Journey Through the Senses Writing Workshop

Recently, I gave one of my favourite types of creative writing workshop, for one of my favourite organisations. The workshop was my Journey Through the Senses beginners’ workshop. And the organisation was Waterford Libraries. I gave the workshop in one of their busiest libraries, in Ardkeen.

Objects of Affection

This workshop uses the senses to trigger emotions and memories, which in turn can lead to ideas for stories. It’s a nice gentle introduction to writing for beginners. After some icebreakers, I distributed some quirky objects I’ve picked up along my travels: a ladybird whose wings open to reveal a watch, a jade stone, a wooden perfume bottle from Bulgaria.

The participants then wrote the life stories of these objects.  They used the feel and the look of the objects to help them imagine what those lives might have been, what adventures they had and how they came to be there. Some people didn’t like the objects they were given, but I told them that sensations you don’t like can provide just as much inspiration for writing as beautiful ones. The important thing is to evoke a strong reaction.

A Taste of Oranges

We then moved on to one of my favourite exercises, which I’ve written about on this blog before, A Taste of Oranges. Oranges challenge all five of the senses, and people have to let go of their inhibitions about eating such a messy fruit in front of other people. The participants had to describe the oranges using all five of their senses (this orange looks/this orange feels). Eating the orange was an optional extra.

Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

Once the senses are triggered, I like to expand the activity. After they’d worked their senses with the oranges, I asked the participants to write about a meal that was memorable for a particular reason, which triggered some hilarious and poignant tales.

Musical Moments

I decided to do this activity on a whim, as I don’t normally do it, even though music is integral to my own writing practise. When you do activities, you don’t know which ones will work out. The other activities had gone smoothly, but I was still waiting for that ‘foom’ moment when the group takes off. It came with this activity.

I played a piece of music (Apache by The Shadows), and the participants had to write the names of a person, a colour and a place that the music made them think of. They then wove those three words into a short story. The resulting stories took us on voyages to different parts of the world, and prompted lots of lively reminiscences.

How do you incorporate the senses in your writing? Are you drawn to beautiful sensations, or to more troubling ones? If you’re a workshop facilitator, do you do activities based on the senses?

Why Writing Is Like The Salmon Season

When salmon are breeding, they must travel thousands of miles to their breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The journey is arduous, and along the way, thousands of salmon fall away. Only the strongest make it to the Sargasso Sea.

Salmon Season
Writing a book is like the salmon’s journey to the Sargasso Sea, long and brutal.

The process of becoming a published writer is a lot like that. It’s a long process and it can be brutal, and there are a lot of hurdles to be jumped.

First, you have to actually start the book. How often have you been at social gatherings and heard people say, ‘I’d love to write a book?’ For many people, the desire to write a book has never gone beyond idle conversation. So if you commit to putting pen to paper, you’re already ahead of the game.

But the writing of the book can be overwhelming for people. It’s easy to get bogged down in your story, with its many plot twists and its cast of character. And some people never make it out of that maze. They abandon their book halfway through.

When you do finish your book, it’s quite right that you should congratulate yourself. But your journey is not over yet. Now it’s time to find an audience for your book. And the main way to achieve it is through publishing. Whether you self-publish or look for a traditional publisher, publishing is tough.

If you self-publish, all the work of a publisher falls to you – publishing, cover design, editing, printing and promotion. And finding a traditional publisher can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. This is the stage that really separates the minnows from the big fish. It involves at least as much work as the actual writing of the book, if not more. If you get through it, the rewards can be great.

But your work isn’t over. If you really want to establish yourself as a writer, you have to make the journey again and again. Each book will be a new journey, but if you have the inventiveness to keep coming up with new ideas and the faith to act on them, you’ll truly establish yourself as an author – and you may even make a living from it.

So what are the qualities that will get you through these hurdles to the Sargasso Sea that is the life of a published author? I believe there is a holy trinity of qualities – talent, hunger and discipline. If you display those qualities, they’ll help you over those hurdles. And in the end, it’s what you want that matters. Maybe the simple writing of the book is enough for you. Or maybe your writing ambitions simply lie elsewhere.

Whatever route you choose to reach the Sargasso Sea of publishing, good luck. If you have reached it, what qualities or resources helped you on your journey?

Blogging As Myself

When I write blog posts for businesses, I am usually a ghost writer. I keep myself hidden and I write as the business. I refer to we and us and I use the name of the business. I just see myself as the facilitator of the business owner’s vision, flair and commitment to delivering great service. My role is just to give shape to their ideas.

But recently, I was asked to write a series of blog posts as myself. It’s for a marketing programme called How Great Marketing Works, and the creator of the programme felt that the blog posts would have the ring of truth if I went through the programme and reported on my experience. The programme involves a small fee, but I am doing a free version, in the hope that my words will persuade others of the value of the programme.

Editors ask questions to make sure they’re the right fit for you.

Step By Step

The programme is a bite-sized marketing programme, which means that all the information is broken down into easily digestible chunks. I take a similarly step-by-step approach with the blog posts, showing people how doing each module of the programme will improve the business.

I outline the problem the module helps people to solve, and the lessons people can learn. I finish by telling them how the module will benefit their business. As I’m doing the module at the same time as I write the blog posts, I’ve experienced the benefits myself, so I believe I’m giving people accurate information about how well the modules work.

Doing My Homework

Each module comes with a video, so I gather information for the posts by watching the videos and typing notes based on what I hear. If I need to go back over anything, the scripts of the videos are also included. Each module comes with a worksheet, and I complete those worksheets, so that I can tell people what each worksheet helps them to achieve.

Length of Posts

There’s a school of thought that longer blog posts are actually better, because they give search engines like Google more information to work with. In general, they give more in-depth information to readers and give you a chance to show off your expertise.

For this project, I’ve been asked to write posts of 800-1,000 words in length., about the size of a feature article in a newspaper. To prevent readers from getting bored, I use short paragraphs and short sentences, so people will have reached the end before they know it.

Lessons Learned

I can honestly say that this blogging project will be a learning experience for me. I help people communicate through words, but selling yourself is about a lot more than that. Us artistic types can be pretty crap at selling ourselves, so it will be handy to gain nuggets of marketing knowledge while I write.

Also, Finola Howard, who originated the programme, is brilliant at social media, and is on top of all the latest trends. Working with her will beef up my own social media knowledge.

When you’re writing blog posts for other people, do you ghost write them or do you write them as yourself?

The Privileges of the Writing Life

When we think of writing, we think of struggle. The struggle to get our stores written, the struggle to get published, the struggle to promote our books, the struggle to gain a living as a writer. The image of the tortured artist still holds sway in the popular imagination. But in many ways, the life of a writer is a rich one, and if we didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t do it. We tend to think of the benefits of writing in terms of competition wins or publication success, but it also greatly enhances our emotional and mental wellbeing, as well as the quality of our everyday life.

Here are some of the benefits that I’ve observed as a writer.

Ordinary Life Becomes More Interesting

If you’re a writer of fiction, your job is to pay attention to those small, ordinary details that other people miss. Seemingly insignificant details, banter with a shop assistant, a brightly coloured scarf around a woman’s neck, can be the trigger for stories. The great gift of writing is that you notice the extraordinary within the ordinary, and you transfer that to the page. You’re a lot less likely to be bored, and because you’re so engaged with what’s happening around you, other people will find you interesting to talk to, which is a nice ego boost.

Following Your Passion

Not many people are lucky enough to have a true passion, an activity or a cause that fills them with purpose and gives their life meaning. If you have the courage to follow your passion for words, life will feel much more exciting. That passion will also be reflected in your words, and people will respond to that passion. Many people find that they feel out of sync if they don’t act on their urge to write. Acting on that urge gives you a sense of balance, and you will end each day feeling fulfilled.

Making Sense of the World

Modern life is so busy and so full. Our days are full of events, even if they are only small ones. We’re also being bombarded with more information than our brains are equipped to handle. Writing helps us to process what’s happening around us, and turning our experiences into stories can help us to understand ourselves better. Most important of all, if something happens to us which involves a lot of emotions or changes in our life circumstances, writing gives us a way to deal with it. Being able to give voice to our innermost thoughts and feelings boosts our mental health in the long run.

You Get to Play God …

… or whatever higher power you may subscribe to. Being able to invent worlds, and characters to live in those worlds, can give you a real sense of power. When your story is flowing, you feel really inspired, and the process of putting that story together is thoroughly enjoyable. As a non-fiction writer, you benefit from being able to gain more knowledge of your subject area, or bring to light an amazing true story. Even being able to find the exact word or image to describe something is extremely satisfying.

When the words refuse to come, you get rejected or your Amazon profile doesn’t get the attention you hoped for, it’s worth remembering that the writing life is also full of wonders, which make all the hassles worthwhile. What benefits do you feel the writing life has brought to you?

Ten Rules for Writing Plurals

The plural forms of English words can sometimes be fraught with confusion. It’s a mystery to me how non-native speakers cope with them. The standard rule is that to make a word plural, you add s or es. You use the verb form is with singular words (describing one thing) and are for plural. But there are so many exceptions to these rules that they are now almost redundant. What’s more, some rules have changed completely. Words that once took a plural are now deemed to be singular and vice versa.

Here are 10 rules to help you navigate the maze of plurals. We’ll start with a basic one.

  1. Some words take an s or es plural at the end, but to make them easier to pronounce, the spelling of other letters in the words changes. The letter f changes to v, so wife becomes wives and hoof becomes hooves. For words ending in y, the y changes to ie, and then you add the s at the end, so canary becomes canaries.
  2. There are some words that were once treated as singular words. These describe organisations that have a lot of people in them, but are considered to be one entity. As a result, you would use the singular is verb with them rather than the plural are. Examples include the government is, the team is or the company is. Officially, these should still be treated as singular, but the use of the plural is now acceptable, because it’s used in spoken English, and it’s less ambiguous. So it’s now correct to say, “the government are” or “the team are.”
  3. Similarly, there are words that once took the plural verb are, but are now treated as singular. Media is a word of Latin origin, which describes multiple mediums of communication, but we now say “the media is.” Again, this comes from spoken English, and people are more likely to know what you mean when you say that rather than “the media are.” The word data now follows a similar pattern.
  4. For most words ending in o, you simply add an s to the end of them. You can speak of hippos and trios. The exception is when you’re describing multiple fruit and vegetables, for which you add es. That’s why you write tomatoes and potatoes.
  5. Just to make things a little weirder, there are words ending in s which aren’t plural forms, but you could be forgiven for thinking they were. Grits is the name of an American breakfast dish. It does not mean more than one grit. And have you ever heard of just one shenanigan? Such a thing may well exist, but the word is almost always spelt shenanigans.
  6. It can be hard to know what to do with compound words, words that combine two or more small words. Should you pluralise the first part of the word or the second? Most of the time, it’s the first word that you pluralise, so it’s mothers in law, not mother in laws.
  7. There are a lot of Latin origins words that survive in English and typically end in um or a. Traditionally, for the plural form, you change the a to ae and the um to a. Officially, you still write stadia and formulae. But now it’s acceptable, and even preferred, to write stadiums and formulas.
  8. Words describing quantities are kept as singular, because even if they are describing large numbers of objects, there is only one quantity. So you would write, the amount is enormous.
  9. For some words, you get to keep it simple, and the plural is the same as the singular. Common examples are fruit, sheep and fish.
  10. It can be very hard to know what to do when combining apostrophes with plurals. I could write a whole blog post on that. It’s usually s with an apostrophe and no second s after the apostrophe. For decades, you just add an s with no apostrophe, so it’s 1970s, not 1970’s.

What unusual plural forms have you come across? What plural forms tend to cause you the most confusion? Share them here and we’ll get to the bottom of the mystery together.

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.

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.

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?

Straightforward Web Content

Last week, I wrote about how brands can have hidden messages. This week, I’m writing about a very different challenge: how to do content marketing for a business that has a very simple purpose. In this case, it was a financial business. A business like this has to follow standard procedures when dealing with its clients. The trouble is, all its competitors follow the same procedures. How was I going to write content that would make this business stand out?

How do I write fresh web content for a standard business?

In situations like this, it’s easy to resort to cookie-cutter content, and the business did have a lot of this content at its disposal. But I encouraged them to look at ways of saying things in a fresher, more original way. Here are three of the steps I took to enliven their web content.

1.      Talk to the Business Owners

The business may follow standard procedures, but the people who run the business bring their own individual qualities to it. That’s why I always make sure to talk to them, to get their own version of how they run their business. I strive to capture their enthusiasm, their commitment to their business and their expertise. I can also pay attention to the words they use to describe their business and weave those into the content.

2.      Use of Statistics

In the background content the business gave me, there were a few eye-catching statistics and I placed them in a prominent position, so they would catch the reader’s eye. These statistics demonstrate the expertise of the business and suggest that the business may be able to resolve an issue that a potential client may have.

3.      Speak to Customer Concerns

The Why Us page on a website is a good place to show potential clients that you understand the position they’re in and can offer reassurance to them. In this case, the business wanted clients to know that they could take the headache out of dealing with their financial affairs and leave them financially better off.

If your business is required to follow certain procedures, what do you do to differentiate it from other businesses in your field? If you write web content, how do you create content that makes businesses stand out?

Writing a Story From Start to Finish

This Saturday, the Workshop Express will be going on a longer journey than usual. I’ll be heading to Dublin, a two-hour journey from where I live, to give the next in my series of creative writing workshops at the National Council for the Blind. I’ve been working with this group for quite a while now, and in recent workshops, they’ve been asking me to help them structure a story from start to finish.

This isn’t the way I usually work. Usually I give a prompt and the story takes off from there. In other words, it’s a more instinctive process. But I’d like to help these people get over the line and complete a story. They’ve been loyal attendees and it’s only fair that I give them what they want. I sought the advice of writers in the Facebook writers’ group that I run and got some brilliant suggestions. This helped me put together a plan for this Saturday’s workshop and I’m hugely grateful to them for that.

Here’s a flavour of how the plan will be put into action on the day.

Getting the Story Started

The other challenge on the day is that as well as the loyal followers, there’ll be a few people who haven’t done workshops with me before. To bond everyone and bring them to the same level, we’ll do a few spoken-word exercises to start off with. The Chinese Whispers exercise is always popular. I’ll start a story with a sentence, the next person will add a sentence and so on until everyone has contributed. This will demonstrate the importance of getting on with telling a story.

Exploring Plot

We will then look at different ways of plotting stories. One of the resources the Facebook Writers pointed to was an article outlining the Three Act Structure, the classic beginning-middle-end structure that has been used since the time of the Ancient Greeks. We’ll then brainstorm to come up with events they could write about. The story they write will be a slice-of-life tale, revealing the magic that can be found in the most ordinary lives.

The Three-Act Structure. Pic from The Writer Practise

Gathering the Details

Once they’ve identified the story they want to write, they’ll answer a 5 Ws questionnaire, that will help them to decide what they will include in the story. They will decide what happened, why it happened, where and when it happened and who was involved. To flesh out the story, we’ll do character and setting exercises to help them describe their characters, and the places where the story happens, more vividly.

After all that has been done, they will write as much of the story as time allows and get feedback on what they have written so far.


How do you handle the structuring of stories, as a writer and as a creative writing tutor?

Is Self Publishing for Everyone?

A self published author I know, a lively, go-getting character, posted on a Facebook I run about how fed up he is with the stigma around self publishing. He was published by a traditional publisher, but found he sold far more copies as a self published author. Yet he felt that self published authors like him were looked down upon for not being with an established publisher. Several self published authors then shared their positive experience of self publishing, and the general feeling was that self publishing was now a force to be reckoned with and snobbery should be set aside.

I would certainly agree with that. I self published copies of my novel after the publisher I had stopped printing copies. I did enjoy the control that came with self publishing, but I’ll still be trying for an established publisher next time. I still nurture fantasies of lunch with my editor in a swanky restaurant.


editor lunch
Toasting success with a future editor.

I regularly recommend self publishing as an option at my creative writing workshops. But I also believe it’s not for everyone. Here are three instances when I believe self publishing is not a good idea.

If you write literary fiction

I read an article in The Guardian which said that self publishing worked for most genres –  except delicate literary fiction. The trouble with literary fiction is that it’s quiet and understated, and needs the gentle push of  a publisher to make its voice heard. Also, unlike other genres, it doesn’t follow strict rules, so you’re creating each book from scratch. This takes up a lot of headspace. If that headspace is taken up with worries about how you’re going to get your book out, it will affect the quality of the work. Using an established publisher at least takes that concern away.

If selling gives you the shivers

Some authors are naturally quite commercially minded, and those authors tend to make very successful self publishers. As I said, you need to be able to shout loudly to be heard as a self published author. Some authors have neither the personality or the inclination needed to do that shouting. You do have to do your own publicity when you have an established publisher as well, but at least they will do the basics for you, and this gives you a leg up.

If you don’t have a specific audience

Self publishing works really well if you are writing for a defined audience. You can learn who that audience is, what they want and how to deliver it to them. You can narrow your focus and tailor your sales approach to that audience. If you write books that are very general, it will be hard for you to find people to target, and to compete with authors who know what readers they want to reach. Having an established publisher behind you gives you a platform to reach a wider audience, and from that experience, you may discover which readers favour your book.

What do you think? Is self publishing a go-to for every author? Or are there authors whose work is more suited to an established publishing model?