My Big Fat Sightless Writing Project

Followers of this blog may vaguely remember that in recent years, I’ve given a number of workshops for service users at the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) in Dublin, Ireland, which supports people with sight loss throughout Ireland. Stuart Lawler, who runs its training centre, has been of great help in getting these workshops off the ground, and by and large, the take-up has been enthusiastic.

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How visually impaired people write. Photo source: NCBI Website.

But now I feel it’s time to take all this good work and good will and expand it into something bigger. I want the participants to feel that they have something to show for their efforts, and I hope the process will bring them a lot of personal satisfaction.

The idea I had was for a series of recordings of people’s writing, mixed with music. There’s an Irish radio programme called Sunday Miscellany, which features reflective writings based on people’s memories, especially if they tie in with significant historic events. These are interspersed with pieces of music that match the mood of the piece. From working with groups over the past two years, I’ve noticed a great interest in writing about real life and recording experiences. Many of the members also have a great interest in radio. So a Sunday-Miscellany-style radio programme would be a good fit for the group. And as broadcasting is deemed to be publishing, the participants can be proud to call themselves published authors.

Building Confidence

For logistical reasons, it will be some time before the project happens, and Stuart and I will be using the time to build people’s confidence and build up enthusiasm for the project. The thought of producing a piece that’s good enough for publication/recording may be a daunting prospect to someone who hasn’t done much writing, so we’ll run a few writing workshops before the project to help people overcome those hurdles.

The next workshop is on 18 February and I hope I’ll see familiar faces at it. The project will have a greater chance of success if there’s a core group who’ll commit to it. The workshops will help people the skills they need to take part in the project and take them step by step through the process of creating a short memoir piece.

Conceptualising Work

When the project gets underway, the participants will do more workshops, but this time, the emphasis will on getting participants over the line and helping them produce a polished piece of writing. We’ll rope in other writers who have experience of writing for radio. To give people a sense of the sort of language and writing style that comes across well on radio. Many arts facilitators conceptualise the work through group discussion and prompts. This will be more of an individual process, as participants will have strong ideas of their own. But they will give each other feedback, which will help people identify ways of improving their pieces that they mightn’t have spotted on their own.

Recording the Work

After the workshops, it will be time for the participants to record their pieces. This will be the most nerve-wracking part of the process. Most people feel extremely uncomfortable at the sound of their own voice. To get around this, we’ll have a rehearsed reading or two, to get people used to the studio and familiar with the recording process. This will hopefully remove the fear factor in time for the final recording. We haven’t decided yet what will happen to the final recording. It may be broadcast in front of a live audience of family and friends, or be aired on a local radio station as part of its programme schedule.

Funding and Collaboration

Stuart Lawler has been talking to a local community radio station and to a disability arts organisation about what form the project will take. I’ll be updating you on how these discussions evolve, and I’ll be taking part in them at a later stage. But we hope that the radio station will broadcast the programme and provide support in helping people write for radio, and that the arts and disability organisation will fund the project. Whatever happens, NCBI and myself are committed to ensuring that this project will see the light of day.

Have you ever facilitated a project for people with disabilities or other minority groups? How did you secure funding and what did you do to keep the participants motivated right to the end?

Want to Write About Your Life?

When I tell people I give creative writing classes, one of the most frequent comments I get is. “Really? I’ve always wanted to write my life story.” There is a great hunger in people to set their experiences down on paper and record their lives for themselves, for their children and for the wider world. That’s why when I was submitting a proposal for my next creative writing workshop in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, I chose to deliver a memoir-writing workshop Write About Your Life.

The goal of the workshop will be to help people put a shape on the stories they want to tell. Writing about your life can be overwhelming. How do you sift through a lifetime of memories and pick out the most important one? The workshop will help people create a filter for those memories and focus on specific ones. A lot of the techniques of fiction work well in memoir-writing, so people will learn how to use plot, character and setting to bring their memories to life.

Here’s a flavour of the activities the participants will be doing in the workshop.

Writing About Characters

All of our lives are shaped by the people around us, for better or worse. Those people are usually our family, but they can be friends, teachers or local community figures as well. People will write a character sketch about a person who meant a lot to them, and do other activities that will help them get to know their characters better and bring them to life. They’ll also explore the connections between themselves and the people in their lives by drawing up their family tree.

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Exploring our connections with the people in our lives

Writing About Place

People have a huge attachment to the places where they grew up, even if their relationship with that place is sometimes troubling. The aim of the activities connected to setting will be to help participants see the places in their lives with new eyes and find the extraordinary within the ordinary. Participants will write about rooms in their homes that they have a deep attachment to, such as the kitchen or bedroom. They’ll also imagine that they’re aliens who have just landed in front of their childhood home. To the alien, this will be a strange sight, and they will write a report about what they see and hear to send to the mothership.

Writing About Events

Our lives may not make the news, but they’re still full of events that provide rich materials for stories. Some are life-changing; others are small yet significant. Participants will write about events in their life as if they were news, which will give them a sense of the power of their own story. They’ll also do activities that will show them how interactions between themselves and the other people in their lives can form the basis for stories.

How have you approached writing about your own life? Have you used time period or theme as a basis for it? If you’re a creative writing tutor, what activities do you do to help people shape their stories?

Three Differences Between US and UK English

Anyone who knows me knows I’m rather fond of Americanisms. But I’m also a fierce advocate for speaking and writing in the brand of English you grew up with. I fight hard to prevent Americanisms from cropping up in my speech and make sure I spell words the UK/Irish way. When I see my fellow Irish citizens, or British people, using American English, a very small part of me dies.

There’s always been a bit of friendly rivalry between speakers of US and UK English. American writers may argue that their spellings are simpler and hark back to an older, purer form of English. Writers in UK English may counter-argue that American spelling is dumbed down, or that their words are more authentic. In reality, neither is right or wrong. They’re just different, and different in many subtle ways that go beyond the question of colour/color.

Here are three of the main differences.

How Words Are Spelt (or spelled in US English!)

This is the most obvious one. In US English, words are often written the way they’re pronounced, whereas UK English may add or change. At night, a British person may wear pyjamas, while an American wears pajamas. A British sceptic becomes a US skeptic. US English tends to swap double letter ms or ls for single ones. Therefore, a British jeweller becomes a US jeweler, and a TV programme on the BBC would be described as a TV program if it is exported to the US.

How Sentences Are Punctuated

The debate continues to rage over the Oxford comma. Despite its name, this comma is favoured by American writers. This is the comma that appears before “and” in a list. So American writers would say, “For Christmas, I got chocolates, flowers, and a brand new TV. British writers would leave out the comma before and. Another significant difference in punctuation styles relates to quotation marks. In American books, double quotation marks (“”) are used to denote dialogue, and single quotation marks (‘’) are used for quotes within a sentence. It’s the exact opposite for UK English.

Vocabulary Quirks

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Difference between US and UK English bring richness to language.

Some words in US and UK English are very different from each other. This distinction is most obvious in the names of certain vegetables. In US English, an aubergine becomes an eggplant, a courgette becomes a zucchini and a beetroot becomes a rutabaga. Also, US English often uses older forms of English words such as, “I had gotten” instead of “I had got,” or describing graduates as alumni. Some words appear to be the same, but have very different meanings. A biscuit in UK English is a sweet treat, but to an American, it’s a type of savoury scone, often eaten at breakfast.

So as you can see, the differences between the two are vast, so vast that editors will specify to their clients whether they can offer editing in UK or US English, to ensure that the manuscript remains true to the chosen language. Because in the end, it’s up to you which version of English you choose. Neither are right or wrong; they are just gloriously different. The important thing is to understand the rules of the version you choose, and use it consistently in your writing.

Have you got an opinion on US or UK English? If you are in the UK or Ireland, do you find that there are sound professional reasons for using US English, or vice versa?

My Upcoming Writerly Year

A new year, a new start. Even the most cynical soul can’t help but be seduced by the thought that 1 January means a new beginning. It’s a cliché at this stage that a new year goes hand in hand with new year’s resolutions, but I’m allowing myself to be seduced, and I’ve put together some writerly resolutions for the year ahead. Some are personal, and may be revealed in due course once there’s something to reveal. But for the moment, I’m going to concentrate on my goals for the three main writing-related services I offer.

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What are my writerly goals for the year?

Creative Writing Workshops

I’m hoping this will be a packed year for writing workshops for adults and children. I’m relaunching my children’s writing camps for Easter and summer, which will be for 8-12 year olds. I also want to give more memoir workshops and am scheduled to give one for eight weeks in Dungarvan starting in February. I’m also gunning hard to get funding for workshops for people with disabilities, in particular with the National Council for the Blind in Dublin. We’re planning to apply for funding from Arts and Disability Ireland and by the end of the year, we’ll know whether we’ve succeeded.

Content Writing

Towards the end of last year, I noticed that businesses were starting to contact me again about writing content for them. I see this as a sign of economic recovery and will be looking to write more content for small businesses, and possibly on an outsourced basis for larger companies which specialise in marketing. I’m particularly interested in helping businesses develop an overall strategy for their content, which will give them the tools to create their own content.

Editing

I’ve done some proofreading and copy editing courses, and this year, I want to put the skills I’ve learned on those into practise. But I believe I can be of most help to people in the area of developmental editing: in other words, helping them with the overall structure of their stories. A lot of the work I have done has naturally fallen into that category, and it’s a privilege to help people bring their stories to the next level.

What are your writerly resolutions for 2017? Are you going to finish that novel or develop a new service? Or are you simply going to write on? Whatever you do, best of luck to you all and a happy, writerly New Year.

A Tale of Two Creative Writing Students

When you give creative writing classes, you develop a real bond with your students. The process of writing means you automatically go beyond the surface layer that people present to the world, and you have the privilege of glimpsing what lies underneath. Then when the class is over, these people disappear from your life, and it’s a wrench. Apart from missing them personally, I often find myself wondering how their stories ended, in life and in books.

Though I’m not known for my discretion, I try not to talk about the individual students who come to my workshops. What happens in class is often too precious to broadcast. But last week, I heard the stories of two students, so I’ve decided to make an exception and share those stories.

Publishing Success

Every so often, a student will come into your class who has an extra bit of spark, a quirky way of looking at the world which they’re able to put into words. Joannie Browne was such a student. Her writing was incredibly droll. When I asked the class to deliberately write a piece that they thought was crap, she satirised the idea wonderfully and had us all in stitches.

Now Joanie has channelled that humour into poetry and contacted me to tell me she has published a book of humorous verse called Views to Amuse. It’s a self-published book, published by a printer that specialises in self-published authors, and it’s available in bookshops in Cashel and Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. It’s a handsome little production and she is quite rightly delighted with her success.

 

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Joanie Browne’s creative writing success.

Discovering Creativity

The second story is more bittersweet. I was contacted by the husband of a woman I had taught. I remembered her as a person whose formal exterior hid a wicked sense of humour and a penchant for dark, gothic writing. She hadn’t written in decades when she came to my class, but the text from her husband told me she had written 10 short stories since then. He also told me the reason why I was hearing from him instead of her was because she had died. While I was saddened, I was comforted by the thought that she had reconnected with her creativity, and I hope her husband is too.

Have you ever heard from a former workshop student? Or have you as a student ever contacted your tutor when you’ve had a publishing triumph or tribulation? We do appreciate hearing from you!

How to Write a Pitch

As a person offering professional writing and book-related services, I recognise the need to market myself. The thought makes me a little squeamish, but I know the work isn’t going to come and find me. You can tiptoe into self-promotion by going to networking events and setting up social media profiles. These are all important for building relationships. But I’ve realised over the years that direct pitching, done in a strategic way, is the most effective way of getting the work.

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Dreaming up a perfect pitch

Come January, I will be drawing up my next round of email pitches. I aim to send out pitches each week to organisations who I think might be interested in my work. Usually, the pitches are for workshops, but they can sometimes relate to my content writing or editing services. My background in journalism is helpful in this, as I can draw on my experience of pitching to editors. It also helps me get to the point, so people aren’t reading for too long. My pitches take a certain form, and my focus is always on how I can give the organisation what it needs.

Start With a Gentle Nudge: I try not to go in all guns blazing. Instead, I introduce myself, so the person will see that there’s a context to my pitch. I then outline what it is I’m pitching to them. If they’re interested, they’ll read on. If they’re not, I won’t have taken up any more of their time than necessary.

The Meaty Middle: This is where I flesh out my pitch. I explain what form the workshop will take and why it fits with the organisation’s target audience and its overall goals. If it’s a writing festival and the programme is lacking a writing workshop for more advanced writers, my workshop would fill a hole. I also make it clear what outcome people can expect from a workshop, what skills they will learn and whether the workshop will lead to a complete piece of work.

Tie It Up At the End: End on a sweet note by thanking the person for their time. Tell them you’re looking forward to hearing from them soon. This will encourage them to contact you. And speaking of contact, make sure your contact details are prominent. Even if they’re in your email signature, write them again. People are busy, so you can never give them your contact details too many times.

Putting thought into writing your pitch does at least give you a chance of it being acknowledged. What do you do to get your pitches over the line?

The Challenges of Editing Poetry

Proofreading poetry is a delicate business. As there are fewer words in a poem, the slightest change you make will have a much stronger effect. Whether you choose to put in a comma leave it out will determine the shape of a verse, or even the whole poem. I’ve been asked by a local poet to wield my editing scalpel. I’m flattered that this person has trusted me with her poems, which she’s hoping to put into a collection. She asked me to do a light proofread and suggest an order for the poems.

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The delicate task of editing poetry.

 

Read Like a Reader: When I’m first editing a job, I let the words wash over me, the way you normally do when you’re reading a book. This helps me to connect with the material and to figure out what story the person is trying to tell. In this case, as they were poems, I read them aloud to get into the rhythm of them. Reading aloud also helps you spot patterns of errors the person makes.

Ordering the Poems: It’s extraordinary how themes naturally emerge in people’s writing, without any forethought on their part. There are issues or themes people will naturally gravitate towards, and that was the case with this collection. Four or five themes came to the fore, and fortunately, the numbers of poems which fall under each theme is relatively equal, which will add body to the collection.

Proofreading: There’s always more to proofreading than you originally think. Often the problem isn’t with spelling and grammar, but with structure. In this case, I discovered bigger problem with the rhythm of the poems, and I flagged those up using Track Marks, the computer equivalent of the red pen. Also, when you make one change, you have to make changes for all instances where the error needs to be corrected. This manuscript soon becomes festooned with red marks.

Second Proofread: When I’ve finished track marking, I will create a new document and accept all the track marks. This incorporates all the changes I made and will give the poet a clean copy to work with. I’ll then clear up any remaining errors before handing it back to her.

Giving Feedback: Proofreaders largely concentrate on spelling and grammar, but I’m going to add a feedback document, pointing to poems that need work and suggesting ways of correcting issues related to the rhythm of the poems. The poet can then implement the suggestions herself if she wishes.

Have you ever edited poetry? If so, how do you approach it? If you’re a poet, what would you look for in an editor?