Never give up – The Exhibit of Held Breaths goes to Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair

In 2010 I began scribbling in a notebook, imagining a decrepit museum-gallery “I’m writing to tell you about a place where I worked many years ago and a particular exhibit – the Exhibit of Held Breaths. I recently revisited the museum-gallery after an interval of ages. It’s a grim place now; dust shored up in the corners, the spiders spinning improbable threads, descending not from old beams but from torn polystyrene ceiling tiles interspersed with chunky fluorescent lights. The museum was shut down quite a few years ago – I’ve kept a key, although I hardly needed it; when I put my hand on the side door it crumbled, rotten, into flakes and shards.”

As any writer knows, writing is not as others might imagine – a solitary person stares out of the window, pen in hand, face lighting up as a idea appears in consciousness, pen goes to paper – or in these day perhaps fingers start tapping on soft computer keys – and a story bursts onto the page. No! More often it is small scratchings, false starts, sentences struck out or the delete key, head in hands, standing up, walking round, more useless words that need endless revision before they take shape – and only ever approximating the first vision.

But on a handful of occasions (in my experience anyway) a story arrives, yes, arrives as if sent from somewhere, as if already existing in some alternate reality library and plonks itself on the page. Without too much agonising on this occasion the short story – quite a long short story at 5000 words – was written and within it was encapsulated a larger story, a whole trajectory. It asked to be a novel.

Art and belief collide when the strange Exhibit of Held Breaths and its twin exhibit Sighs take apart 1980s Rivenstown and the life of reluctant curator Norman White.

Featuring a Miss Havishameque Mrs Reeves, the reviled aristocrat of a failing 1980s town, and her protégée, The Exhibit of Held Breaths follows the quest of an ordinary man to explore the exaltation of art, and burn bright beyond his usual existence. Through her own warped motives, Mrs Reeves ignites the fire in him and raises up the town, but at what cost to Norman, his wife Jenny, their children and the people of Rivenstown? The sinister influence of the exhibits begins to unravel it all. Art reveals more about Norman and his past and his future than he’s prepared for.

Time is strange and our writing journey exists alongside life. In 2010 I had four young children aged ten and under, my mother-in-law suffered a devastating stroke that put her in a wheelchair and left communication difficult, one of my children was diagnosed with Aspergers. At the same time I had been utterly thrilled – and shed a tear of joy – when the one other story that had almost written itself Bog Body was shortlisted for the Hennessy Award ceremony that took place in April 2010. Around that time I had also been shortlisted for the Bridport prize. I had fallen for writing aged 8 when a poem I wrote in school was well received and I had been writing since then but only began in earnest when in 2000 I decided to give up paid employment and raise my children at home.

In the early years I wrote when I could, when my husband took sole charge of the children. My artist sister and I shared childcare to free the other up for creative activities. I became a member of the 5am write club to eek out words at my most productive time of day – although small children strangely also like to wake early sometimes. In latter years my family worked together to build a writing shed. From my files I see that a draft of the novel of The Exhibit of Held Breaths was completed in 2013, although I know that I let it sit after that and completed further drafts and improvements based on feedback from people in the publishing world and my writers group.


In 2014 I was focussed more on short stories and was delighted when I was invited to the Irish Writers Centre to read my flash fiction piece Eat! for the Stinging Fly launch of the anthology it was published in. By coincidence last year the novel that emerged from the flash fiction was longlisted (next 12 after the finalists) in the Irish Writers Centre’s Novel Fair Competition. This year I decided to give The Exhibit of Held Breaths a try and was thrilled when I received a call from Betty Stenson of the Irish Writers Centre to say that I was a finalist and would be part of the Novel Fair in February 2020. The Novel Fair is an opportunity to meet sixteen agents and publishers in person to pitch our novels (and ourselves). And in a satisfying full circle the room where we will be pitching our work is the same room where I performed my flash fiction back in 2014.

Since I wrote The Exhibit of Held Breaths there have been further difficulties and tragedies in the family but also positives. I now work as a librarian in the largest public library in Ireland and absolutely love my role in connecting with library users and being surrounded by books and readers.

In this blog over the years I’ve tried to help others to find headspace and resilience to write and shared submission opportunities that will help writers to raise their profile. There is no clear formula, no clear or linear trajectory to success. You may write the perfect and most lovely novel but it may just not be for these times, you require an element of luck but you need to create opportunities, visibility, you need to keep following your fascinations and inspirations and writing new things. You need to try new styles of writing, new genres, new types – poetry, screenplay, playwriting, worldbuilding for games – and see what freshness they can bring to your work. You need to dust off old work and see if it still sings and whether it can now find a place. You need to look at your writing with a critical eye but be on your own side and advocate for work you believe in.

On 1st February the 12 finalists for the novel fair were welcomed, congratulated and supported in a preparation day at the Irish Writers Centre. In a few days time we will get a chance to meet agents and publishers and for all those writers who usually send manuscripts into the void, its a fantastic chance to connect up with people in the publishing world. The Irish Writers Centre run the competition every year and will soon be announcing details of what will be their tenth competition on their website. Whatever happens it is a tremendous opportunity and one I’m grateful for and I’ll tell you more about the process after Feb 14th.


The long writing road to a finished novel (Eat!)

alison on road

A long time ago in Death Valley.

When I finish this post I will start work on some final edits and tweaks to my novel Eat! I’ve just begun to submit (very systematically this time) to agents and this is my blurb.

Consumption becomes medicine for Anise Fish from the Big House who – feeling responsible for her mother’s death – runs through a manic, 2008 boom-time town eating unusual, inedible things. The town’s inhabitants grapple with strange new cravings and Benedict – a would-be cannibal – creates dubious recipes. As the Doctor with the help of philosophical police detectives tries to unravel the case histories of the afflicted he must face his own culpability in the origins of this strange and disconsolate contagion.

Eat! explores the relationship between Anise Fish, a boy trapped inside by illness, the children she au pairs, her grief-stricken father and the Doctor who tries to save her. Eat! is a musing on grief, guilt, nature and nurture, crime and responsibility, how people make up for losses in twisted ways and how relationships and nature can heal.

Now I know some people can write a novel in days and I know that every project is different. Our writing production exists within a particular set of circumstances each time. How crystallised is the project in our minds or are we just feeling our way? Do we have confidence, mental and physical reserves? How is our life? Full of chaos and complication or running relatively smooth? Have we had to cope with transition or loss? Have we had mental and physical space or have we had to carve out niches?

Here is a social media post about Eat! from 2014

About 2 years ago (in May) I was gripped with the feeling for a book but made myself knuckle down and finish the projects in between. With two other novels finished it’s finally time. I have 40,000 words of notes, an excerpt (flash fiction) coming out in the Stinging Fly, now I would like to lock myself in a garret somewhere and do the rest. If it’s no trouble world, thanks a mill.

stinging fly cover

Flash fiction Eat! is published in The Stinging Fly Spring 2014

I was invited to read the piece at the launch at the Irish Writers Centre. I’d read it before at a Big Smoke Writing flash fiction event and it got a great response from the audience. When I went to read at the Irish Writers Centre, the lighting was much more ‘atmospheric’ and I realised with horror that – as part of the sacrifice we writers make – I had killed my eyes. I struggled to see my own printout but muddled my way through the reading, hesitantly this time.

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The next few years were in a word challenging; loss, grief, financial and other severe family difficulties with no support from relevant institutions. I created swathes of Eat! from participation in the NaNoWriMo writing challenge (write 50,000 words in a month). I got the words on the page. The story ranged round a cast of characters who emerged out of this unstructured mining of the imagination and concerns from the subconscious. It’s not autobiographical but I saw later certain truths about my own life arrive out of my writing. I had a mass of words in the end (over 144,000) and then I needed to make sense of it all. For this book, this process – coming out of the slivers of mental space available and out of the wide scale the book seemed to take – involved an extended period of time (about a year) in just putting the material in the order it needed to go. It was a laborious, painstaking (painful!) process that I had to do without knowing if it would pay off. Has it paid off? We await the verdict.

(Adding to the original post, say whatever you like about Facebook, it does act as diary sometimes, allowing you to mark out feelings and events at a point in time – here is a further entry re: the book in February 2017)

So much more work to do, four years from the initial idea, three years from the Stinging Fly flash vignette, 145,000 words (so must be pared down) but I finally have a rough first draft of my next book. I CAN’T TELL YOU WHAT A RELIEF IT IS. Going to print it out now and let it sit. Yippee!

I’ve had the pleasure these past years of being involved in a real world writing group. These are lovely people and accomplished writers – widely published and shortlisted for many awards including the Hennessy New Irish Writing. They have given me feedback, criticism, suggestions and encouragement on many projects including Eat! It was they, who, sometime last year, encouraged me to submit Eat!  to the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair. So we come full circle again. The books first words spoken at the centre, then this January I got the news that Eat! had come highly commended in the Novel Fair. I’m part of a second group of 12 who will get our submissions critiqued. (The winners will pitch to agents and publishers around now at an agent fair.)

You know, as writers, how hard it is to keep the faith and especially with a long project, to dedicate the time (years!) to writing a book that might never see the light (Eimear McBride’s terrific A Girl is a Half-formed thing took ten years to be published once it was done.) To get positive feedback in terms of being longlisted means a lot.

aw-hwah-cover-front-midI’ve written three other novels (and a couple of other attempts). One of these is the heart warming Housewife with a Half-Life that publishers were interested in but wondered about the ‘genre’ (domestic comedy sci-fi?) (I believe now in 2019 that cross-genre is no longer such an issue and I have a sequel to the book planned in any case.) Another two novels have been submitted but perhaps not with the necessary gusto. As I finish my own edits of Eat! (knowing that in case of possible publication more work may be called to be done) I’m giving the book the best chance by doing my research carefully and contacting agents.

A new phase is about to arise in life. After a long stint of caring for children (my eldest has now become a man) I’ve been offered a library job. This blog has been all about finding the resilience and headspace to be creative in the midst of what life is offering at any one time. Now my challenge is, while enjoying the new perspective and connections a full-time job will offer me is to find ways to maintain the focus and forward momentum on new writing projects and to keep doing this writing thing that I know I love and is so important to me.

I’ve written short stories and worked on other projects during the long incubation, writing and creation of this book. I’m yet to hear from agents whether they want to see more. It has been very difficult keeping the faith in my writing even with this feedback and other positive comments (from the editors on the Writing Workshop now Jericho Writers Self-Editing course). Mine is just one story of persistence. I hope you have been able to find ways of keeping going along your own long road and that you might find comfort in knowing there are many along the same path.


Publication and pondering: There’s a café in this story


Dear reader,

I’m knee deep, waist deep, actually head under water in my monster novel of 140,000 words. No – as I keep saying – not an actual novel about monsters but the more I say that the more I want to write a novel about monsters. My novel is based on a flash fiction published in the Stinging Fly in – was it 2014? – quite a while back anyhow and it’s about a girl with pica running about eating the world to shore up her own loss (a mother dead in childbirth, an emotionally absent father) but it’s really an allegory for the 2000s boom hysteria, so everyone ends up eating the world (consumption see) and everyone’s out to shore up their loss (bad relationships, the spectre of the Famine in Irish society, feeling inadequate) and there’s a guy who wants to be a cannibal. So typical run of he mill stuff really. So I’ve been untangling years of notes and scenes and then going to Mia Gallagher’s workshops and now working on an online Self-Editing course run by the Writer’s Workshop and putting other pet projects aside for what seems forever. So I haven’t written many short stories recently but was so pleased to have one printed in the fabulous Welsh based The Lonely Crowd back in July.

As part of the publication we were encouraged to submit a piece on how we wrote the story submitted, or what was the crux of the story. As a man begins to become emotionally attached to a woman he meets in a café the narrative he tells himself about the state of his life, the feelings he feels he has for the woman and where his wife fits into the picture are key in how the story – an the ultimate conclusion will play out. However I wanted also to think about how, each time, we as writers set out to try to conjure up a story out of a slim idea, a visual, an anecdote, a phrase or a rough sketch of a character, we set out to make some kind of reality out of nothing and how this must always fail in some way (more on that in the next post.)

The writer tries to construct a whole that will, as the sum of its imperfect parts provide some epiphany or at least a satisfying sense of recognition, a consoling (or disquieting) feeling of common humanity or experience.

I talk about how with every version something is left out – something we need to become more aware of in this era of fake news

“As a young college student taking a module in media studies in the early 1990s, I remember the astounding realisation that news was not just news, it could be partisan, that parts of a story could be left out. And in this era of fake news and endless rhetoric, the watering down and frowning on any absolute moral stance, it is often implied that all views are equal. With the narratives we make of our own lives on social media, in our own heads, in the frenetic, consumerist, production-centred world we live in, we have never been more aware that all stories are a version.”

You can read the full version of my musings on The Lonely Crowd website here and I would be grateful if you do.  Issue 7 of The Lonely Crowd with my story and stories from Danielle McLaughlin, June Caldwell and many more can be ordered from the website.

How are you doing? Are you working on more than one project at a time? Do you feel bereft of the shorter stuff when working on novels? Listening to Nuala O’ Connor/Nuala Ni Chonchuir at the Bray Literary Festival recently she said she was bereft of her poetry in particular since her focus has been taken up by novels. I thought a between version lull in my novel would allow me to go back to another project but with the editing course it hasn’t turned out that way.

Blogging apparently is dead since I started this blog many years ago. That said I hope to be back here a little more regularly to connect with whoever passes this way.

Ever ask yourself if you should give up writing?

Writing is an endurance test, especially where the novel is concerned and it requires sacrifice and a great deal of time and effort. In the face of the publishing industry’s vagaries, conflicts between the time we need and what we can do alongside our other responsibilities and in light of our own lack of confidence, we can really begin to wonder if dedicating ourselves to writing and a dream of publication is the right choice.

For a variety of reasons it’s been a very difficult few years and when energy is low, deciding whether it’s right to spend that precious energy and a huge proportion of time on a pursuit that often makes you question yourself is an important consideration. Like so many writers I have wailed and moaned that the writing is not going well, or should I even bother. This is especially relevant on my current project which is a monster of a thing (now at 140,000 words, woohoo!) requiring intense dedication.

In this article I look at how we can decide whether or at what level to pursue the writing endeavour if you’d like to read it.  Please share with me here the difficult or challenging choices you have made in either choosing to write or in leaving it behind. I would be grateful to hear how people have made these decisions.

Honour your writing and what it means to you.


Having lost many of our artistic touchstones in 2016 and with world events taking a sinister and dispiriting turn, it’s all the more necessary to identify what it is important and valuable to us and to take steps to honour those values. While we need to turn outward and support and encourage each other, we also need to honour our own values and talents. This new article I’ve written for talks about the ways we can assert ourselves as writers during 2017 and find ways of developing our writing talent.

31 Ways to Keep your Head above Water

In 2013 I wrote a post a day in January with various topics for enhancing creativity. There are some great tips and ideas for you to try out. Just click into the posts of your choice!

Head Above Water

CillrialaigdawnGOOD INTENTIONS

Jan 1st 2013. We get out of bed and we want to do things better this year even though we might just slide back into the old ways, we’re starting with resolve and a heightened optimism. As we stare out the window and think, yes, i should get out there we know that we need to galvanise that wish into something more focussed. Our minds are wimps really, they need goals and encouragement and a kick up the…

As I writer I’m well aware of the swings between enthusiasm and doubt, as a parent of young children, one of whom has aspergers, I know about trying, about joys, failures, frustrations, exhaustion, delight, about getting up from setbacks over and over and keeping going. Across the world the recession has hit families badly and here in Ireland a harsh budget will bring massive trials and difficulties to already stretched…

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The Evangelical Writer: Why you need to believe in yourself

I thought this post from the archives could do with another outing. Personally speaking I’ve struggled with confidence as I get back into a difficult writing project after a gap.

Head Above Water

Be your own crusader

Evangelism. It can be scary. It can put you off a nice walk in the park. It can make you squirm uncomfortably at the front door. Or it can be fascinating and illuminating to see how the power of belief can make someone turn their life around, dedicate themselves absolutely to what they believe in. At its worst it can become fanaticism, extremism, terrorism. At its best it can be selfless dedication to a philanthropic cause.

Evangelism is like being possessed by a virus of belief. You want to spread the word to everybody, you want them to feel as you do. I felt that way recently when I joined twitter and after the first self-conscious new kid on the block feeling, (tagging onto people and hoping they would be nice about it) I began to discover what a wonderful place it was. As a writers forum it is invaluable…

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Cozy or cool – writers, what do you wear?

felted glove.jpgDear writers, if you’re in the Northern Hemiphere you are probably trying to keep warm as you tap away on your keyboard or scratch out an account of your life from your attic room. On my blog I’m asking writers to share the details of what they wear when behind closed doors doing their writing thing? Is comfort the main factor or do writers dress for the office? How many layers is acceptable and what about accessories, lap blanket, hot water bottle, foot warmer. Just what does it take to keep that bestselling endeavour on the road.

You can read more, with links to more fun articles on personal grooming etiquette and braving freezing conditions on my blog here (Writer, Bare All – What is your writing Uniform?).

Writing,ie is a fantastic resource of how to articles and personal stories, competitions and new release info, so you can log in to comment. If you’d rather, leave your comments here! See if your weird and wonderful habits are share by your fellow writers. It would be great to hear from writers from other climates (other than the cold, damp and dismal.)

Depression: Tightrope walking with a friend

January: Bleurgh, endless white skies and here, rain, news, it appears, of death upon death, for those suffering from SAD or other depressive tendencies in the Northern Hemisphere, January is perhaps the last slog on a upward climb that hopefully will open up to a plateau of hope when Spring begins. But depression is not weather dependent, it can hit at any time, come from trauma or trial or seemingly from nowhere at all. It may be chemically based, genetically predisposed. It is a combination of temperament and circumstance and how society is set up. There seems to be, at this current time of technological change, dissipating boundaries, an individualistic culture, separation from nature, social media and always on personas, ways in which the vulnerable can be knocked into self-doubt, anxiety, paralysis. There appears to be a surge in the number of young people experiencing mental health difficulties and there are the age old problems of personal and relationship breakdown.

In the challenges I have faced over the past number of years in family life, one thing has made more of a difference than anything else – the discovery that I am not alone in my journey, that others share similar difficulties and that within myself and my band of comrades we find together a sense of resilience, a broadening of the mind and compassion for others through adversity and a huge capacity for kindness and humour which we share with each other.

It is in this vein that I share with you a publication, Depression and the Art of Tightrope walking written by a friend of mine, Vivienne Tuffnell who in her generous blog always shares her experiences and consolations on the subject of depression. She charts a course (a tightrope, she calls it) through the undeniable reality of depression (a study I read as a student asserted that depressed people do not used the same tactics as people without depression, tactics that can sometimes fool us into believing things are better than they really are – thus depressives are more realistic!) while taking solace and sustenance from elements in life such as nature and creativity. This is a journey through experience, there is no cure, no, as she puts it “no final answer about anything. That’s the joy and the sorrow of it.”

Depression and the Art of Tightrope walking collates several of her blog posts on depression. This is how she describes the book:

“I’m a writer and poet and a long-term sufferer of depressive illness. I try to keep smiling but sometimes I fail. I love the natural world, and am a great fan of the vagaries of the English weather.” These words were the first attempts to define what my blog was about when I began it in February 2009. From these first tentative steps into blogging, Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking has expanded into a wide-ranging and eclectic exploratory journey into what it means to live with depression. There are many posts on the subject now, and I decided to collect together the ones I felt were potentially most helpful to others affected by mental and emotional distress. They’re not intended as classic self-help or as a replacement for treatment but rather as a commentary from one person’s experience. Sometimes it can help simply knowing we are not alone in a journey, even when it feels that way. I’ve enjoyed the whole concept of the Zen koan, a short question that usually has no answer but is intended to provoke more questions and more thinking. Think of the classic one: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Most of my posts are written with this aim in mind; I just lack the compactness of a koan. I try to look at the world from another angle. I like (like? not sure I like it but I am inwardly compelled to do it) to ask questions, sometimes awkward ones. There is no final answer about anything. That’s the joy and the sorrow of it. Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking contains twenty essays from the original blog and includes a foreword from Suzie Grogan, author of Shell Shocked Britain-The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health and editor of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days (Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety).

It’s available here in both paperback and kindle formats.

Vivienne’s book is realistic, reflective and informative and shares an honest experience of how she lives with depression as part of the fabric of her life but also explores the ways she finds to live more fully alongside it, to find meaning and joy, light alongside darkness. This honest account will make you realise that the human experience may feel a lonely one but there is always someone travelling a similar path, that there is no final answer but that the steps we take in challenging terrain is the true story.



Thriving on the fire & verve of lost creatives

Thrown sideways by the loss last week in particular of David Bowie and of Alan Rickman, I wrote an article on my blog about how the artistic endeavours of their lives, (and that of Ray Bradbury) and their commitment to invention and expression of the human condition can fuel our own continuing endeavours. Let me know what you think.

Article: David, Alan and Ray – Why we must keep creating.