was before the Internet existed, so communication with authors was much more difficult. In fact, I never heard fro or met an author despite writing a few letters, so it felt very far away from my world. I came from a very poor background and so I thought you had to be rich to be an author! But I always loved books and reading and I always wrote. Thankfully, writing feels much more accessible now.

  1. What was the best present you have ever received?

A book is my favourite gift – whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or a notebook to write in. Though my friend did give me a stuffed two-headed duckling as a leaving present and that blew me away!

  1. Could you describe a typical workday when you are teaching a workshop and what do you hope to achieve?

I do a lot of preparation for my workshops – handouts, exercises, ideas, extra reading etc so for every hour workshop, there’s at least 4 hours preparation gone into it. I think it’s really important because every writer and their work should be given the respect they deserve. I believe workshops should encourage you to be brave enough to write what you want to write, not what you think you should write. They should make writing feel accessible, they should make you feel energised and excited about your work, and they should make you want to go away and write more. I don’t subscribe to a finished piece, as often a lot of thought needs to come in between before a piece can improve, but I like to cover lots of nuts and bolts that can help start a piece, improve a piece, and polish a piece. Basically, I aim at what I want out of any workshops I attend.

  1. How do you hope a young reader will relate to Ebony Smart.

Ooh, a tough question, as we all have our own experiences and bring them with us – no two people reading the same book have the same experience, and once it’s out there, you have to let your readers own it – and that means the characters too! I think Ebony’s a brave and feisty character, so I hope that young readers respect her for that. I hope they like her, that they’re in her corner. But I also hope they see that she’s flawed like anyone we meet, because to me, that’s what makes a character real.

Isn’t this project wonderful? (Why not leave her a comment below for encouragement?!)

Varuna: Editing, Inner Critics and Writing Routines

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The ‘war desk’ 

It’s a week since I returned from Australia and my amazing residency at Varuna. I had expected to blog each week about the experience, but I quickly found my stride and instead, the writing took over. Which, to be fair, was the point – but of course, I had to berate myself a little for being slack and not checking in on my blog. The famous inner critic was in full flow.

I’ve learned over time to accept this element of the creative brain – I think the inner critic is the part that makes us strive to improve, so it’s wholly necessary. The problem is, the inner critic is unreliable and you have to learn when to tune in. In this particular instance, I let it ramble on in the background about blogs (blah blah), taking no notice whatsoever of its words. I needed its guidance for my work only.

Last time I checked in, I was waiting for my structural edits and wondering where the rest of the residency would take me. Well, I received my edits and so the other three weeks of my time at Varuna consisted of writing for ten hours a day at my desk, and walking for between two and four hours in the Blue Mountains National Park. It was, after all, a mere ten minutes away and absolutely stunning. And ten hours is a long time to be sat with your characters and inner critic, trying to puzzle out the problems you’ve created.

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As for the nights, it’s winter in Australia, and the darkness draws in at 5pm. So the evenings were spent reading and chatting with fellow writers, or doing a bit extra editing. But mainly reading as chatting, as I’m not great at night if I’ve been working all day and it usually has a negative impact on the following day if I push too far. But as a result, I edited my entire 80K word manuscript, except for the last three chapters; these I kept for my return as I needed to look at them with fresh eyes.

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Some time out with the lovely readers of Read3rz Re-Vu book club

Writing is not just about trusting your instincts when it comes to plot, characters, and dialogue etc. It’s also about understanding your process and getting the best from yourself – which means balance and working smart. For instance, I was always a morning person, doing my best work at 6am, but recently, I’ve realised this has changed. Whether its practice, or living in the countryside where natural light and weather affect you more, or age, or the fact that I’ve been outside of an office job for seven years now and am finding my own rhythm, something has changed.

It may seem self indulgent to spend time thinking about this, but what’s the point of doing something you love, and working to your own schedule, if you’re going to make it stressful by turning your working day into a battle of your own creation? So while I was on the other side of the world, I decided to take a look at my process and figure out what’s happening. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I can write at any time, not just morning, but only at night if I haven’t already been working all day
  • Five hours is my preferred amount of time for productive writing (after all, I have to fit work in also)
  • Eight hours writing is my usual limit (unless on deadline), otherwise it impacts negatively the next day
  • My writing hours need to be broken up – I need to do other things in between to maintain focus (gardening, freelance, reading, dog walks, bodhran, chores)
  • I can write as much as I like in a day, but I’m only happy with my achievements if I’ve also spent enough time outdoors
  • If I do shorter bursts of writing, I can listen to music at the same time
  • Socialising is a positive aspect that balances the solitary nature of writing
  • A day off a week is a good thing
  • Sometimes, none of the above works and I need to go with what’s right for that moment

IMG_0980If you looked at your writing routine, what would you find? And can you see where it could be improved (this could be in terms of carving out writing time, or for your sanity and well being)? I guess my main revelation was that my need to exercise and be outdoors is as strong as my need to write. I also need to spend more time with friends. This means looking at my day differently and adopting a new routine. It might not work, but I’m ready to try…

Yesterday, I finally pressed send on my edits. Since returning, I rewrote the final chapters of The Book of Revenge, removed the Epilogue (which may yet return) and reread several times to make sure I was happy. And guess what? It’s still as nerve-wracking as the first book. I don’t think that will ever change.

But now, it’s time to switch off and head to Listowel Writers’ Week where I’m doing a Time Travel event with the wonderful Alan Early, and then a writing workshop based on the five senses. It’s a great festival, so I’m excited! If you’re there, give me a shout on twitter @ERMurray. Otherwise, I’ll see you on the other side, new routine in place.

How about you? Is it time to try a new approach?

Bowerbirds, mountain trails & surprises: Varuna Writers’ Residency

I’m coming to the end of my first week of my residency exchange in Australia (thanks to the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre), so I thought I’d check in.

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Singapore was a good idea. It’s a really safe and lovely city to explore, tranquil and small but with plenty going on. It meant I adjusted to the time zone before arriving in Australia (Singapore is 7 hours ahead of Ireland, The Blue Mountains, 9 hours). There was a Tapestry of Spiritual Music festival on, so I got to see/listen to some amazing world music, distracting myself from jet lag while filling up on creativity before a month of concentrated writing.

Let me describe Varuna…

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A particularly impressive maple

It’s a beautiful house and garden, only ten minutes walk along a track to some amazing marked mountain trails. There’s quiet, focused time every day from 9am until 6pm, and then we gather (up to five writers) each night for a fabulous dinner. The house has an extensive library – each room is themed (I’m have the UK & Ireland shelves) – as well as old guest books of writers who have stayed here, and every room has a biography of Eleanor Dark, the writer who originally owned the house. My room is quirky and comfortable, with a delicious reading chair and a window next to the bed that connects to the workspace. The window overlooks the garden and the autumnal trees, with continuous noise from cockatoos, rosellas, parakeets, and galahs.

Seeing as I’m on the other side of the world, and I love nature, I’m taking time to enjoy and explore the local environment as well as write. Some of my favourite experiences so far include…

A top deck train ride through the mountains

  • Discovering a bowerbird’s bower, complete with collected blue items (three females and one male present)
  • Chatting to an elderly gardener who recommended a book, then later delivered a copy as a gift to the house! (The Tree of Man by Patrick White)
  • Walking mountain trails as morning mists rise or the sun sets
  • A flock of ten black cockatoos flying overhead
  • Following new sounds (birds, lizard, bark peeling)
  • A shy (and rarely seen) lyrebird crossing my path while I was writing in the mountains in the early morning – watching it forage for food
  • Learning about (and meeting) Australian authors (I’m halfway through and loving just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth)
  • Discovering an ‘aboriginal interpretive walk’
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A female bower bird, offering a prized blue gift. 

As for my output, this is the first time I’ve had a month of uninterrupted writing time in about six years. My editors notes on The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 are due any day, and so this week has been all about settling in, finding my stride, and working on multiple small projects – some finishing off, some new – including short stories, creative non-fiction, an interview, blog posts and starting to world build for my next project. It’s been steadily productive. The evening chats, resources and focused time have led me in some unexpected directions and everything feels a little bit calmer, on track and richer.

We all know how up and down writing is as an occupation, and confidence in my writing has taken a bit of a knock. Mainly due to exhaustion (publishing three books in 12 months takes its toll, and the fourth book has been challenging as a result), but also fear (I’m out of contract after this next book), juggling too many things (eye roll!) and some harsh self criticism. And so part of my aim here is to take a step back, take stock and reset. Thankfully, that has begun.

You might think that a writing residency is a holiday, but that’s an inaccurate description. In some ways it is, because I don’t need to shop or cook and I’m not freelancing, but it’s concentrated time to think, plan, create. Let me give some examples of how a retreat can help…

1) As part of my residency, I had a consultation with Carol Major. I gave her some new work (short stories) which felt risky and scary, but it’s been a while since I’ve had chance to work on anything completely new due to contracts and deadlines. Our chat gave me a real boost, asserted that yes, I can still come up with fresh ideas and turn them into something worth reading, while igniting my hunger for more. This is a huge relief.

IMG_04832) I’ve been trying to write about my difficult relationship with my mother, and its proving extremely difficult. Deciding to work outdoors in the sunshine, I stumbled upon an ‘aboriginal interpretive walk’ in regenerated land. The walk had informative plaques and gorgeous scenery, and immersing myself physically and mentally to its past, present and future, was really inspiring. It gave me a different perspective for my essay and fed into the tone, adding a new strand. It’s also sparked a short story idea, yet to be started, that I aim to write during my time here.

That’s the thing with writing; there are always humps and slumps. And I believe there should be – if we’re not challenged, how can we strive for better and improve? As I go into the second week, I’m feeling much more positive than I have done in months. Let’s see what the week brings…