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

 

Overcoming Obstacles

dscf5788So, it’s only a couple of weeks into the New Year and already your motivation/confidence/belief in your work has begun to flag? You’ve lost sight of the story/why you bothered started writing it in the first place?

Well, take a deep breath and relax – because this happens to every writer at some point. And when it does happen, you have two choices – keep going or give up. Both can be viable options, but most of the time, it’s simply part of the creative process and you need to keep going to get the results you’re looking for.

It might be that the idea or voice of your story really doesn’t work, but in general, it usually means that you need more time, more drafts, and more thinking space. There are obstacles in your way, but you can usually overcome them, with some effort and patience and a dollop of courage.

Here are some approaches that work for me…

Face your demons: this is my first approach. When something is challenging, or scary, or seemingly impossible, I like to tackle it head on. Otherwise it grows into a giant monster that follows you everywhere, taunting you. If you give the most difficult or scary tasks your best shot, at your best time of day, even tiny steps forward will help to relieve the pressure you’re under and move your story along.

Take more short breaks: I can often concentrate for hours at a time, but when I’m caught up in something extra challenging, I take a break every time my concentration naturally beaks. This could be every hour or 45 minutes, but with increased challenge comes increased pressure and so the usual long concentration periods don’t work as well. Lots of short breaks allow your brain to relax a little before the next bout – and allow creative thoughts to keep flowing.

Try something new: If you write organically to find your character and stories, try pausing to map out how far you’ve got and where you want to go. Stepping back to see the bigger picture might help you to spot issues with plot or pacing, renew your enthusiasm, or remind you of your initial aim and show you where things have veered off.

Move! I swear by long walks! I start every day with a long walk (two-hours or more) to get the blood flowing and to encourage my brain to let go of any concerns or worries. Likewise, when I hit a wall, or I feel my concentration or enthusiasm ebbing, I get up and move. It might be a shrug or a dance or a stretch, but I find movement creates a momentary distraction and helps fresh thoughts to come flooding in.

If all else fails: I’m not an advocate of giving up, but if you have truly tried everything else and the words are still not coming, or if you’re endangering the quality of your manuscript, then put your work in progress aside. Don’t stop writing, but work on something else and go back to your tricky manuscript the next day.

Good luck with your work in progress – happy writing! E x

(Note: this was originally written for the Girls Heart Books blog)

#MGiechat Returns January 8th!

QuinlanIf you love reading or writing middle grade books (books for a readership aged 8-12), and you’re also a twitter user, then our monthly twitter chat #MGiechat is making a comeback and getting a makeover.

This all started in 2015 when I realised that there were no Ireland-based chats on twitter about middle grade books, and decided that I should start one. It ran for 2 years but in 2017, I got overloaded (in a wonderful way!) with writing/editing The Book of Revenge, short story commissions, residencies abroad (Australia and Iceland) as well as freelance, and social media had to take a back seat.

So, consider #MGiechat up and running again! It will run on the first Monday of every month, from 8.30pm to 9.30pm. There’ll be themed chats, interviews and special guests.

Our first chat is on Monday January 8th and we’ll be talking reading and writing aspirations for 2018, along with special guest author, Nigel Quinlan, who is due to release his second book The Cloak of Feathers.

Do come along and say hi. We’re a friendly bunch. See you there?

Writing a First Draft

ERMurray8_deskHappy 2018 to you all! At the start of a new year, people often feel energised and raring to go, so I’m starting the year with a few blog posts that will hopefully help to kickstart your writing, wherever you are on your writing journey. On the first day of the year, I’m starting right at the the beginning… because we all have to start somewhere.

A first draft is exciting, but it can also be daunting. You have an idea and characters ready to burst onto the page, but at the same time, you have an intimidating blank screen glaring at you, daring you to fill it. So, how do you dive in and start getting those ideas down? How do you drag that first draft out of your head and heart and onto the page? Every writer is different, but this is what works for me…

It may seem obvious, but my advice is to just write. Write freely and manically and with abandon. Change character names if needed as you go, ignore the spelling mistakes, don’t edit a thing. Just write, write, write, until you have a decent body of words that can be shaped into a real story later along the line. Don’t worry about making mistakes – just go for it. Turn off that inner editor and inner critic, and make words.

I am now on my fifth book (an adult fiction, not contracted, title TBC) and so far, I have set myself the same goal every time I write a first draft. I aim for between 50,000 and 60,000 words in 30 days. That’s a lot of words in a short space of time, but I find that I get into a rhythm that’s both bewildering and fun – and once I have words there, it’s easier to make them behave. I admit that this method produces a draft that’s terrible. So terrible, in fact, that it’s more of a draft zero – but that’s how I find my story.

When I plot or plan, it kills the story for me and I get bored and lose interest. If I use this frenzied method, I get excited about the story and characters and surprising things happen. I try not to worry about mistakes or plots holes or story arcs, and only a small amount of this initial draft will be in my final book. After all, writing is rewriting! But like an artist mixing paints or a sculptor preparing clay, this gives me something concrete that I can shape, sluice, and colour.

BookofRevengecoverThis method won’t work for everyone, but if you’re finding yourself stuck, unable to get the words from your brain onto the intimidating blank page, it might be worth a try. In 2017, I tried documenting one of my first draft journeys on twitter and my own blog; here’s a glimpse into my first week of writing The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 (published by Mercier Press, Feb 2018).

#1stdraftdiary Day 1: Some words are stolen from deleted scenes from Book 2 (approx 300). Today was a real slog – it was difficult to switch off from the publication & (double) launch of Caramel Hearts, so it felt like I was connecting back with the characters and little more than that. Probably the hardest day of writing yet – and this is my fourth book so I didn’t expect that! Instead of feeling pleased that I’ve started, the day ended feeling rather glum. Word count: 2012

#1stdraftdiary Day 2: I decamp to a friend’s house for a change of scenery as a pick-me-up. She’s an artist and works with music on somewhere else in the house and I make an important discovery – I can work with music on if it’s not in the same room! This isn’t particularly relevant for me on a day-to-day basis because I live in a mobile home, so everything sounds like it’s in the same room! But it’s a discovery all the same. The change of walls, desk, light works and I manage to get a great word count down. I know that these are all the wrong words and usually I don’t care – but this time, I’m unsettled. As I close my computer down, I realise where I should have started and know I have to start again. I don’t usually do this, but the book is due October 31st & there isn’t much room for mistakes so I delete a whole chapter. Word count: 4521

#1stdraftdiary Day 3: And start again! But the day is warm and muggy and promising sun, and it’s calling to me. I walk the dog six miles instead of the usual three before it gets too hot. An essay I want to write keeps bugging me, so I decide to think about this when I’m walking, and then concentrate on my first draft when I am stationary. It works! The essay begins to form and then I sit at the water’s edge half way through the walk, writing more of my book using notebook and pen, moving now and again to avoid a pair of territorial swans. When I return home, I write up my thoughts on the essay, then type up the book. Because I started again (something I don’t usually do), I’ve gone backwards – this puts me 1500 words behind schedule. Word count: 3500

 #1stdraftdiary Day 4: I finally connect with my old way of working. Thanks to a brief conversation with author, Celine Kiernan, I realise that the start has been slow because I know the characters (this is Book 3 of a trilogy after all!!) so I’m automatically editing and criticising, when usually I let these things go and write freely, without the little nagging voice. And so, I force that voice to switch off and gallop on, feeling much happier with the actual writing part! End of day, I’ve caught up a bit; still 800 words behind schedule but it’s early days and certainly nothing to worry about – plenty of time to catch up. Word count: 7200 

 #1stdraftdiary Day 5: Woke up in a mild panic. The garden had to take priority, meaning a trip to Bantry to buy plants, then weeding the beds and planting before any work can get started. By 4.30pm, I still have 30 minutes of garden watering to do and no writing. Beating myself up severely about this for several hours of the day, but when I finally get to sit down, the words flow quite happily and I realise what a pain I’ve been to myself all day. Feeling rather joyous when I shut the computer down. Word count: 9100

What is your process for writing a first draft? Are you a plotter or do you write organically, like me? I’d love to hear how you work!