To be happy, look up!

West Cork sunsets, ireland

Glorious West Cork sunset taken from our front door

While walking around the local village, I’ve noticed a huge amount of people looking to the ground as they’re walking.

I’m not sure whether it’s shyness, sadness, confidence or an overloaded mind, but seeing as we live in such an idyllic spot, it’s certainly made me think. Why are people looking down instead of up? Is it a habit, an unconscious act or a lifestyle choice?

If people are always looking down, thinking inwardly, is it impacting their life in a negative way?

(Take a look at the photos on this page to see what people have been missing – they’re all natural, no filters).

Irish sunsets, West Cork

Another intriguing cloudscape

Another thing I’ve noticed is that people regularly walk while texting/tweeting/playing games on their mobile phone. Although we all multi task and have other concerns on our mind, I wonder – is this really necessary?

As you all know, I love the outdoors and spend plenty of time gardening, walking, running and cycling (with rowing recently added to the list). Part of the reason I moved to this gorgeous part of the world was to enjoy the beauty nature has to offer. And I honestly believe that part of the reason I’m so happy is because I connect with nature throughout the day, every day.

Irish sunsets, Irish skies

Moody, but such incredible beauty

Remember that feeling of joy as a kid when jumping in puddles, playing in mud, building sandcastles, picking wild flowers or collecting skeleton leaves?

Even living in an inner city suburb or council estate (like I did), these things were attractive, sought out and enjoyed.

If you find yourself asking the question, where did those days go? – guess what? They’re still here. That feeling doesn’t have to change. Go play!

And no matter how busy you are or how heavy your heart, please remember – to be happy, look up.

The Next Big Thing – Tag! You’re it!

Giant Australian leaf

It’s all about the right conditions

I’ve watched this game of writer’s tag with interest, enjoying its supportive spirit and collaborative camaraderie. I’ve really enjoyed learning about other writers – some familiar, some not so familiar – and following the meandering path to a host of new reads. However, I didn’t expect to be included in the game. I was happy to remain a spectator, cheerleading from the sidelines, but I was delighted when Bernie McGill hollered over the vegetable patch and asked me to contribute.

Bernie McGill (@BernieMcGill) is a short story writer (a collection is forthcoming in 2013 from Whittrick Press) and author of The Butterfly Cabinet. She was the winner in 2008 of the Zoetrope:All-Story Contest in the US and her short fiction has been shortlisted for numerous prizes including the Bridport, the Fish, the Asham, the Michael McLaverty and the Seán O’Faóláin short story awards.

I’ve just delivered my next novel to my agent Sallyanne Sweeney, but, like many writers, I’m a bit superstitious about revealing too much about that particular project until it’s found a home. So I’m going to talk about my experimental short fiction sideline, which may or may not be a success. All will be revealed…

1) What is the working title of your next book?

The short fiction I’m currently writing is intended for competition and journal submissions, but I’m experimenting with interlinking plot and characters with the intention of turning them into a novel. At the moment, there are two working titles – The Book of Us (taken from a poem recently published in Southword journal) and Dinosaur Stones. If anyone has an opinion on which they’d be more likely to pick up and read, I’d love to hear why!

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

I believe that variety is important when you’re writing. Although I mainly write novels for a younger audience, I like to challenge myself with adult short stories and flash fiction at the same time. Engaging in such a different discipline helps keep the ideas flowing and, more importantly, allows me to play.

The idea of constructing a novel from linked short stories – with each chapter a stand alone tale, written from a different character’s viewpoint, but ultimately inextricable from the bigger picture – has always appealed to me. I love patterns. I love puzzles. And I enjoy the extra dimension these elements give to my writing.

This is something completely new for me and I’m treating it like a scientific experiment. I usually write books I know I can definitely write, and so this is a self-induced challenge. It’s a sideline; the chance to fail spectacularly. And something about that really excites me.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

At the moment, short fiction – it’s a mix of short stories up to 3000 words and flash fiction, as short as 500 words. But if the idea of turning it into a novel works, then I’d say literary fiction.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

One of my stories would really benefit from Jack Nicholson playing the main character – a jaded, indecisive widower with a dark future ahead of him. And in another, I’d love Paul Dano to play the disaffected, displaced youth – he conveys anger and torment so convincingly.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Always a difficult one but something like this perhaps…”A darkly humourous yet revealing tale examining the intricacies, depth and contradictions of human relationships.” Maybe that sounds more like a review?

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My aim is to submit the stories separately to competitions and journals, with a view to presenting the evolved, novel version to a publisher in the future. If the novel idea does not work – as I say, this is completely experimental and may not work at all – then I might present the stories as a collection. But as we all know, the short story does not receive quite as much attention as it deserves. Thank goodness for entities such as the Cork International Short Story Festival and The Short Review.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The first draft is a work in progress because it’s a sideline, written in tandem with my main projects. I’m also taking a completely different approach using short stories as the basis. Usually I write a first draft of a novel in one month – more of a non-draft really – and that provides me with the lump of clay I need to mold.

In this instance, I expect the collection of stories to build up over the next year  and then the shaping of the novel to take another year. I find short stories extremely difficult to write. Novels give you more room to explain and examine – short stories are a completely different art form. I need to let them sit for longer and they take much more time to feel ‘complete’. Having this as a side project makes the timeline possible without it being frustrating.

it doesn't get much better than this

Let the great world spin… Philippe Petit walks between the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers, 7 August 1974. Photograph: Alan Welner/AP

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

If the novel idea works, think Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. That’s a great example of what I’d like to achieve. In terms of short stories, I’m still not sure I’ve mastered the art, so I’d rather name some amazing short story writers that I love and that I hope will somehow influence my work – Kevin Barry, Alexander McCleod, Haruki Murakami, Angela Carter, Raymond Carver, Deborah Willis, Flann O’Brien, Roald Dahl.
 
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The desire to play with a variety of characters and scenarios. The need to work on something without deadlines, just for fun. The need to experiment and possibly fail. And reading Collum McGann’s Let The Great World Spin at the end of last year reminded me of a project I always wanted to do.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The stories are in-depth character studies of seemingly ordinary people in a variety of seemingly ordinary situations: a kind of ‘behind closed doors’ look at how human beings function. Like any writer, I just hope that I write something that strikes a chord and brings pleasure to others. If it doesn’t work out how I expect it to, then I’ll have learned plenty along the way, and that will inevitably feed into something else…

***

Next week, on February 30th, Renée Pawlish and Hazel Larkin will be answering the same ten questions as above.

Renée Pawlish is the award-winning author of the bestselling Nephilim Genesis of Evil, the first in the Nephilim trilogy, the Reed Ferguson mystery series (This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, Reel Estate Rip-off, The Maltese Felon, and the short story Elvis And The Sports Card Cheat), The Noah Winters YA Adventure series (The Emerald Quest), Take Five, a short story collection, and The Sallie House: Exposing the Beast Within, a nonfiction account of a haunted house investigation. Renée has been called “a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre” and “a powerful storyteller”. Nephilim Genesis of Evil has been compared to Stephen King and Frank Peretti. I highly recommend her blog.

Hazel Larkin was first published when she was 12. Since then, her work has regularly appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers. She has written on topics as varied as Asian finance and orgasms; parenting and real estate; childbirth and transcontinental travel. Hazel spent her 20s in Asia where she made her living writing for stage, screen and publication. She was the co-editor of The Big Book of Hope (2010) and has also written a memoir, which is currently under consideration by an Irish publisher.

Susan Lanigan has short stories published in a variety of journals and newspapers, such as The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Sunday Tribune, the Irish Independent, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Mayo News. She has been shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award several times, and has won highly commended awards for short stories and poetry elsewhere. She is currently shortlisted for the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair.

Gone, but not forgotten…

collie pup rescue dog

Our new addition – Franklyn

I’m referring to you. Yes you.

January is a jam-packed month as I complete the final edits for my next book – a YA tale about the effects of alcoholism. As a result, I’m taking a short sabbatical from writing posts for the Green Fingered Writer blog.

It’s not because of New Year’s resolutions – we all know they get broken as quickly as they’re made. Like a car or electrical appliance, their value disintegrates the moment they’re bought.

The reason behind my retreat is that I need to free up as much time as possible. To edit the book, gather final bits of research and to get some space from my manuscript.

I need to breathe.

I’ve realized that one of my many failings is that I don’t let myself wind down enough. I live in a beautiful place and lead a very fulfilling life – but my time is so rigid, I sometimes forget to have fun along the way.

Only sometimes.

It’s that whole ‘get contacts before you’ve finished the book properly’ multi-tasking syndrome otherwise known as ambition. Does anyone else out there fall prey to this?

It’s when life becomes all about achieving when, in fact, the process is what’s important. I know that – I’m possibly the idea’s biggest ambassador – so why does my daily routine regularly forget?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some photos of the beautiful land and seascapes that surround me. Hopefully, they’ll delight or inspire you. Other than that, I’ll be in absentia until the end of January.

Sorry for the disappearing act and I hope you understand.

But know this – even though you’re out of sight, you won’t be out of mind and I look forward to catching up with you all before the month is up.

Wish me luck?

Celebrating Others – Part 1

Cheers!

Cheers!

I’ve seen a lot of posts over the last while about gratitude and thankfulness, probably sparked by the thanksgiving holidays and the build up to Christmas. But whatever the reason, isn’t it great to see?

A couple of months ago I found that my twitter stream was filled with self promotional links. Of course, self promotion is wholly necessary – and to be applauded – but ALL the tweets were self promotional which I thought was a bit extreme. So I threw out the question:

“Where has all the conversation gone? My twitter stream is all self promotion!”

Some people suggested I was maybe following the wrong people and should unfollow a few. A valid suggestion, but I choose selectively and I know I’m following a crowd of fun and interesting people – so what happened? Was it just bad timing?

On closer inspection, I found that there were strings of RTs supporting other writers – published traditionally as well as independently – so I couldn’t complain. In fact, I was pleased to see how supportive everyone was being and my irritation turned to a feeling of admiration. I felt like applauding.

But it got me thinking…with all the advice out there about self promotion via social media, is it possible to lose the art of conversation and get bogged down with links to our writing/books/blogs?

As a result, I decided to take a bit of time out to celebrate a few other people’s achievements. After all, if you can’t celebrate those you admire, you’re not living!

There are so many deserving people that I could add to this list, but I’m limiting it (for now) to a few who really stand out to me personally. There’ll be more next week…

Vanessa O’Loughlin is the brains and brawn behind @writing_ie and Inkwell Writers. In my experience, she’s instrumental in bringing together writers, agents and publishers as well as providing brilliant workshops with attentive aftercare. There are many published writers out there who are thankful for her help.

Bob at @gutterbookshop is one of those people you can’t help adoring. As well as his fabulous bookshop, he’s a really lovely and interesting guy who’s always up for fun & a chat. Plus, he’s full of ideas and works like a Shire horse to make them happen.

@sarahwebbishere needs no introduction. But not only is she an amazingly prolific author, Sarah’s also extremely generous and helpful to those starting out. A kind and talented lady.

@mduffywriter has just released her second book, The Terrace, with Hachette, which quickly reached the top ten for original fiction here in Ireland. Her first book, Any Dream Will Do hit the Irish bestsellers list. Best thing is, Maria’s down to earth, fun and incredibly kind.

@derekF03 went from wishlist to a recorded album in under a year, and he still manages to maintain excellent writing on his own blog and writing.ie’s Songbook. Throw in a few novels at various stages of brilliance, and you know that Derek is one to watch. Driven, enthusiastic and supportive, he’s also great craic.

And finally, never forget the poets. Kate Dempsey is always on the lookout for what’s going on so she’s a great one for sharing news and events, especially via her Emerging Writer blog. For all things poetry, check out her writing.ie blog Poetic License or connect with her on twitter.

There’ll be more celebrations next week, but in the meantime…

Are there any bloggers or tweeps that you particularly admire? Please give them a shout out!

Try something new

patchworkspools

Jelly rolls

I was having a chat with a friend the other day who was feeling a bit fed up. There was nothing particularly wrong, but the long nights, plummeting temperature and ghost-town effect on the village were getting to her.

It was one of those moments where you haven’t much to offer. The only thing I could come up with was – why not try something new? She looked a little taken aback, then thought for a moment and agreed…”I might just do that!”

Now that advice may sound obvious, but sometimes, we don’t see the answer staring us in the face. And trying something new isn’t always the right answer. Often, we use new experiences as an excuse to avoid the things we don’t want to do (if that sounds like you, see this article by Alison Wells on procrastinating procrastination).

But at other times, a new experience or skill is the tonic we need to keep life interesting and challenging. As a writer, this is something I definitely need.

I’ve had a mixed bag of one-off experiences. For instance, feeding sharks from a perspex cage in Australia (amazing), sky diving (getting out of the plane was the scariest bit), trapeze (not so good – I made weird girly squeals I wasn’t happy about) and walking on the bottom of the ocean wearing a lead divers helmet (surreal). Then there was running with bulls in Spain (exciting but hair-raising at times), parasailing in The Bahamas (surprisingly tranquil), swimming with dolphins in Jamaica (too cute) and stingrays in The Bahamas (less cute). One of the weirdest things I tried has to be marching with trained flamingos that kept pecking my head.

But don’t get excited; I seem to be mellowing. Living rurally certainly provides me with enough challenges of late. Yet even though everyday life is busy – think finding and chopping fuel, escapee calves, growing our own veg, flash floods, fishing, running a social media business and maintaining a strict writing routine – there’s always room for more adventure. For something new.

My latest adventure is making a patchwork quilt. I’ve always loved patchwork quilts – the detail, the weight of the fabric, the million hidden stories – so I joined a class with a neighbour in her makeshift barn studio. And guess what? It’s been an amazing experience.

Here’s where we started, with bits of fabric and bobbins of thread…

Like a kid in a sweet shop!

Like a kid in a sweet shop!

It didn’t take long for me to select the kind of style I wanted to go with. I have to live with it after all, so it had to match my idea of style. Not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I’m certain it’s going to look cracking!

Some select pieces

Some select pieces

I’ve never used a sewing machine before. I can’t drive a car and my wiggly sewing suggests there’s a link between the two. I’m still a bit scared of the sewing machine but I’m continuing nonetheless. Here’s the monster we’re using…

How do you drive this thing?

How do you drive this thing?

And after five weeks, this is where I’m at. It’s starting to come together nicely. Tonight, I’m sewing all the rows together and attaching the quilt to a backing with a blanket filling. I can’t wait.

Now, I could have put this blog post live when I’d finished the quilt, but I purposely chose not to wait. Why? Because all too often we focus on the end result and not the process. Whether it’s writing, growing vegetables or making patchwork quilts, the actual experience and learning we enter into are just as important as the finished product.

As I said, my sewing is higgledy-piggedly in places. Some of the patches aren’t quite straight. I think I’ve already stained a small bit of fabric by accidentally standing on it while organising the pattern. But none of that matters.

I’ve tried something different and have learned new skills. I got my butt out to the class, walking by torchlight along country roads in the driving rain, because the desire to play with fabric and improve on what I’d learned was greater than my desire not to. And it’s been invigorating.

What about you? What new experiences have you tried? What effect did they have?

Autumn in photos

I’m currently taking a break in London – part business, part pleasure. But in my absence, here’s some local autumn scenes and a few things I’ve been up over the last few weeks…

A disappointing corn crop

Golden brown

Setting for my creative writing class for teens

Preparing windfall apples for Christmas

Beautiful autumnal mushrooms

Coming to the end of our harvest

Visit to Moth HQ for a writing masterclass

First signs of winter frost

Tricky (but cute) working conditions

Some garden still grows

What is this creature?

What am I?

I must have a name!

This is a quick detour in the usual blog-posting schedule because, quite frankly, it’s been driving me nuts!

I saw this bug on a shop window in Dublin over a year ago and have been unable to identify it since.

I’ve asked all my science-loving, bug-loving nature-loving friends and have consulted books, websites etc to no avail.

Can anyone help? Any ideas at all?

Shipwrecks, Beans and Bike-Powered Cinemas

April showers bring forth May flowers,
A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay…

Our punt afloat at the pier

May was a crazy-busy month. We launched our punt (only two trips out and six pollock caught so far; it’s too early for mackerel) and planted out more vegetables. Then there was the local short film festival; Ireland’s only film festival in a village with no cinema. Think bike-powered films, talks with Mike Leigh in the church hall and a visit from the Mexican ambassador and you’ve got an idea of the hotch-potch that you come to expect from rural living. Not forgetting the writerly side, I also managed to complete a new Young Adult book for my agent to read and got long/shortlisted in a few competitions (you can read one of my flash fiction pieces here).

As the local saying above foretold, the plentiful showers of April did bring plenty of May flowers; we got our first lily, our new heather burst into purple blooms and our tomatoes and beans are thriving. We’re particularly delighted with the latter because last year, our tomatoes suffered from blight and so we didn’t get any fruit at all. Tomatoes aren’t too much work; they need feeding every three days (we’re using rose feed thanks to the good advice of the local garden centre) and the side shoots need to be removed regularly to keep the head flowering. You have to make sure they’re not over or under watered and then there’s the tickling (it helps pollinate them apparently). As you can imagine, it’s heartbreaking to spend months tending to crops, only to watch them all fail. Thankfully, everything is going smoothly so far.

Tomato flowers in the tunnel

Spending so much time in the garden (the weeding alone takes at least an hour a day), I’m amazed to learn how resilient plants actually are. The beans, cabbages, potatoes, beetroot, sprouts, leeks and onions have exploded, despite the lack of sun and continuing winds. The infamous heatwave forgot to reach us; when my Twitter feed was jammed with talk of ice creams and tans, I was struggling to see more than five metres ahead of me while launching a boat. But crops that I thought had died have sprung back into life; and somehow, this makes me feel renewed. I guess I’m experiencing what Mary Carbery described in her 19th century diary:

Isolation means a deeper love and sense not of possession, but of being a part of something essential.” (Jeremy Sandford, Mary Carbery’s West Cork Journal 1898-1901)

Although I’m not living as remotely as many, between the garden, the sea and writing, I’m living a rather isolated life. In fact, weeks can go by where the only other person I see is my husband. Although it’s an amazing way of living, watching nature, being so immersed in it, has also proved frustrating in many ways. Mainly because it shows up your own inadequacies. My biggest inadequacy is time related.

It’s not that I’m bad at managing time; if anything, I’m too good at it. You know that phrase: if you want something doing ask a busy person? Well, that’s me. I fit a ridiculous amount into every day. Which is great for achieving but I’ve discovered it’s not good for the soul. It’s tiring, and often things don’t work out how they’re meant to.

The boat launch highlights my point perfectly. My idea of launching a boat would be: figure out what’s needed, who’s needed, pick a date and time. Total time taken: an hour, max.

Out on the open sea

How it really works is: look out of window, hum and hah about weather conditions, have a cup of tea. Work out the tide times, wander down to the pier to take a look, hum and hah about being right, then back for a cup of tea. When the tide is coming in, return to the pier and sit. Hopefully someone will arrive. As people arrive haphazardly (“Joe might be over in half an hour; let’s wait and see…”), sit and chat about getting the boat in the water. Total time taken: whole day. Time taken to actually launch boat: fifteen minutes.

It’s certainly a lesson in patience, but one I need to learn. If we’d had it my way, launching the boat would have been just another tick off the day’s to-do list. But with my husband taking charge (well, muddling us through), it was an enjoyable experience which included a bit of banter, plenty of laughs and a more relaxed state of mind. Which, as a writer, is very difficult to achieve.

Wherever I go, whatever I do, whomever I talk to, my brain is constantly sourcing information which could trigger a new story idea/character/title/novel. Even when I don’t want it to. Especially when I don’t want it to! The moulding, editing, and shaping takes up so much time, the ideas/inspiration part infiltrates every other minute of my day. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Gardening, fishing boating – which all have a strong sense of belonging and purpose – help me to switch off, but I wonder…is it the same for all creative fields? How do other creative people cope?

In my first post for Krank.ie, I talked about the cuckoo. Well, she’s here: I heard her for the first time in the middle of the month and she hasn’t stopped singing yet. This morning, she was warbling away on the wire above our home. Maybe it’s the excitement of the shipwreck that was found off the coast of Schull, just metres from where we live?

A sunken ship may not seem like a big deal, but being coastal, piracy is ingrained in the local history. Most locals can name the majority of the nearby shipwrecks. People from Long Island used to wave lanterns to confuse passing ships, luring them onto the rocks to loot the ship. There are numerous legends about buried treasure beneath local land. So, of course, another find is a great cause for excitement. The bounty that’s been recovered so far consists of a crate of coconuts from the 1600s and there’s a temporary pause in operations due to lack of funding. But that hasn’t stopped people’s curiosity. Isn’t that wonderful?

Lettuce grown from seed

I love the fact that when something happens in a small community, everyone talks about it. In a city, you can often miss what’s going on right under your nose. When people talk in a rural setting, you not only hear the facts, you also hear the legends growing. Each version of the story alters a little and the ideas flourish. I mean that as fact, not a slight. It’s a beautiful part of the ingrained storytelling that still exists across Ireland. I feel so lucky to be here when something like this has happened; you feel almost transported back to the times of oral tradition.

As I’ve said before, rural living is not for everyone. But in a time of such uncertainty and economic distress, there’s worse things you could do than spend time amongst trees, vegetables and the sea to balance perspectives. For me, May has been a month of growing in so many ways. As for the corn and hay, we’ll have to wait and see. You can’t hurry nature.

(Note: This post was originally written for and published by Krank.ie – an excellent Irish news and current events magazine website. Take a peek at krank.ie here!)

April in 10 photos

Sorry it’s a bit late folks, but with all the fun over at the Writers Week Blog, it’s taken me a while to sort through this month’s photos. April was a very busy month and it was difficult to select what to show, but here goes…

Building weather-protection for our mini-garden (real veg garden is a whole field)

We planted out runner beans & French beans (could be way too early; esp. with the freak winds – we’ve more propogating just in case).

Collected seaweed to fertilise our cabbages (plastic strips deter the birds)

This is where we collect the seaweed: some interested walkers came down to chat about what we were up to!

A fisherman friend brought us our first crayfish of the season

Created a river view: you couldn’t see the water before. It was all briars and dead fuschia. Now look at it!

And here’s some of the stuff we’ve planted on the newly-cleared banks (there’s monbretia and wild strawberries too). It’ll look gorgeous in summer.

I made a sign to help people get the message…

We built boxes for our tomatoes and transplanted them – this is where they’ll stay now until they’ve yielded all their fruit.

And I leave you with one of our beautiful, moody sunsets.

2012 so far…

Rural living is amazing. But it’s also random. It needs a lot of organisation, a nonchalant attitude towards the weather and often, plenty of hard work. But – combined with writing, it’s my haven. And here’s some photos from my year so far to prove it!

Planning our mini veg garden

Making sure there's fuel

Dressing up as a soldier (Edinburgh)

Writing in the painted hall (Greenwich)

Pickling the last of 2011's beetroot crop

Digging the tiny veg plots

Writing in fields (Guisborough)

Making my husband upside-down

I was going to do these posts on a 3-monthly basis but – it seems there’s so much going on, I could make it a monthly thing. Or even weekly.

What do you think? Would you like to see more? And how often?