What Rough Beast

Letting go of what you have already written and starting a new creative project

My final guest post on Story Machine is up! How do you move on from one novel to another? It’s not easy, that’s for sure. At least not for me, but an unexpected situation helped… read about it here.

Ronan, my black cat, staring at me from his favourite box

Ronan, of course, is always happy to offer his advice….

Completing Your Writing Project

I have another guest post on Story Machine– an interview where I discuss finishing a writing project – a novel in my case. There are a number of questions, for example, “How do you maintain momentum to finish a first draft?” and “If I need help with my work, a professional editorial eye, where can I find it?” You can read my answers here.

Ronan waiting patiently (not!) for me to get off the computer….

Writing When Ill

I have a new guest post at Your Writing Launchpad that talks about what I do to help me get back to writing when my illness (ME/CFS) has chomped away at my confidence, or I am only able to write for a very short amount of time per day. The tips work for anyone however, and are focussed on how to create a daily writing practice that you can stick to. You can read the blog here.

Ronan cuddling close, staring at me with his big yellow eyes

My ever trusty ‘nurse’, Ronan (he does great acupuncture…)

On Writing First Pages

I planned on posting about this interview with me on the day it was published, in the hopes of getting the word out about this fantastic competition before the deadline, but then I had an M.E. relapse. Well, the First Pages Prize IS a fantastic competition, and now you have a year to plan to enter the next round! I wrote about my experience in 2019, and since then the Prize has gone from strength to strength. The prizes are exceptional, a substantial cash award, partial developmental edit, and consultation with an agent. So… sign up to their newsletter so you recieve news of when they are open for submissions again (they also now have an additional prize for creative non-fiction).

As I say in the interview:

For me, entering competitions is always worth it, even if I don’t place. It encourages me to look at my writing with a different eye, the eye of a reader. It encourages me to polish and edit.

And, I find deadlines extremely useful in getting me to the desk and working. I’m not sure I ever would have written as much as I have if I hadn’t sought out competitions to enter (and literary grant applications to complete!).

Grindstone Literary Ltd 2020 International Novel Prize

I was wondering why my phone was bombarded with tweets yesterday, I didn’t check what they were at the time as I was having a conversation with my better half in a café, a rare treat, and I didn’t want to interrupt that. And then I got home, and…. well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I’d forgotten I’d entered this wonderful, fairly new competition. And then to see my name, and the name of my novel, presented like this, I couldn’t believe it. Just last week I’d finished a truly gruelling ten month editing slog getting Seagull Pie ready for submission to The Literary Consultancy for manuscript assessment and mentorship (part of my prize for winning The Bridport Prize First Novel Award) and then I came down with my expected physical crash, bedridden for nearly a week. Well, as you can imagine, this news perked me up quite considerably! There are some exceptional writers on the short and long list so I am truly honoured to have won. Catherine Cho was the judge, an agent at the prestigious Madeleine Milburn Agency.

This really does feel like an extraordinary end to an extraordinary year. In some ways I have been lucky, focussing on editing the novel has given me some respite from the pandemic. Some structure to my day. It’s not been easy, although I’ve so far managed to avoid COVID, my health has had many unpleasant twists and turns, but I was so glad I had this one thing calling me, every day, this story that means so much to me.

Thank you all at Grindstone Literary for your hard work in this competition, and to all those who have said such lovely things on hearing my news. 

IT’S NOT COVID

When coronavirus moved onto UK shores I noticed, whenever I said “I’m not well,” in reply to “How is your health?” I’d hurry on to add, “It’s not coronavirus.” And more recently (fewer syllables!) “It’s not COVID.” I suppose I was saying, “It’s not so bad.” Who was I trying to reassure? Me, or them?

Actually, during the early days of the pandemic, I was not especially afraid of getting coronavirus. I do not usually catch ‘normal’ illnesses (colds, flu etc.), and, during February and March I was enjoying a remarkable period of wellness, spending my time and thoughts on the second draft of my new novel.

Of course it very soon became clear that COVID-19 is not a ‘normal’ illness, and when my health deteriorated rather dramatically with some delicious new symptoms, the very thought of feeling even grimmer than I was already feeling seemed unbearable. In fact, I have no idea know how my body would react to the virus – I don’t have any of the conditions that would put me into the government’s ‘high risk category’.

What I do know is that some people who “recover” from COVID-19 are not, so far, fully recovering. They have similar symptoms to those who have ME/CFS. There is even a new term in the pandemic vocabulary: “Long Covid”.

With an estimated 25% of people with ME/CFS housebound or bedbound, patients suffering from the lowest quality of life of any disease to which it has been compared, including multiple sclerosis, and only about 13% of patients are able to return to full-time work, the potential for many new cases of ME/CFS in the wake of COVID-19 is no small matter.

Lockdown is opening up in England. But it is not opening up for anyone with the severer forms of ME/CFS. My own ‘lockdown’ life has been largely unchanged by the pandemic.  And, due to Long Covid, it’s possible the medical community – the world at large – will finally give ME/CFS the focus it needs, a condition of which my own GP said: “We do not know what it is, and we do not know how what to do about it.” Will she, at some point, be able to tell me, “I believe I can now help you?”

Which brings me to what I really wanted to share today: the question of whether anyone who is relatively well and able-bodied can understand the subjective experience of someone who isn’t. I wrote in an earlier blog: “In spite of finding my health issues tedious to dwell upon, just sometimes, I’d like someone to know, to really know what it is like to live in my body.

I tend to stay on the periphery of the ME/CFS communities because I often find myself lost in a depressive warren of questioning (Is there something I’ve overlooked? Should I find the money to pay for the more accurate Lyme/Rickettisa tests not available on the NHS? Should I be tested for Tethered Cord Syndrome? What about mould?), but recently on Twitter I stumbled across Vlad Vexler’s ME diary.

Vlad is a philosopher working in ethics and musicology, and, he has ME.

He has recorded over 50 two-minute videos, articulating beautifully and elegantly what it actually means to have a chronic ‘invisible’ illness. Many of his symptoms differ to mine, but I found myself deeply moved listening to him. The talks – more a conversation than a ‘talk’ –  are wide-ranging: how people with ME are judged and misrepresented when they temporarily function better; how people with ME have to fake and fabricate to enjoy simple pleasures; how people with ME are, in fact, too unwell to be “fatigued”, to name but a few.

Vlad has compiled these diaries on YouTube, and if you are able bodied, I urge you to watch them. Two + hours might seem a lot, but he is an engaging, vibrant speaker – even at his most ill. And, two hours or so is so very short compared to how long many of us have suffered with this illness – over 25 years in my case. And, if you have ME or a similar condition, I am sure you’ll find a great deal of comfort in his words. It is certainly a comfort to me to know there is this voice in the world, telling the world about us.

And, I worry he speaks to the ‘converted.’ So please listen, please share.

Vlad’s ME Diary Episodes 1-10 https://youtu.be/8ql5Lc3wM8U

Vlad’s ME Diary Episodes 11-19 https://youtu.be/agYrsFAfm5o

Vlad’s ME Diary Episodes 20-23 https://youtu.be/OWZut_i4g0g

Vlad’s ME Diary Episodes 24 https://youtu.be/lqVpTERA-Pk “It’s Not Fatigue”

Vlad’s ME Diary Episodes 25 https://youtu.be/Dz62cFl6TDU “Disability and Possibility”

Vlad’s ME Diary Episodes 26-54 https://youtu.be/5AtoIB0yJ8I

Covid-19 has perhaps shown many of us just how connected we are; and just how important it is to stay connected. It is often in the darkest times we deepen our humanity – we reach out to others (even if only via Zoom) and we begin to enquire into the experiences of those who have it worse than we do. In this way we make the world a better place.

Two previous blogs of mine on my physical situation:
More Things I Don’t Want To Talk About
On Being Invisible

Bridport Prize Award for a First Novel 2019

Judge Naomi Wood presenting the award

The Bridport Prize recently tweeted a link to a TV interview (see below) with me about my novel, Seagull Pie, winning The Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel. The tweet also said: “Dreams do come true.”

To win this prize, in such a prestigious competition, is a dream beyond my imaginings.

The whole process has been extraordinary: I actually forgot I’d entered the competition, and when, six months later I was told I’d made the longlist, I was stunned. To progress further I needed to send in an additional 10,000 words (my initial submission was 5000 words). By a stroke of luck, I had the words, I’d written them only a couple of months previously at the L’ATELIER writers retreat in France. But the words were very rough, entirely unedited. I had but a few days to send them in. I was in Brooklyn at the time, visiting friends. I worked frantically into the night. My friends barely set eyes on me.

I managed, but I knew the likelihood of being shortlisted with those rush-edited words was extremely slim.  Nevertheless, I ascertained the date when I’d be notified, as the next stage would require a further 15,000 words. Words I did not have. In just a couple of weeks I was due to attend the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity’s Autobiography and Fiction with Electric Literature residency, a residency during which I was supposed to be working on a new project, a linked-flash novella, but thankfully the faculty did not mind me changing plans to work on Seagull Pie. In two weeks I worked harder than I ever have, and wrote 20,000 words. I had until the end of September to edit them, but given that another novel I recently finished went through over 50 drafts and took me nearly nine years to complete, this was all a very different writing experience for me.

I was positive I would remain on the long-list, and very happy to do so: there were 1,075 submissions for the award and twenty were long-listed.

I was absolutely stunned to be told I was shortlisted, and then, to win? I’m still reeling.

I feel I’ve had an affair with the Bridport Prize ever since the early days of my commitment to being ‘a writer’ (in my late 40’s). I’d thought of myself as a ‘novel writer’ most of my life (without writing more than a few pages of anything!). But, in 2007, after shelving a few chapters of an extremely questionable science fiction manuscript, I focussed on writing short stories. I entered a story into the Bridport Prize short story award in 2010. The story was a finalist, in the top 100 of 6000 entries. I was overjoyed, it seemed proof I could, actually, write. And then, just two years later, another story received a ‘Highly Commended’ award. I was over the moon. I went on to write other stories, and place in other competitions, but this commendation was a high point.

I stopped writing short stories and toiled for many years over a novel set in Sri Lanka. In 2015, I took a brief detour from this novel and began writing Seagull Pie. The story behind this work has been with me most of my life, and I knew one day I’d use it either in a memoir or a novel. In fact, in the mid 90s, when my sister-in-law and author Susan Swan heard about my time living in Donegal as a teenager, she said: “You absolutely must write this.” I kept putting it off, however, and two months after I finally began, my mother died. One of the main characters is based on her. I couldn’t continue. I went back to the other novel, finished it, and early this year signed up for the week-long retreat at L’ATELIER to re-enter the world of Seagull Pie.

I thought, “Now or never.”

That Seagull Pie has now won first place in the Bridport prize novel award category, is an incredible honour, especially for a story so very close to my heart. And my dream of becoming a novel writer? It looks like dreams do indeed come true. I know my mother would be so proud I won the award. I’m sad I didn’t get to see the smile on her face, I’m sad she didn’t get to see the smile on mine.

With judge, Euan Thornycroft from  A. M. Heath Literary Agents A. M. Heath Literary Agents

The powerhouses behind the award the prize are The Literary Consultancy, A. M. Heath Literary Agents and Tinder Press.The main judge this year was the wonderful Naomi Wood, author of The Godless Boys, Mrs. Hemingway and The Hiding Game. How could I not still be reeling?

I still have the second half to write, but it seems to me events are conspiring to make absolutely sure I don’t put it aside again. I’m extraordinarily grateful. Perhaps my mother is indeed watching over me, and giving the universe a nudge.

Letter to Banff

This August I was incredibly fortunate to have attended Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity’s Autobiography and Fiction with Electric Literature residency.

All Banff Centre’s programs are highly regarded, but when I saw they were working together with the illustrious digital publisher Electric Literature, and that the focus of the residency was to “explore the distinctions and intersecting themes between genres, such as when to be beholden to the truth and when to break free from it, writing fiction vs. memoir (and how to decide which is which), and teasing satisfying narrative threads from real life“, I knew I had to apply. I’m working on a fictionalized memoir based on my time living in Donegal as a child.

I certainly did not expect to get in, but I did, and I was also awarded financial aid from the Centre and a travel grant to help with costs.

The experience was exceptional: an extraordinarily diverse and talented group of participants, editorial consultations and group seminars with Electric Literature editors Halimah Marcus and Jess Zimmerman, group and individual discussions with guest faculty Meredith Talusan and Susan Choi. We also had the honour of attending a deeply inspiring guest speaker event featuring the Canadian poet, essayist and novelist Dionne Brand. There were two reading nights where all participants had a chance to read from their work.

Most of my time, however, was spent holed up in my gorgeous room (the Center’s accommodations have recently been extensively renovated) looking out onto pine trees and the mountains while tapping away at my computer. All my needs taken care of, and with only supportive writerly distractions, I managed to write 20,000 words during those two weeks.

This was not my first time at the Centre –  I participated in the Wired Writing Studio in 2011 (two weeks at the Centre and twenty weeks online mentorship with author Marina Endicott) – and I sincerely hope it will not be my last. While this particular residency was special because of Electric Literature’s involvement, the general atmosphere, surroundings and participant support at the Centre could not be more encouraging for anyone involved in a creative endeavour.

Thank you Banff Centre, thank you Electric Literature!

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Yet Another Thing I Don’t Want To Talk About

I am engaged in a writing practice with a friend, a practice I call Page A Day. We write a page – of whatever arises – every day, and share with each other. In the past I have had some success with this practice, producing short-form work that I could edit for publication. These days it seems to be mostly a kind of journal. I’m not happy about that, but there is not much I can do, it feels. It is what ‘comes up’. There was one piece my friend said she thought should be published in some way, part of a longer essay perhaps, as it was about one of those subjects no one likes to talk about, not if it applies to them: the subject of loneliness. It’s the same with chronic illness, and death/grief, the other things I have in fact written about in this blog, not really wanting to, but somehow feeling compelled to do so. I have written before about loneliness, but I suppose it’s asking to be talked about again.

This isn’t an essay, but it’s the best I can do for now. At the end of the blog I will copy the “page a day” I wrote.

As a writer, and an introvert, I actually need to be alone for long periods, to create, to recharge, but being alone and loneliness are two very different things.

Loneliness is of course a ‘side-effect’ of having a chronic illness. And, as I wrote in the above mentioned blog, there are other circumstances in my life that contribute: my beloved partner David’s work takes him away for nearly six months of the year (each trip about 10 days to two weeks long) and the fact we don’t have children and that we have moved around so much and don’t have roots where we live. Most people our age have full lives and families and enough friends, so it is hard to make connections – particularly for myself, being a writer and so my ‘work’ is at home, but mostly because I am chronically ill.

Friends drop away. This is a fact for those with a chronic illness. We often have to change plans last minute, or we can’t travel far to meet people. These limitations have a knock on effect: in the end it’s just too much trouble for people to fit into our limited lives. And, when I’m sick, I feel quite vulnerable, there are not many people I feel truly comfortable being sick around. Instead I tend to over exert myself to fit in with their level of energy. So it’s easier just to wait things out before I suggest meeting up for a tea or coffee. But it’s a vicious circle: loneliness actually alters the immune system. And another great article in The Cut on this subject: What Loneliness Does to the Human Body by Ashley Fetters.

I have a number of close friends in the world, but very few living near me. Yes, there is the phone and WhatsApp and Skype, but it is absolutely not the same as meeting in person. I can literally feel it in my cells, a shift, a brightening even, when I’m with someone and engaged in a meaningful interaction.

I have in the past year made a concerted effort to make sure I at least get out and sit amongst people at a café, and my monthly writing workshops are not only a fulfilling experience for me, but have also brought some lovely people into my life. But still, I have frequently found myself in that empty, despairing place that is loneliness.

This is the piece I wrote during one of these times:

When I go upstairs for my lie down, Ronan follows me, and if he doesn’t I call him. He usually starts to knead and purr by my side and hopefully will curl up next to me. I put my arm around him. Sometimes he moves away a little or stretches and I stretch out too, so that a part of me is touching him. Sometimes I hold onto his tail. I love the softness of his fur. The warmth of him. But it doesn’t ease my loneliness. I’d like someone in the house. They can be doing their thing in their own room, but I want someone nearby. Just to know they are there. The worst is at night when I’ve watched too much TV, too much Code 37 Sex Crimes and First Dates. When I’ve had enough of TV I feel the dark cloud fill my stomach. Usually I get up and go to the computer, but I know I should sit with it, and just be with the feeling, to let it come through. To be present with myself, with my loneliness. To be the person in the house, just there, doing their thing.