New Writing By E.R. Murray on Tiny Essays

I’m really excited about having this new non-fiction piece: I Think of Grief as a Dying Star published over on Tiny Essays.

Since the site came to my attention (thanks to awesome writerly human, Claire Hennessy) I’ve been really enjoying the bite-sized non-fiction pieces. So much so, that I specifically began this piece with the website in mind, which is something I rarely do.

I Think of Grief as a Dying Star is a mini essay that I wrote (from idea to multiple drafts to finished piece) while on residency at Mauser Eco House in Costa Rica.

I like to try and complete one fresh piece of work while on a residency, that reminds me specifically of that time and space. I’d been itching to write about grief for a while, and there was something about the jungle sounds at night and the wide, dark Costa Rican skies that set this piece in motion.

I hope you like the piece and show Tiny Essays lots of support! And if you want to see more photos of my time at Mauser Eco House, you can check out my Instagram page.

Win a Winter Writing Residency

I’m really excited about this opportunity as I went to Greywood Arts for the first time earlier this year and I’m due to return for another week in December; the space is fantastic (I really loved having a separate writing study), the hosts are helpful and friendly, I got tonnes of work done, and there are fabulous woods to roam, as well as a great pub across the road for a bite to eat or glass of wine to signal the end of your working day. Highly recommend – good luck!

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Greywood Arts is delighted to announce the second annual Winter Writing Residency Award, a competition to win a one-week residency between December 2018 and March 2019.

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Writers of any genre are invited to submit unpublished works. Two authors will be awarded cosy self-catering accommodation and private work space overlooking the Dissour River. At the end of each residency Greywood Arts will host an intimate reading in our library where writers can share their work.

Categories:
1. Prose / Plays
2. Poetry

Prize: One-week residency and reading in the Greywood Arts library.
To be scheduled between December 2018 and March 2019.

Deadline: September 23rd, 2018

Notification: October 15th, 2018

Submission fee: 10€ payable by Paypal

Find out more… https://greywoodarts.org/writingres/

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

Festivals, manuscripts & embracing autumn

I’ve been home since September 1st and Iceland now feels like a lifetime ago. However, my Icelandic residency did exactly what I’d hoped; it gave me time to play around with some new ideas, get some samples of each to my agent, and decide on my next projects. My visit also gave me the chance to write a double spread for the Irish Times on visiting Reykjavik on a budget, which you can read here. 

FullSizeRender (81)I’ve been quiet since getting back as I’ve been working away on these new ideas – the residency has had such a really positive impact. I also spent a wonderful week at the Children’s Books Ireland Conference which is like an early Christmas party for lovers of children’s books; librarians, teachers, booksellers, publishers and authors all come together to celebrate the wonderful world of children’s fiction. It’s such a happy, friendly event and gives a real boost as the seasons change and the nights draw in.

And yes, I did mean ‘projects’; I’m working on two new manuscripts as I find it more interesting and motivating when I’m working on several projects at a time, especially when they’re different. And these projects are extremely different. One novel is the first of a middle grade (potential) series and the other novel is an adult fiction standalone.

I don’t talk about my writing in progress because it kills it dead for me and I rarely know where I’m going in the early stages, so I don’t have anything to say about them except that I’m excited. I’m out of contract now so who knows where they will lead; it’s the beginning of a long journey, but watch this space.

IMG_2825As of Sunday, however, the new manuscripts are on pause until November 1st. There are two reasons behind this; the first is that the proofs for The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 have arrived, and I have to read through very carefully to make sure there are no mistakes because next time I’ll see it, it will be an actual book. This one was the most difficult book to write yet, so I’m feeling really relieved and really happy to see the proofs arrive.

The second reason is that Children’s Book Festival in libraries across the country of Ireland is about to begin. It’s an amazing initiative and I’m thrilled to be taking part again. It’s a real highlight. I’m booked out for the whole month for solo events, joint events with Alan Early and a brand new theatre event with Caroline Busher. I feel really lucky to have these two writers that I really respect as friends and I’m looking forward to spending some time with them, visiting hundreds of children to celebrate stories and creativity.

October is a tiring month and with my freelance commitments, there isn’t much time to write. But it’s such fun and so rewarding, I look forward to it every year. I’ve tried keeping up my writing in previous years and usually end up failing to keep up with my expectations and feeling miserable about it. I’ve decided it’s best to put all my energy into the events. No one wants to be booed off stage by hundreds of children!

timeleapAnother great piece of news is that the Arts Council of Ireland has awarded me a bursary to enable some concentrated writing time. That means I have three months where I can concentrate solely on my books, so I’m going to take some time out over winter – the idea was initially three consecutive months but I’m now thinking three separate months might be best – to really plough into those new books. It’s such an honour to be awarded the bursary, and it really means a lot.

And so, I’m embracing autumn and looking forward to all the fun things in store. There are things already in the pipeline for next year, but I’ll reveal more about those when I know more. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to festival shenanigans, then hunkering down in the West Cork winter, sharing my time between writing and walking (I recently wrote a piece for The Southern Star about the impact of walking on health and creativity you might enjoy), to bring new stories to life.

How’s your own writing/creative project going? And are you enjoying the change in season? What are you looking forward to this winter?

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.

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?