Thursday, 29 August 2013

(Not) Just Another Back-To-School Post

At the risk of this sounding like just another desperate end-of-August blog post from another desperate writing parent who hasn't written much more than a cheque in weeks, as the parent of twins who are starting 'Big School' on Monday this end of August is more than just another end of summer holidays; it means we survived.

In the true spirit of September prep I bought the new schoolbags and lunchboxes, the tracksuits and pencils, but because it's a special 'Big School' September, I also made Big Resolutions: this morning I opened a new Scrivener project, Novel format, which I've called WIP-Sept-13.

Currently, I have one novel under submission and a new novel-in-stories at first draft stage which I don't plan on revisiting too soon. So what to do - a question complicated by the fact that my next MFA tutor/peer input won't take place until January?

Unbidden a few weeks ago the mysterious creativity genie threw me a character, the world(s) she inhabits, and the thing she wants. I tried to ignore it - as you do; these ideas-which-might-be-novels are a lot of hard work - but it hasn't gone away. It might fizzle into nothing like a firecracker, but it also might be the beginnings of a novel. I figure it's at least worthy of space on my computer. WIP Sept 13, as of Monday, here I come.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

From Hanumanasana To The Penguin/RTE Guide Longlist

The last time I was in this beautiful building on Pearse Street I was teaching a yoga class.

I'm excited to be visiting again in September, this time as a long-list-ee in the Penguin / RTE Guide / City of Literature short story competition. I'll be in the illustrious company of Patricia Deevy (Penguin), Faith O'Grady (Literary Agent), Niamh Boyce (The Herbalist), and others, not least the other longlistees, who happen to include my sister who'll be coming all the way from France. There will be talks on literature and publishing, a workshop, the prize-giving, and a free lunch - all good!

I'm especially pleased that the story I entered, Box of Rain, was taken from the novel-in-stories I've been working on, the first draft of which I've just finished. It's encouraging at what is, as any writer will attest, a delicate stage...

And for your delectation, lest you think this blog peddles only in fiction, here's a pic from that other life...

Monday, 19 August 2013

The Forty Foot And The Writer

My relationship with swimming is a somewhat chequered one. In the past, I've been fished out of the River Barrow by my friend's older brother, fished out of a public pool (ignominiously, by something resembling a giant tadpole net minus the net), laughed at for being very white (in Italy), and for running screaming from a lake in the Tirol (what? it was full of water snakes). This is why swimming in the Forty Foot, above, found me facing my fears, most of which were focused on what the name implies, i.e. the forty watery feet which would be below me.

But, as a wise woman once said, feel the fear and do it anyway. So, with dry mouth and stomach full of butterflies, I descended the concrete steps, fingers white-gripping the stainless steel rail, and entered the cool waters of the Irish Sea. "Can you still feel the bottom?" I asked my companion anxiously at five-second intervals - with all the unconcern of the wetsuited that he, un-be-wetsuited, could probably not feel his legs.

Reader, I did it. Doggy-paddled in the forty foot, never more than a few meters from the steps, and probably only a few inches out of my depth.

But what lessons for the writer?

1. When you have come to the end of your first draft of a novel (or a novel-in-stories, as the case may be), and have set it aside, and during that set-aside period instead of painting the house or cleaning the house or feeding the children you get an idea for another novel, there may be nothing for it but to dive in. Otherwise you could find yourself engaged in daft personal challenges egged on by daft eighties self-help books.

2. Bad idea getting into the sea right beside the James Joyce Martello Tower which can't fail conjure the idea of wading into a sea of green snot.

3. Find better ways to describe the physical manifestations of fear. 'Dry mouth'? 'Stomach full of butterflies'? I mean, really.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Novelist Or Short Story-ist: Which One Are You (And Does It Matter)?

Ben Goldstein/Studio D (Esquire)
It's a question I've been asking myself lately.

I'm mid-way through my MFA at UCD now, and last semester I was privileged to be able to audit Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's Library of the Imagination short story course. We examined the history of the form through some of its best practitioners: Chekhov, Joyce, Carver, through post-modernism, Alice Munro, Kevin Barry, Claire Keegan, to name a few. But while there was some theory, there was more reading and still more practice, and always much discussion. It was a productive semester for me, and an opportunity to try out different styles and ideas.

It both fed into and distracted me from my work in progress, also my MFA thesis, which began life as a short story Auslanders; the plan was a short story collection. But ever since seeing Short Cuts, the Robert Altman movie based on Raymond Carver's stories, I loved the idea of linked short stories, so Auslanders extended into a linked short story collection. I have tried this before, but my characters blended into each others' lives and became my novel, Michaelangelos; the links were just too tempting. As with Michaelangelos, my linked stories have morphed into what is now a novel-in-stories.

It's this morph-point that interests me most. For me, it happened when the story I was working on went over the 10,000 word mark. It was self-contained, and something happened to someone, yet it didn't feel like a short story (or a novella); it was begging me to explore further some of the characters and ideas outside of the story itself, yet the story itself could not have merited novel-length.

It's not a complete coincidence that my reading this year includes the Booker short-listed The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, which tells its relatively slight plot through more than twenty points of view —  poly-morphic novel, or novel-in-stories? — and A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. In both these books the individual stories, or some of them, at least, are self-contained, but in both there is a broader story — a novel. I changed nothing except my idea of what the work-in-progress is, yet everything about the writing changed, I think (hope) for the better. I felt freed up to write into the past, into the future, and in settings from Mexico to Canada, even though Chicago is at the centre of the book.

What are the differences for the writer in writing short stories and writing novels? Any thoughts, especially on the point where the two cross over, are welcome!