It’s important to acknowledge successes as well as failures in writing. (There are enough of the latter, after all.) So I’m very happy to report that an extract from a piece of mine was broadcast last Saturday on ‘The Book Show’ on RTÉ radio, Ireland’s national broadcaster.
Over the past few months, The Book Show ran a contest in which they invited listeners to write a letter to a character from a novel. Ireland’s Fiction Laureate, Anne Enright, picked a winner from the shortlist.
The entry that I submitted was a letter to Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. The show’s producer tells me that they received a huge number of letters to Pride and Prejudice characters so I am extra-pleased that mine was selected for reading. (See the end of this post to read my entry in full.)
A special episode of The Book Show was recorded in front of a live audience in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre on October 21st, and the recording was aired on October 28th. At this event – at which presenter Sinéad Gleeson also chatted to Anne Enright and fellow authors Lisa McInerney and Paul Howard – the shortlisted and winning entries were read by professional actors Derbhle Crotty and Dermot Magennis.
The winning letter was written by Aoife Kavanagh, who wrote a letter to Holden Caulfield from JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Congratulations to her!
You can listen to the show here. My piece begins at 0:23:20 and the winning entry begins at 0:49:34 – but I urge you to listen to the whole show, there is some great work and super-interesting writerly discussion in there.
Lastly, here’s my written piece in full. Hope you enjoy it.
A letter to Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Dear Mrs Bennet
I see you standing at the breakfast room window. Your hand shades your eyes against the morning sunlight. A group of young women with cloaks billowing walk down the drive on their way into Meryton town. Their laughter reaches you across the crisp Hertfordshire air. Wrought-iron gates creak and your daughters disappear down the stony road.
Mrs Bennet, your husband’s surname is the only name we know you by.
You were once a slender-waisted Miss Gardiner, daughter of the town’s lawyer and celebrated beauty. You fell in love with a soldier. In your mind’s eye, you still see his red coat and brass buttons.
The redcoat left for the Napoleonic wars and you found love again. Mr Bennet was handsome, with a country estate could be inherited by sons only. Your mother’s satisfied nod on your engagement day assured you that those sons would come.
What your mother’s look did not say was that they might not stay.
The first pains came after a few months of marriage. You lay on your side in your bed, knees drawn up with cramps. Your maidservant, a girl of seventeen, wrung her hands in the doorway. You screamed and she ran for the housekeeper. Later, the maid carried away bundled-up sheets, the fabric pale against your scarlet blood.
It happened again, and again. You started to recognise the stabs in your abdomen. You had the housekeeper arrange a bedroom in the farthest corner of the house. More scarlet sheets.
When you reappeared downstairs after these absences, you could not bear the pain in your husband’s face. You began avoiding each other’s eye.
You grew nervous, agitated. What had they looked like, those ghost babies? Desperate, you bullied your maidservant into revealing that the sheets – too badly stained to wash – and what they contained were taken to a corner of the farm’s remotest field and burned. Thoughts crossed your mind of sneaking down there. But what would you look for?
You taught yourself not to think about the corner of the field.
The living children you finally bore brought you both joy, even though they were girls. In one way, the curse seemed to be broken. The wet-nurse looked askance as you took the babies from her, wanting to feed them yourself. You came to life again.
But you learned to dread the look on the midwife’s face. You would let your head fall back onto the pillows, willing her to say the word that would secure your family’s future prosperity. It never came.
By silent, mutual agreement, your husband stopped visiting your bedroom. Every night you passed by the dark panelled oak of his door, dulled with the passing of time. You hated the sound of the sharp click as it closed behind him.
I see you, Mrs Bennet. I wish I knew your first name.
Allow me to be selfish for a moment. 2017 is going to be a huge year for me because this is the year that I publish my first book.
It’s a book of short stories and it’s called ‘Mental’. The stories all deal with the issue of mental health as it affects the five main characters, who are of different ages and backgrounds. My aim with the book – apart from creating a piece of work that hopefully has some artistic merit! – is to shed light into the often darkened corners of our mental worlds.
I’m self-publishing the book, a process that so far has been mostly enjoyable. As a child, I was fascinated with the physicality of books. I tried a few times to make my own, in an attempt to fulfil my dream of seeing my name on a front cover.
Armed with the Olivetti typewriter that Santa had brought, my drawing pens, paper and folders liberated from my Dad’s workplace, and lots of sellotape, I sadly found that the results were never quite up to my expectations. Back then, this was the best I could do (this ‘book’ was the result of a school history project):
For Mental, I’m using Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for the ebook and CreateSpace, Amazon’s print-on-demand service, for the print version.
One of the most exciting tasks so far has been working with an awesome graphic designer to create the cover of the book. I’ll be revealing the cover on this blog very soon!
Last night, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing author Mia Gallagher as part of this year’s Imagine Arts Festival.
As I suspected, Mia is a delight. She is an interviewer’s dream: chatty, friendly and open. She has lots to say but isn’t in the slightest overbearing. Despite being an internationally acclaimed writer, she is completely down to earth and generous.
We talked a lot about her latest novel, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland, as well as about her writing life, her process, and creativity. I loved hearing that at one stage during the writing of BPLH, she sat cross-legged on her floor, surrounded by stacks of paper. That’s such a romantic image of a writer. Much more appealing than sitting bolt upright in front of a computer screen!
The occasion was further enhanced by the venue, St. Patrick’s Gateway Centre in Waterford city. As the image above shows, this former church provides a highly suitable and atmospheric setting for arts events.
My thanks are due to Ollie Breslin, Nora Boland and everyone else on the Imagine organising committee for a perfectly run event, and to the audience members who turned out on a Monday evening.
Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland is available from all the usual book outlets, as is Hellfire, Mia’s first novel.
This writing business is very much ‘in the head’. Watch a writer working furiously, and you will see him or her sitting at the desk, not moving very much at all – not much change in facial expression, even – and staring intently at screen or page. There will be occasional bursts of work on the keyboard or with the pen. That’s it.
So I take every chance I get to move my work more into the physical world. I got the chance recently when I started to edit a story that I am preparing for publication (more on that soon). Editing on-screen produced a lot of head-scratching but not much else. I somehow couldn’t get my head around where everything fitted together in the story.
Enter our old friend, paper. I printed out the story and got to work with my pen and scissors. I literally cut out the bits I didn’t want and wrote in new material by hand, old school style. Then I stapled the pages together in one long scroll to create the new draft of the story.
The process of editing in this way was a tangible one. It felt good to work with physical objects.
Of course, once I had done all the work I could with pen, scissors and stapler, it was back to the computer to make the changes in electronic form, too.
Events (in real life) intervened since I last posted an update on the progress of my short story. The result was that I wrote nothing for six days. It’s difficult to resume a writing project after a gap. You’ve lost some of the closeness that you had with your characters, your head is not in the right place any more, you are no longer “in the zone”.
Having said that, these things can all be regained. I sat down when the house was quiet, pretending not to notice the towering piles of papers on my desk waiting to be sorted out (an essential writerly skill), and closed my eyes. (If anyone had been watching, they would have assumed I was having a little nap.) The story re-formed itself in my head, the characters came back, and I was in business again.
It’s great to be back writing; as Ray Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing, “An hour’s writing is tonic”.
I have a first draft!!!
Apologies to the exclamation mark police here, but I really feel I need them at this point!!!
Can it be that the six-day gap was actually beneficial to the story in some way? Does a break in writing allow characters, plot and the other elements of the story to develop unnoticed at the back of the writer’s mind?
I am fairly happy with how the characters have developed and consolidated. The short-lived siblings are long forgotten (God rest their souls) and the dynamics of the three-person family are working well. The character profiles that I completed at the beginning have really helped with the development of the story in my head. Each character seems to be doing what comes naturally; I haven’t found myself struggling, asking myself “What should be happening now?”
The timeline has proved itself a trustworthy friend. I refer to it often for various reasons. For example, when one of the characters hums a song, I needed to check exactly when that character was born, so that I could research what songs were popular when he was growing up.
As for the house plan that I sketched at the beginning, it is looking a little well-thumbed by now. I have referred to it many times to figure out the characters’ movements around the house.
Light at the end…
For some reason that I suspect it would take a psychologist to figure out, I put off writing anything to do with the ending until the last possible moment. OK, let me hazard a guess.
In a short story, the ending is a big deal, the big kahuna. It brings everything in the story together and “wraps everything up”. By this I do not mean that the ending has to explain things or bring everything to a conclusion – far from it. A short story may end with nothing much having happened. What I do mean is that the ending puts the stamp on the story that the writer wants it to have. As Nancy Kress points out in Beginnings, Middles and Ends, the ending may be the climax of the short story (unlike in the novel, where the climax comes somewhere near the end, followed by a denouement). So writing the ending feels a bit like heart surgery: mess it up, and the whole thing is gone.
I’m also aware that in previous short stories of mine, the endings sometimes tended to drag on. A creative writing teacher of mine (I think it was either John F. Deane or Mark Roper, both outstanding writing teachers I have been lucky enough to learn from) made me aware years ago of the need to put a quick, clean end to a short story.
In the case of this story, the original anecdote on which the story is based pulled me towards one kind of ending. As I started to write the last few paragraphs, another ending began to form in my head. So I wrote two different endings. Now I just have to decide which one to use in the final version, keeping in mind the need to “get out quick”.
So, I am really happy that the story is nearing completion. The final few things that I need to do are:
- Iron out some background details about the time period in which the story is set
- Decide on the ending and get out quick
- Check that the imagery is consistent and balanced. In terms of the five senses, this story is mainly oriented around sight and hearing; the readers see the main character’s world through his eyes and ears.
Thanks to the commenters on yesterday’s post for their advice and encouragement. I got stuck into my story again today with renewed enthusiasm and a calmer demeanour, and have gone from looking like this:
I have decided to keep the story in the 1950s because:
- Some of the key words in the story, words that were included in the original anecdote and sparked my imagination, are specific to that era.
- Setting up a small shop in your own home is much less likely to happen nowadays (planning permission laws are much stricter, and new small businesses less likely to get financing).
- If I can pull it off, the non-contemporary setting adds interest to the story.
Timeline changes (again)
I realised that the mother needed to be older. Based on the previous timeline, she had been only 18 when she opened her shop. I decided she needed to be a little older when she took this step. Also, now that there is only one child, I wanted to create extra space in the timeline, leaving the reader free to guess that there may have been miscarriages, as a possible reason for there being only one child in the family. Here is version 3 of the timeline:
The next issue I was dealing with today was also to do with time. Originally, I had thought that as well as the action that takes place in the story present, the story would include scenes from the past as background. Now I think that this time scope is too wide for a short story – for this one, anyway. I am going to keep the story within the limits of a few hours on one day. I am really trying to keep this story as tight and focussed as possible.
Development of the main character
The character of the boy is filling out. His new status as the only child has made him more self-assured although he still has the searching, watchful nature. The idea is still that the parents are very busy, so he is still always striving for time with and attention from them.
I have written just under 400 words of the actual story. This is a bit discouraging after six days.
A more encouraging thought is that a large part of the planning is complete. Now that I have quite a clear idea of the shape and sound of the story, further changes can be made as I write.
Days 4 & 5
Things are not going too well.
Maybe it’s divine retribution. I am guilty of infanticide: I have had to kill off the three siblings. As per my previous post, the number of characters in a short story has to be kept to the minimum. So the siblings’ lives have been cut short before they even properly started and my main character is now an only child. Sniff.
This changes the whole dynamics of the family and the character profiles have had to be amended as well. The mother’s energy now comes in part from a need to keep herself busy, to fill the gap in her life left by the absence of any more children.
The father-son relationship has also changed. Now that the boy is the only son, he is destined to take over his father’s family business. There is now an air of expectation and pressure in their interactions, especially as the boy is a reflective, bookish character and does not fit his father’s idea of the kind of person needed to take over the business.
Just as well I hadn’t got around to the doing the main character’s detailed profile yet – I can start that from scratch with him as an only child.
With all that in mind, I set about re-drafting the timeline earlier today. I was busy crossing out the hapless siblings and considering how to close the resulting gaps when a thought occurred to me. Is it really necessary for the story to be set in the 1950s?
The anecdote that originally sparked the idea for the this story took place in the 1950s, and I guess I just left that in in my initial planning. But does this really add anything to the story? Could it just as easily take place in the now?
Also, transposing the story to the present would remove the burden of historical accuracy (and the research work involved for me). (I could just go and ask the person who originally told me the anecdote for details about the period, but I don’t want this to be anything remotely resembling someone’s memoirs; the anecdote is simply the spark for a work of fiction.)
One step forward, two steps back. I’m starting to wonder if this story has as much potential as I originally thought.
Character profiles – mother and father
I spent a good portion of my writing time today developing the characters for the story.
The main character is the third child in the family, a boy, aged eight. The story is told through his eyes, in the third person. The mother and father are the two other significant characters.
I got the character profiles for the mother and father done today. They ended up being longer and a bit less structured than previous profiles I have done, but I got into a good flow and didn’t want to interrupt that! There is a lot of detail in them, which I hope will enhance the characters. The vast majority of the detail will not feature in the story, it is just background information for me to keep in mind and refer to as I write. I certainly feel as if I know these people well now.
Here is an abridged version of the character profile for the mother:
Mary, born 1925 into a large family, several children. Grew up in the countryside outside the town she now lives in. The town seemed remote and exotic. Her parents kept a few cows, grew their own potatoes, did what they could – her own mother kept hens, sold eggs, took in mending, etc. Mary was one of the older children and worked from a young age, cooking, cleaning and minding younger children. She moved into the town aged 16 to work as a domestic in a guest house. Her cleverness and capacity for hard work were quickly noticed and she was soon offered a job as a shop assistant in the town’s largest grocer’s shop. She made lots of friends in the town and settled in quickly to her new life there.
At age 18 she met Tom Loughlin when he came into the shop one day. She fell for his charm and wit. As the only son he was expected to take over his father’s business in due course. Because Tom’s family had means, lack of money did not delay their plans and they married later the same year. Tom’s father helped them buy a house that came up for sale on the main street in the town. Mary is delighted and feels she has truly escaped the hardships of her childhood.
Mary gives up her job in the shop when she marries. There is an expectation that she no longer needs to work and she sees no reason to disagree initially. However after a few months of “keeping house” in her new home, she is bored and starts to think about how to occupy herself. She loves Tom as much as ever but has noticed that his business and management skills are not as keen as hers. His building business ticks over but does not do as well as it could. This annoys her and she also realises that extra money coming into the house would not hurt.
Mary decides to open a tiny grocery shop, operating from the front room in the house. Being an end of terrace house, there is a side door from which the shop can operate without putting in on the household too much. She persuades Tom to give the idea his blessing. She has found her calling: businesswoman. She knows that Tom is a little put out but her ambition and conviction drive her on. She also knows that Tom adores her and despite grumbling, will always support her.
As she settles into motherhood, Mary finds that with help, organisational skills, and her great energy, she can keep running her shop and begins to plan for expansion…
One other thing about the character aspect: I am not too clear at the moment about how I will handle the siblings in the family. It is central to the story that the family be a large one, so I have settled on four children. However, this being a short story, three main characters is pretty much the maximum (unless you are Kevin Barry – his story “Beer Trip to Llandudnow” in New Irish Short Stories has six equally important, perfectly drawn characters – but that is Kevin Barry). So I don’t want the other siblings to be prominent. At the same time, they have to be proper characters and not one-dimensional “devices”.
Timeline version 2
The other thing I did today was expand the timeline. Here it is now:
The timeline needs refining but I am not going to change it again until more of the story is written. Once I see how the characters are developing on the page, I will be able to see more clearly how the time aspect is panning out and revise the timeline as required.
Possible key scenes
I’ve worked out three key scenes so far. Number 1 below will be placed towards the end of the story. Originally I had thought of this scene as the “climax”, but this is too strong a term in a story like this where the action takes place largely in the main character’s head. “Epiphany” is likewise not quite right. It’s too dramatic. What the main character in this story experiences is more of a quiet realisation. So a better term in this case is “turning point”.
This is another key scene and the resulting first draft of a paragraph I have written for it:
It’s dinner time. Bacon and cabbage for the lodgers. Mammy spins between kitchen and dining room, steaming plates held high. He retreats, going right to the back of the house on the top floor, but the smell is everywhere. His parents’ muffled voices float up from the kitchen, in the rising inflections of an argument. There is a moment of silence, then the stomp of angry footsteps. Banging. He follows the noise downstairs, through the door through to the new house. His father stands at the foot of the stairs, one hand at his brow, the other resting on the sledgehammer, a pile of splintered wood at his feet.
He knows to ask his father only specific questions.
“Why are you breaking the stairs, Daddy?”
His father closes his eyes slowly.
“So Mammy can make her cafe.”
- Create a character profile for the main character
- Figure out background characters (siblings) – check creative writing books
- Decide on a title for the story – in a short story, the title is crucial
- Write the opening paragraph
What are Greenday talking about? I love September. With the exception of going back to school (which only bothers you if you actually have to go – teehee), September is a time of renewal, revival and getting around to things you put off til after the summer holidays.
In that spirit, over the next while, I will be tracking the development of my latest short story as I write it.
This story-to-be was inspired by that rich source of short story material: a passing comment, an almost-anecdote. The one I have in mind was told to me by someone I know, at least a year ago, on the subject of his childhood. There was an image in there that has stuck in my head ever since: A mother, father and their children are driving along in their car. The mother and father have had a row at home. Suddenly, the mother begins to sing happily.
What intrigues me about this little vignette is what it might say about the dynamics of family life and married life from a child’s viewpoint. Children can be highly perceptive and they can also misinterpret and over-interpret. How might one of the children interpret what is going on in this family on this day?
This series of blog posts tracks my efforts in building this story. Whether or not the story is a success (see how I’m covering myself there?), I hope it’ll be of interest to some to follow the process a writer can go through in an attempt to create a short story (obviously, there are many ways to do this – mine is only one).
Days 1 & 2
Physical environment – house sketch
After mulling over various possibilities for the story for a while, I develop a picture of the family at the centre of the story. The family – mother, father, and three or four children – lives in a big, chaotic house in a medium-sized town. The family’s life revolves around their shop. The small grocery shop is integrated into the house in the converted front downstairs room.
Part of the dynamics of the story is that the mother in the family runs several mini-businesses from within the home. The house is always being extended and modified to make room for each new business venture. So the house is always noisy and busy.
I realise that movement and the physical environment – all the family members moving around this big, chaotic, disorganised, confusing house – are key to the story. So I decide to sketch out a plan of the house. I want to be completely familiar with the layout of the house in my own mind, so that the characters’ movements around the house are consistent and flow smoothly.
This is my initial sketch (architects and technical drawing experts, look away now!):
At this stage, the characters are still in their infancy in terms of development. Later, I will create detailed character sketches. Before that, I need to create a timeline for the family in the story. This is to ensure that all aspects of time in the story are correct and consistent. For example, to specify the age of each character, I need to know when they were born, and all the family members’ dates of birth have to be consistent with each other.
This is the rudimentary timeline I drew up (yes, on the back of an envelope – keeping it real!):
By this stage (the end of day 2), I have also written a few disconnected paragraphs of the actual story. These are really sketches themselves, rough “practise” drafts to help me get an idea of how the story might look and sound.
The next steps are: fill out the timeline, create detailed character profiles, and identify key scenes. I’ll be moving forward with these tomorrow.