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.


Taking the time for the book you want to write

Today I’ve written an article including some Tolstoy quotes sent to me by a writer friend, exploring how to really take the time we need to write the book we really want to write. I talk about incubation, deep reading, George Saunders’ view that this slow writing demands a greater focus and integrity than our quick flit modern world encourages as well as the music and resonance of Kirsty Gunn’s ‘masterpiece’ The Big Music. I also consider two possible approaches in publishing – that of the set brand (with thanks to Elizabeth’s Baines) versus the writer as developing artist. Here’s an extract

We’ve talked before about the importance of incubation, giving time to a project to let disparate ideas coalesce into something whole, layered and original. The first Tolstoy quote says:

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.

We start out with a wealth of ideas and associations, everything is fascinating but making good story often means finding a true and strong thread through those ideas. Like panning for gold or, as my friend said ‘digging and digging before washing’ to ‘string together nuggets’. An artist friend of mine advised me with my own work on The Book of Remembered Possibilities to take it and ‘shake out the detritus of work progress,’ until I could see clearly it’s ‘colour and shape’ and clear away more until “the beat , the rhyme and reason, the poetry is plain.”

George Saunders in this excellent article talks about writing, about how new devices have had a neurological effect that makes the mind leap from one thing to another, become discontent faster. He talks about how writing faster, working on a number of things such as screenplays, travel journalism etc as well as touring, doing TV shows began to make him feel ‘quesy’. Not that he was denigrating those activities but “I really craved the feeling of deep focus and integrity that comes with writing fiction day after day, in a sort of monastic way.” He adds ‘And twitter doesn’t come into that’.

You can read the whole article here and I hope you comment here or there to tell me what your thoughts are. I’m not advocating an arduously slow approach for every project, rather suggesting that where space, time, ambition and courage are required, we need to find ways of holding onto those to maintain the integrity of the project.

31 Days Guest Post Claire King: How do you keep the joy in writing?

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

How do you keep the joy in writing? How do you put it back in when you’ve lost it, particularly if you are working on a longer project? These are questions I often struggle with in my own work, even if the project is one that I’m generally happy with and committed to. I asked novelist Claire King whose debut novel The Night Rainbow has been published by Bloomsbury if she could share her thoughts with us. Claire combines work, writing and family life (originally from Yorkshire, she lives in southern France with her husband and two young girls) and is now revising a second novel. I’ve found her thoughts inspirational and hope you do too.

How do I keep the joy in writing? Claire King

You asked how I keep the joy in my writing, or put the joy back in when I’m struggling with it. I feel as though I could come up with a short list of tips like going for a walk, using writing prompts to kick off a piece of flash fiction or reading something inspirational. But in the end that would sound glib, because lacking joy is more fundamental than just being a bit uninspired or bogged down and needing to take a break.

I would define Joy as a sense of well-being, happiness, exhilaration even, and one of my favourite quotes on life in general is from Richard Wagner:

“Joy is not in things; it is in us.”

I think this is important on many levels, not least in raising the question: where does the joy come from in us? My view is that it’s to do with how we define ourselves, what we believe makes us happy and our lives meaningful. Writing is certainly one of element of how I define myself, so if I lose the joy in writing then I am losing joy in myself. Perhaps that sounds terribly over-dramatic, but isn’t it true that however you define yourself in life, the joy waxes and wanes? We may not always admit it to others, but there are times when we can lose the joy in learning, in parenthood, in being a spouse, in food, in sport, in our bodies, in our environment. Somehow all the colour goes out of it and we wonder if we will find that again.

One of the nice things about getting older is the accumulated experience of life’s ups and downs. So when you hit one of these patches you know that you’ve come through it before, that it’s cyclical, and that if you press on you will come through.

Yes, there are some days when I find writing frustrating and energy sapping, days I just can’t find the right words no matter how hard I try. There are some days I can’t even discipline myself to try properly at all, and then I feel bad about myself, and call myself names. But then there are the days when it just all comes together, when I lose effortless hours advancing the story and pushing the right pieces into place. When characters bloom and take on a life of their own. When perfect expressions seem to fall from the sky. And those times are rewarding, exciting and joyful. I have to remind myself of that.

Still, there’s no use just waiting for the joy to come back. I think we have to hunt it down again and that means figuring out the underlying reasons for why it was lost in the first place. Perhaps we are tired, discouraged, pre-occupied, or overwhelmed…If we can put a name to it, we can start to find ways out.

I’ve found, personally, that I have a sort of mental ‘bank account’ that fills up with triumphs and successes in the things that matter most to me, and depletes with failures and admissions of defeat. If writing is going badly it’s a drain on the reserves. A slow trickling debit. But it can be offset by little credits in other areas. One of the reasons I walk/run regularly is because it’s physically demanding. Once I’ve pushed myself up the mountain and galloped back down again I feel better about myself and what I can achieve. I think it’s important to have something like that, that gives you small victories in your life’s pursuits.

When I started writing The Night Rainbow I was pretty much constantly exhausted from having two very young children and juggling all sorts of work and personal matters. It seems like a crazy time to start a novel. But I realised that my entire time was devoted to the care of others and earning money to live, and in some ways I felt as though I was losing myself. I needed to do something to redress that.

Don’t get me wrong, raising my children was very rewarding and I was so inspired at that time by the joy I saw in my children. They found joy in the smallest things – a caterpillar, an iced-lolly, a drinking straw. I felt positively jaded in comparison to them, and I wanted to explore that in my writing.

In that novel I wrote a mother character, Maman, who is clearly depressed and not functioning at pretty much any level, spending most of her time in bed. Maman isn’t me, of course, but I think I was overwhelmed by how much my daughters needed me, and I was worried that this inability to cope was inside me somewhere. It was cathartic creating her, and it’s really interesting reading the early reviews coming in and seeing how they respond to that character. I’m so pleased that readers can empathise with her plight.

One important element of Maman and her depression is that she is lonely and alone, which serves to deepen her troubles. She has no-one to talk to. I think we should always bear in mind that losing our joy on whatever level is not unusual and that we’re not obliged to tackle it alone. Other people can help remind us why we are doing this, remind us of the bigger picture, and what’s important. They can also help on practical levels, take responsibilities off our shoulders, give us encouragement or rest or whatever we need to find ourselves again.

At the moment I’m living a peculiar juxtaposition. On the one hand there’s the utter brilliance of being a couple of weeks from the launch date I’ve waited so long for, seeing wonderful reviews already coming in and being able to hand over a signed copy of my novel to my mum. Joyous. On the other hand I’m editing my second novel and it is such hard going. I haven’t showed it to anyone yet, because I’m not proud of it. The voice isn’t perfect, the character arcs stutter a little. I often wonder if I set myself too ambitious a task with this one. It’s like being on a roller-coaster all day.

But I know that if I change one word at a time, eventually it will take shape. I know this because it’s not my first novel, and I’ve felt like this before. I have to ignore that joyless inner voice who tells me to have a cup of tea and turn on the TV instead. I just have to put one foot in front of the other until I get there. The joy in these words will be around the next corner, I’m sure.

Thanks so much to Claire. If you want to discover more about the world of and characters in her novel, here is the wonderful book trailer to The Night Rainbow and you can read about it here.

31 Days Guest Post by Fiona Melrose: Poetry performed Alchemy on My Prose

One of the wonderful things about my 31 days of blogging on mental and creative resilience is how I have made the acquaintance of new and interesting people who are finding ways to enhance their own creativity and are trying new things. One of these people is Fiona Melrose. She told me how attending a poetry course had revolutionised how she approached writing longer pieces. I immediately wanted to hear more since poetry and rhythm are important aspects of my own prose. In this guest post Fiona explains to us how her poetry course taught her to write from ‘inside the word’ then move out to the sentence. Here is her most interesting post.

As an elective of my MA I signed up for the 6 week poetry Module with poet Liane Strauss.  I had, like many writers, dabbled with poetry but never with any serious intention.  By the end of the six week course,  my poetry was much improved but as a prose writer everything had changed, and all for the better.

I came to the poetry course at a time when I was struggling with my writing on a fundamental level.  I had over fifty thousand neurotic, empty words sitting in a drawer and none of them, I felt, had anything to do with who I am or what I hoped to achieve as a writer.

The course changed the way I write from the inside out not only in terms of technique but in terms of subject matter.  Both the art and the craft of writing were turned on their heads.  I have thought about this at some length trying to understand how so fundamental a shift could have occurred.

The most important archeology took place around the sentence.  Given that, in my abandoned novel, the larger sweeps of plot and form were failing me, the return to not only the sentence but the weight and play of individual words in them, was the perfect place to start to rebuild my writing.  Writing poetry demands a forensic attention.  Not only to the moment you are trying to capture or express but on a technical level too.  Each point of punctuation can fundamentally alter the heft and meaning of your entire poem. This taught me to write from inside the word and then out to the sentence, then the paragraph and so on.  This is not to say I always achieve this but at least I now know what I am aiming for.

Clarity and economy are synonymous with good poetry and if ever I learned to cut and edit sentences it was here.   Instead, rhythm and texture are all a by product of the sentence and the number of breaths it takes to express its meaning.  The oral nature of poetry made me so much more aware of how my sentences sound and how my breath travels through them.  This has also translated into how I can inhabit a character’s voice.  I have never really understood what it means when we speak about “voice” in fiction and the importance of finding it in oneself.  The poetry course taught me that it is a person’s own natural poetry.  How their age, culture, physicality, their most secret thoughts, all come together in the sound they make when they speak, be it direct speech (dialogue) or narration.

Poetry is rich is symbolism and metaphor, everything matters.  There is no colour, animal , sound, allusion that isn’t there for a reason.  Everything is working on at least two levels, possibly more.  This has made me much more aware of what might previously have been dismissed as “incidentals” in my fiction.  If I write about a tree is is a tree but it is also about a family tree about rootedness in the tribe and about belonging.  If a dog dies it is also about the death of a loyal bond and the dog in the Fool card in the tarot deck which represents the original self, the unencumbered soul.  Foxes feature heavily in my novel and much thought has gone into that choice.   For me, these choices put the poetry into the prose.

The course had its difficulties for me too.  The very personal often confessional nature of poetry demanded that I be more visceral about what I was prepared to put on the page.  I have an analytical, academic training and in retrospect my “first” book had a distance too it.  I found writing poetry in the first person very challenging.  Sharing it made me feel vulnerable and I felt it too confessional, even vulgar or indiscrete.  I am still no fan of this type of writing, but, I know that it has taught me to much braver on the page, seeking out the tooth and claw in a sentence and in a character as opposed avoiding it.

I wrote a short story just after the poetry class and for the first time the voice of the character came to me as naturally as if it where my own.  For the first time in fiction writing, I felt less as if I was trying to make something up than I was trying to get something down.  It was less about manufacturing a plot or character and felt more as if I were simply transcribing the images and scenes unfolding a few inches above my head and the words I was hearing in the character’s voice.  This story just came out in one exhalation and sounded nothing like me or anything I had written before.  It has become the basis for my new novel.

I believe that writing poetry allowed me to continue to write and explore my creative process but forced the expression through non-habitual routes and in so doing produced a more exciting, non-habitual response. I cannot recommend this enough.

Course: The 6-week poetry elective with poet Liane Strauss was part of the MA Creative Writing at Birckbeck, University of London.  As students we produced a short collection of poems and a critical essay on an aspect of the craft.

Fiona Melrose was born in Johannesburg where she studied and taught politics.  She is a writer, reviewer and blogger.  Her short fiction has been published and she is completing her first novel.  Fiona lives in Suffolk with two charming dogs who approve of her habit of writing stories in her head on long muddy walks.

You can follow Fiona on twitter at @papercutprint and visit her site at site

Sincere thanks to Fiona on this fascinating post. Please post a comment if you have experienced a course or activity that has changed how you write.

31 days: Writing Goals, how to achieve them & what if you don’t

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

To receive all the 31 posts, sign up for email notification on the sidebar. On twitter it’s at @31HAW or @alisonwells. Hashtag  #31haw and #headabovewater.

Aims and intentions – direction but not dictatorship.

There are many blogposts across the internet about setting goals this January but the emphasis I want to put on this post is yes, on achieving goals but not beating yourself up in the process! Speaking from experience I know how we can scupper ourselves by getting frantic, confused and guilty so this is what I’ve done that helps me.

1: Write a desire manifesto
Write what you want to do/achieve most of all. Under that write your lesser aims. You will know what’s most important to you and what you need to put ahead of everything else.

2: Be optimistic

There is tremendous energy in intention itself. I talk about intention in this post and how Orna Ross says that aims are not about ‘should’ but come from a more positive position. So set out what you would love to achieve in the coming months. We want to give ourselves parameters within which we can organise our life, we’re not talking sticks and sadness. We want to get away from a vague sense of dissatisfaction and see what kinds of activities and achievements will give us energy and makes us happier. At this stage jot down your wildest dreams.

3: Be realistic and specific

We’ve all heard about making aims SMART, specific, measurable, achieveable, realistic and timebound. Again, we need to set the parameters. It would be marvellous if we could write 3 novels in a month but it probably won’t happen. Subject your wildest dreams and aims to a reality test. Could you finish your novel draft by next month? Do you hope to start your next project by March. Do you need to fit in smaller projects along the way? Can you assign specific time slots to these?

Note: This is not set in stone! Your projects will take longer or less time than you think, family issues will occur. You DO NOT NEED TO FEEL YOU HAVE FAILED OR SHOULD BE GUILTY. So what if you’re 20 years too late to be considered for the 30 under 30 prize, is that really what you wanted anyway? And what would you be happy with instead?

4: Keep a ‘to do’ journal and track progress and achievement (this is magic!)

Get an A4 book into which you write your monthly, weekly and daily aims. Each day or week tick off what you’ve done (a big enthusiastic tick). If something is left undone add it in to the following week. Periodically (monthly, quarterly) write a list of achievements such as submissions made or pieces accepted, words written, ideas gathered. (There’s more on this below!)

What I find so good about this practice is that it gets everything out of my head, my to do list is not circulating in my mind and causing anxiety, I can clearly see what I want to do, what I have done and what I need to do to finish what I set out to do.

3: Regig your schedule regularly.

Based on the information you discover see where you need to add effort, prioritize or take away goals altogether. Again this is a rational and clever thing to do. There is no shame in not achieving everything. (Even superheroes have to send their costumes to the dry cleaners every so often!)

4: Set both tiny goals and marvellous ones

If you set tiny goals you can build on them. If you aim to write 500 words a day you will energise yourself by your success rather than disheartening yourself by your aim to do 2000. The energy of your achievement and it’s confidence will make it more likely that you can achieve 2000 words. Didn’t you know you had wings and could fly?

But equally big goals like the 50,000 word writing challenge Nanowrimo can work. If you see yourself by steady progression scaling the heights of such a challenge (through effort and camaraderie) you will forever know what you are capable of and that is a certainty that cannot be taken away from you.

5: Write an achievement manifesto

When I arrive at the pages where I write my quarterly summary of successes I am always surprised. It’s so easy to forget what you have achieved, even if it’s something quite significant. We often have a tendency to underplay success and focus on what we haven’t done yet. So writing down what we have achieved from solving family squabbles to winning the local poetry competition to writing your first flash fiction to winning the Booker prize is very important. We can take some time to see how these achievements reflect what we set out to do or whether some of the things we did took us in new directions that turned out to be rather wonderful. You can even go a bit crazy and write compliments to yourself on this page. I’ll be talking about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to help stop negative thoughts more fully in a future post and the positive feedback we can give ourselves in this achievement manifesto is an important part of that. This is our feelgood CV, imagine listing your achievements for a job, you can make yourself sound very impressive!

And what if you don’t succeed?

Psychology and Weiner’s attribution theory tells us that we attribute our own success to our efforts and other people’s success to luck. Failure works round the other way. I’m not so sure that those of us who feel responsible for everything, don’t attribute our success to chance and our failure to ourselves. There are those of us who set such high standards that we are bound to fail.

In the modern day though we have this impression that everyone can succeed if they just try. There is truth to the idea that if we start off more optimistic we’ll be more alert to opportunities and we’ll try things, whether it’s enter competitions or self-publish, become entrepreneurs or apply for a job that’s a little too far out of our reach (or is it?) It’s also true however that even if we’ve written a brilliant book for example or have been writing solidly for 20 years, there is a chance we’ll be unlucky and just won’t make it or perhaps we’re not as good as we hoped.


If we are not getting where we want to we might need to get some constructive criticism. We might have to decide whether the love of writing is enough beyond financial success. We might take joy from other aspects of our lives that can make a rich cloth in its entirety. We can hope for posthumous fame. We need to figure out what aspects of life make it just good enough, what small pleasures add up into a satisfying whole. There has to be balance between making our goals and dreams strong enough and big enough to make us work hard & commit to our own success and also realising that to make one ambition the be all and end all is to set ourselves up for misery.


We need to become good not beating ourselves up about not meeting targets. We need to be clever and reassess, not take it as failure.

What do you think, is there a way to maintain our optimism and intention while not beating ourselves up for the things we don’t manage to do?

31 Days: Incubation and how to find your novel’s Eureka moment

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

To receive all the 31 posts, sign up for email notification on the sidebar. On twitter it’s at @31HAW or @alisonwells. Hashtag  #31haw and #headabovewater.


We’ve all heard of the famous Eureka moment when Archimedes was said to have stepped into a bath and realised how to calculate the volume of irregular objects (since the volume of water displaced was the same as their volume.) Apparently he jumped out of the bath and ran down the streets of Syracuse naked.

You might not want to do just that but writers, especially of longer works are often faced with knotty problems that sometimes are not easily solved. Writer’s sometimes describe themselves as plotters or pantser (making it up as they go along) but in any creative endeavour there are often elements that need to slot into place before the whole makes a leap forward and becomes something cohesive and multi-layered.

We’ve talked already, and you’ve given your own examples about how walking and running can aid in the process of untangling plot points and forming new ideas. We’ve heard how novelist John Boyne found a whole plot within an hours walk.

When we are busy and addled, how can we find the space in our heads to let innovative connections form, and pieces of the puzzle fit? The tunnel vision of stress counteracts the creative process, also focus and absorption can help it. Repetitive and somewhat mindless activities such as brushing the floor or cleaning windows might free the mind (a good reason to do housework!).


The unconscious process which engenders our best ideas is called psychologists term incubation. I’ve blogged at length about incubation in a previous post, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. I said…

Psychological research has identified incubation as one of the key elements in creativity. Incubation is defined as ‘a process of unconscious recombination of thought elements that were stimulated through conscious work at one point in time, resulting in novel ideas at some later point in time’ [2]. Seabrook Rachel, Dienes Zoltan (2003). Incubation in Problem Solving as a context Effect (Wiki)

Incubation is the period between your conscious and practical outlining of your piece and the point where you come up with the hook or the usual slant on your proposed story. It’s the time when all your ideas mingle and coalesce and form unusual associations.

Please go on to read the full Incubation post here

Our slightly geeky and aspergian family tremendously enjoys the comedy show The Big Bang Theory. In this clip, Sheldon, the ‘genius’ physicist takes on what he considers a ‘mind numbing, pedestrian job,’ in order to give space to his musings on a physics problem. Worth a look!


Which activities have helped you incubate and find your Eureka moments? Let us know in the comments.

Flash fiction Creative Comp

Don’t forget the 31/131 word creative challenge. Winners will be chosen Sunday 5th. Please comment on your favourite entries. Thank you!

Childlike thinking makes for creative writing

The transition from childhood to adulthood involves a mental development that allows for more abstract reasoning, logical complexity, a greater awareness of consequence and an understanding of the nuanced dynamics of human relationships. However there are ways that childlike thinking can get us back to the basics of life and enhance our creative endeavours.


Babies and very young children are absorbed in the moment to moment awareness of their surroundings and the stimuli around them. The parents of young children often bemoan the snails pace at which a walk somewhere has to be undertaken but a key memory for me is when my youngest son was eighteen months and on one of his first walks in the big outside world. He became absolutely fascinated with a pebbledash wall, he looked at it, touched it, ran his fingers along it, went right up close. The other day I helped my daughter make daisy chains. To do so, we sat right down on the grass, feeling it under our fingers, surrounded by a galaxy of daisies, some fully open, some pink tipped. We selected the correct stems, just thick enough, made the delicate slice in the stem, threaded them through. There was a light breeze, bird sounds, occasional traffic, the concentration of the threading action. This slowing down and careful examination of things can bring us into the heart of a story or emotion. When describing a scene we can open it up around the mind of the reader by including the smallest of details, a cigarette butt, a shiny bottle top, a half-open fushia bud, the angle of a business man’s tie. 

Key characteristics

Children take things at face value; they make broad comparisons based on ‘similar’ or ‘different’. Only as they grow do they learn to make more nuanced distinctions. While the nuance is what differentiates a truly great writer from an adequate one, when we first introduce a character in a book, we need to use the broader brushstrokes, to give us a handle on the person, a hook. While it may not be politically correct; as humans we always make an initial judgement based on looks, similarity to ourselves, race, colour or accent. In our books our characters will make assumptions about one another based on initial impressions. These might later turn out to be incorrect. In writing, we can use the transition from the broad strokes to nuance to explore a developing relationship or an increasing or decreasing understanding between characters.

Fearlessness and Free thinking

Small babies have no depth perception and no sense of the danger of falling. Terrifyingly young children will run out onto a busy road with no sense of danger. Even older children, teenagers and even young adults carry with them a sense of invincibility. While many children invent rules for their games, there is a greater sense of freedom, where ‘let’s pretend’ means a car can fly or a giraffe can talk. As writers we need fearlessness to write at all and to take chances with our writing. We need to ‘run into the road’ into topics or subject areas that we find difficult to deal with in order to exercise our skill as writers. We also need to stretch our imaginations while making sure that our stories have their own internal logic.

Curiosity and Interest

Is a crane bigger than a whale?

Being party to my children’s homework, I realise how many facts they become aware of in a short space of time about history, mythology, geography, music, art, science. Browsing through their books I discover quirky interesting facts that are absolutely gripping. One of my favourite short stories ever is A Stone Woman  by AS.Byatt. She writes about a woman who literally turns to stone, but what stone! She is made up of so many different types that characterize the veins, the skins, the face, the limbs. The manifestations of stone also become more intricate over time. Stone happens to be one of my favourite things. In this story it was intrinsically fascinating, due to the level of detail employed but it also worked as a powerful descriptive device and metaphor. One of my sons knows everything there is to know about astronomy and I have used his knowledge in my work to provide an extra layer of interest in my stories. Facts are hooks that if used appropriately can inject life into writing.

Fundamental questions, fundamental themes

Why are we alive? Are you going to die? 

The parents of young children hear these sorts of questions every day, and often at bedtime when the impending darkness and separation may whirl up anxieties in the children. It is poignant to hear these existential questions from the mouths of babes and very often we don’t have the answers. But these questions can remind us of the archetypal themes that underpin all literary endeavours. It is commonly known that so called ‘children’s’ fairytales deal with dark themes. But these are the themes that are eminently and poignantly human. Whatever the style or genre of a book, whether its tone is light and fluffy or serious, the undercurrent of the archetypal concerns and themes will still be there. Often as adults we bury the fundamental fears and concerns under the flurry of everyday life. As writers we have to expose and deal with these raw terrors. These concerns translate into our characters’ complex motivations, make people take

The child I was

unusual decisions and do extraordinary things.

The child that you were and in some ways still are has special access to both wonder and fear. This child makes judgements and takes risks and sees things with fresh eyes. Use those qualities to create writing that has an extra edginess and magic. 

Note: I wrote this article originally in 2010 as a guest post for children’s author Olive O’ Brien.

Banville interview and other matters

I was delighted to have the chance to interview John Banville for on the release of his latest novel.

In Ancient Light Alexander Cleave revisits both the memory of a teenage affair with a much older woman and looks further into the enigma of his daughter Cass’ fate previously touched on in Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002). I was keen to talk to John Banville about Ancient Light and the tricky art for the writer, of negotiating memory and invention.

On reading Ancient Light I felt that it had the cohesion and integrity of a short story. I asked Banville how he achieved this, but he is sceptical that Ancient Light had that kind of coherence. “I’m not sure that any novel could have. I think of the short story as something like Zen archery, or Japanese print-making: a long period of reflection and preparation, then a rapid, fluid gesture and the thing is done. The writing of a novel is a far messier, more incoherent process. But I’ll accept your flattering judgement,” he says. Whether or not he believes he has achieved this intensity and clarity of message, he tells me that he does try to make his “novels as dense and demanding as poems” (Apparently his publishers despair when he says this) “but it’s true – and perhaps a poem is rather like a short story, with the same kind of thereness.”

Click here for the rest of the interview

I also chatted to busy writer and mum of four Mary Vensel White about how her novel The Qualities of Wood was picked up by Harper Collin’s after she uploaded it to the writing site Authonomy. Click here for more

A nice writing boost to find that I was shortlisted for this Anam Cara writing retreat competition.

One of my favourite writers Tania Hershman chats about her new short story collection here on Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s blog. And another new writer Mary Costello that I’ve just discovered through the Stinging Fly is interviewed here by E.R. Murray.

And don’t forget that the Sean O’ Faolain short story prize deadline is July 31st. I was longlisted a while back and hope enter again.

In the meantime I’m like Niamh Boyce, wondering how to write in the summer with all the kids about. I’m adding words to my latest book The Exhibit of Held Breaths  while also taking an objective look at my completed (I think) book The Book of Remembered Possibilities which I hope to submit shortly. What about you, how are you finding the summer writing and living wise? Is it time to live, have fun and store up ideas or are there ways of doing everything, and should we?


Do writing retreats make a difference?

I’ve just come back from my writing retreat of 9 days in Ballinskelligs, at the side of a cliff in a remote part and beautiful part of Kerry. This was a place where you could choose complete isolation if you wanted. There was a meeting house but it was discretionary as to whether you and the other artists wanted to meet. During the course of my stay, there were three such convivial gathering, good conversation by candle and firelight about art and writing related things, funny stories in general, sheep, fish, dolphins, scuba diving.

There was a beautiful walk climbing higher and higher above the panorama of sea. Clover, grass, sheep and sea smells. Then back to the cottage and the novel, structuring, adding words, then food, reading, silence, radio, a look at the sea from the bedroom window, solid sleeps.

All the time in the world to write, all the silence necessary. But I’ve written here on my  post more fully about what I achieved, what I learned about my writing process, about how many of the things I was able to do on retreat are things that I can do in daily life. There is, for me, only so much writing I can churn out in a day, others might differ. Writing needs focus, something that often requires my own self-discipline more than anything else. If I need silence I can get up early. What a retreat allowed me to do was to mull and recuperate, to slow down.

What I think having done a retreat is that yes, we might as busy people yearn for a complete break, for that elusive silence and freedom from responsibility but we can build in many of the benefits of retreat into our own lives. We can switch off, step back, walk, watch interesting programmes. We can pick an hour or two within the day when there are no demands or clamour to write and build up our work over time. We can maybe, do more by doing less, or at least be less frantic, don’t say yes to everything, but say yes to more of the things we really love doing and thinking about and let that feed into our writing.

Having gone on retreat and having returned to having the children at home until the school holidays end, there is a perfect opportunity to discover how to pace things and still be able to move ahead with the novel as well as liviing and enjoying the summer. The writing retreat has refocused my mind and I’m hoping I can hang on to the new perspective.

Head above Water: A mother’s writing retreat

It’s been busy here lately hasn’t it? All Housewife with a Half-Life and liveliness but it will become a little quiet here for a while. I’ve been awarded a writing retreat in Cill Rialaig, a writer’s and artists retreat of six cottages at the edge of the world, overlooking the sea in one of the most beautiful places on earth, Ballinskelligs in County Kerry. Ballinskelligs looks over the Skellig Islands, the site of an early Christian monastic settlement. It is a similar monastic tradition that permeates the Cill Rialaig site. The individual cottages are stone, have no TV or internet and the setting is isolated and tranquil. My retreat runs for 8 days. 8 days! As a mother of four children aged almost 12, just 10, 7 and 4, my thoughts have not been my own for many years and my ideas are seams hewn out of the rock of the everyday prosaic, sandwiches, homework, housework. This unprecedented quiet might in itself be overwhelming who knows?

I aim to work on my second literary novelThe Exhibit of Held Breaths. At the heart of this story is an exhibit – then another – which changes the ordinary life of the reluctant creator and the people of the town. I will look at how the drive of the artistic, or the passion (I can’t think of another word) takes its hold over the individual and how belief in an artifact can take over groups of people (my psychology degree & fascination with social psychology stepping in here).

But who knows? Focusing on that is what I aim to do but I can imagine that the silence and the freedom of thought will take me by surprise. Who knows what might come of it this retreating?

Note: I will post a photo when I get back, for now, I’ll let you imagine, the stone cottages, the cliff, the sea relentless and the gulls hanging above the brine.