An old friend returns…

I have been on a writing residency in Costa Rica, and I’m still gathering my thoughts on my time there, so that’s a post that will follow soon. In the meantime, I wanted to share with you a gift from my husband.

I’ve toyed with the idea of a typewriter for many years, but I decided it was impractical. Too heavy, ribbons too difficult to find, too noisy, and also awkward to type on. And yet, having this typewriter feels like an old friend has returned.

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You see, I learned to type on one of these. Not because of my age and the technology that was available, but because we were poor.

My original typewriter was gifted to me by my father, just after we met in my early teens. He picked it up from a car boot sale and it had three keys missing, so the letters S, R, and W stabbed you when you used them. I remember the pads of my fingertips being badly bruised. The typewriter also caused a lot of contention because it was so loud. But I learned to type on it, nevertheless.

It’s strange how things work out. I had no ambition of being a writer back then. I thought it was impossible, only for rich people, and so it didn’t enter my head. Even though books were my sanctuary and I spent every day writing and drawing, being a writer was something that seemed completely inaccessible. I knew I had to focus on getting an education if I was to have any kind of chance. And yet, I practiced day after day, to learn how to type.

I’m glad that I escaped the trappings of class and found a way to words and books. And I’m also glad that I can facilitate workshops for young people and help make writing accessible – I don’t want anyone to ever feel like anything is out of their reach because of the situation they were born into. It is a reality for many, but it can be beaten.

I have no idea what happened to the original typewriter, but I’m looking forward to some adventures* with this new one! I have a few project ideas brewing, but I’m also open to ideas (suggestions welcome in the comments below)! For now, I’m happy to reacquaint myself with the weight and sound of tapping keys.

(*Adventure number one: relearn how to thread the ribbon!)

My next workshop for young people is Words Allowed at West Cork Literary Festival, and I’m co-tutoring with Dave Lordan. It covers a wide range, including poetry, journalling, fiction, editing, drama, and it’s a lot of fun. If you have a teen you think would enjoy it, you can find more details here.

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.

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! 

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? 

Polish Your Manuscript Ready for Submission

I hope 2018 is off to a great start for you! From the beginning, straight to the end, following on from the last post on motivation, here’s my advice on getting your manuscript ready for submission. This article was originally written for Writers & Artists, but it received such a good response, I thought I’d share it with readers here…

BookofRevengecoverPublishing is one of the most competitive industries in the world, so when you send your manuscript out on submission, you need to make sure it is as polished as possible. You also need to provide an insight into you as an author. A publisher or agent will be looking for talent, but they also need to know that you are professional, that you are dedicated to your writing, and that you will be agreeable to work with. Although the manuscript is ultimately yours, a published book requires collaborative effort and so when an agent or publisher reads your submission, they will be considering all of these aspects. Here are a few practical things to look for before you send out your manuscript, to give it the best possible chance of success.

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You’ve redrafted and redrafted your manuscript and are too close to see any glaring mistakes; here are some common editorial issues to look out for, so you can really polish your manuscript before you hit send.

One Line Pitch

Reducing your manuscript into one line is challenging, but it gives you focus. It also functions in two useful ways; it provides you with a succinct description of your book for your cover letter, and it also serves as a reference point for your own writing. When you reread your manuscript, does it match your one liner? If not, something is wrong – it could be a simple fix or another rewrite, but if alarm bells are ringing, give your manuscript more time.

Read Out Your Dialogue

This sounds obvious but there is no better way to know whether your dialogue is working than to read it aloud. If any dialogue is tricky to say or sounds out of place, it needs more work. This is slow and time consuming, but essential: flabby or unconvincing dialogue pops off the page and can really let a good story down.

Pacing

Look out for sections that slow the action down or cause distraction, such as unnecessary descriptions or information dumping. Are your chapters fluid and do they end in a way that makes you want to read on? The middle section of a manuscript is typically where pace suffers before editorial input – see if you can tighten and prune before hitting send.

Capitalise on Emotion

Every story takes a reader on an emotional journey – so what do you want your readers to feel? Do you want them to be blubbing, splitting their sides laughing or too scared to read on but too hooked not to? Once you have your story, your characters, your redrafted manuscript, reread to see whether you have managed to evoke the desired emotions. If it’s not working for you, it won’t work for your reader either.

Logistics

When you submit your book, it’s not just about your manuscript – you also need to make sure that you are sending desirable material to the right people, in the right way.

Choose Wisely

Is the agent or publisher you are approaching even interested in your genre or the age group you are writing for? This may sound like an obvious question, but despite the wealth of information available online, publishers and agents are constantly bombarded with manuscripts that don’t fit their criteria. It may seem time consuming to check every detail, but submitting work that is not relevant to an agent or publisher will result in instant rejection. Save embarrassment and unnecessary heartache by doing your research.

Presentation is Important

Have you studied and adhered to the submission guidelines requested by the publisher or agent you are approaching? Each will have their own way of working and their own requirements and it is important you follow these exactly. Agents and editors are extremely busy, so they expect to receive manuscripts in the format requested; submissions that do not meet the requirements may go unread. Make sure that you double-check everything on the submissions page of the website before you hit send.

Be Patient

Although it might be tempting to send your manuscript on submission because you’re hungry to get published, sending it out too early will be detrimental to your chances of success. You only have one opportunity to submit your book to a publisher or agent, so don’t send it anywhere until you are completely sure that you have made every improvements possible.

Remember

Literature is subjective and so not every agent or publisher is going to like what you send – they have to be behind it 100% to be able to take you on. So if someone takes time to give you feedback, read their suggestions objectively and see what you can learn. Everyone experiences rejection in the publishing industry, so try not to let it dampen your spirits. I’d love to hear all about your progress – and I guarantee, if you dedicate your time, if you strive to become better at your craft, if you write your stories with heart and keep going, you will make progress.

Keep writing, keep improving and never give up! 

Overcoming Obstacles

dscf5788So, it’s only a couple of weeks into the New Year and already your motivation/confidence/belief in your work has begun to flag? You’ve lost sight of the story/why you bothered started writing it in the first place?

Well, take a deep breath and relax – because this happens to every writer at some point. And when it does happen, you have two choices – keep going or give up. Both can be viable options, but most of the time, it’s simply part of the creative process and you need to keep going to get the results you’re looking for.

It might be that the idea or voice of your story really doesn’t work, but in general, it usually means that you need more time, more drafts, and more thinking space. There are obstacles in your way, but you can usually overcome them, with some effort and patience and a dollop of courage.

Here are some approaches that work for me…

Face your demons: this is my first approach. When something is challenging, or scary, or seemingly impossible, I like to tackle it head on. Otherwise it grows into a giant monster that follows you everywhere, taunting you. If you give the most difficult or scary tasks your best shot, at your best time of day, even tiny steps forward will help to relieve the pressure you’re under and move your story along.

Take more short breaks: I can often concentrate for hours at a time, but when I’m caught up in something extra challenging, I take a break every time my concentration naturally beaks. This could be every hour or 45 minutes, but with increased challenge comes increased pressure and so the usual long concentration periods don’t work as well. Lots of short breaks allow your brain to relax a little before the next bout – and allow creative thoughts to keep flowing.

Try something new: If you write organically to find your character and stories, try pausing to map out how far you’ve got and where you want to go. Stepping back to see the bigger picture might help you to spot issues with plot or pacing, renew your enthusiasm, or remind you of your initial aim and show you where things have veered off.

Move! I swear by long walks! I start every day with a long walk (two-hours or more) to get the blood flowing and to encourage my brain to let go of any concerns or worries. Likewise, when I hit a wall, or I feel my concentration or enthusiasm ebbing, I get up and move. It might be a shrug or a dance or a stretch, but I find movement creates a momentary distraction and helps fresh thoughts to come flooding in.

If all else fails: I’m not an advocate of giving up, but if you have truly tried everything else and the words are still not coming, or if you’re endangering the quality of your manuscript, then put your work in progress aside. Don’t stop writing, but work on something else and go back to your tricky manuscript the next day.

Good luck with your work in progress – happy writing! E x

(Note: this was originally written for the Girls Heart Books blog)