Taking Memoir Writing to the Next Level

For some time now, I’ve been feeling that I’d love to give more in-depth writing workshops. I have given such writing workshops in the past, but I want to make it more of a feature of my work. I want to take a group of enthusiastic writers to the next level. Just over two weeks ago, with the help of just such a group of enthusiastic writers, I achieved that ambition. I gave a memoir-writing workshop which gave the writers the space to create a full-length story and get feedback on it within a few hours. The writers created their magic in this building.

 

Edmund Rice Heritage Centre
The Edmund Rice Heritage Centre, where these stories were created.

 

This story would explore the role of point of view in shaping stories. In other words, the point of view you choose to tell the story from shapes the atmosphere of the story, and changes your view of the characters in it. The writers would tell the story of a small but significant injustice that they experienced when they were young.

We all have them. The time we were promised sweets but never got them. Or we saved up to buy something, only to find that the shopkeeper had sold it on. As a twist, the writers would tell the story from the viewpoint of the character who committed this injustice.

Building the Story

The writers started by brainstorming the small injustices they’d experienced. They came up with a list of three, and then whittled that down to one. They then took the time to get to know the person who committed the injustice by doing a character sketch. This is a profile of a character, where you give details like their name, age, location, family, and secrets about them that no-one else knows, The writers would be aware of some of the details, but could use their imaginations to fill in the gaps.

Every story needs a structure. This story would follow that timeless template: the three-act structure, with a beginning, middle and end. I devised a set of questions based on the three-act structure. Answering these questions would help them gather the facts of the story and put them in order. Once they’d answered those questions, they could then flesh out the facts to make a full-length story.

The Finished Product

The writers ended up with remarkably accomplished first drafts, well structured, with rounded, sympathetic characters. Some of them had not actually written before, but rose to the challenge beautifully. They were also generous in giving feedback to each other. Most of all, they found that they gained a new perspective on events in their lives, and were able to empathise with their former adversaries.

Do you have a small but significant injustice from your childhood that you could mine for stories? Try writing about it from the viewpoint of the other person. You may be surprised at the results.

Three Ways to Share Your Writing with the World

When we think of sharing our writing with the wider world, we think in terms of traditional publishing or self-publishing. But we need to think beyond these two options. Whether you choose mainstream or independent publishing, the process is punishing, and this can put off many people who are otherwise very talented, enthusiastic writers. Even if you do succeed, with those options, you then have to fight for your audience.

But any writer worth their salt wants to write for others, not just themselves. And I’ve become increasingly convinced that you don’t need to publish to find an audience for your writing. You can find an audience beyond the cosy circles of your friends, family, writer buddies, writing groups or creative writing workshop. You’ll know you’ve arrived when a total stranger reacts to your writing. And if you’re inventive, you’ll find ways to reach them.

Here are three ways of finding an audience and gaining street cred as a writer, on your own terms.

Perform Your Writing

If you’re a writer with a bit of an extrovert streak, you could try performing your writing at an open mic night or a spoken word event. At open mic nights, writing is performed along with music and comedy sketches, whereas at a spoken word event, it’s just writing. These kinds of performance events lend themselves well to poetry, but you could write prose that’s designed to be performed too.

Reading at Modwordsfest - Derek Flynn
I performed my writing at a recent spoken word festival called Modwordsfest. Photo Credit: Derek Flynn

 

Submit to Journals

There are lots of altruistic literary types who found journals that showcase original new writing. This is particularly useful for poets and short-story writers, as it’s hard to attract the attention of a publisher for a collection of short stories or poe from a debut author. Many of these journals are prestigious, with high submission standards, so being featured in them gives you great kudos.

Broadcast Your Writing 

Many people don’t realise that broadcasting is seen as a form of publication, and radio programmes are eager to accept great writing that will sound good over the airwaves. Some radio programmes accept stories and poems from writers, particularly community radio stations and stations with a public service remit. You can also enter competitions to have your story or play published, and you may even win a prize!

Have you shared your writing in this way? Are there any ways in which you share your writing?

Can Books Be Introverted?

Have you ever read a book where all the ingredients are in place, but the story fails to ignite? I’m sure the experience will be familiar to many of you. I experienced it recently with a book that came highly commended from many quarters. But rather than simply shrug it off as a dull reading experience, I fell to pondering on what qualities had made the book dull for me.

And I concluded that the book was too introverted for me.

I once heard the acclaimed author Mary Costello talk about writing in an introverted style. She is an introvert herself, and considers loneliness to be a natural state for her human being. This leaked into her writing, into the small, delicate stories she creates.

MaryCostello
Mary Costello: an introverted writer.

I’ve written before about that special quality I call “the crackle,” an extra ingredient of passion or excitement that makes a book to life. Now I think of it, the crackle is a quality associated with extroversion: noisy stories that aren’t afraid to put themselves out there.

You could argue that it’s the writer who’s introverted, not the stories. But I do think some stories give you the chance to experience the world from the viewpoint of an introvert, with inspiration drawn from within.

Here’s my take on what makes a story introvert or extrovert?

Characters

Extroverted stories tend to have a large cast of characters who talk a lot, so there’s lots of dialogue. Extroverts like a crowd, so there always plenty of colourful types to get to know when you’re reading the stories. Introverted stories will only have one or two central characters, and there’s less dialogue. Instead, you’re more likely to get an insight into their thoughts.

Theme

Even when a story deals with the everyday, that can be a microcosm of bigger themes. But an extrovert writer is more likely to sweep you up in an epic tale that tackles themes like love and death on a grand scale, with lots of battles and passionate clinches. In an introverted story, the action could be concentrated on one room, with the theme gradually revealed through the character’s actions and inner dialogue.

Language

Extrovert writers are more likely to write with bold brush strokes, because they want their words to be noticed. Introvert writers use more delicate strokes to paint subtle portraits. Just as introverts in real life like to think things out, you’ll have to work a little harder to figure out what the author is trying to say. This

Do you think stories can have introvert or extrovert qualities? Can you think of examples?

How to Benefit from Facebook Writers’ Groups

A couple of years ago, I set up a Facebook group for writers. I love running it, partly because I’m addicted to Facebook groups. As opposed to pages, groups are designed to be communities of like-minded people on Facebook, where people can exchange tips, advice and experience. I set up the Facebook group for Irish writers and book professionals because I felt overwhelmed by the information overload on the web, and wanted to meet other writers and get information that would be relevant to me as an Irish writer.

Facebook groups are intended more for information sharing than for promotion, but they can help you get the word out about your books or writing services if you use them cleverly. Here are some tips for how to use Facebook groups to enhance your writing reputation, drawn from my own experience of running the Irish Writers, Editors and Publishing Professionals Facebook group.

  1. Start Chatting

Like anything in life, you’ll get out of a group what you put in. If you join in the discussions, you’ll get to know the other authors on the group and build relationships with them. Writing can be a lonely life, and just knowing there are other people out there ploughing the same furrow can be a comfort. As an extra bonus, over time, these people will be your audience when you have book or event that you want to spread the word about.

2. Be Generous

If you’re a writer or a book professional with some experience, a Facebook group gives you the opportunity to share what you know. If someone on the group asks a question, give them a comprehensive answer. This will enhance your reputation as an expert in the book field and may attract people to your books or services in the future. Give encouragement to a fellow author who doubts themselves and share useful information that group members post with your own networks. People will appreciate these little acts of generosity.

  1. Ask Questions

If you are breaking into the world of writing or the book world in general, a Facebook is a great place to gather the knowledge you need. A well-run Facebook group offers a safe environment where you can pose any question you want without fear of ridicule. You’ll have access to a warm, friendly community of people who know what they’re talking about, and the information you gather will help you achieve your writerly goals.

  1. Respect the Group’s Promotional Policy

Some groups allow no promotion at all, while others are very liberal, allowing you to trumpet blast your latest book release. In the group I run, we try to achieve a balance between promotion and information. We allow promotion using certain designated posts, and promotions are not allowed outside of them. In general, Facebook groups are more about information than promotion, and with blatantly promotional posts, you may run the risk of looking a little desperate. If this is your promotional style, you’ll get better results using more direct promotional mediums like Facebook ads or e-mail campaigns.

  1. Use Moderate Language

You’re on Facebook to represent yourself professionally as an author. My Facebook group doesn’t allow profanities, but even if there is no such restriction, be careful with your language choices. A remark which you think is made in jest can seem offensive out of context. Also, avoid making personal remarks against individuals, even if you have good reason to. You could run the risk of libel charges, and at the very least, you’ll give the impression of someone who’s bitter, which won’t do your reputation any good.

How do you use Facebook groups to promote yourself? And if you run a Facebook group, how do you make sure that the group is beneficial to members?

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

us-english-chart
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?

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.

plot-structure
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?

What I Hope for My Creative Writing Participants

Tonight, I’ll be manning a table at an enrolment night for people who want to do night classes at Colaiste Chathail Naofa, the further education college in Dungarvan in south-east Ireland. I’m giving an eight-week creative writing course as part of their night class programme, and after the success of the class I gave there last year, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in again.

colaiste-chathail-naofa
The college where I’ll be giving my workshop. Taken from the Colaiste Chathail Naofa website.

Each of the participants who sign up will have their own hopes for what the class will offer them, and contrary to popular opinion, these don’t always include getting published. But here are my three hopes for the participants, if I’m lucky enough to get the numbers for a class.

1.      That they’ll learn how stories are put together

Each class will cover a different aspect of storytelling. As well as the core techniques like character, setting and plot, participants will learn how to tell a story from a particular point of view, how to use the senses to create vivid description and how a story’s theme can influence its structure. Some people are bookworms and enjoy seeing how their favourite writers put together books. Others will use the techniques to add depth to the stories they’re writing.

2.      That they’ll write their own stories

This course is aimed at people who have never written before. It’s important that a course has a solid outcome, a tangible result of their efforts. In this case, I hope the outcome will be a complete story, created by the participants. As the weeks unfold, I hope they’ll grow in confidence and that they’ll achieve that outcome. Some people come in with an idea already and some find that the course activities trigger an idea.

3. That they’ll realise they have something special to say

This is the true power of creative writing. It helps people to see that they have their own unique voice, and that they have a story to tell which other people will want to hear. Exploring that story and bringing it to life gives people a real sense of satisfaction and confidence. Even if they never look at the story they wrote again, or write another word, the participants will have the satisfaction of knowing they told their own story, and that it was heard.

What reason did you have for going to creative writing classes? Were your hopes realised? If you give creative writing classes, what hopes do you have for your participants?  

 

 This course is aimed at people who have never written before. It’s important that a course has a solid outcome, a tangible result of their efforts. In this case, I hope the outcome will be a complete story, created by the participants. As the weeks unfold, I hope they’ll grow in confidence and that they’ll achieve that outcome. Some people come in with an idea already and some find that the course activities trigger an idea.

3.      That they realise they have something valuable to say

This is the true power of creative writing. It helps people to see that they have their own unique voice, and that they have a story to tell which other people will want to hear. Exploring that story and bringing it to life gives people a real sense of satisfaction and confidence. Even if they never look at the story they wrote again, or write another word, the participants will have the satisfaction of knowing they told their own story, and that it was heard.

Why did you start going to creative writing classes? Were your hopes realised? If you give creative writing classes, what hopes do you have for your participants?  

 

The Storytime Express Comes to Waterford

You’d be surprised how quickly you can put a story together. Of course, to bring it to publishing standard takes months or even years, but the basic idea can emerge in a matter of hours. I give a workshop for beginning writers to help them kickstart their stories, and after just two hours, they come out with the first draft of a story. I’ll be giving that workshop for an upcoming writing festival, Waterford Writers’ Weekend. I call it The Storytime Express. Due to the demands of the schedule, it’ll be three hours instead of two, but that will give the participants some much needed breathing space.

Overall, I hope the workshop will give people the confidence to start writing and the power to tell their own story. I also want them to feel that sense of accomplishment that comes from producing a complete piece of writing that is their own creation. At the very least, they’ll come out with a story plan that they can develop in their own time.

Building the Story

After some icebreaking activities, we’ll start to build the story by creating a character, setting and plot. They’ll be given a picture of a strange looking old man and be asked to create a character for him. Then they’ll sell a destination, writing a brochure blub for a place with a wacky name. Finally, they’ll be given a headline and will write the story behind the headline. These activities will form the ingredients for their story.

Maurice Murgatroyd
The unlikely hero of our express story.

 

Planning the Story

After a well-earned break, it’ll be time to combine those ingredients together to make the story. The template I have devised for the story is that a valuable treasure has been stolen and the old man is the unlikely choice to get it back. It’s your classic quest narrative. I will outline that template with a story spine, which is a series of sentences with blank spaces for you to fill in. They’ll use the information from the three previous activities to complete the story spine.wr

Writing the Story

Now it’s time to add flesh to the skeleton of the story and to create a story with a beginning, middle and end. Depending on time, the participants spend the rest of the session writing the story. If they finish reasonably quickly, we’ll spend the last 10-15 minutes hearing the stories, and enjoying the surprise of the participants at how creative they can be in a short space of time.

 

If anyone reading this blog is in the Waterford area and likes the sound of this workshop, it’s on Saturday 7 May at Greyfriars Gallery from 10am-1pm. Visit the website for details on how to book.

How Editing Develops Your Writing

When most people think of editing, they think of corrections to spelling and grammar (proofreading) or fussing over whether the Democratic Presidential nominee is Hilary or Hillary Clinton (copy editing). But editors don’t just “nit pick” over small errors. They look at the bigger picture, how the story works as a whole. Combining objectivity with a passion for story, they can advise authors on how to make their stories better. This type of editing is known as developmental editing.

While I do offer proofreading and copy editing, developmental editing projects really get my juices going. Developmental editing is the line where writing and editing meets. You need to know how stories to do it. I’m going to be doing a developmental edit on a book soon and here are three things I’ll be advising the author on.

How well the story works

When you’re writing, you can feel as if you’re trapped in a maze. You’re so lost in the story that you can’t find a way to the end. Developmental editors hold out the ball of wool that you can use to find your way out. They will tell you if your characters are convincing and if the world you have created for them is vivid enough. They will alert you if your point of view isn’t consistent, or if your dialogue sounds wooden. They’ll also give you a sense of which events are central to the story and which are not.

Maze
Developmental editors get writers out of the maze.

How to shorten and lengthen

Some writers feel as if they’re drowning under the weight of words. Others may feel they are scrabbling for them. Developmental editors are objective, so they can tell you which scenes to cut and how to tighten your sentences. If you only have a scrap of an idea and you want to make it into a novel, developmental editors can give you tips on how to expand: for example by weaving flashbacks to the past into a contemporary story.

Whether you’re mad or not

When authors come to developmental editors, they are either muddling through a first draft and want to reach the end, or at the point where they need to decide whether to publish or not. These are delicate stages in an author’s life, and it’s easy for them to doubt themselves and wonder if they’re nuts to want to continue. Developmental editors will help them make that decision. I will give a verdict on whether the story has merit or not, and what the author needs to do to bring the story to fruition. Whether they tell an author to go ahead and send in that submission or go back to the drawing board, it could be just what an author needs to hear.

Have you ever used the services of a developmental editor, or a critiquing service? How has it helped you advance your writing?

 

Writing With the Visually Impaired

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I’m a writer and I’ve visually impaired. I’ve shamelessly milked my sight problem for my journalism and creative writing, and while I’m now moving on to other topics, I wanted to give other people the opportunity to experience the power that comes with telling your own story and turning what seems like a disadvantage into a source of inspiration.

Visually Impaired Writing
Photo credit: http://www.ncbi.ie

As a result, I’ve struck up a relationship with the National Council for the Blind, and I’ve now given three one-day workshops at its Training Centre, thanks to the generosity of its director, Stuart Lawler. The participation has been lively and fun and (no pun intended) a bit of an eye opener. I’m partially sighted and have been so my whole life, so it’s been interesting to learn about the challenges faced by totally blind people and by people who have lost their sight, either gradually or suddenly.

Visual impairment is always portrayed as a hindrance, but in the writing world, it can be a powerful creative force. There are three qualities I noticed in the budding writers I worked with at NCBI which I think will help them to be fine writers.

Attention 

Visually impaired people concentrate harder. They pay attention to what you tell them, because they don’t have the luxury of leafing through prepared handouts. They are more likely to retain the nuggets of information you pass on to them. Sight is such a powerful sense that it almost blocks the other senses out. When it goes, other senses come to the fore, and as a result, visually impaired people may notice things that other people miss. This trait is essential for a good writer.

Anger

This isn’t quite the negative trait it may seem, but visually impaired people can be cranky, frustrated by a world which is designed for people who can see, in mourning for their lost sight. Writing helps them to channel that anger and use it to create something new. Their anger can help them create writing that makes people sit up and take notice, and (pun intended) view the world in a different way.

Angle

In writing, it helps if you have a perspective that is different from everyone else’s, a different way of looking at the world. When you’re visually impaired, you already have that. Some visually impaired people may prefer not to be defined by their disability and to write about other topics that interest them. If they do choose to centre their writing on their visual impairment, they have a wealth of life experiences at their disposal to draw on, which will help them to create fresh, original writing.

Have you ever worked with writers who have disabilities? Are you a writer with a disability yourself? How do you think disability shapes writing?