Saturday, 26 May 2018

Notebook or Not?

I love my notebooks. I have a few different notebooks, some for work and my day to day writing, and some for my fiction writing,short stories, poems etc. I have a small notebook that I carry about in my handbag, along with numerous pens. Not that carrying a notebook around makes me a better writer. What it does is help me remember ideas that I might have while walking the dog or waiting for a bus, sitting it out in a waiting room or standing in the queue at the supermarket. 

Ideas seem to strike me at the most awkward moment. I clearly remember driving my kids to school some years ago and seeing the daffodils poking their heads out from a crust of snow and suddenly a storyline arrived in my head. At that point in time the internal monologue was going something like this:

"Mirror, signal and move into the outside lane to turn right at the roundabout....a hand, fingers frozen in death, in among the daffodil stems...thump down on the hooter - bloody white van driver cut me up again...she pulls over and walks back along the verge - did she really see that?...why can't my daughter stop winding her brother up in the back seat?'s freezing, early in the morning, fields swathed in freezing mist and she's not sure she ought to be doing this, she needs to get to work...another red traffic light, we're going to be late...then she sees the body and she knows who it is...must pick up some milk and drop it off to Mum on the way to the office..."

By the time I had parked up, the thrust of the idea had dwindles and even the kernel of it was largely forgotten and I've never bothered trying to pick it back up again. It might have been my breakthrough novel for all I know!

Still, not everyone would agree. And when the writer who doesn't agree is none other than Stephen King, you sit up and listen.

Stephen King on writing and notebooks

Powerful stuff. But the, Stephen King is a writing phenomenon all to himself and maybe his brain is not wired in the same way as your average writer's brain, and most of us are pretty well average. I, for one, need to rely on notebooks, or their electronic equivalent simply to trigger off the recollection of a detail. I jotted down a quick note when on the No.2 bus back from Europa Point on a journey home from work a couple of years ago, and a couple of months later, wrote it into a prize winning story. I've added it below - please read it and let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, with all due respect to one of the masters of storytelling, I love my notebooks, the blue one with beadwork on the front, my Star Trek one, my Flower Fairies one, my one that looks like a witch's grimoire, my grey one from Morrison - love them all!

Trouble for Tea
by Jackie Anderson

I only have to take one look at his face as he goes to step onto the bus and I know there will be trouble.  The deep frown on that smooth brow is a giveaway.  Then there’s that pout, pink and petulant, as he’s guided into the seats in the space where prams are normally parked.  The trouble will get far worse if someone with a buggy comes in. Just like the old days, when my boy was young.
The boy flings his bag on the floor at his father’s feet.  I can see the similarity, except the father’s face is dark with stubble like all young men seem to have these days.  Lazy fashion, if you ask me, can’t get up in time to smarten up before leaving the house.  Then again, with a kid like that, it can’t be easy, I should know, and the poor man has those sunken, red-rimmed eyes that tell of sleepless nights and exhaustion.
The bus lurches away from the kerb and I keep my eyes firmly on the view outside the window.  It’s what I do every day at tea time.  I get on the bus and ride to the lighthouse and back, a pretty route, each turn of the narrow road opening up to the magnificent blue of sea and sky. There I get a cup of tea and return on the next bus.  It distracts me from the emptiness of the house now the kids have left home.  
“Come on Harry, pick it up please.”
I’m going to find this all very hard to ignore.  
“You can’t leave it there, someone will trip over it.”
“I don’t want to!” the boy shrieks.  I glance at some of the other passengers.  They’re all disturbed, trying not to look.  I remember all this very well.
The man rubs his chin.  Beads of sweat are glistening on his brow. Maybe I should say something, but it’s been a long time since anyone wanted my help.  The man picks the bag up and settles in a seat with Harry.  I look away, not wanting to intrude in his difficult moment.
The boy is screeching, ignoring his father’s attempts to calm him down. The other passengers shift in their seats and I can hear their disapproval rumbling along with the engine.
“Stop that, Harry, you know you like to go to Club,” the man says.  His voice is calm.  I watch him.  His face is flushed, eyes bright with an embarrassment he refuses to admit.  I know his chest feels tight, his throat is constricting because really he wants to weep, to shed a lifetime of tears for the son he loves more than he can say but whom he can’t seem to help.  But he won’t let himself weep because he knows he has to be strong, he has to be that special someone who can love that child, despite his tears and snot and his taking swipes with clawed fingers at his own father’s face.
“I hate it!” He punches and kicks, his screams turning into grunts, like a wild animal fighting the cage.
I’m squirming inside.  It’s all too familiar.  The red-faced father, the screeching kid spitting and scratching, the others, the rest of the world frowning and making you feel small, inadequate, breathless, as if drowning in disapproval.  A woman at the back is making loud tutting noises.  I hope she chokes on her own spittle.  I’m angry now.  “No upbringing,” says another.
That’s it.  I’ve spent far too long moping, missing my family, keeping myself to myself. I know what to do, and if the man minds, well, I can always get off at the next bus stop and walk the rest of the way.  
“Come on Harry, you’ll enjoy it once you’re there.”  He is incredible, this man with pain and sadness in his eyes, the calm voice and the big hands fending off the blows.  I rummage around in my handbag.  I always carry the puppet around with me.  It reminds me of my own little bit of trouble.  He lives away now, a grown man with a job of sorts and enjoying life.
“Hello, Harry,” my voice scratches at my throat.  The man’s blue eyes widen but he nods at me in approval. My hand in the puppet, I give a little bark.  Harry glances round and his arms stop in mid-air.
“I’m Dotty the Dog,” I hurry on.  Harry looks suspicious but listens.
“You have a huge voice for a little boy,” Dotty says.
Harry grins and wipes snot and tears onto his sleeve.  
“And I’ve a really loud bark for a little dog,” I’m warming into my old routine. 
“Shall we play a game?” Dotty suggests.  Harry nods and before long we’re playing word games and he is sitting on his father’s knee.  “We’re nearly at our stop,” says Dad.  Harry’s smile vanishes.
“It looks like it’s my stop too,” I say and Dotty glares at me. Harry giggles.
“I’m Joss,” says the man, “and thank you, Dotty is wonderful, inspired.”
“My son, well, he’s grown up now, but Harry reminds me of him.  Dotty used to help him settle too.”
“Is Dotty coming to Club, Dad?” says Harry, once we’re on the pavement.
“Perhaps you can join us for a cup of tea” suggests Joss.
“Oh, you don’t want an old dear in the way…” I begin.
“Can we get Dotty some cake?” interrupts Harry. I giggle.  That’s the thing with kids.  They’re so natural.
“Dotty prefers biscuits, but I will happily have tea and cake with you, so long as it’s no trouble.”
“No, I’m the one that’s trouble,” laughs Harry and he takes my hand.
“He’s a bit over the top sometimes,” breathes Joss, a fluster of bag and coats.
“Well there’s nothing better than a bit of trouble for tea,” I say. The boy in my right hand and Dotty in my left.  Like the old days.   

Monday, 30 April 2018

From broad brush strokes to minute detail

View across Gibraltar Harbour at sunset

I guess I'm lucky to live in a place where landscape - or seascape, to be more accurate - is spectacular. Gibraltar is small - roughly three miles square rising to 630m above sea level, it juts out to sea, the Bay of Gibraltar to the west, the Strait of Gibraltar and the mountains of North Africa to the south, the Mediterranean Sea stretching out to the east and the Sierras of Spain to the North. We are regularly treated to the most intense, colourful sunsets - the majesty of which inspired the broad brush strokes in which I described them at the start of my poem To the Harbour:

"We used to walk to the harbour,                            
You and I,
On summer evenings,
And watch the sky drown in flames
Into a sea ablaze with the fires of sunset.
And we would gaze in childish wonder
At the purple silhouettes 
Of the Spanish hills, their grandeur
Distant forms of closer shadows."

(from my poem, To the Harbour)

Broad brushstrokes are as helpful to the writer as to the artist: they instantly create an image, an impression, set a mood, form the backdrop to the next piece of action in a story. Visualise the quivering heat of Van Gogh's Starry Night and the way that those thick globs of perfectly placed paints stir something in the soul that instantly conveys the heat of the night and the intensity of an emotion we can barely put into words but can feel simply by looking on the picture, and you will understand what I am trying to get at. When the landscape is vast and you need to somehow bring it to life for the reader in words, broad brushstrokes are as useful to the writer as to the reader:

"A surging swell, a screaming horde, this sea                         
Charges to the shore and thrashes at the
Stone of ancient cliff that groans against the
Pounding beat of winter drums and bugles."

(from my poem, Samhain Storm)

In Gibraltar, the Old Town stretches higgeldy piggeldy up the mountain side towards the medieval Tower of Homage left by the Moors, the iconic lighthouse stands proud to the south close by the Gorham Cave complex where Neanderthal remains were found, and the bustle of an international business centre, luxury marinas, thriving port and busy airport in the north and west clamours day and sometimes into the night. You can write reams about this place and there's still more to say.

From the new marina up to ancient Rock

But I think that if you look with a writer's eyes (the inner eyes as well as those on your face), there is much to be written about pretty much anywhere. And this is where funnelling down from those scene setting brushstrokes into those intimate details that bring a place truly to life works so well. Detail are what bring a place alive to the reader, make a setting real. I was not around when the remains of the victorious British fleet limped back to Gibraltar after the Battle of Trafalgar, the body of the dead Lord Nelson no board, but it was the detail that I imagined that helped me add realism to the poem:

"Rounded bellies slowly heaving, 
As the waves through Straits come creeping,
Gentlemen with top-hats nodding, 
Gather round to mutter warnings
That English blood will flow,
While in and out, skipping, darting,
Schoolboys after treats go scrambling,
Small boats full of fish come hailing
Brine-burnt girls that watch them, wishing
The winds of change would blow."

(from my poem, Home from Trafalgar)
HMS Victory

I described a scene from imagination: portly gentlemen in top hats muttering about the war (Gibraltar's older generation like to gather at a place affectionately known here as El Martillo - long story on how that name came about - and better known as John Mackintosh Square, and spend mornings gossiping about current affairs); and the fishing boats putting in to harbour, their crew calling out at the local girls who are desperate for social change to bring about improvement to their lot. I think it added a realism to the poem that otherwise would just have spoken about the end of the Battle of Trafalgar, a well-worn theme, and which I had based on Gibraltar as a place, the port to which the fleet sailed after the battle.

So what about somewhere that doesn't have the reputation for glorious summer days and a vast, stretching landscape around it? Can we still bring it to life as poets? Of course we can: broad brushstrokes to set the scene and detail to highlight the uniqueness of that place. Take the River Medway at Gillingham for example. You're not going to readily find it in travel brochures but yet it is a place of immense beauty. Have you ever watched the sun rise across the Medway from the bottom of Copperhouse Lane, from Sharp's Green or from Horrid Hill?Or the sunset in the same place? I have, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. 

From Riverside County Park, Gillingham looking towards Kingsnorth, winter, late afternoon

Even the silhouettes of the industrial buildings at Kingsnorth across the river stand majestic. Have you seen the way that small boats squat in the mud behind the outdoor pool at The Strand, waiting for the tide to wake them and slap them into action again? It's charming - look out to the wide open horizon of the estuary where the colours reflect the ever-changing light, then bring your eyes to focus on the detail of the little boats, or do the reverse:

"They bob, a row of coloured corks,     
Dipping first their prows
Then raising them again
To sniff at morning air, 
Restless now the tide creeps in,
Tugging at their tethers 
Like frothing colts
Eager to race out to sea,
To join the shoals,
To ride the streaming currents
That pluck at them now,
Hither, thither and thereabout."

(from my poem, Boats at Bay)

And what if you are trying to write about an old town, maybe run down with slum areas? Old English seaside towns, for example, lost some of their holiday charms in recent decades. Can we use broad brushstrokes and fine detail to bring it to life? I tried this out the other way around, starting with the detail, this time writing about an imaginary seaside town but inspired by trips to Herne Bay, Hythe and Dymchurch in Kent:

She sits on a fabric chair                                   
at the door to a timber hut,
perched on a shingle shoreline.
Her fingers work swiftly
occasionally tripping over
their own swollen knuckles,
working at wool,
needles dipping in and out
in relentless rhythm,
like the feeding beaks of oystercatchers
out on the sands at low tide.
She feels the spray on her face
each time the sea returns,
its winter waves thrashing
just yards from her toes
and scented with snow and far-off ice.
In summer, its froth
Plays in the rock pools
Spreading the smell of sunshine.

(from my poem, By the Beach Hut)

Perhaps I am lucky to be in Gibraltar at the moment and have my eyes filled with visual treats daily, but a writer could and should be able to write about any place, real or imaginary, far or near, about a place present or how it was in the past. Setting the scene with broad brushstrokes and drilling down to small detail helps me. Try it.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

In a Flash

Last week I entered a story into a competition. As I've said in a previous post, writing to competition rules is good discipline and a great (and you never know, possibly profitable) way of practicing the craft of writing.

With a 1000 word limit, this particular competition qualified as flash fiction and, my word, that was tough! I am naturally verbose and this spills over into my writing, but the risk I take with rambling on is that I bore my readers and they put down my writing, never bothering to finish reading the story. So writing to a tight word count is my way of training myself to cut the crap out of my writing. And as a proofreader for several publications, I know just how much of what people write and think is essential, can be cut out, the effect of which is often to tighten a piece of writing until it right to convey the message with maximum impact. Less is more, so they say and in this respect, "they" are right. 

So  here are some of my thoughts on how to write a concise story. This can be applied to other types of writing: features, letters, reports, monologues, scripts, blog posts...

  • Write your first draft freely, then work on it - this lets you freely explore your ideas and lets the creativity flow
  • Then rework the piece taking all unnecessary words out - these are words that don't add anything to the meaning of the sentence. Like "very" or "really".
  • Use strong nouns and verbs and you can get rid of adjectives that don't add to the sense of what you are writing. Try it out, it works.

  • Do you need to elaborate on how someone was talking when using dialogue? Readers can become distracted when faced with a variety of ways of speaking. Have them focus on what is being said rather than on whether they whispered softly (how else would you whisper?), or shouted loudly (ouch, too much!). "Said" is often all you need.
  • Pick a key emotion on which to hang your story.
  • Limit your images: one or two strong images make a more lasting impact than many crammed into a tight word limit.
  • Pick a key theme and stick to that one - there is no room in 1000 or fewer words to elaborate or complicate.
  • Limit the number of scenes since world building and context setting can take up much of your word count.
  • Limit to just one or two characters - make it personal and make it focused and the reader will be swiftly hooked, engaged and rewarded.
  • Use a small idea for a small story and reserve big ideas for longer pieces of writing.
  • Limit the viewpoints - one character, one viewpoint tends to work best.
Final tip? Just write and enjoy the process. Work hard enough and you may be rewarded for it in a competition win or publication.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Writing for Competitions

A quick browse on the Internet will soon trawl up writing competition after writing competition - short stories, poems, novels, flash fiction, one act plays, and more. Some offer huge prizes and some more modest. Some only go as far as to offer publication in an anthology for the winners and this alone is enough to tempt the writer who yearns for publication. Some come accompanied by fees, some are free to enter. Is it worth while entering work in a competition, was a question recently asked of me by a fellow writer.

That gave me food for thought. I have occasionally entered writing competitions. I've won some, came runner up or highly commended for some, never even heard of the results of numerous others. But I do believe there is value in submitting pieces of writing to competitions that go beyond the obvious one of possibly winning a prize (hopefully a rather chunky cheque, maybe a residential writing retreat and publication to boot).

Firstly there's the discipline of writing to a theme, where there is one, or searching for a theme that inspires you to write and then voicing the story or poem that the theme sparks off. There's the word count to be aware of, the rules that must be followed (every rule needs to be followed, from the layout and font size to submission details and total number of words, otherwise you run the risk of having your entry disqualified before it is even read). You may  have to write to a particular genre or style and this requires focus and discipline so you don't wonder off the track that is laid out for it. And then there's the time element: the dreaded deadline. They are usually set in stone, and cannot be changed, as is the case in most parts of life. 

For the writer who works alone, from home, without a boss or manager to answer to, the regular application of the discipline of meeting a deadline and set requirements that come from entering writing competitions helps to hone your skills as a writing professional. Just because you want to practise your art and perhaps sell it, doesn't mean to say you can get away with shoddy presentation, ignoring important details and not working to precisely what your editor wants - in the case of competitions, it is what the judges and organisers want that you work to meet.

The other benefit of entering writing competitions is to work the creative muscle. It isn't hard, when working on a long project, to get bogged down and stale. Taking a break and writing in a different style or genre is almost like taking a holiday and works to refocus and energise your creativity. You also experience the satisfaction of challenging yourself, writing to completion and submitting your work to be read.

Okay, so that last bit, having your work read, can feel a bit intimidating. But if we're not writing for our words to be read, understood, thought about, reacted to - why are we writing at all? For writers who are still working on developing their craft, or who have never had the courage to submit work to a publisher or magazine editor, it is a way of gaining confidence. When entering competitions, especially if you are sending your work out online to another town or country, you can feel a degree of anonymity. You have never met the judges, you are never  likely to meet them, so what they think of your work doesn't really matter. 

At which point, it's worth remembering that judges of writing competitions are evaluating the writing. Many competitions do not have the work identified by name when it is passed to the judges - they judge the writing in front of them, and a jolly laborious task it must be to pick out a winner from perhaps hundreds or thousands of entries. It is not you as a person or writer that is being judged, it is the piece that you have entered. If you don't win, it is not always because it was not a good piece of work - often it is because on that particular occasion, someone entered a piece of work that was a bit better.

The lessons that can be taken from entering competitions, even if you don't win are various, and they can help you increase in confidence. The more you write, the better a writer you become, so entering is a way of helping to focus your writing even while you work on your magnum opus. If you get feedback on your entry - which some but not all competitions offer - use it to make a better attempt at the next one. If not, read the winners and see what it is they did that made their work rise above yours, and then apply it to your work.

I think there is tremendous value in entering competitions when you can. I say that as a writer who has recently had one of those polite emails of the type: 'thanks for sending us your entry; better luck next time'. But at least I can go back to the keyboard with a dose of reality swallowed: there were 13,000 entries to that particular competition and I can now work on a way to make my next stab at it stand out above that crowd.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Do you plan before you write - or just write?

Always a subject of debate among writers: do you plan out your work first? Do you lay out a structure so you have a road map, a route to your destination? Or are you more impulsive, let your fingers move over the keyboard and let them take your story to wherever it is meant to go?

I find a bit of planning helps me out. If nothing else, since I tend to write in short spurts as and when I get time to and in a race before deadlines, just to jot down a few bullet points at the start of a piece helps me to focus my thoughts. It helps to outline the angle of entry, the pathway through the theme, the sequence of events and drives me towards the conclusion, which, if all goes well, is a natural summing up of what went before in non-fiction and a tying of loose ends, a resolution, in fiction.

The extent of planning is influenced in part by how complex the piece you are trying to produce. A thoroughly researched piece of political history, a detailed biography of a famous figure, a complex crime thriller are each likely to need a thorough road map much more than a short story with a small cast of characters and a single theme plot. Then again, preferring to plan or not plan, and the extent of details in your plans can be influenced just as much by your personality as by the requirements of what you are trying to write.

I am, in collaboration with another writer, very slowly working my way through a non-fiction book. We began our work with some basic reading around the subject and then discussed an outline of what we wanted the book to be about. From this, we put together a basic plan. This has been reviewed a number of times, reworked and refocused as the research threw up information that we wanted to integrate, and identified irrelevant details that we decided to throw out. As we write, the plan is modified, but essentially it has helped us to focus and to organise what is a vast amount of information that we could have got lost in for years without ever typing a word.

For me, this approach works quite well with non-fiction. Even when I write short articles for magazines, a very basic plan helps me to organise my thinking. 

It works quite well with creative writing too. I remember from decades ago, our English teacher recommending writing a rough plan in pencil at the start of each of our answers before taking the plunge. It's the writing equivalent of warm up exercises before a rugby match to make sure you get the best performance from your muscles: in a writer's case, the mind muscle. What I found used to help the most, was a kind of release of creativity that seems to come when you force your thoughts down the nib of a pencil (you can do it electronically, but pencil works best for me). 

A rough plan doesn't restrict your work, it just helps to shape it. Many a time I've planned out a story to find that as I write, characters suddenly seem to take a life of their own, carve out their own path. Sometimes, it feels that I am writing what they are doing, rather than orchestrating their actions from my writing. It's a weird mental space that writers inhabit!

Which is where non-planning and writing on the wing comes in. Once the creative flow starts, writing seems to happen through you rather than by you. It's as if once you have found the "real" story - that mystical story that exists in the Platonic world of ideas rather then springing from the grey matter between your ears, that story that was just lurking in the ether waiting to be caught and fastened to paper (or translated into digital form) - the story simply materialises. So, I might be sounding a bit metaphysical here, but that's how it feels. 

What actually happens is that by writing freely, with only a vague suggestion about what you want to write, you release the creativity in your brain and it will create the story as you go along. It's quite a liberating way to write, a little exciting, and even a touch disturbing if you are one of those writers who likes complete control over their work.

Whether you plan your work first or not, whether you follow your plan or let yourself get carried along by the power of the story, all writing needs to be revised and polished so that it makes some kind of sense to the reader. Stories without meaning are not stories at all, just a collection of phrases. But revision is a whole other ball game. I'm off to plan a story in the hope I'll actually write one worth submitting to a competition or for publication somewhere. For what is the point of writing if no-one is going to be able to read and understand your work?

Sunday, 25 February 2018

One Word at a Time

It is never quite the right time to write is it? Or so it seems to me. Priority has always been given to duty and writing for me is such a loved pastime that in my mind it is an indulgence. And, raised in a strict Catholic tradition which screams fire and brimstone at anything that might appear to be pleasurable, I always have had to relegate writing time to the back end of all my duties. How can you write when there's always so much to do: laundry, dinner, shopping, cleaning...oh, and earning a living while you find someone who will pay for your writing?

This isn't a picture of me, but when all six were at home and there were eight of us, I wish I could have hung washing from each window as well as the lines in the garden and every radiator indoors! Laundry, laundry everywhere and not a stitch to wear!

As a working parent, there were always many more duties than time for indulgences. With six kids to raise, and periods of running my own businesses, there was rarely time to sleep, let alone write. And of course, if you don't sleep, your writing is generally poor because your brain pretty much babbles. You see, it's not "baby brain" - that is just a construct from a paternalistic society that convinces women and the men around them that pregnancy and motherhood somehow affects your ability to be rational, clever, quick-witted, problem-solving, creative, professional and all those things that make you worth employing and successful and worth paying as much as the next man (yes, deliberate use of a traditional male-centred vocabulary). The problem for a writer with being a parent is lack of sleep and how that affects your brain. (I'm going to make interruptions a theme of a later post).

So, six kids later I'm pretty used to thinking in a state of brain fog. And looking back on some of my early attempts at poems and stories, even feature articles, these clearly show that I was knackered. Like this:

Dunfanaghy and beyond

That crumbling cottage by the lough was once a home,
A shelter from the winds that lash the hills.
It had a roof of black thatch, once,
And small windows that caught a little sunshine
To brighten the daily gloom.

The doorway is low
And must have encouraged
A suitably obsequious stoop from the farmer.

No, not farmer.
Peasant, perhaps, or chastened warrior
Driven to the edge of survival by the conquistadors
That came in droves to raid and plunder,
And rape
The very bowels of the earth they trod.

The stones, now worn and tumbling,
Grey as the mist that shaped them,
Still carry the brown scent of the turf fire,
And scattered in the single, ragged room,
Abandoned remnants of rural toil:

Iron cooking pots hurled in a hurry aside,
A spade and a poker dropped in the corner
These last hundred years and more.

Banked to the side,
Leaning, like a child against his mother’s time-worn skirts,
A byre,
Still sweating the stench of huddled cattle,
Sheltering from the leeward lunge of ocean gales.

It was once a home, filled with warmth,
And singing children, smiles amid the toil.

But hunger curbed their joy.
Famine destroyed them all,
And death spread his insidious net
Over barren hills and sterile glens.

Just a little heap of stones,
Staring silent to empty space.

Just a grim and lingering grave.

That effort emerged from a snapped half of an HB pencil, chewed at the snapped end, and scribbled onto a tourist guide pamphlet in the mid-90s during a drive through Donegal. Three kids, full time job, just finished a part-time university degree and wondering if I could cut it as a poet. Awkward phrases, lack of rhythm...but not entirely wasted. I salvaged one or two bits and inserted into other poems and it was good practise at using an observation to develop an idea and write about it.

A published novelist told me last year how she managed to start to publish her work, despite having to raise six kids of her own. "It was difficult. The first ten years were really hard, writing in bits in between doing everything else. But it all boils down to persistence. Every sentence you write means you get better, no writing is ever wasted." It took her over ten years to write a novel good enough to publish. She now has half a dozen to her name and her books can be found on book shop shelves all over the country. Others I have spoken to - few with six kids, though! - were a bit more fortunate: partners who worked while they parented, au pairs and nannies, parents who paid their rent for them...I shan't go into my views on class, money and the opportunity to be a creative, it would become a political rant.

So, all that aside, I keep going, bit by bit, sentence by sentence. Yes, there have been four or five, or more perhaps, stabs at novels. Stories sent off to publishers never to be seen again (oh, the cruelty of the silent rejection!). Dunfanaghy and beyond has not seen the light of day for over twenty years till today. It was all part of the dud notes of practising. I think my writing got better. Use of language, playing with words all improve with practise. Just as a pianist can only learn a symphony one bar at a time, a writer can only finish their piece one word at a time. And sometimes, short pieces can work well. Like this one, which got a "highly commended in a small competition once about eight or nine years ago:

Winter morning.

Morning air so cold
it slices through your skin
and peels back the last of night- time sleep
from eyes that sting in thin 
winter light so bright
it glints rose gold
from silver leaves.
Each step a snap,
 a crack, a sharp shot,
each breath a shard of icy mint
that lingers on your tongue,
then leaves the scent
of musk, of earth,
of naked trees,
of frozen dew
…of death.

I still have a teenager at home, and all the worrying and thinking about my kids, even those in their twenties and thirties who have kids of their own, and I still am a really poor sleeper. But I have kept going, with long gaps, lots of frustrations, lots of interruptions and loss of "the flow" and I finally feel I can say "I am a published writer". And I am paid for some of my writing. I still need to fulfil my ambition of publishing fiction, a novel perhaps, or another slim volume of poetry. But every word, every sentence, is a step closer.