Saturday, 24 May 2014

Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Mike McCormack at the DWF

Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Mike McCormack took to the stage on Thursday lunchtime for the Art of the Short Story event, ably facilitated by Thomas Morris of the Stinging Fly. He began by introducing the two authors: Nuala, he said, writes 'truths that are rarely spoken' (evoking Robert Olen Butler), while Mike writes black humour and arresting dialogue, deepening into core sadness.

As both authors write short stories as well as novels, he asked about the differences between the two (an area dear to this blogger's heart, as I am currently working on a paper exploring genre, and genre slippage, as in the novel-in-stories).

Nuala approached the question first as a reader, saying that the pleasures are different, that there is resistance to short stories from readers, and that the novel is perceived as the highest form. For her, there is a different 'hit' or feeling, and it is not just about time. The short story, she reminded us, is designed to be read in one sitting. She felt that the reader needed to be trained in the art of reading short stories, and that perhaps this could be achieved by making them more available, for example, as Kindle singles.

As a writer, she says the novel is something you can come back to every day, and that is a great comfort, whereas with short stories, you're constantly starting anew. There is always the fear that you will never write another.

For Mike, the short story holds out the promise that you might possibly get it right, whereas the novelist is condemned to getting it wrong. But, if the novel is created in a quarry, with a lump hammer, the short story is keyhole surgery. It is a much more exacting guest. There is more pressure. It demands your attentiveness. The novel is expansive, generous, openhearted: we are people among people, whereas with the short story, 'you're only codding yourself; we're on our own.'

What if you're not getting it right, Morris wondered. Are there stories you've given up on?
Mike admitted to chiselling away and polishing a story for 18 months, and that sometimes he just doesn't know if he's getting it right. Nuala said that if a story is rejected she will work on it until it finds a home, and that some are constantly rejected until they end up in a book.

On openings: Mike tries to sound a note that will reverberate. He added that a story might survive a bad opening, but it won't survive a bad ending. He admitted that he sees journals and competitions as 'part of the drafting process; the real arguments are when you're putting a book together.'

On endings: Nuala says she has no need for resolution, but that endings are crucial in the short story. She quoted Elizabeth Gilbert who said that the ending 'should bend over backwards and kiss the beginning.' The reader should be 'holding their breath from start to end.' She remarked that with short shorts, or flash, she likes crisp, arresting openings, and decisive endings which make sense.

Neither author plots. Morris wanted to know if it is difficult to trust that. For Nuala, it's the joy and excitement of writing; she might not write it if she knew where it was going; she might bore herself.
Mike starts with an image, a man and a place, for example, and dialogue gathers around it. 'It serves me well.'

Advice to writers?
Nuala: 'Just write. And do years of that. And read.'

On the question of reading one's peers, Morris asked if there was a lack of variety. Mike feels that 'our reputation is bloated,' that we use the nineteenth century Joyce/Chekhov template — linear, single-voiced, past tense, gathering towards epiphany —and we have not developed it, as borne out by the two big collections, Granta and Oxford. He says we have one true genius of the short story since Joyce, rarely acknowledged, and that is Beckett. 'The Irish short story is skewed and misrepresented by his absence.' He wonders why this happened. Before Joyce and Moore, we had the Goths, 'pale, worried Protestants, going to Trinity College,' writing about ghosts and vampires. Beckett, he claims, is a 'reconstituted Goth.'

Nuala notes that there are people pushing against the nineteenth century model, and she mentions Ryan O' Neill, Cathy Sweeney, Dave Lordan, and June Caldwell.

Much food for thought, but too short, as dictated by its lunchtime slot.

Lia Mills and John Kelly: Writers On Top Of Their Game

I've been neglecting my blog. I have many excuses, not least that I've been posting on the Dublin Writers Festival blog.

The Festival kicked off on Saturday with the Lia Mills / John Kelly event.

Which I blogged.
Which was 'pending'.
Which has disappeared into internet ether.

Sob! It was good!

What follows is a poor reproduction:

Mick Heaney described Mills and Kelly as writers 'on top of their game'. Kelly is a madly imaginative and entertaining author; Mills has the gift of a keen eye, and the beautifully rendered sentence. [I've had first hand experience of Lia's keen eye as she is supervising my MFA thesis/novel-in-stories — always kindly, always meticulously.]

Where did the impulse for the novel come from?

Kelly, knew he couldn't write another pastoral novel about Ireland, he couldn't write the farm novel, so 'white-knuckled' he wrote 'something they're not going to like' (From out of the city). He wanted 'to discombobulate himself, and the reader. [He succeeds. It's a great read, it shows what is possible, it pushes the reader out of their comfort zone.]

Mills, whose mother lived 'over the shop' in Parnell Street during the 1916 Rising, wanted to explore what it is like when your own city blows up around you. Fallen was an act of restitution.

It's been a while for both writers since their last novel. Heaney asked if it was difficult to get back up on the horse.
Mills' was a long process. Books get written 'a word at a time' (and then there are the interventions; Heaney drew attention to the Acknowledgements in Fallen, where Anne Enright is credited for saving Fallen from the shredder, not once, but twice!) 'I'm slow,' she admitted.
Kelly talked about how extraordinarily hard it is to write a novel. Stamina is needed, especially when one is 'writing with little hope of getting published. Writing into a black hole of nothingness, wondering why.'
You don't sleep either, both writers agreed.

On writing memoir:
Kelly referred to his as 'think pieces', written when he was in his early twenties. Mills said it was easier (than writing fiction) because you didn't have to make anything up. Memoir is all about editing, 'taking out the 'poor me' and libellous things.' She added that you have to be careful about not writing other people's lives.

On being a writer: Richard Ford's 'don't have children' mantra was evoked, echoing Cyril Connolly's infamous 'pram in the hall'. Kelly observed that artists can tend to leave a 'trail of casualties'. Mills agreed, saying that 'you are torn all the time.' She mused that it can't be easy living with a writer.

On their previous books:
Kelly felt his were not as good as they could have been, and said that with From out of the city he 'started all over again.'
Everything you write teaches you something, Mills said, that it is the classic dilemma of the artist 'it is never quite what I thought it was going to be.'

An audience member asked if they had any advice for would-be authors, and they agreed that one should read. Read stuff one wouldn't usually read. Read Paris Review author interviews. Heaney concluded that a good place to start would be to read Lia's and John's books.

Next up for me in the Dublin Writers Festival, hot on the heels of Mills/Kelly, barely giving me time to buy my books and say a few hellos in The Gutter Bookshop, came Writing for Games.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Writing for Games at the DWF

'As games become more sophisticated, the skills a writer brings to the project are more important than ever, but what exactly does a games writer do? Is it about dialogue, or level design, or both? And what happens when the player is in control of the story?' Intrigued by the Dublin Writers Festival programme blurb, I booked myself in.


This was the first clue that I might be out of my depth here. It's how you write & (ampersand) in html, apparently; digital media was originally designed to do maths, so sometimes extra characters are  needed to get something linguistic, Rob Morgan, writer and narrative designer, explained, before going on to deliver his cogent and accessible presentation on writing for games.

Useful Game Writer concepts included:
  • Control: games are different from film and literature because they require player choices. The writer must consider how she can make the player feel part of the story. Morgan illustrated how this can be done by giving more choices to the player, but equally, by taking choices away as a means of making a point.


          Morgan also found out, when adapting from Harry Potter (his Develop Award-winning Wonderbook: Book             of Spells and its sequelBook of Potions, both produced in collaboration with JK Rowling) that dramatic
         irony can be a problem in games; because the player is in control, the tension doesn't work.
  • Identity: how to create characters the writer doesn't control; how to create characters the player identifies with.
  • Set up players' expectations: play around with them; create surprises.
As far as getting started, he suggested using software Story Nexus, or Inklewriter, or Twine.

Antony Johnston took the podium next, and he focused on the differences between writing for games, and writing in other media. There was a perception, he said, that games writing was closest to writing for an action movie (and that this perception was sometimes used as an excuse for games to cheesy, with a terrible narrative). Too often, he said, the words 'three act structure' are quoted. The problem with the analogy, according to Johnston, is in both length and structure, a movie lasting at most for three hours which, for action games, is very short. He counted what he termed 'playable scenes' in well-known action movies and came up with 12. Therefore, modelling games after movie narrative structure is a 'terrible idea.'

Novels didn't fare much better. In a 500 page novel, Johnston found 11 playable scenes. But games need more things to happen.

Comics (and tv), he felt, were much closer to games. They share visual abstractions, such as speech balloons, but they also share an episodic structure, one which can fit into a larger, over-arching structure; the episodes can make sense separately and together.

One of the audience questions was mine when I booked this event: What if you have a story that would suit a game? And the answer, alas: It almost never happens (and if it does, it's most likely to happen in the indie sector. One solution was to make the game yourself, and to buy in coding and art; the other: write the novel and make a successful movie first!

Antony Johnston @antonyjohnston
Rob Morgan @AboutThisLater

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Creative Process Blog Tour

Thanks to Darran Anderson for passing the Creative Writing Blog to me, not least because it revives my somewhat neglected blog. I'm wary of committing answers to these kinds of questions because there always seem to be so many possibilities, but here goes anyway. 

what am i working on
  • Marking student portfolios (feeling quite proud, actually). 
  • Editing my MFA thesis, a novel in stories called No one's from Chicago, about the experiences shared by immigrants across diverse borders, circumstances and time periods. 
  • Taking breaks from the above by trying out a short, mixed genre thing, working title 'Selfie', involving a photo of a drawing of a photo, and a story that's half true, half remembered, half made-up. Make that thirds...
  • A paper for the 13th International Short Story Conference in Vienna this July.
  • A memoir-thing, set in and around LA in the early nineties, working title 'Trying to get myself raped and murdered.'
  • And, I have a nearly complete first draft of a new novel I'm looking forward to getting back to when that lot's done, set in 1980s Dublin, about a girl who wants to box.

how does my work differ from others of its genre

The genre question makes me antsy because I'm not sure my work fits into one genre, or what that genre is. I write non-fiction — memoir, reviews, essays — as well as fiction, and not all my fiction feels the same. I hope my work reflects the books and writers I love reading and aspire towards:  big, American novels like Rachel Kushner's The flamethrowers; slender, terse, translated fiction; structurally fun stuff like Cloud atlas and A visit from the goon squad; Anne Enright, Colum McCann, Deborah Levy, Edna O'Brien, David Sedaris, Alesander Hemon, James Wood, Adam Marek... hundreds more. I don't think of my writing as being 'Contemporary Irish' in the way Colin Barret, Mary Costello, or Donal Ryan's is. Maybe it's something to do with place/setting.

why do i write what i do

Often, I write to challenge myself, on form or theme or subject matter. I wrote Michaelangelos (my novel on submission) because I wanted the challenges of writing older characters, of imagining how my character, Selina (70) would react to a terminal prognosis (she steals a pizza delivery van and crashes it on Dollymount strand), of finding out why Italians emigrated to Ireland and why they opened chip shops, and what it felt like to grow up Italian in suburban Dublin. 

No one's from Chicago, my novel-in-stories and MFA thesis, was another exploration of what it means to belong to a place. Its point of view characters all spend time and cross paths in Chicago, but come from elsewhere: Ireland (1950s rural; contemporary urban), Guadalajara, Tokyo, post-war Germany, Italy.

how does my writing process work

My writing process involves coffee, walks, and Scrivener. In the wise words of Colum McCann, quoting Aleksander Hemon, paraphrasing Hemingway, it's all shit until it's not. I've learned to put up with my 'shit' first drafts, to keep plugging away at them until I have enough written down to work with —  usually about four fifths of the story. The last fifth tends to get written as an extension of subsequent drafts, when theme and tone and voice have started to make sense, not to mention plot.

And now, for my efforts, I get to nominate two others: Andrea Carter and Hilary McGrath, you're up.