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! 

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#1stdraftdiary Week 4 (36,500 – 50K)

IMG_5818Returning to #1stdraftdiary after a break, I feel completely disconnected. I had a wonderful time at West Cork Literary Festival and also a week in the UK – but what about my characters? What’s happening in the plot? I had zero idea about what was happening before, now I have less than zero –how is that possible?

Another issue is that after delivering four books in a 20-month period, I can feel myself burning out. I’m tired, and those 6am starts aren’t cutting it any more – they’re more of a battle than a pleasure, and that’s not how I want the writing process to feel. My neck is constantly sore, threatening to lock again, so I have to mind myself. I also have to give this final book of the Nine Lives Trilogy the respect it deserves and so – time for a new routine!

I’m not sure it’ll work but I feel energised by outdoors and exercise and so I’ve decided to spend my mornings walking the dog before going to the gym and swimming & walking home again. The idea is that this will help with my back/neck but also give me more energy. We’ll see! Anyway, time to dive back in… wish me luck!!!

#1stdraftdiary Day 22: I spend the day writing fillers, adding to disjointed scenes and get from 36,500 to 37,600 in an hour! Maybe the break has been good? I continue on and pause at 40,300. Thankfully, I’m back in the zone – and I still have more left in me. I’m cautious of overdoing it and leaving myself bereft of words for tomorrow, but the pull is too strong and I continue until 43K. In fact, something unusual has happened; my brain is starting to plot and plan. Maybe it’s because it’s my fourth book, or maybe it’s because I have to wrap up the trilogy and all its threads? Who knows! This has never happened this early in a draft before – but I’m going with it. Must do what is best for the book!  Word count: 43,000

#1stdraftdiary Day 23:  Even after yesterday’s marathon, I still have words!! Hooray! This is a complete surprise, so I write as soon as I can. As I expected, I run out of steam quite quickly but a realisation hits: I know where to start The Book of Revenge (I had three options!) and so, although this has never happened before, I’m ready to start draft 2. I’m going to listen to my instinct and start it alongside the first draft; I want at least 50K words of cul-de-sacs before I feel fully ready to let go. I still have ideas to find! I move onto draft 2 and write the first chapter. Magic! Word count: 46,200 (Draft: 1112 words)

#1stdraftdiary Day 24:  Within two hours, I reach my word count (48,200) for the day but I have a hunger to continue on. I can feel draft 2 is calling me – much earlier than it would usually – but I think knowing my characters and some of the issues I have to tie up is making this happen. I push on throughout the day to 52,100 – a mammoth word count for the day that leaves me feeling a little low (this always happens when I write too much) but also elated because that’s it – I’m there. There is no point continuing to 60K, as the story is calling – This book has t be delivered to my publishers October 31st and I’m fully booked for the month of October for the children’s book festival, so I have to crack on and do this! Which means, straight into draft 2; this will be more like most people’s first draft. No ore word vomit – it’s time to think, plan, plot, smooth, shape. Wish me luck! Word count: 52,100

And so… this is the quickest first draft I’ve ever done, but also the most disjointed. I’d say it hasn’t really helped me find the story very much like it usually would because of all the breaks, but I have enough to work with. It’s all change; my routine has changed (it’s working up to now) and I’m not leaving any time between drafts this time around (I will for draft 3) – but I guess that’s all part of the fun.

Check out #1stdraftdiary on twitter to see everyone else’s achievements & to cheer people on – and if you’re working on your own first draft, join in!

How to Keep Going & Get That Book Deal!

(This article was originally written for Writing.ie, but I’ve had a very positive response, with lots of people saying it’s really helped them to sit back down and write…So I’m posting it here, just in case it’s of use to even one more person. Apologies if you’ve already seen it! Otherwise, happy reading & happy writing!)

Just six months ago, I was sat in front of my computer, feeling like I was banging my head off the wall. I hadn’t written just one book to a publishable standard, I’d written two – different genres and for different age groups – and although I had faith in them both, it felt like I was never going to succeed in getting them on the shelves.

I had the agent, I’d put the work in (twice!), but other than sell my soul, what the hell did I need to do to actually get a book deal? And if it didn’t happen soon, how was I going to keep going and face more disappointment?

And so, I opened my computer, took a deep breath, and started another book.

The Book of Learning by E.R.MurrayThis was seriously the most challenging time in my life. I’ve had my fair share of tragedies and difficulties – who hasn’t? – but this was different. It was something I really cared about, something that I believed in, that I was desperate to make happen. I’d developed skin like a rhino, but after four years of writing every day, that toughened skin began to wither. Every slight knockback felt like an actual physical blow and I began to wonder – what if the truth of the matter is, I’m not good enough? Sound familiar?

Well here’s the good news…

After much frustration, several false starts and meltdowns, I received an offer from Mercier Press in autumn 2014 – a three-book deal for Nine Lives, my Middle Grade fantasy trilogy, and Book One, The Book of Learning is due out in August this year, with sequels to follow in 2016 and 2017.

And this week, less than six months later, I signed a deal with Alma Books for my other book, Caramel Hearts; a Young Adult novel about a girl with an alcoholic mum, that will be out in May/June 2016.

Two book deals in six months; I can still hardly believe it. And the reason this is good news for you, fellow writer, is because…

If it can happen to me, it can happen to you too.

I’m no different to anyone else; I just kept going. I put in the hours, writing every day for four years (including Christmas, birthdays etc), made some severe lifestyle changes to accommodate my writing, and deleted any form of social life. I attended the writing workshops of writers I admired, so I could learn more about my craft. In short, I gave my writing the focus, dedication, and determination it needed. And if you do the same, I believe you’ll get there.

Writing requires a lot of patience, and a lot of waiting. An irritating fact, I know, but the only way to improve is to sit down, write, rewrite, and rewrite some more. Then, put the manuscript away, pretend it doesn’t exist for a while, and reread it before… you guessed it, rewriting, and rewriting and rewriting…

The two books I’m about to have published aren’t the first two I ever wrote. There is an awful abandoned manuscript no one will ever see (I’d die of embarrassment, I really would), but I’m proud of it because it was my first attempt at writing something of that length. And if you speak to most authors, they’ll probably admit the same.

So don’t give up hope! After lots of practice and determination, the time will come when you know you’re close, that you’ve polished your manuscript to the nth degree and have written a really good book that’s ready to be sent to the agent or publisher of your dreams.

When you reach this point, push the pause button and do some thorough research. Make sure your manuscript fits what your choice of agent or publisher is looking for, and that you’ve matched all their requirements in terms of what to send, formatting etc. Trust me, you don’t want to get this wrong.

You must rein yourself in and stay focused because the worst thing you can do is to send out your manuscript too early, before it’s ready – or to not send it out correctly. You only get one chance with a publisher or agent. Screw it up by being too hasty, and there’s no going back.

That feeling when you hit send is incredible – it’s exciting and scary both. All you will want to do is hit refresh on your email account, ready for that instant reply that tells you how wonderful you are and how the book world will be fighting over you. But guess what? You’re back to waiting. And the rejections will probably come first.

Lots of writers get frustrated at this time. And pushy. I know I certainly did – and I believe that this is perfectly normal. Why? Because you had to believe you were good enough to keep going and write the damn book. And you also had to want it badly enough to have enough staying power to make your manuscript good enough to be published.

But remember – publishers and agents have massive piles of manuscripts to read. Their time is split between finding new authors, and supporting the ones they’ve already published. There are so many facets to the industry, most agents and publishers are overworked and tired; but trust me, they love their jobs and they are looking for new writers. They will get round to your manuscript and give you an honest reply – just not in the five minutes (probably not even in the five weeks) after you hit send!

So, bearing all of this in mind, how do you stay sane and motivated, and keep going when

1) you’re finishing your manuscript, or

2) you’ve been rejected, or

3) you’re waiting to hear back from an agent or publisher?

I’m no expert, but this is what worked for me at all three stages. If it helps you in any way, I’d be delighted…

Multiple Projects: Personally, I can’t bear the waiting process when you’re giving your manuscript some space, so I work on multiple projects at a time. I bring one novel as far as I can, then when it’s time to put it away and let it breathe, I immediately switch to another. I continue by switching between the two projects until they’re fully completed – which, I’ve found, is never at the same time. But that’s part of the fun. Sometimes, I even write another first draft in between, to mix things up a bit, so I can enjoy those feelings of joy and hope and freedom you experience when starting a new project. (I have three more first drafts lurking, waiting to be rewritten – or not. We’ll have to see if they still seem interesting in a year or two.)

Create a Personalized Routine: I’m allergic to actual routine – as in, I can’t even promise myself that I’ll sit down and have a cup of tea every morning before I start working – but you need to establish some form of routine that suits your personality to make sure the writing gets done. This needs to be measurable, so you can see your progress. It could be an amount of time, or a specific daily word count – you’ll probably find you need to adjust your routine when you switch from a first draft to a rewrite/edit – but the important thing is to know how you work best and to set yourself a daily goal. I honestly don’t believe in procrastination, and I don’t believe that successful writers suffer from it. After all, you’re the only person who can write your book – so if it’s your dream, why wouldn’t you just sit down and write?

Try Shorter Pieces & Submissions: Give stories, poems, or flash fiction a go. Writing something else keeps your brain interested and lets you enjoy a separate sense of achievement. I find short stories extremely hard to write, but there’s something magical about them – and about the idea that you might actually complete something sometime soon! Entering competitions or submitting to magazines gives you achievable deadlines, so you can feel like you’re enjoying some measure of success. There’s a great sense of achievement when you hit send on a magazine submission or competition entry – and an even bigger sense of achievement when you get longlisted, shortlisted, or published. Successes like these are a great way to build your profile, and possibly even get noticed, and any writing you do will improve your skills. As for rejections; don’t worry, they’ll help toughen your rhino hide for when you’re facing agents and publishers.

teaching Cambodia rural living

Volunteering in Cambodia for a month certainly helps you get perspective!

Get a Life: this might sound like counterintuitive-advice, but I believe it’s really important that you do something other than writing so you can restore your energy levels, enthusiasm levels, and stock up on ideas. Work, family duties, gardening, exercise, theatre, films, travel; these will take time away from your writing, but in truth, you can only write well for a certain amount of time anyway. All writers are different, but it seems the average daily word count is between 1000-2000 words. And besides, lots of the important stuff really does happen when you’re not at the computer. I find walking and gardening particularly meditative – and I often figure out plot issues or characterisation flaws when I’m absorbed in these activities. This ‘down time’ is the area I really didn’t give enough credence to when I started writing with a view to getting published and it’s still the area I find hardest to maintain – but it really is worth it, so I’m giving it a damn good try.

Every few weeks, I hear about another friend signing a deal with a publisher or an agent, and it makes me so happy. It also goes to show that achieving your publishing goals is not impossible – though it will probably take a lot longer than you initially hoped for or expected.

None of the above suggestions are particularly difficult or original, but they do require dedication – and balance – and they really did work for me.

It’s not long since I was feeling the heartbreak of wondering whether I was ever going to be good enough, so I’m writing this in the hope that if there’s a writer out there feeling as stressed and frustrated as I was, then maybe something will resonate and help to alleviate some of the suffering so you can keep going and get one step closer to your book deal.

 

What are you working on?

Autumn's tastiest fruit

Glistening and juicy, just asking to be turned into jam

It’s a wonderful time of year here; monbretia and fuschia line the roadways, blackberries are ripe for picking and the skies get moodier as the sunny days are tinged with a slight chill in the mornings. Autumn is becoming visible in the auburn-tinged ferns and wilting ivy. But most importantly, the crazy pace of the summer (tourist) season is slowing down so it’s freeing up more time to write.

This autumn/winter, my schedule looks like this so far:

autumn in west cork

The ivy is dying back, offering beautiful colour to hedgerows

I love the quiet mornings in autumn/winter when I can light a scented candle, treat my feet to soft slippers and write solidly for an hour or two before anyone stirs.

It takes a bit of getting used to as the days draw in and cool down – and sometimes it takes a bit of extra effort to haul myself from under the duvet – but I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to switch to a slower pace of life.

And although writing can be a lonely pursuit, I love having a blog because I can connect with other writers and nature lovers, and we can share what’s happening in our lives.

So what I’d really like to know is – what’s your favourite thing about autumn and winter? And if you’re a writer, what are you working on?

Some favourite Wordsparks so far…

Last week, I posted about the Wordspark writing prompts blog on writing.ie. This week, I’d like to share a few of my favourite responses from the readers so far…

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“Breathes life, takes life, one of life’s pleasures, dead, alive.”

by C. J. Black

(In response to Description:  Describe the sea in just ten words, for someone who has never seen it.)

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“Clouds fall, pluming to the wave’s tumbled height
Rolling, reflected, on the salt-damp bight”

by Guy le jeune

“Away in the distance is where I stand
My forgotten pieces strewn on the sand”

by Sean Marshall

(Both in response to a photo-inspired rhyming couplet Wordspark)

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“Those pesky giant walking broccoli plants were pushing at the kitchen window again, AND Sara was down to her last bottle of Sancerre.”

by irishherault

(The Prompt: to write an opening line based on a photo)

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We’d run down the Mill Lane, up the stairs and onto the bridge for the mail train from Strabane. We’d stand right over the line as the train hurled underneath and it was all smoke and steam and fury. Our faces would be black and when we got home me mother would give out stink. This one day we went down to catch the smoke and Eddie was there beside the tracks. Me mother said Eddie wasn’t all right—you’d see him standing on the lane, laughing at the sky. We climbed up to the bridge and we could still see Eddie just standing there, talking to nobody. In the distance we heard the clatter and saw the trail of smoke. Eddie jumped up on to the rails with his hands held above his head. We all shouted for him to get out of the way but he just stood there, yelling all sorts. The train screamed and whistled and squealed. We couldn’t look, but we couldn’t look away. There must have been the length of sweeping brush between the front of the engine and Eddie. That was the day when Eddie McCrae stopped the mail train from Strabane

by Guy le jeune

At the back of our house, across the fields, ran the train line. When Da passed on his way to Cork or Limerick he would beep the horn and we’d flash the light on and off to let him know we heard him. On his way home, he’d beep again to let Ma know he was on the way. Da didn’t drive a car, only a train.
We weren’t allowed near the railway line. Ma and Da would go mad when they found out we were up there. We went to pick blackberries, and the best ones were always along the railway. One day, Da passed on the train and saw us. He beeped the horn and put his fist up at us. We knew he was going to kill us when we got home so we stayed out for ages ’til we thought he’d be gone to bed. He always went to bed when he came home if he’d been driving through the night. He was still up when we got home and there was murder. When Da went to bed for a few hours, Mam still made jam with the blackberries we collected. My Ma made deadly jam.

by Patricia Nugent

(In response to: write a piece of flash fiction of less than 200 words, inspired by the postcard shown.)

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Last, but certainly not least, I’m including the opening paragraph of our festive-themed Wordspark of a short story under 1000 words. There’s a link at the end to the rest of the story, which I highly recommend: this piece received the most responses from other readers/writers.

Away in a Manger by Sinead O’Hart

I knew better than to turn on the main bathroom light – the noise of the fan alone would be enough to wake Simon up, and that was the last thing I wanted. I just wished I’d had the foresight to unwrap the thing beforehand, but I took it slowly and kept the rustling to a minimum. As I worked to open the packet, I kept the bathroom door open, just a crack, enough to hear him if he moved, but there wasn’t a sound from the bedroom besides my husband’s gentle breathing. Once I’d freed it from the wrapping, I closed the door to our ensuite as gently as I could, and just got on with it. I wondered, as I sat down, whether it was a marketable skill, this ability I had to pee accurately in the pitch darkness – I guessed it really was true about practice making perfect. How often had I done this, now? I’d long ago lost count. Read more…

(Please note: these favourites were originally posted on writing.ie)

Anyone need a writing prompt?

Australia, Blue Mountains

I remember sun. I think I quite liked it!

I’m back! I’ve reached the finish line and my book is now with my agent – phew! I’ve also managed to squeeze in a few writing competitions along the way.

Luckily, just like the lovely Hazel Gaynor, I’m brimming with new ideas. But I realise that isn’t always the case…Which is partly why I write the Wordspark blog for writing.ie

If you haven’t yet heard of writing.ie, it’s a wonderful site set up by Vanessa O’Loughlin for writers at all stages of their career. Although Ireland-based, it’s suitable for writers anywhere in the world. If you haven’t already, take a peek. There’s so much info on there from some of the world’s top best-selling authors, it’s an invaluable resource.

But back to ideas for your writing…

The idea behind Wordspark is to get creativity flowing. The prompts can be used to fire up the imagination as a pre-writing/editing exercise or to spark off a piece that can be sculpted into a competition or journal submission further down the line.

It’s a little extra help, when needed.

Here are a few of the #wordsparks already posted – take your pick and join in!

Description – ten words describing the sea

Postcard Prompts x3 – Trains, Art and Balloon Sellers

Rhyming Couplet – using a photo as inspiration.

There’ll be plenty more coming. If you find them useful, stay tuned!

Back to Basics (Part II)

Still growing…you can’t rush nature!

This is the second looking at what my local environment has shown me as a writer. (You can read Part I here).

Rushing fails – This year, I had some flourishing courgette plants ready for the garden. At the beginning of this month, I planted them out, pleased with their progress. Within two weeks, they were all dead. I’d ignored the possibility that the shift in conditions may be wrong – and I paid the price. Likewise, there’s no point trying to suddenly bang out a 2000 word short story a week before a competition closes. I know, I’ve done it. The work was inferior and had no chance of getting selected. I might as well have donated the entry fee as a gift.

If you’re not so good at being rigidly organised, keeping a stock of half-finished stories is a good habit to adopt; you can pull out them for final shaping as competitions approach. But if you’re not happy with your work, don’t submit. It’s fine to decide not to enter a competition or submission because your writing isn’t quite ready. I’ve done that twice this year already. It’s better to get a piece of work right and rehouse it elsewhere at a later date than submit something that’s not good enough.

Flexibility rewards – Sorry to keep banging on about my courgette plants but once again, they’re relevant. I’ve been propagating more seeds in the tunnel and shoots are starting to show. Despite my earlier haste, I’ve given myself enough time to grow more. We won’t have as plentiful a supply as we would have had if I’d not rushed, ignoring the conditions and external factors, but at least I’ve come up with a solution that means we’ll have some produce for the table.

The infamous courgette (Round 2)

When writing, you need to stay flexible. After all, every time you share something you’ve written you’re open to criticism, rejection and opinion. Some of the feedback will be constructive, some useful and some not. But be ready to sift through the advice and take the relevant stuff on board, adapting your work accordingly. You also need to be flexible in terms of how you grow as a writer. If the narrative isn’t working in first person, try swapping to third person. If a character is proving tricky, figure out where the gaps are and amend accordingly. If you’re always writing prose, try poetry instead to hone different skills. Even if it’s not to a publishable standard, you’ll gain from the experience.

Learn from your mistakes – If you’re submitting a novel to publishers, for instance, and several editors suggest that the pace is too slow/your novel is too plot driven/a specific character is unbelievable – then guess what? They’re probably right. Several people noticing the same issue probably means that it needs work.

If you’re writing short stories or poetry and have spent months working on a piece but still had to rush at the end, make a note to give yourself more time in the future. If you’ve a story idea that just isn’t working, store it in your reserve file and work on something else. It may be that the timing’s not right or that the idea isn’t as good as you initially thought. You’ll know the answer when you revisit it at a later date. (And yes, you guessed it: my courgettes won’t be going out until June next year.)

What can your environment teach you?

(Huge thanks to @derekF03 for inspiring these posts. You can read Derek’s blog here.)