The Thrill of the Spoken Word

Last Saturday, I was delighted to play a small part in Modwordsfest, Waterford’s first-ever spoken words festival. I’ve become very drawn to spoken word in recent times. It’s hard to know how to define it, but I would describe it as any piece of literature that is spoken rather than written. That means either you write a piece that is designed to be performed, or you write no script at all – you just perform the piece off the cuff at an event. Spoken word can be poetry or prose, fictional or true- it just needs to be spoken.

Spoken word helps me to reconcile the part of my personality that loves to reflect and write and the part that loves to perform. For the Modwordsfest reading, I decided to go pure mad and perform a piece I’d written, but without a script. I’d already read it at another spoken word event, so it was fresh in my head. When it came to my turn, I just went for it.

And I have to admit, it was a headrush. The challenges of a muffling microphone and the sounds of a band playing on the street all disappeared as I spun my story, about the ups and downs of finding a good hairdresser. The crowd laughed in all the right places, and people passing by stopped to have a look. My inner diva was truly satisfied.

Here’s a pic of me reading. Have you ever tried spoken word yourself? How was the experience for you?

Reading at Modwordsfest - Derek Flynn
Reading in The Book Centre, Waterford, for Modwordsfest. Photo Credit: Derek Flynn

The Challenges of Running Children’s Writing Camps

I’m giving a children’s writing camp this summer and I’m looking forward to it. It’s been about two years since I gave a writers’ camp to children, and in that time, I’ve gathered lots of ideas for working more effectively with children, and I’m dying to put these into practise. Working with children brings lots of challenges, and careful preparation will ensure I can rise to those challenges.

 

Here’s a flavour of the kinds of challenges I’ll be dealing with.

child writing
Writing with children: a joy and a challenge

Condensing five days into three days

I always gave five-day writing camps before, lasting two hours each. But on the suggestion of fellow writer and mother Orla Shanaghy, a great promotor of my camps, I’ve adjusted the format to a three-day camp with longer sessions. I’m hoping this will be more convenient for working mothers. But it does mean I’ll need to hold children’s attention for longer. Other writer-mothers on a Facebook group I run suggested things like adding drawing activities, word games and lots of breaks. I’m confident that if I act on their suggestions, the time will fly.

Dealing with personalities

From previous experience, I’ve found that there are two extremes of personality I need to deal with in children’s writing camps. One is the loud child who is brilliant at distracting everyone else with their lively wit and imagination. The other is the shy child who regards reading aloud as the equivalent of swallowing nails. For the loud child, boredom may be a factor, so I’ll keep the workshop moving and give them tasks to do. And for the quieter ones, I aim to make the atmosphere as warm as welcoming as possible, so they’ll realise that reading aloud isn’t so awful after all.

Managing volunteers

When you run a children’s writing camp, you must have other adults available for health and safety reasons. These people play a very valuable role, but they’re a responsibility too. My main responsibility to them is to make it clear what I’d like them to do, so they’re not just sitting there. They’ll have lots of practical things to do, like hand out writing materials and take children to the bathroom. But they play a creative role too, helping children who are quieter or work more slowly. Essentially, they’re a second pair of eyes and hands.

Have you ever run a children’s camp of any kind? What challenges have you come across and how have you dealt with them?

Why Children Can Read Dark Stories

A few months ago, I read a comment from a mother in a newspaper article that she would not read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett to her six-year-old daughter, because of its racist overtones, particularly in the early chapters which reference the lead character Mary’s life in India. I was dismayed to hear this. Partly because she was allowing modern-day values to colour her view of the book. And partly because I don’t think she was giving her daughter enough credit. In my experience, children are much better able to handle dark material than adults give them credit for.

The Secret Garden

In a way, it’s easy for me to say that. I don’t have children and if I did, I might feel the same fierce urge to protect them from dark or troubling subject matter. But I’ve given numerous creative writing workshops to children over the years, and children are willing to embrace darkness in a way that adults are not. I also think of my own childhood, when my parents were willing to answer any question I had, and when I came across anything dark in a book or TV programme, they were able to contextualise it for me and take any fear away.

Processing Truths Through Stories

From time to time, you’ll hear parents say that they won’t allow their children to read fairy tales because the material is too graphic. But in earlier eras, parents used fairy tales to explain the world to their children, to teach them lessons about good and evil and about the right way to behave. Stories give children a safe way to process dark and difficult concepts, and this is something children instinctively understand.

It strikes me that stories can be a useful jumping off point for discussion between adults and children. In the case of The Secret Garden, yes, the attitudes to race were somewhat unsavoury. But they were a product of their time. I myself wouldn’t be mad about its portrayal of disability, but again, I have to accept that this was a product of its time. Besides, the book also teaches lessons that are still vital today, about the redemptive power of nature and the value of kindness.

Children Embracing Darkness

In a week’s time, I’ll be giving a children’s Easter creative writing workshop. During the workshop, I’ll do a Chinese Whispers style exercise. The story will begin with the words, “The girl went into the wood,” which tends to conjure up dark fantasies in people’s minds. When I did it with adults recently, they stopped the story just as it was starting to get dark. But when I do it with children, they will be willing to go all the way with the material, taking the story to lots of crazy places. They will thoroughly enjoy the process and, as far as I can tell, emerge from it emotionally unscathed.

What do you think of children reading or writing stories with a dark theme? If you are inclined to shield your children from this material, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. It’s always worthwhile to have another perspective.

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.

editing-scalpel
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?

Three Lessons Commercial Authors Can Teach Literary Authors

If you look at bestseller lists for books, you will see very few literary titles in the top 10. That honour tends to go to authors of more commercial fiction, particularly thrillers and women’s fiction. More literary authors, who may spend years toiling over their novels only to sell a few hundred copies at most, may wonder what commercial authors are doing that they are not.

I believe that literary authors can learn valuable lessons from their commercial counterparts. There’s a reason why these books sell by the truckload, and if literary authors can learn to incorporate some of the techniques of commercial writers in a way that fits with their own style, they’ll increase their appeal to the reading public.

Here are three techniques you can use to help you achieve monetary as well as literary success.

Write Like You Speak

Commercial writers are able to capture the rhythms of everyday speech in their writing, which makes it easier for readers to slip into the story. This comes out particularly strongly in their dialogue, which reads as convincingly as if it were real conversation. Don’t be afraid to add in current slang or dialect words to bring colour to your dialogue.

Tighten Your Plotting

Commercial authors create a great sense of momentum in their writing. You get the sense that something could happen at any minute, and you keep reading to find out what it will be. Commercial fiction writers understand the power of story and create stories that sweep you along, helping you to forget about the outside world. While you can create compelling plots through character interaction, it’s good to build your story around a compelling event that will engage readers.

A Satisfying End

Most literary novels leave their readers hanging. I understand that the authors want readers to make up their own minds, but real life is ambiguous enough, so it’s nice to feel a sense of completion when you finish a book. Commercial authors deliver this in spades. It can be satisfying for a reader to work at a book to glean its message, but it’s a good idea to reward readers for their work at the end.

What lessons do you think literary authors can learn from commercial fiction authors? Or do they need to learn any?

Three Advantages of Traditional Publishing

This month’s Writing Magazine has a big special on self publishing, in which authors frankly share their warts and all experiences of the self publishing world. Self publishing is certain gaining momentum as a way to get your work out into the world. Authors are carving out incredibly successful careers independently of publishing houses. It’s never been easier to put your writing out into the world, and authors are seizing those opportunities, and profiting from them too.

But I’ve got to say that if I ever manage to finish that difficult second novel, I’ll be choosing the traditional route to publication. And I’m going to slaughter a sacred cow and hazard a guess that some self published authors would agree with me. here are three good reasons why.

1. You don’t have to produce your own book.

Why did you become a writer? My guess is that you wanted to tell stories and find an audience for them. Developing your stories to a degree that will make people want to read them takes 100% of your effort. Yet for a self published author, that’s just the beginning. They then have to format, design, produce and distribute their own book. To me, that’s like expecting artists to produce their own canvas, or musicians to produce their own instruments. If you’re traditionally published, your publisher will carry that financial and logistical burden for you, and let you get on with the business of being a writer.

 2. You get on the shelves

When my first novel was published, I was amazed at the extent to which, in this digital age, people expected it to be available on bookshelves. That’s why I believe that despite the availability and popularity of e-readers, if you’re not in bookshops, it’ll seriously damage your sales. Self published authors are at a huge disadvantage here, because it’s next to impossible to get your book into a bookshop on any significant scale using your own resources. Traditional publishers will put you in front of your reading public by ensuring your book is distributed using the major book distributors in your area.

 3. You get kudos

Being accepted by a traditional publisher means your book will be taken more seriously. You’re a lot more likely to be reviewed in national papers and to be put forward for awards. If you’re applying for arts council funding, your self published book is less likely to be considered as a viable publication. If your book is being traditionally published, it means that someone who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to books thinks your book is worthy of publication. Call it snobbery, but that still carries weight in certain circles.

Do you fly the flag for self publishing or for traditional publishing? Let me know your thoughts. I’m expecting some lively debate!

Does an English Degree Make You a Better Writer?

A couple of years ago, I was doing a reading at the Imagine Festival in Waterford, and I was sharing the bill with a former lecturer of mine, which was a slightly dizzying experience. Afterwards, the audience asked us questions, and then he decided to pelt one at me. How had my English degree helped me become a writer?

It was quite a challenge for me to come up with a diplomatic answer to that question, given that this was one of my former English lecturers. Because although my English degree was very interesting and the lecturers were good, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it helped me become a better writer.

The whole point of an English degree is to learn to analyse text. During my English degree at University College Cork, we poked and prodded at texts ranging from the ancient Beowulf to early Banville novels. We learned to read with greater depth and gained an insight into the techniques used by the greatest writers.

Analysis Kills Writing

But it is that very ability to analyse that can get in the way of the urge to write, because writing is all about hunger and instinct, and sometimes when we try to analyse what creates that urge and how that urge is acted upon, we kill that urge. We kill that passion that drove us towards the written word, both reading and writing.

An English degree won’t manufacture that hunger to write. It can help you master technique, but if you don’t have the passion, you’re not going to put pen to paper. An English degree shows you how writing works, but to become a writer, you need to actually write, and you don’t need a degree for that.

Attributes of Writers

What you need is the desire to write, an ability to trust in your instincts and life experience. You could become a writer just as easily grape picking in Australia or punching tickets at a bus station as you can sitting in a stuffy lecture theatre at four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.

This doesn’t mean I think my English degree was a waste of time. It helps you to organise your thoughts, so the thought of writing an essay doesn’t seem so overwhelming. This was useful for a career in journalism, which I was aiming for at that time.

Creative Writing Course

It also just so happened that in my third year, UCC was doing an exchange with an American college and that college sent over a creative writing professor for a year. I put my name down for his elective course and it was extremely useful, giving me some basic writing principles which I still use to this day.

The moral of the story is, if you want to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of English literature, by all means do an English degree. But you do not need an English degree to be a writer. Just grab a pen and paper and open your mind.

Did you do an English degree? Did you find it helped you in your quest to become a writer? If you didn’t do one, do you feel you suffered as a result?

Yes, the Film Can Be Better Than the Book

When I was younger and didn’t realise how short life is, I tried to plough through Charles Dickens’ books. I’d be drawn in by the fascinating characters and themes, but would soon be defeated by the denseness of the writing – it felt like wading through treacle. Bleak House was particularly frustrating, with tantalising hints of story drowned out by lengthy descriptions of English case laws.

But I did find a way to enjoy the best of Dickens and dispense with the obstacles, thanks to the BBC box set, first Oliver Twist as a teenager, then the stylish adaptation of Bleak House in 2005.

Bleak House Box Set

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book lovers often shudder when they see their favourite books on screen, with good reason. Some directors take a wrecking ball to the original book, as was the case with My Sister’s Keeper, when the brilliant ending was changed despite the novelist Jodi Picoult’s request. And while some films are faithful to the book, they fail to capture its spirit. This was particularly noticeable in the film adaptation of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

But sometimes films can do books a favour. They tie together the separate threads of a story, highlighting the best aspects of it, which you might have missed when you were reading the book. They get rid of all the flab and let the writing shine through. In my humble opinion, there are three book-to-film adaptations that are particularly successful in this regard.

  1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

When you’re writing a book by winking one eye, which was what Jean-Dominique Bauby did in his account of his life before and after developing locked-in syndrome (almost total paralysis), it’s hard to go into detail. This is a beautiful and moving collection of memories, but the film adaptation by Julian Schnabel turned those memories into a story and heightened their emotional intensity, creating a more complete portrait of the man. In other words, it improved on the original material.

  1. Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Cafe

This film is a heartwarming, life affirming tale packed to the rafters with spirited women who overcome all kinds of obstacles. When I bought the original novel by Fannie Flagg, I expected more of the same. What I got was a collection of Christian sermons, scattered anecdotes and recipes. I didn’t enjoy the sensation of being preached at and abandoned ship.

 3. Girl, Interrupted

I was dying to get hold of this memoir by Susanna Kayson. Any book that could produce a film as punchy and fiercely eloquent as Girl, Interrupted would have to be explosive stuff. What I got was a flat, one-dimensional tale, again a scattergun collection of memories. The film turned these into 3D, enabling viewers to get inside the heads of several characters at once. It also added layers of black humour and sexual tension.

Anyone want to buck the trend and mention a film adaptation which outstripped the original book?

Read it Out Loud

When people ring to book my creative writing classes, one of the questions that bubbles up is: ‘Will I have to read it out?” It’s usually asked with a little quaver in the voice. Unfortunately for them, I have to crack the whip and say yes.

There is a method in my madness. Allow me to explain. When people think of reading out loud, they think of school: the sniggers of their classmates if they stumbled over words, the teacher getting cross, their faces growing redder. Add to that the fact that most people put speaking in front of a crowd on a par with being put into a room full of spiders or snakes and you can see why people might feel like running for the hills.

What they don’t realise is that the environment of a creative writing class is very different from that of school. It’s warm and supportive. Everyone’s in the same boat; they’re all adults who haven’t been in a classroom in years. They’ve taken the gamble of sharing work with people they probably never knew before they joined the class. And in the end, no-one can read your work as well as you. You’re the one who has written it,. Only you can do justice to it.

That’s why I encourage people to overcome their fear and read their work. Obviously, if someone is so phobic about the thought of reading aloud that it puts them off going to class, I’m not going to force them. Instead, I hope people will feel the way they might if they skied down a mountain – exhilarated and invigorated.

So if you’re nervous at the thought of sharing your writing with a group, take a deep breath and take a chance. The people who listen to you will be rooting for you and in the end, they’ll shower you with praise.

 

 

 

Tell Your Story in Three Hours

That’s the name I’ve given to the new half-day creative writing workshops I’ve just started. If you’ve always wanted to write, but don’t know where to begin, they’re the jump start you’ll need. In just three hours, you’ll have written your own story, a story created entirely through the wonders of your own imagination, a story you can call your own.

You might be saying to yourself, ‘How can I write a story? I’ve never written anything before.’ But everyone has a story locked inside of them. It may have been beaten out of you, by school, by well-meaning family and friends, or by life itself. And this workshop will help you tap into that story and bring it into life, whether you want to weave a fictional tale or share an event from your own life that has moved or inspired you.

So how does the magic happen? Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect.

Breaking the Ice: For the first hour or so, you’ll get into the writing mood with activities designed to awaken the senses and the imagination. You’ll be playing with words, creating wacky images and discovering how much material there is for stories in one ordinary day of living.

The Three Ingredients: After a well-earned tea or coffee, with a sugar hit if required, you’ll learn about the three ingredients that go into all good stories: plot, character and setting. You’ll be doing fun exerecises that will help you come up with the plot, character and setting for your own stories.

Structuring the Story: Once you have your ingredients, it’s time to plan and write your story. I’ll give you some hints on structure and then you’re on your own. You’ll find a way to combine the ingredients you’ve gathered and weave them into a three-paragraph story, with a solid beginning, middle and end.

Sharing the Story: This is the part people most often dread, but in fact, it’s a celebration of your creativity. You’ll be reading your story in front of a warm, supportive crowd and will bask in the wellbeing of knowing that you have created a completely original piece of work.

I’m happy to run these workshops with any group, whether they’re beginners or people who have been writing for a while and are a bit stuck for inspiration. If you have any enquiries, contact derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie

 

 

 

 

 

My first workshop will be in Waterford on Saturday February 11th and here’s a flavour of what you can expect.