And, we’re back!

For the last six weeks, the only thing I’ve eaten with a fork is some pineapple at breakfast. In Thailand, everything is eaten on a spoon, with the fork used merely for directing the food onto the spoon, ready for consumption. You also don’t mix your food; you have your plate of rice and take a small amount from one of the dishes on offer at a time, only choosing another option once your selection is eaten.

thailand travel tuk tuk

One of the many questionable modes of transport you forget to question after a while…

For the last six weeks, the temperature has stayed around 36 degrees, and even when thunder and lightning suddenly explodes onto the scene, it’s still hot and humid and I’ve been able to sit outside. Storms are beautiful to watch when your teeth aren’t chattering and it’s amazing what you can record when the ink is not running down the page (because you’re swaying in a covered hammock).

For the last six weeks, I’ve only used social media to upload photos on Facebook because our camera broke and my iPhone is nearly out of storage so it was the quickest way to record our holiday and not lose the images. And the only thing I’ve written is (a rather terrible) diary (more like a to-do list than a gripping read) – no short stories, no freelance articles, no novels.

Oh yes… and the dolphins were pink, it was perfectly acceptable to fit three adults and two rucksacks onto a motorbike (powered by a hairdryer motor) and call it a taxi ride, and I discovered that even when you’re surrounded by people who don’t speak the same language, Rod Stewart and Simon & Garfunkel become your best communication tools.

I’m dying to tell you more, but for now, I’m adjusting. I’m trying to fit back into my own life after living in another one for a while.

thailand travel hill tribe

Receiving a buddhist blessing from a hill tribe welcome ceremony (complete with local shaman).

I’ve lived in other countries and have travelled quite a bit (though, may I add, not enough – never enough!), so you’d think I’d be used to this bittersweet tug that I always experience after travel. But, it seems, I’m not – and it never gets easier!

Perhaps it’s my father’s Romany roots, or my love of stories that makes me crave different experiences? I don’t know. But I do know it’s not a bad thing – and I also know that it passes. Fades, is probably a better description. It never really leaves. I think my lovely friend, (and incredible writer) Kirstin Zhang, is the one person I know who would truly understand…

Please note: this is not a complaint. You only have to read my Twitter feed or blog posts to know how much I love this place. It’s great to be home. We’ve had the warmest of welcomes – from our friends, neighbours, the local community, and of course, our cats and Franklyn (who fell over with excitement).

There are some exciting changes and opportunities on the horizon, and stories to be shared about our recent adventure (I’ll blog about Thailand over the next few weeks). But, one step at a time…

For now, I’d simply like to say hello, I’m back… And how are you?

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St John’s Eve

Although this is not about writing, it is about one of the things that is (almost) as dear to me and certainly takes up an (almost) equal amount of time during the summer months…

irish traditional farming

And so the fire was lit…

Yesterday was St John’s Eve, the evening before the feast day of St John and an important night in the calendar of any Irish gardener who has planted spuds!

It’s the Irish bonfire night, when fires are lit to bless the crops. The ritual is traditionally performed at sundown – only we weren’t available that late so we lit the fires a bit early. And then for the best bit; we dug up our first stalk of potatoes in 2014.

Despite our hastiness, I’m pleased to report there was no negative impact on the flavour. However, I’m sorry to report that there aren’t any photos of the cooked product as they mysteriously disappeared before the camera arrived! (*Cough*).

Apparently, summer bathing used to commence after this ritual, and it was believed that taking part in the fire burning eliminated all risk of drowning. You can read more about the custom here.

I used to live in Andalucia and – after several years of completing this Irish ritual – I have only just realised that this rural tradition coincides with the wonderful Noche de San Juan Batista.

A celebration held on the beach, Noche de San Juan Batista also centres around bonfires; in this instance, to cleanse and purify, with people leaping over fires to burn their troubles away then running into the sea for good luck. I loved this night, when smoke would permeate the air and hundreds of bonfires would line the nighttime horizon.

I wonder – did any of you observe either of these old rituals last night? I’d love to think we were all lighting fires, keeping tradition alive.

Irish traditions

The pike was then used to unearth the first stalk, breath held.

traditional farming, west cork

Time to carry the loot from the earth to the pot (in your T-Shirt, of course)!

 

 

Pressing pause

west cork scenery

Days like this have to be taken advantage of

This is a kind of ‘hello everyone, I am still here’ post and an apology at the same time. May has proved to be a very busy month so far and I’m only just getting round to adding a post. I know, I know… but sometimes the blog just has to wait. The balance has tipped. I had to press pause.

I often speak to writers about trying to balance their writing with work and every day life. As we all know, modern life is busy. If we do manage to get a gap in our schedule, we fill it so it’s… well, busier still. And if you write, you can always improve something/start another project/tie up some loose ends, so you’ll always need more time. But that (I’ve learned) doesn’t mean you have to be writing constantly.

There’s a difference between dedication and obsession – just like there’s a difference between working at an optimum level and battling through just because you feel you should. Sometimes a challenge is good and you have to battle; I’m currently rewriting my YA book from third to first person which I find very challenging. It’s necessary for the book but not my natural way to write. But sometimes you have to learn to press pause.

This year, I’m trying really hard to fight the urge to constantly write or work. I’m awarding myself one day off a week from everything that involves the written word. No social media. no articles, no writing. The computer stays firmly shut.

This is an attempt at maintaining sanity. To allow my brain to unwind. To be rested enough to write at an optimum level the other six days of the week. I failed the first few weeks and did some sneaky (about four hours each day) editing on the day off, but guess what? By Wednesday night, I was starting to run on adrenaline alone. By Saturday, I was shattered.

How can you resist? A bit of this means more smiles all round.

How can you resist? A bit of this means more smiles all round.

I think it’s a legacy of my childhood, this need to always be achieving, to always be moving forward. I believed that enough fight and enough hard work would open up doors. That they’d provide me with opportunities I was told would never be possible. I was right. The hard work paid off. Only I never quite managed to figure out how to put on the brakes.

Strangely enough, writing has taught me a lot about the need for pause and reflection. Not in a navel-gazing kind of way, or a waiting for inspiration to hit kind of way. As far as I’m concerned, that’s complete nonsense. But writing has shown me that – very frustratingly – there some things are, and always will be, out of your control. That hard work will get you so far, but you need your health and wellbeing too. That you’re far better off working shorter bursts at an optimum level than always fighting.

When I first left my job to focus on my writing, I was arrogant and impatient and pushy. All the time pushing; to beat deadlines in record time, to write for longer and faster than the day before, to produce as many finished pieces as I could. I turned down social engagements, days out, nights out (especially these – I mean, I had to be up at six to write the next five thousand words). I missed out on some interesting opportunities because my writing had to come first. I ended up feeling lonely, isolated and somewhat bug-eyed by it all.

west cork writer

Tools of the trade – should have some great fresh eats by the end of it all

And so slowly I have learned – I need time off.

This month, Sundays have been my only spare days for blog writing and so – apologies, but I chose to press pause.

Instead, I’ve been getting the garden in order, planting and nurturing potatoes, tomatoes, beans, sweet pea, chillies (I didn’t nurture them very well – they died), pak choi, lettuce etc.

I’ve helped fix up and paint the boat and get it back in the water. We used it to go watch a basking shark last week and last Thursday, I ate my first fresh-caught mackerel of 2014 for breakfast.

I’ve been taking walks and visiting the local Sunday market and reading lots of great books or watching great documentaries. And I’ve been going to sleep early, without my characters yapping on at me or images of the computer screen floating in my head.

west cork writer

Gotta love the sea dog (not so much the barking at seagulls or fish we’ve caught, but hey, can’t have everything!)

Has my writing suffered? No. I’m still on schedule. I’ve completed one big project. I’m almost finished another, And I’ve a few dalliances in-between that may, or may not, come to something fruitful. We shall see.

So if you’re feeling stung out or stressed out or even slightly overwhelmed, here’s my suggestion: have a look at how much you’re doing, compare it with what you think you should be doing and then figure out how much you realistically can manage, without tearing your hair out or losing it over the slightest irritation.

Find a spot to press pause. And do. It might not be easy at first, but I think you’ll feel the benefits over time. I’d love to know how you get on – and what wonderful things you get up to. You never know, there could be a story lurking there…

WIPs & the Writing Process: A Blog Tour Q&A

Thanks to the lovely, supportive and talented SJ O’Hart, today’s blog post is a little different (for me, at least) as it’s part of a writer’s Q&A blog tour. The idea is simple: you answer three questions about your writing/writing process, then ask the same of another writer you’d like the world to know a little more about. So, here goes…

What am I working on?

writers retreat west cork

I find a change of surroundings useful. This window is known as ‘Elizabeth’s Office’ in Grove House

I work on several pieces at a time, switching between projects when I need distance, so my current projects are:

The first draft of an apocalyptic adult novel, currently at 20K words, progressing at a speed of around 1-2K per day. I usually write a first draft in 30 days. I’m giving myself 60 days for this one because I’m also looking at…

An experimental rewrite of my completed Young Adult novel, switching from third to first person. Although the book is polished to submission standard, I’m checking whether the story would be more engaging told in first person. My instinct is telling me yes. Why did it not tell me before? I don’t know. That’s just part of the process. This would be a huge rewrite, so I’m taking my time with this one. I have the first 5 chapters & prologue rewritten – I’m letting it sit for a while before comparing the two versions one last time.

A poem for submission to Furies (in aid of Rape Crisis): I write very little poetry and this poem has been milling around for quite some time, so I’m hoping that I can improve upon it enough to submit to this worthy cause. At the moment, it’s proving rather challenging and not at all what I want it to be. I have one month to kick it into shape. And although it is a poem of less than forty lines, I’m definitely going to need it.

I’m also working on several short stories, varying in length from 1000 words to 5000 words; I have all my 2014 submission deadlines organised in my diary and I switch between the stories (once the day’s novel writing is completed) with one eye on the deadlines. The way I work is to take a story as far as I naturally can – e.g. write a first draft (sometimes this can be as short as a paragraph) then set it aside for another day, switch to a final edit of another story then set it aside for a final read through before submitting, then redraft another story to move it forward a little, before setting aside.

I make sure I have at least five stories on the go at all times as I’m never sure where they will lead. Sometimes they don’t work at all. I can usually tell a flash fiction piece or a much longer story when I begin writing it, but I let the stories develop naturally and don’t limit myself with word counts. I find word counts for competitions useful and they can really help you to tighten your work, but I’ll never crop a story to its detriment just to make it fit a deadline. Having several stories available, I feel I have more freedom and more control.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

This is a really tricky one to answer because originality comes down to voice, and that’s probably one of the hardest areas to try and discuss or explain. It’s also difficult to see/say what makes your writing differ; I think the reader is the one that makes that decision. The way I see it, your job is to create something that moves a reader in some way.

Whenever you write, whatever you write, you’re writing the kind of book/story/poem you want to read. You’re initially looking at a germ of an idea – a feeling perhaps that you want to convey, a character that’s bugging you, or a situation that grabs you and won’t go away – and then you’re led by the characters and how they act and react to the challenges that arise, often being surprised yourself by the turn of events. And all the time, you’re using what you know about human nature and the world around you to convey the story in a way that makes it convincing. Hopefully you combine these elements skillfully enough to create something that grabs a reader, keeps them with you to the end and affects them in some way that makes the story resonate.

green fingered writer

My trusty running partner

I’m not sure I’ve answered the question thoroughly, but like I say, this is a tricky one.

How does my writing process work?

I’ve realized that I have two distinctly different working patterns during summer and winter. I’ve been teasing these out over the last three years since I moved to a rural part of Ireland, and have finally found patterns that work – which isn’t easy because I despise any form of routine.

In summer, the days are extremely long and bright and so I wake up naturally early (around 6am) and do about 2 hours of writing before the rest of the world wakes up. I focus on the main WIP as I find my concentration is at its best and this really sets me up for the day. Then I usually fit in another 4 to 6 hours in short bursts (2 hours seems to be my natural concentration level) around my social media business, running, exercising the dog, fishing and the vegetable garden. I also work three days a week in a bookshop, so on these days, I start the morning with some free flow writing (sometimes called ‘morning pages’) to generate more short story ideas and then I go for a run with the dog in tow. I don’t write after work as I find the quality isn’t good enough, though I do have to keep reminding myself of this. Overall, this setup keeps the WIP fresh, the ideas coming & the days varied.

In winter, it’s a different story. I wake later, around 8am, and I find it takes longer for my brain to wake up, so I take a walk or run, take time over breakfast, and get the chores done like cutting/gathering wood, seeing to the animals, answering emails and bailing water from the boat. Then I settle down to a 2-3 hour stint of writing, before heading out for more fresh air. I’ll do another 3-4 hours in the evening, with the fire & candles lit. My writing is slower and calmer, like my energy. I get some really intense writing done in the winter and it’s the perfect time for me to write first drafts.

winter walks in west cork

Things get a bit soggy out here – just 5 minutes into my walk.

Living rurally, you’re really exposed to the elements. There’s no hiding in theatres or gyms, no shelter from buildings or distractions such as art galleries or shopping. The second you step outdoors, you’re cold/wet/wind blown/all of the latter. I find the lack of light really difficult in winter, so I need to spend every opportunity that I can outdoors. I walk and run in all weather, but if there are really bad days (like the gales/storms we’ve seen this winter) I find my concentration (& writing) suffers.

*

I’m delighted to be passing these questions on to Irish writer, Lia Mills, who is due to have her fourth book released later this year.

And finally – a big thank you, S J O’Hart, for giving me the opportunity to answer these questions. I hope this has been of interest to some of you, and I’d love to hear whether your writing day is similar or completely, utterly different. It’s always good to take a step back and think about your own story, not just those you’re creating on the page.

Autumn dreams

autumn in ireland

This burgundy hue is one of my favourite colours and signifies autumn. Still trying to find out what the plant is called – any ideas?

Autumn is a beautiful time of year and like spring, it feels so full of possibilities. The shorter days tell our subconscious and our conscience that it’s OK for us to come in out of the cold and read a bit more book, spend extra time cooking wholesome meals, or meet and chat with friends.

Animals prepare to hibernate at this time of year and without even realising, we do the same. Especially rurally, as you’re more affected by natural light and the weather (there are no streetlights between my home and the village just over two miles away – so drinks out or visits to friends means visi-vests, torches, wellies and waterproof clothing. In other words, careful planning!).

I see autumn as a gift. It’s a time when we adjust our routines, attitudes and outlooks – and usually this means we remember to dream big. Every autumn, I write the first draft on a new novel, not knowing much about it but full of the excitement of where it may lead.

What will you be dreaming of this autumn as you let yourself wind down? And how will the season help make it happen?

Writers write, don’t they?

seagulls and fishing

I took this action shot out fishing a couple of weeks ago. I get a real kick out of watching them feed as we gut the day’s catch and share our feed with some feathered friends

To be a writer you have to write, that is true, but I believe that you also have to live life to the fullest to be able to write well. That means looking after your health and mental health, stimulating your curiosity and experiencing new things. You also have to make sure you have enough time out to let the ideas, characters and stories in your brain settle. Like Helen Moorhouse wrote recently, perhaps you don’t need to be writing to write!

This is a concept that I’ve struggled to come to terms with. When I gave up my city job to pursue a writing career a couple of years ago, I thought I had to sit at my desk for eight hours every day, slogging away no matter what the outcome. True, some writers do work like this, but for me, it’s not productive.

It’s taken some time to figure out and lots of jiggling and reworking of schedules, but I’ve found that after a certain amount of time, my writing suffers and my ideas channel themselves down one dull, lonely path.

Like Niamh Boyce and many others, I’m an intuitive writer, so I write a ‘draft zero’ without any planning and see where the characters and story lead me. I often have a name or a feeling, a sense of what a character is experiencing in my mind, but other than that, it’s a free for all. And sitting there for eight hours in a day does not work if you write this way.

Sometimes I get a powerful writing bug and my bum-glue seems more adhesive than usual – I can certainly edit/redraft for long periods of time –  but when I’m starting a new project, I tend to write in bursts. An hour here, half hour there, two hours later. I split the writing up over the day (especially in winter when the nights are long) and let my brain unwind and tick over in between.

autumn in ireland

Sometimes I’ll be helping with hay bales, sometimes I’ll be taking walks and admiring the newly cut silage or painting big X’s on the wrapper to deter the crows.

I take walks, swim, garden, cook, read, watch films and documentaries, I go fishing or meet up with friends for tea, then start all over again. This means that each time I sit down, my brain is recharged, my body energised and it’s like I’m writing for the first time that day.

I do work as well – part time in a bookshop and part time with my own social media business – and these provide a good distraction, balancing out the hours spent alone at a computer. Work makes me appreciate all the free time I have to write, but I still dream of the day when I can just write.

I attempt to take days off from both writing and work to fully recharge, but I find this extremely difficult to do and if I don’t elope from the village for the day then I’ll find myself doing one or the other (usually both).

So what’s this post all about? I guess it’s two things. Firstly – it’s OK not to be writing sometimes and secondly – we all have to find a way to write that works for us.

I’m always interested in the writing process and how other writers handle their work/life balance, how they keep motivated and get the best possible results. Does any of the above sound familiar to you or do you work completely differently? Are you an eight hours a day person or a short bursts devotee? I’d love to hear all about it.

Coastal Treasure

One of the beauties of living near the sea is being able to go fishing. And, of course, exploring. Although the nearby rock pools don’t hold much more than sea urchins and winkles when the tide goes out, I’m lucky enough to have some shrimp pots at my disposal and these are wonderful for investigating the creatures that live around the shoreline.

We do use the pots for catching shrimp – they usually yield enough for one meal for two per haul – but sometimes the weather can be too erratic or else we’re too busy to get out with the tides and we don’t get to collect the pots for a week or more. This is usually bad for two reasons: 1) the pots get damaged due to stormy weather or 2) the pots get damaged due to crabs trying to snip their way in (or their way out).

Yesterday, we hauled the shrimp pots after a three week stint in the sea. We let any shrimp go and instead, recorded our findings – our coastal treasures! Here’s what we accidentally collected…

irish rock pools

This eel-like butterfish like muddy shores and is a staple food for the black cormorant, a frequent sight along the Irish coast.

Irish Common Blenny

The Common Blenny has little buggy eyes and a lovely greenish hue that makes it easy for hiding in seaweed. You might find him in rock pools.

Brittlestar, irish coast

This is the first Common Brittle-star I’ve ever seen, even though they’re meant to be widespread. It took a bit of patience for it to open all its legs after handling, but it was worth the wait!

Irish coastal crabs

A master of disguise, the spider crab is often overlooked but I think he’s a handsome chap!

water millipede, ireland

I thought this looked more like a flat-backed millipede but they only live on land. A ragworm is the closest I can get to this creature of many legs! Surprisingly slow moving.

swimming crabs, ireland

The Velvet Swimming Crab lives up to his name & is amazing to watch in the water. I love the shape and designs on his back legs – aren’t they gorgeous?

weird sea creatures ireland

No idea what this is – still trying to figure it out. When you try and remove it, it spits water at you. Answers in the comments section please!

Edible crab, ireland

This edible brown crab was a gift from a local fisherman and I’m sorry to say, yes, he did go in the pot – but he was delicious.

fishing injury, ireland

But just in case you think it’s all fun and games, you do have to be careful. This was caused by a damaged shrimp pot. It caught me in several places as I pulled it in. Still, it was worth it for the investigations!