Movement & calm, earth & water: a residency in Iceland

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Home for the month

I’ve been in Iceland for one week, and I’m five days into the retreat. My place here was booked last year, when I realised that I would be coming out of contract with publishers and probably panicking about what’s next. A change of surroundings is, for me, the best way to calm a racing mind, so I thought it would be useful.

Many people think that as an author, you continue to write for the same publisher over and over, with an unending supply of work. While this may happen, it probably means you are continuing to work within a certain genre or you’ve made it as an international bestseller. Usually, you work to a contract and once that contract is up, it’s up.

And so, this is where I’m at… The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 is officially completed. I cannot tell you what a relief this is. The slog was tough but I got there and I’m feeling really proud of that as the challenge was unreal. There’s just the proofing to go and that will be in October. So… what happens next? Basically, it’s back to square one.

Write a book. Edit the book without killing it. Try and sell the book.

Now, this is a daunting time for any author. The reality is, you may never sell a book again. Or even be able to come up with a strong enough idea in the first place. And whatever you do choose to work on, you had better be passionate about it, because it’s about to take up a minimum of one year of your life, before you even try and convince a publisher that they like it enough to buy it.
IMG_1889And so, Iceland has come at the perfect time. I have The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 coming out in February 2018, the freedom to work on what I want, and a fantastic agent to support and guide me. But my brain is restless, my ideas are too plentiful, and although I’m excited, my nerves are frayed.

Is there anyone else out there feeling the same right now? I bet there is. Whether you make stories through words, art, music, dance, theatre, film, animation … I think it’s a cyclical feeling that will never go away. All we can do is embrace it and ride it through. See where it leads.

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Natural hot spring

Thankfully, I have a new landscape to discover, new foods to eat, a language to try and understand (it’s not intuitive to hear/see written down), some cool new housemates to get to know, and lots of time to write. Even though I’m not 100% certain what it is I’m working on next. That’s part of my mission; to make sure the passion for the projects I *think* I want to work on is real. 

Somehow, I’ve found my idea for a commissioned piece of flash fiction; also, a short story I was stuck on is edited & submitted. So it’s a start. And it’s productive. But is it avoiding the question of which novels (I always work on two project simultaneously) to work on next?

I’m also enjoying hiking the hills and relaxing in the natural hot springs every day, and spending lots of time near the lake, appreciating its stillness. Movement and calm, earth and water: the perfect combination for settling a restless mind. Today, a new week begins and I’m determined to break into the novel. If there’s one thing I need, it’s to know what my next focus is – let’s see if Iceland can help coax it out.

What stage are you at right now? And how does it feel? I’d love to hear about your journey too. 

 

 

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Bowerbirds, mountain trails & surprises: Varuna Writers’ Residency

I’m coming to the end of my first week of my residency exchange in Australia (thanks to the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre), so I thought I’d check in.

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Singapore was a good idea. It’s a really safe and lovely city to explore, tranquil and small but with plenty going on. It meant I adjusted to the time zone before arriving in Australia (Singapore is 7 hours ahead of Ireland, The Blue Mountains, 9 hours). There was a Tapestry of Spiritual Music festival on, so I got to see/listen to some amazing world music, distracting myself from jet lag while filling up on creativity before a month of concentrated writing.

Let me describe Varuna…

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A particularly impressive maple

It’s a beautiful house and garden, only ten minutes walk along a track to some amazing marked mountain trails. There’s quiet, focused time every day from 9am until 6pm, and then we gather (up to five writers) each night for a fabulous dinner. The house has an extensive library – each room is themed (I’m have the UK & Ireland shelves) – as well as old guest books of writers who have stayed here, and every room has a biography of Eleanor Dark, the writer who originally owned the house. My room is quirky and comfortable, with a delicious reading chair and a window next to the bed that connects to the workspace. The window overlooks the garden and the autumnal trees, with continuous noise from cockatoos, rosellas, parakeets, and galahs.

Seeing as I’m on the other side of the world, and I love nature, I’m taking time to enjoy and explore the local environment as well as write. Some of my favourite experiences so far include…

A top deck train ride through the mountains

  • Discovering a bowerbird’s bower, complete with collected blue items (three females and one male present)
  • Chatting to an elderly gardener who recommended a book, then later delivered a copy as a gift to the house! (The Tree of Man by Patrick White)
  • Walking mountain trails as morning mists rise or the sun sets
  • A flock of ten black cockatoos flying overhead
  • Following new sounds (birds, lizard, bark peeling)
  • A shy (and rarely seen) lyrebird crossing my path while I was writing in the mountains in the early morning – watching it forage for food
  • Learning about (and meeting) Australian authors (I’m halfway through and loving just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth)
  • Discovering an ‘aboriginal interpretive walk’
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A female bower bird, offering a prized blue gift. 

As for my output, this is the first time I’ve had a month of uninterrupted writing time in about six years. My editors notes on The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 are due any day, and so this week has been all about settling in, finding my stride, and working on multiple small projects – some finishing off, some new – including short stories, creative non-fiction, an interview, blog posts and starting to world build for my next project. It’s been steadily productive. The evening chats, resources and focused time have led me in some unexpected directions and everything feels a little bit calmer, on track and richer.

We all know how up and down writing is as an occupation, and confidence in my writing has taken a bit of a knock. Mainly due to exhaustion (publishing three books in 12 months takes its toll, and the fourth book has been challenging as a result), but also fear (I’m out of contract after this next book), juggling too many things (eye roll!) and some harsh self criticism. And so part of my aim here is to take a step back, take stock and reset. Thankfully, that has begun.

You might think that a writing residency is a holiday, but that’s an inaccurate description. In some ways it is, because I don’t need to shop or cook and I’m not freelancing, but it’s concentrated time to think, plan, create. Let me give some examples of how a retreat can help…

1) As part of my residency, I had a consultation with Carol Major. I gave her some new work (short stories) which felt risky and scary, but it’s been a while since I’ve had chance to work on anything completely new due to contracts and deadlines. Our chat gave me a real boost, asserted that yes, I can still come up with fresh ideas and turn them into something worth reading, while igniting my hunger for more. This is a huge relief.

IMG_04832) I’ve been trying to write about my difficult relationship with my mother, and its proving extremely difficult. Deciding to work outdoors in the sunshine, I stumbled upon an ‘aboriginal interpretive walk’ in regenerated land. The walk had informative plaques and gorgeous scenery, and immersing myself physically and mentally to its past, present and future, was really inspiring. It gave me a different perspective for my essay and fed into the tone, adding a new strand. It’s also sparked a short story idea, yet to be started, that I aim to write during my time here.

That’s the thing with writing; there are always humps and slumps. And I believe there should be – if we’re not challenged, how can we strive for better and improve? As I go into the second week, I’m feeling much more positive than I have done in months. Let’s see what the week brings…

Cape Clear Diaries (6): A Fond Farewell

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Leaving South Harbour, homeward bound

I’ve been home for a few days now; enough time has passed to reflect on the two weeks that I spent there. So what is the overriding feeling that I’m left with? What has my time on Cape Clear taught me?

I guess the overriding feeling is of joy and calm. My trip to Cape enabled me to reset the clock, revaluate my goals and rejig my workload to create a more harmonious work/life. In short, I recharged. But Cape also left me with a few important reminders…

1) A sense of place is important

The beauty of the island, the change of pace, the proud nature of the inhabitants, their determination to preserve island life through a mix of tradition and innovation, all fed into a vivid image of what encapsulates ‘Cape Clear’. As I heard said on the island… “You may leave Cape Clear, but Cape Clear won’t leave you.”

In your fiction, you need to make sure that the sense of place is as deeply rooted in the characters as it is in your descriptions. It’s not enough to describe a place to make it believable; you have to convince your reader, seduce them by making the character inextricable from the landscape (unless of course you’re trying to show them as an outsider. Then the reverse is required).

Consider the wild moorlands of Wuthering Heights, the harsh, unwelcoming sidewalks of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, or the unyielding, barren landscape of Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Childwhen it comes to your setting, not just your characters, it’s a serious case of ‘show, don’t tell’.

2) It’s OK to give up

Despite the strong winds and lashing rain at the start of the week, I got it into my head to take the cliff walk. The exposed route involves some incredibly steep hills and boggy terrain, but even with the weather against me, I was determined. Why? Because I’d planned it before even arriving. And I’m stubborn.

However, after hiking for over half an hour without even being able to see the cliff edge or the path ahead, staggering against the wind and sinking my foot ankle deep into a delicious mix of cow pat and bog, I decided to pause. I had another ten days to go. Was it really worth it? For once, I concluded that the sensible decision was to turn back.

Likewise, with writing, it’s important to realise that sometimes an idea just isn’t working. Like a film or book you find dull, the world will not end if you abandon it. The guilt (if you’re prone to such a thing) may linger for a day or two, but if you distract yourself with a completely different project – something fresh, something exciting – you’ll get over it. Trust me. You’re much better putting your energies into something worthwhile.

Now, I don’t mean give up at the first hurdle – you have to give something a good run first. But as writers, we need to be able to see what works and what doesn’t. A story can be perfectly crafted but lack the ‘oomph’ to maintain its reader’s attention. An idea can be brilliant – but not suited to your voice. You have to learn to spot the difference between a great idea and a great piece of writing.

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Franklyn the seadog, running low on oomph

Which brings me to my next point…

3)  But sometimes it’s even better to try again

Not to be beaten, I returned to the same cliff walk a few days later, in glorious sunshine, and was rewarded with spectacular views. The waves crashed against the cliff, I had a wonderfully clear view of the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, the gorse glowed against the blue sky and I was surrounded with birdsong. The bog was less boggy and with better visibility, I managed to avoid the cow pat.

If I hadn’t returned to the cliffs, I would have been left wondering – what if? Make sure you give your writing a solid chance before abandoning it completely. Try rewriting in a different tense or person, or starting at a different point in the story. Tell the tale through the eyes of a different character or experiment with alternating viewpoints. You never know, this is when the magic ‘oomph’ could happen.

4)  Take time out

I think one of the main things that Cape Clear reminded me was the importance of shutting off for a while and just seeing what happens. We’re used to being flexible in terms of shifting deadlines and juggling projects – but what about being flexible about relaxation? It’s OK to set rigid times to write and set regular goals, but if you don’t have any issues when it comes to being disciplined, then sometimes it’s a good idea to let things just take their course.

Consider, for instance, when you’re writing a first draft of a novel; my advice is to forget editing altogether. Continue with the word count and let the ideas and characters take over without any revision. Some writers like a carefully planned outline before they start to formulate a draft, but I find it liberating, and certainly more enjoyable, to just keep going and let the ideas and characters run amuck.

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A fine day for sailing (not like the journey there – must be a karma thing)

The main character’s name may change from Mary to Tania to Ermentrude as you stumble through this initial draft, but you can easily sort that out later once you have a big body of work. The way I see it, you only get to play at the outset – after that, it’s down to editing. Separate the two to get the most out of your writing time.

And remember, it’s often during the non-writing activities that our best ideas hit. Taking a walk, having a shower, cooking dinner, train rides, chatting with friends – these are the times when your relaxed brain

As I think back to Cape Clear, I’m thankful for many things;

  • time spent enjoying the island
  • people I met there
  • important reminders relevant to both my life and my writing…

But most of all, I have the island to thank for another ten thousand words of a first draft and an absolutely cracking new novel idea – the novel I’ve always wanted to write but didn’t know how that I can’t wait to explore.

Thank you Cape Clear!

Cape Clear Diaries (4): Changing Pace

South harbour, Cape Clear, a favourite spot to sit and dream

Gorgeous views – imagine the smells!

A change of pace was the reason I booked our out-of-season accommodation on Cape Clear at the end of last year. I had predicted that around this time, I would be starting a new novel and that I would need a clear mind and a change of scenery, away from the usual distractions, to make a solid start.

I find that switching from one major project to another is only difficult if you try to make the switch in your everyday environment. Some people thrive on routine but for me, it brings a certain level of ennui that makes the ideas sluggish and the writing process less joyous. I don’t need to be in the same spot at the same time to write. In fact, I prefer the complete opposite.

But why choose Cape Clear?

Firstly, it’s just across the water from home – I gaze upon its two towers every day from the mainland – and it’s easily accessible by ferry. Then, of course, the island is beautiful, with plenty of character, lovely walks and stunning views. Visiting out of season is advantageous, as you’re completely free to work to your own timescales, uninterrupted. And even more importantly, the incredibly strong sense of pride, identity and community that prevails here helps you focus.

Being on Cape Clear has certainly provided the change of pace I needed to kickstart this new novel. Island life is lived at a slower pace during this time of year and for me, there has been no routine to speak of over the last two weeks, other than several walks to various favourite views and locations across the island. And that means concentrated productivity.

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If I hadn’t gone exploring, I never would have found this beautiful creature (known as sea raft, by-the-wind sailor, purple sail, little sail or velella)

My first week was mainly spent writing, exploring at unusual hours and switching from the juggling mode of thought to pure creative freedom. There was a non-structure to my day which I found really fired my imagination and my desire to create. This last week has been much more about enjoying the company of my husband and dog, taking longer walks and socialising. I’ve still been writing, but the tempo has changed again.

The other night, I wasted almost an hour debating whether to join my husband in the pub for a music session. I’d written my daily goal of 2000 words, but even though I’d achieved my aim, guilt began to gnaw at my conscience. It sounded something like this:

‘I’m here to write so that’s what I should be doing, if I can. If there’s still an iota of possibility that more words could flow, then I should stay put and carry on. Especially since I’ve relaxed more now my husband has joined me on shore.’

The peaceful, uninterrupted writing time I’ve garnered since my husband’s arrival has been pretty irregular, so accompanying him for some fun rather than using the time effectively like I usually would felt like I was cheating myself in some way, deviating from my aim. But then my husband made a very good point.

“A change of pace. A different approach. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

So despite the random attack of guilt, I abandoned my extra writing session and went to the club. And guess what? It was a great night. The world didn’t explode, my typing fingers didn’t drop off and my ideas didn’t dry up. I got to spend some time with some really lovely, really interesting folk, full of stories, information and talent. I also learned a French jig and heard a rendition of Spancil HIll translated into Spanish.

The next day, I wrote another 2000 words without issue. Good, solid prose that probably won’t need much editing.

Some say that an island is a microcosm and I consider this statement to be true, especially if Cape Clear is anything to go by. Living in West Cork I’ve discovered that everything is magnified in rural conditions – from insecurities to weather dependency to community spirit – but an island emphasises things even further. There’s nowhere to hide. It opens you up and lays you bare.

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An incredible view of Sherkin Island from the end of Cape Clear

Being here, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve realised that perhaps my initial search for a change of place to create a different tempo was unnecessary. It’s the head space that I’m fighting for and against. And that can be achieved anywhere.

Now, I know I’m lucky to live so close to a wonderful island like Cape Clear but being on the island has taught me that whatever you’re into – learning a language, playing instruments, sports, writing – if you’re serious enough, you’ll be disciplined and you’ll adapt. Because it’s part of who you are. It’s as simple as that.

Cape Clear Diaries (1): Dangerous Seas

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Cape Clear ferry, from Baltimore

Cape Clear Ferry – excellent skippers

My friend was reluctant to let me leave Baltimore on the Cape Clear ferry when she saw the size of the waves. It’s a good job she couldn’t see past the harbour promontory; out on the Atlantic the waves reached four metres high in places. Places we were travelling through.

As the last ferry of the day pulled away from Baltimore harbour – the rest were cancelled due to weather conditions – I sent a text to my husband in case he was worried. Our home overlooks the waters to Cape Clear and he would see the swells. His reply?

“It’ll be like rollercoasters. And you love those. You’ll be grand.”

He’s a seaman born and bred; he respects the ocean as much as he fears it. And he knows me well… Unlike the ferryboat man who took my fare straight away, saying:

“I’d better do it quick, so, before ye get sick.”

“I’m used to the sea, I won’t get sick,” I laughed.

And I didn’t. The ferryboat man was partly impressed, partly disappointed. Especially since the trip wasn’t an easy one. The ferry lifted and rolled with the waves, pitching and lurching. Sometimes with warning, sometimes without.

There were about eight of us in the galley, watching the shifting horizon through the open door. If ever you end up on a wild ferry ride like this, here’s what you need to do (having trouble with my middle ear, these are tips I learned long ago)…

  1. sit as close to the back of the ferry as you can and with your back to the direction you’re going
  2. keep your eyes on the horizon to minimise motion sickness
  3. stay alert to the movement of the boat; when the front end lifts, tense your stomach for the drop
  4. move with the boat as though you’re riding on a motorbike

Trust me, these things will help.

The roughest part of the journey was turning into the mouth of Cape Clear harbour; this is where the seas are wildest and cross currents rage. At times, the engine had to be cut off to pull back, preempting the wall of water coming our way. Waves spluttered over the cabin and drowned the deck.

Thankfully, there was cargo on board which steadied the boat. And of course, there were great skippers steering the boat, with a wealth of knowledge under their belts.

beautiful East harbour, Cape Clear

Cape Clear East Harbour; calm after the storm

Although it was fun, I was glad to step onto land and it took about half an hour for my legs to stop wobbling. It was like they were still following the ebb and flow of the tide.

When I called my husband to et him know I was safe, he told me he’d climbed the hill with our dog, Franklyn, and watched the ferry pitch and flail in the sea through the binoculars, waiting until we’d turned safely into the harbour.

Now on Cape Clear, the island is silent. There are no tourists and few islanders. The air is thick with rustling trees, waves bashing against cliffs and birdsong. A wren dashes out from under a twisting briar and crosses my path, cocking his tail as he perches on an old stone ditch to welcome me.

Looking for somewhere to write?

A favourite haunt for Yeats and Shaw…

Lately, I’ve been thinking about self development for writers because every year around this time, I start choosing which festivals and residential courses I’m going to attend the following year.

There’s lots you can do as a writer to self-improve but the best way to develop your skills is to practice. Sometimes, this isn’t as easy as it sounds – especially if you’re trying to fit a writing schedule around a hectic home/family/work life.

Inspired by a blog post by Alison Wells who went to Cill Rialaig for a writers retreat earlier in the year, I thought I’d share with you a little place that I know… A home away from home that offers the perfect setting for focused writing but without the application forms and selection process.

Although writers retreats with a selection process are both vital and necessary, there are limited spaces. As a result, many writers – particularly unpublished writers trying to break through into the publishing world – are left without anywhere to go. As we all know, a change of scenery, a break from routine is beneficial. As a result, it’s something all writers – whatever stage of their career – crave from time to time.

So where can you go?

Anywhere that offers you peace, quiet and space is perfect. It could be a room, a shed, a library or local cafe. But sometimes you want to treat yourself to something a little bit special, giving your writing time the dedication and respect it deserves.

Some of the locals!

As far as I’m concerned, this secret little writing retreat in Ireland that has served many of my writing needs in the past – and still does on occasion – needs celebrating, even though part of me wants to keep all to myself. And I’m not the first…

Yeats, Shaw and Somerville all stayed here at some point during their career (you can ask to see the guestbook) and over the last few years, I’ve seen several writers come and go. Each time, they’re delighted with the work they’ve accomplished, the warm reception they’ve received and the energy they’ve recouped – but they’re reluctant to share!

Grove House is a welcoming family-run guest house which not only offers everything a writer needs – big rooms, desks, tranquil atmosphere, lovely views, great food and helpful staff – but is designed for writers and creative sorts. There’s a homely atmosphere and Katarina and her sons are well prepared for the quirky requests and odd hours that a writer might need.

Fast becoming a creative epicentre in the village of Schull, Grove House houses art exhibitions, acoustic gigs, piano recitals (the owner of the house is an exceptional piano player as well as a writer) as well as growing it’s own veg, housing a growing family of ducks and chickens and providing everything visitors might need. Of course, a trip to Ireland isn’t a possibility for everyone.

But is it time to treat yourself to some dedicated writing space and time? Where will you go?