Your Top 10 Writing FAQS Answered by E.R. Murray (Part 2

launchI was delighted for part one of this blog post to feature over on Swirl and Thread as an #IrishWritersWed guest post; it was originally meant to be a single post but I got a bit (!) carried away and there was so much info, I had to split it into two parts.

So, here’s the second instalment; five more of the questions I’m asked most frequently via events/emails/chats answered…

6)    How do you stay motivated?

Change. Play. Experimentation. Collaboration. Travel – these are all elements that keep me motivated and returning to my desk. I have a low attention span and get bored really easy, so I have to trick myself into doing more by shifting between projects. I’m an avid walker and counteract the long hours of sitting with a minimum of three hours walking a day. It clears the mind and keeps you healthy and pain free (think neck pain, back pain, RSI – common writer issues).

I also have multiple projects on the go at once so if one isn’t working or if it feels too intense, I can switch rather than stop. For instance, at the minute I have two novels in progress (one for children and on its second draft, one for adults and mostly on its third draft, but the end third not yet written). I also have three essays and four short stories. I bring one novel to the end of a draft and then set it aside and start on the other – and on off days in-between or when I finish up my daily goals earier than expected, I work on one of the shorter projects. I also have three different colaborations on the go – one with another writer, one with a collagist, and one with an embroider. They might not lead to anything but they’re fun – and that’s important.

IMG_43397)    When did you start writing?

Like reading, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. I used to fill copybooks with long, sprawling epics – all based on my love of myth and fairytale so they were always pretty dark and violent and everyone died at the end. I also used to tell myself stpries at night before I fell asleep – then the next night I’d recap and continue on. I guess that was my first atempt at creating a novel, in a way. I just didn’t write it down.

I had a couple of poems published in my teenage years and then I forgot all about writing because I had studies and student loans to pay and jobs to seek. Then I wanted to travel and work was the best way. I’d grown up poor and I always knew education and hard work were your ticket out of anything; writing seemed too fanciful an option. I’ve been independent my whole life, so I didn’t even consider it as a possibiity. I’d never met an author – surely, they lived in castles? But I never stopped reading.

I returned to writing in my late twenties and dabbled with poems and short fiction for a while. They improved, they got published, and I grew hungry. It wasn’t until I moved to Ireland, met a community of real life writers and emerging writers and wannabe writers that I realised this was something I could actually do. For real. Thankfully, all the hard work in the past gave me the tools I needed to be able to make changes in my life so I could focus on my writing more.

8)    What’s the best thing that’s happened so far in your writing career?

Being chosen as the 2016 Dublin UNESCO Citywide Read was special because lots of people received my book and there was a big buzz around reading for pleasure. Displays, artwork, reviews, alternative cover designs; it was amazing! Someone even made a clay rose, and I was gifted a crochet rat! There was a full window in Hodges Figgis and there was even a The Book of Learning house recreated in Merrion Square with actors, magicians and real rats to pet. It was the stuff of dreams.

But another truly amazing element has been the friends I’ve made. I’ve really found my tribe within the writing community and across all genres and age groups. It’s so supportive, and it’s wonderful to be able to belong, yet have complete freedom and solitude (as a writer requires) when you need it.

IMG_45079)    If you weren’t a writer what you like to be?

I love travel so I’d love to be an explorer. I imagine myself living with tribes in trees in jungles or finding new land in the Antarctic. In truth, I’d get eaten alive by midges in the first scenario, and I hate the cold, so it’s never going to happen, but I can dream! (Or I can write about it).

10) What’s your top tip for aspiring writers?

Stop procrastinating, give yourself the permission to write. Do it now and don’t give up. Don’t wait for the perfect time (it doesn’t exist), the perfect room or the perfect pen; these are just excuses. Just get on with it, read lots, practice and enjoy what you do. There is no point in writing without joy – and there will be challenges along the way but, like anything, overcoming them will feel fantastic. And remember, finding a good idea is nothing like writing an actual book, and the quicker you discover that and see how far you have to go, how much you have to learn, the better.

Happy writing and good luck everyone! 

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Staying Motivated: Writing Across Genres

IMG_4339I’ve always hated labels and I’ve always loved variety; moments in time, new experiences, the unexpected – that’s what makes me tick. Routine makes me feel like I’m trapped in a bog, struggling my way out. It doesn’t work for everyone, but change makes my soul soar.

And that’s why I write like I read – across a variety of age groups and genres, styles and lengths. Although I’ve been coined a children’s author (which, of course, I am!), it is actually only one part of what I do. I also write essays, short stories, story for radio and flash fiction – for both children and adults. Typically, however, when you write a work of longer fiction, i.e. a novel, the other stuff seems to pale in comparison. But if I had to label myself as something, then I think I’d identify with plain old ‘writer’.

BookofRevengecoverDon’t get me wrong; this is not in any way to belittle the fact that I write for children. Ask any children’s writer and they’ll tell you all about the time(s) they were asked the question – when are you going to write a proper book? It’s so common, the wonderful champion of children’s books and authors, Sarah Webb (who writes novels for both children and adults), even created an event for aspiring children’s writers with this as the very title.

So let me start by clarifying: children’s books are proper books, and for anyone rolling their eyes, answer this… How many people come to reading for pleasure as an adult? Not many. Children’s books are at the very core of reading and readers, whatever age you may be, and I cannot stress enough how important they are. How much I love writing them and proud I am to be part of that community. How much it makes my soul soar to be in front of a room of children enthusing over books.

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However, I also love writing other things. Lots of other things. Why? Because I enjoy the challenge. And also, projects and ideas come to me in different forms. Sometimes an idea might require a poem, other times the story might need flash fiction, and other times only an essay can shape the words I want to say. Some of these things will be published and some will not. But that doesn’t remove from the joy – writers write. That’s what we do.

And I’m certainly not alone. Some of the writers that I adore and admire that write across several age groups and/or genres include Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Nuala O’Connor, Roald Dahl Emma Donoghue, E.B White, Stephen King, Zadie Smith and Joyce Carol Oates.

So why do some writers feel the need to keep switching? I can’t speak for any of these prolific and talented writers, but I am pretty confident that every piece they write comes from the heart. You only need to focus on the quality to realise how much each publication meant to them. And remember, for every piece we see, there’ll be reams of stuff hidden in drawers, discarded, that didn’t quite make the grade.

Like I said, writers write. That’s what we do.

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For me, writing a book takes a long time and I have limited capacity for intense focus on a single work in progress – about four hours per day maximum. I find that writing shorter pieces alongside the novels helps to keep me motivated. Instead of taking a break when my concentration on a single piece is up, I switch to something else to keep those writing muscles in full flow. To give you an idea of what I’ve been up to, in the last six months, I’ve had the following published:

There are a few more awaiting decisions, a few more binned for now, and more on their way, all at different stages, edging forward like racehorses until one needs to push ahead to the finish line.

arlenI don’t know why a piece nags at me, demanding to be written, and in a certain way. It’s all about the story is all I can really tell you. But I do know that each piece requires focus, time and dedication, and each carries a little of my soul.

Sometimes a short story can take as long as a novel, if not longer, as I often require more time between edits. I also know that every piece comes with its own challenges and frustrations and sense of achievement as the final words/edits fall into place. Each provides me, in its own (sometimes cruel or meandering) way, with joy.

 And so, if you’re finding it difficult to motivate yourself, or you’ve fallen out of love with your current work in progress (it happens), or you feel like you’re banging your head off a brick wall (that frequently happens), then have you considered writing something fresh and new, in a different genre or style or for a different audience?

It might not work but what have you got to lose? I’d love to know how you get on. 

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? 

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)