Celebrating the little things…

imageI’m back from a marvellous visit to Galway to take part in a fantastic project called Read My World, celebrating diversity and difference through books, and I’m on a high. However, I’m always ranting about balance and so to make sure I haven’t been enjoying myself too much in the presence of lots of eager readers/ writers/ librarians/ teachers, all full of ideas and empathy and fun, I’ve returned home sick for the first time in years.

There, I’ve said it – even admitting it makes me flinch. I don’t do sick and I’m not a good patient. Also, my boss is not a good boss in this situation either. (The boss is me). And so, I’m ignoring my defunct lungs and hacking cough and temperature and instead, I’m going to celebrate.

We rarely give shout outs to the small things, the special things, the stuff that’s making us tick on a day to day basis, instead reaching for the grand or unusual or extraordinary. (Well, that’s me, anyway). And so, here are some things I’m feeling inspired by (I’m hoping you’ll share some of your own after reading – let’s celebrate the unsung heroes/small marvels of our own little worlds)…

Birdsong. I’m hearing the birds singing a little earlier and a little later each day, it’s a melody I never tire of and it brightens any day.

IMG_8259Books. It seems no matter how much I age, no matter what’s going on, books will always be my saving grace. And after being in front of hundreds of avid young readers, I always feel my appreciation of this fact rekindled and extra fired up. My current reads are Tara Westover’s Educated – an incredible, incredible book that I can’t put down – and Muhammad Khan’s kick the Moon, which is some perfect YA that nails London teen life.

Daffodils. They’re sprouting everywhere in West Cork right now, making outside so cheery.

Friends. This week, friends have sent me the perfect podcast (thanks Jackie!), the perfect poems (thanks Clare! thanks Nicola!), surprise cards (thanks Darragh!), wise words and warm virtual hugs. So precious, each and every one.

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Frogspawn. I love seeing this stuff appear – it signifies life and vitality and positive expectations, the coming of even more light. (Though it does also mean I’ll soon be on the lookout to rescue young froglings from my super-hunter cats.)

Librarians. These people create spaces where worlds can open up to anyone – for free. They have such passion and energy for books and people, they create community hubs where people can learn and make friends and they make the world magic.

Post. For every packet, postcard, letter, certificate, and cheque ever sent/delivered, thank you. It shines a light on the day, always.

Seaweed. I love eating it, foraging for it, preparing it, bathing in it – everything about this wonderful sea veg makes me happy. I can’t get enough.

Steroids. I can breathe again – I’m really rather grateful.

Trains. I love you for your trolley service, your nice ticket collectors, your toilets, your wifi and plug sockets that enable me to complete work on the go so I can take time off when I finally reach home.

VeryFit watch. Anything that allows me to leave my phone at home so I can zone out wins my vote. (Nope, no messages, no notifications, nothing. Just me and the countryside.)

And so – what’s keeping you buoyant right now? What small joys would you like to celebrate?

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Balance, Creative Egos, & Your Greatest Commodity

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Shot taken: West Cork

So, how’s your January going? Living in the countryside, I can already feel the stretch in the evenings (living without streetlights nearby, this is a big thing for me every winter!) but let’s not forget that it is still the winter season, that the weather can still be cruel, and we can still feel isolated in many ways.

Creative people often enjoy time on their own, but we can also tend towards being insular a little too easily. I’m currently battling tonsillitis and asthma problems, so I’m feeling a bit trapped as I turn down a few social engagements, but it’s more of an annoyance than anything else and it’s also a reminder to make sure I look after myself, as well as those I care about. After all, if we’re not in good health/state of mind, how can we be properly there for others?

I’ve always believed in approaching life wholeheartedly. I eat dinner at the table, no TV, even if I’m alone. I want to taste those flavours, enjoy the smells, know when I’ve had enough. If I’m doing events, I’m fully prepared with extras up the sleeve just in case and timings practised so I can be flexible as needed. If I’m writing, the internet is off; if I’m with friends, my phone is away. I find compartmentalising like this enables me to work smarter, have more fun, and get more done. Yet, finding balance remains an eternal conflict.

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Some amazing young folk I had the pleasure of workshopping with were published in this journal (#READON initiative)

The balance of writing vs work, alone time vs socialising, exercise vs downtime, business vs play; it’s a never-ending, winding path that I’ve never quite managed to master. Perhaps despising routine (and therefore not adhering to one) adds an extra layer of trouble, but it seems to me that everyone I speak to that’s writing has this same issue. How about you?

How do you get more balance between what needs doing, what you want to do, and what you need to do to maintain a happy, healthy, creative life?

I live far away from most of my closest friends so I’m trying to quell some of the solitude. Some of the things I’ve added into my schedule this year include: co-writing a short story (via email), squash with a friend (locally), bodhran (learning new skills alone via internet, practicing with husband), co-writing a novel (via email/occasional meetups), Borrowbox for audio books (extra reading while chopping wood/cooking etc) and a FaceTime book club (reading essays). Small things, simple things, but all effective.

Is there something simple you could add to your day/month to bring more joy and help relieve some of the stress or loneliness or increase motivation?

I’m always evaluating and reflecting upon my time, upon projects completed, opportunities undertaken, and the one thing that’s clear to me is that the ultimate thing of importance is yourself and those you surround yourself with: loved one, friends, colleagues, family, even acquaintances. The people that help you navigate your day, your creativity, your life, are your most valuable commodity and they need to be treasured.

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Not human, but probably doesn’t get jealous either (shot taken: Dublin)

Of course, we’re all human and have our limitations, but I feel lucky that the writing community is so supportive and friendly. And yet, the creative world is also littered with ego and from time to time, issues arise – if you let them. The issue I see most commonly is jealousy – but it’s the one I understand the least. Everyone’s just trying to create their own opportunities, their own way of life, their own slice of the artistic pie that enables them to earn a crust and keep creating.

Why not feel inspired by/delighted for people when good things happen and mean it? There may have been an element of luck involved for someone to land a certain prize/accolade/review/book deal, but trust me, behind every success there are hours of working and trying and failing and picking up the pieces and trying again. And it should be applauded, without taint.

If we could all work on bolstering each other even a little bit more each day, imagine the possibilities.

The #NatureAdvent Project

IMG_7158December means we’ve arrived at the heart of winter. And while many people hide from the elements, the dark is my personal challenge. The nights feel really long in the countryside, and I have to battle every day to stay positive, motivated, and to not feel trapped. And I know I’m not alone.

Many people say ‘But you’re a writer! I thought you’d love long nights!’. Yes, I am, but I also love exercise and in the summer, I regularly take a final walk of the day that’s over an hour long once it’s past 9pm. So, the dark can feel like a physical restraint.

Also, I work best in the morning. My optimum time is between 6am and 11am. I have tried to change my writing habits in the winter to accommodate some writing after dark, but it’s not my best work and never will be. And I truly believe I should always give the best part of my energy to my writing – especially at critical stages.

IMG_7146One of the ways I deal with these long nights is ensuring I get out into the fresh air for at least three hours a day, every day. Of course, there are a few days where this isn’t quite viable – workload, travel, obligations etc – but that’s my standard aim. And I usually succeed. And when I’m away from my desk for three hours, that means there’s three hours-worth of work to catch up on, which I can sit down to as darkness arrives. That tides me over until around 8pm, and takes up a portion of the long night.

Another tactic I employ is taking slower mornings, reading a short story or poem or essay every morning in bed to widen my reading and make the day feel like a treat. Is there anything more luxurious than reading in the morning?

I’m aware it’s all smoke and mirrors, but anything that maintains productivity, and keeps the heart happy, is fine by me. As writers, we often have to cheat ourselves into getting work done. Not because of procrastination (though that may be the case for some) but because writing progress is difficult to measure and these small tricks keep us going at our optimum pace and optimum levels.

IMG_7151Some of my favourite winter reads are nature essays. I spend a lot of time outdoors in the natural world, and I feel really grateful for the landscape around me. It’s not without its challenges, but on the whole, living in rural West Cork is grounding. It is where I breathe best.

I’m also aware that not everyone has access to the countryside or nature. Not everyone appreciates the natural world, but for those of you that do, I’ve given myself a winter project – #NatureAdvent – that will help distract me from the long nights but also, hopefully, bring some freshness to yours.

Every day, starting Dec 1st, I’m going to post a nature essay on my Facebook E.R. Murray author page and twitter, for you to enjoy. It might be personal, topical, or political; it might surprise, conjure up memories or dreams, or it might shock – but each essay will be something I’ve enjoyed that focuses on its themes with the natural world at its heart.

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I hope you enjoy! And if you have any thoughts or comments, or indeed have read anything beautiful that you think I’d enjoy, please do share. #NatureAdvent is a two-way project. After all, this earth is ours to protect and share, and appreciation of its wonders and capabilities is the first step towards empathy, to looking after ourselves and our planet.  

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! 

Playing Catch-Up: events, writer’s block & #amwriting

Unfortunately, I’ve fallen behind with my blog. So huge apologies to you all! It’s not that I’ve forgotten about you or the blog, it’s just that there have been lots of events to attend, proofs to complete, new freelance contracts to sign, 2018 festival pitches and other applications to complete, and new manuscripts to write. It all takes a lot of time, and when time gets tight, I reduce my online presence to keep everything ticking over as it should.

BookofRevengecoverThe good news is: The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 is completed. The proofs are done, gone, (almost) a distant memory. The final book in the Nine Lives Trilogy did not manage to kill me (as I feared it might around February earlier this year) and I’m super excited to see it on the shelves in 2018. The Dublin launch will be February 15th – more details to follow but save the date!

And so, that means I’m now out of contract. It’s simultaneously exciting and nerve wracking – who knows what will happen in the future? But right now, I’m enjoying working on the second drafts of two new manuscripts. No deadlines or pressure, except whatever I impose upon myself. I’m keeping a steady pace – maybe not as fast as I’d like – but I’m making progress and am being kind to myself. After all, four books published in two and a half years is pretty tough going so I think slowing it down now will have a positive impact further down the line.

Around all the proofing and writing, I had a fabulous time last month travelling around Ireland’s libraries for the Children’s Book Festival, meeting lots of young readers and writers. The ideas, the questions – fabulous! Often, I was working alone, but I also did some events with Alan Early and Caroline Busher. I love doing events so much but when you do several a day with lots of travel in-between, it can get tiring. So it’s really lovely to have wonderful friends you can work alongside to keep up the momentum and have a laugh with!

Myself and Caroline debuted our Things That Go Bump in the Night interactive storytelling event at the Glor theatre for Ennis libraries and it went down a storm. We had the best sound and light technician ever (thank you, Ian); it was a lot of work and slightly terrifying, but we had a ball. Now all we need to do is figure out how to take it on the road… any takers?

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After the show was over, I suggested to Caroline that I should be banned from having any more ideas for a while – especially if they’re completely new, a lot of work and take us well out of our comfort zone. And she agreed wholeheartedly. But then, we had some chats over a glass of wine by a fire and candlelight and guess what? Inspiration hit and we had another very exciting idea – it’s not fully formed yet, but it’s going to happen, so watch this space!

Speaking of too many ideas… yesterday, I was honoured to be one of the guest speakers at the fantastic Fiction at the Friary event in Cork city, organised by the impressive duo, Madeleine D’Arcy and Danielle McLaughlin. There was a great and enthusiastic crowd, and one of the questions asked was about writer’s block. Now, I’ve never had writer’s block (yet), I suffer from the opposite: too many ideas, and many of them terrible. So my issue is sifting through the nonsense in search of gems.

But I do find that stopping writing altogether makes it harder to start back up again. Writing is a muscle that needs to be continually flexed, so if you are suffering from writer’s block, I suggest writing something new. A short story or poem or piece of flash fiction perhaps. Step away from the current WIP and try to play. Let it be terrible or without purpose. Alternatively, take a long walk and record any thoughts/ideas on your mobile phone, then go home and type them up.

If all else fails, distract yourself with something completely unrelated, then trick yourself back to the desk to write something about whatever it was you chose to do. Break the habit of focusing on not writing and find yourself writing again.

Get moving. Writing anything. Gain momentum. Then write more. 

And now, it’s time for me sign off – I have to pack because I’m off to the Irish Book Awards tomorrow. I didn’t have a book out this year so I’m not nominated, but I’m delighted to have lots of friends shortlisted – I’ll be cheering loudly for them all – and I’m really looking forward to catching up with lots of friends.

Until next time… happy reading, happy writing x 

 

Writing Seascapes: The Book of Shadows

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My local pier

The sea is one of my favourite things. I find it intriguing, enchanting and at times, frightening. The sea is beautiful yet unpredictable. It whispers and calls, lulls and calms, and yet, it can be ferocious and murderous too. Did you know that seawater covers around 71% of the earth’s surface? That’s a lot of water to marvel at!

Despite its size, the sea is not a vast watery nothingness like many people believe; there are islands and reefs and ravines, and so much is hidden from view. The tides are in constant flux and below the waves, the sea is teeming with life. A wild and unruly beast, it is this incredible mix of qualities that made seascapes a prominent feature in my latest book, The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2.

I live on the Atlantic coast in Southwest Ireland and I spend as much time as I can near the sea and on the sea. We have a small punt that we use for catching mackerel and pollock in the summer, and we often see lots of creatures such as jellyfish, dolphins, minke whales, and basking sharks. Then there are the seabirds including manx shearwaters, terns, guillemots, and gannets – so don’t be surprised when you find these creatures woven into my stories!

Even though my Nine Lives Trilogy is a fantasy story, it is important to me that the characters and events are believable. This means that the seascapes and high seas adventures had to be realistic as well as exciting, and so I’ve taken lots of inspiration from my immediate surroundings. There’s nothing better than heading out into open water, all your senses open, not knowing what you’ll encounter or how the journey will impact your story. It’s also fun interrogating fishermen and sailors for details that might add to your tale.

fullsizerender-77Did you realise, for instance, that it is considered unlucky to set sail on a Friday? Or that a tiny spot of rainbow portends rain? Did you know that fishermen prefer to use a clinch knot on their lines? Or that 30 foot long basking sharks might peek inside your boat (the young ones can be quite inquisitive)? Can you tell a schooner from a sloop? Finding out details like this is really fun and even though they’re not the focus of the action, they bring an extra atmospheric element and sense of realism.

Some of the place names in The Book of Shadows are real, while others are complete fiction. Gun Point, for instance, is an actual place, and so is Roaring Water Bay – these are the real names of places where I live (I just shifted them a little, geographically). Gallows Island is based on a mixture of Cape Clear and Long Island (I can see Long Island from my home); I needed to fuse the landscapes, but I also wanted a more sinister name, so I made that up.

History also plays a part, as West Cork was a haven for pirates in the 17thand 18th centuries. It’s a fascinating era, and so part of The Book of Shadows involves some pirate action – and not just regular pirates, but also black-hearted devils made of darkness and shadows. The idea for these creatures came after reading about the real-life ‘Barbary raids’ of 1631, when pirates kidnapped the inhabitants of Baltimore. They represent the darker side of the human psyche.

I hope you enjoy the seascapes and sea life that appears in my stories. And if you have any high seas adventures or facts of your own that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them!

Happy writing x

Please note: this was originally written for Middle Grade Strikes Back as part of my The Book of Shadows blog tour. It’s a great site covering all sorts of topics, including #CoverKidsBooks – go check it out! 

#1stdraftdiary Week 3 (28K to 36.5K)

IMG_5818One of the most amazing things, and something I didn’t expect, is the amount of people joining in with #1stdraftdiary. Although I’ve been finding my own journey this time around to be disjointed and frustrating, I’m loving the response it’s getting from others. From people thanking me for being honest about the process and making them feel better, to lots of writers joining in to kick start their own work or understand their own process, it’s been phenomenal. And so, if you head to #1stdraftdiary on twitter and click on the Live tab, you can see what everyone is up to and offer your support. And if you’re writing a first draft, why not join in? In the meantime, here are my #1stdraftdiary days 15 to 21.

#1stdraftdiary Day 15 (June 25th): although I prefer to write first, it’s not always possible, especially when you have a number of freelance clients waiting for work or a garden that needs rescuing. I manage 2000K words of freelance, some intense weeding of the vegetable patch and herb garden (before everything dies), a dog walk, and some article pitches sent before I can sit down to write. I see it as creating an air of calm for writing; I can’t write when I have lots of things hanging over me. Despite starting late, I get my word count up to 29,400 in a very short space of time and eventually hit the 30K target. Can’t extol the virtues of switching off internet enough! Word count: 30,000

#1stdraftdiary Day 16: I was going to take a day off writing to clear some freelance work but the words are calling. I manage 300 words in a cheeky 20 minute stint and eventually finish the day at 31,500, as well as 2000K words of freelance and two guest blog posts. I set up a corker of an opening for the next morning. But first, I have a birthday party to go to! I’m chuffed that I added 1500 words on a supposed day off; it just goes to show that once you get in the swing working at this pace, it’s hard not to write! Word count: 31,500

#1stdraftdiary Day 17: Day off! I need some creative so I treat the day like a holiday and let it lead me wherever it desires. A meander through film, books, poetry, and countryside lanes with a paddle in the sea. Word count: 31,500

Bookofshadows#1stdraftdiary Day 18: Just half an hour in and I reach 31,900 words, before adding another 700 words in a short space of time. Write when you can! It builds up! Freelance load is heavy today also, so two fast but short dog walks keep me sane. Aiming at 2K words a day, I should be on 36K words and I end up reaching 32,600. BUT: some unexpected final tweaks to The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2 arrive in my inbox – a plethora of small and fiddly details that need immediate attention. Word count: 32,600

(I decide to take a pause until July 3rd because as well as the urgent edits, I have a trip to Dublin for an Arts Council event on making applications in the Irish Writers Centre – it’s a 16 hour round trip & an overnight stay for a 1.5 hour session but MUCH NEEDED!)

#1stdraftdiary Day 19 (July 3rd): I’m back to it this week before another little pause on the horizon. I’ve never written a 1st draft so disjointed before but you have to prioritize. Today: five freelance articles, 2 residency/bursary applications & 2 interviews so it’s late when I get started. I know it’s going to be almost pointless at this level of tiredness but I start at 32,700 and finishing at 33,500. That’s only 800 words but that was all I could manage today. Word count: 33,500

#1stdraftdiary Day 20: – hit the target of 2000 but it feels like filler and not really connected to what the story needs to be. Another cul-de-sac. Word count: 35,500

#1stdraftdiary Day 21: (July 5th) 1000 words. It’s usually frustrating when you don’t get many words done, but today I’m super happy as I actually thought at one point that I’d get zero done! This is the final day before I take another, longer break – I have to go on a visit to the UK to say farewell to my sister who is moving to Australia for good, and I have a massive freelance project I have to finish first otherwise I won’t get paid. When I return I’m interviewing Carol Drinkwater at West Cork Literary Festival the next day, before doing three events of my own, and so the 1st draft will have to wait until it can have the time and respect it deserves. And so, I pause on 36.5K until July 21st. Word count: 36,500

Conclusion: This has been the most disjointed first draft ever – I have never had to stop and start like this before – but when you are juggling, prioritization is necessary and I just have to live with it. Events need just as much preparation and focus, so Im prioritizing chronologically. Am I worried? Unsettled perhaps, but then, isn’t that always the way?

It seems the result is the same – I’m writing myself into a lot of cul-de-sacs so when I step away I can see where I’m not to go. The only difference is, this time, I’m not getting that buzz, that intensity that I love, because of all the gaps. This doesn’t feel great on an emotional level, but the important thing is: it’s moving forward. The process is still working it just feels different. So long as the manuscript is the best that it can be by the time I deliver it on October 31st to my publishers, all is well. By then, these weird feelings will be forgotten about anyway, so time to turn off that inner critic (she’s particularly rampant right now).

I will start again on July 21st with a view to get my draft finished by the end of the month – that gives me exactly 9 days (the right number of days to have completed this draft in my usual 30 day timeframe) to write 20-24K words (it will come to a natural halt – or at least, it usually does). Wish me luck! I’m going to need it. But in the meantime, I’ll be cheering everyone else on with their #1stdraftdiary. Come and join me?