Category: Meanderings

You say you have nothing to write about? We’ll see about that.

“I just wouldn’t know where to start. I wouldn’t know what to write about.”

WHAT.

I’ve heard this so many times from people who profess to being really interested in writing something: a short story, a play, a novel. I try to hide my incredulity but… You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Everyone’s got a hundred stories in them – at least! Of course, stories do not always arrive to us in their full-form, ready to flow from our fair hand…more often than not, they begin with a central idea. The most obvious place to find an idea to write about is the great repository that is your memory bank. Think back over your life and write down your 10 Life Changing Incidents. Any one of those incidents could make for a scenario to write about. Consider the emotions you felt at that time, the twists and turns that took place, the Before and the After of the incident. [I’m sure things didn’t go as you expected them to. See how you can adapt the incident somewhat, change a few things around. Change the location, the circumstances of the person at the centre of it, raise the stakes. Ramp it up by choosing an alternate ending.]

thumb_img_2413_1024You can also make the most of any existing knowledge or experience you have had in environments that many people have never been exposed to. If you have worked in the medical field, as a member of the emergency services, in politics, in technology development, then your ability to depict certain types of people, places and scenarios will be advantageous.

You can also explore a pre-existing interest in archaeology, astronomy, criminal profiling, your country’s history etc. by reading up on these subjects and having them feature in your story. Doesn’t that sound like fun? (Research is so fun.)

An off-the-wall technique that’s worked well for me in the past is using word combinations as a first step; an example would be the novel I’m developing, called The Shadow Sister, where I took the words ‘shadow’ and ‘sister’ and contemplated what kind of concept might match with the word combination. In the end, I selected a concept related to human cloning. If you were to combine an adjective with a noun, or an adverb with a noun, what kinds of combinations might you come up with? This exercise is not intended as a method for coming up a title, just a starting point. Try to come up with a list of 10 Word Combinations, and choose the one that appeals to you the most.

You can also set aside some time to actively think up ideas. The generation of ideas can become habitual, if you want it to be. Shower time, time spent driving or housekeeping (seriously) are opportunities to set your mind to work. I’ve heard of a practice called ‘worry time’, where people set an alarm and carefully consider any worries they have in the minutes or hours before the alarm goes off, at which point they return to everyday mode. The same approach works with creativity. Make room for your creativity to flood in and you will be rewarded.

Finally, you must commit to writing down anything with potential: a snatch of conversation, a news story that captured your imagination, an odd dream. These are the weird little gems that come along every once in a while and they’re powerful and fleeting (oh so fleeting so you HAVE TO WRITE THEM DOWN). I normally tap these into the Notes on my iPhone because I tend to get my best ideas just as I’m about to fall asleep. (Sometimes I reread these little scraps the next day and they make absolutely no sense, but more often than not they’re incredibly useful.)

Once you’ve chosen an ‘idea’ – big or small – it’s fermentation time. Churn the idea over in your mind. Consider it from different angles. Who will be the participants? What happens to them? What’s the aesthetic, what’s the tone, what’s the tense, what’s the setting? Who is best placed to tell this story? Will you choose a first person narrative voice, third person or ‘omniscient’ narrator?

Also worth trying:

Reddit Writing Prompts

Write a List of 100

In the current age, we spend much of our time entertaining ourselves through watching, hearing or reading the creations of other people. Wouldn’t it be fun to have other people enjoy your ideas for a change? When it comes down to it, all you need to do is write one line. Follow it with another. And another. And keep going. Until you’re done. The sense of satisfaction you’ll feel once you’re finished is absolutely priceless.

I wish you luck.

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.” Buy it now!

My Creative Hit List of 2016

I’m getting in early to carry out a Creative Round Up 2016 Hit List ClickBaity Endeavour. It goes without saying that 2016 had plenty of flaws. I immersed myself in a lot of reading material and music during the year, because art helps me to escape and find solace. It is elevating and pure. *Leaky eye*. I find it’s helpful to end a year by listing what was positive about it, and that’s why I feel it’s important to reminisce about the art I’ve enjoyed. So I’ve gone and done it.

Books:

Disclaimer: Most of these weren’t published in 2016.
We Learn Nothing: Essays by Tim Kreider. Awesome, powerful and funny essays about human relationships.
The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale. A riveting tale that’s a proper page turner.
The Circle by Dave Eggers. The coolest premise, and ridiculously entertaining.
– A second attempt to finish The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (it’s much better the second time around actually) has failed, but I will get there, I swear.
The Bad Seed by William March. It’s about a psychotic child on the rampage and was written in 1954. Compelling, written simply and impactfully. A super read. I read it on my Kindle at night in bed and it was worth the migraines.
The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell. Insights into Denmark and why the people are so happy. It’s a lot about hygge, it’s a lot about open-mindedness and being progressive. Unsurprisingly.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Because there’s no right or wrong way to set about creating, just as long as it gets done.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. A refreshing perspective on the forced positivity that’s infecting every discourse nowadays.
– I listened to some audiobooks too, ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ made for easy listening, but best of all was Stephen Grosz’s ‘The Examined Life’. It was a fantastic listen (can I say that, is that a thing that people say?) I use the Audible app which is money well spent for people who cannot tolerate silence (me). I tried to listen to The Secret History by Donna Tartt but it was just too long, and I already know the story inside out. What was I thinking? I also listened to lots of stuff from Ann Rule, America’s original true crime author.

[Most of my reading this year – unlisted here – was related to my Masters in Creative Writing, so I haven’t been reading purely for pleasure. RACKING SOBS. My summer thesis was about John McGahern’s management of female dialogue in his short stories, I’ll post about it some other time. In 2017, I’m looking at the nuances of female friendship in literature, a pretty wide subject with a great deal of reading.]

Music:

This album was divisive, but I loved it. Junk by M83. (It even became the writing soundtrack to a novel I’ve been working on, and I normally don’t listen to music as I write). Other musicians I’ve really appreciated this year are Andy Shauf and Thundercat, and Lady Gaga’s album Joanne really took me by surprise, I haven’t much cared for her avant-garde ways up to now, but songs like ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ really hit the mark for me. I also loved ‘Wolves’ from Kanye West, ‘Peace’ from Kenton Slash Demon, and ‘Catapult’ from Jack Savoretti. I took a deep dive into some old time crooners like Frank Sinatra (!) following on from a Netflix documentary I watched about his life, and ‘Angel Eyes’ and ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning’ found their way onto my Spotify playlist. I don’t know if that’s cool or not but I don’t really care. They’re like lullabies for grown-ups, and grown-ups need lullabies too. Oh, and I had huge fun listening to Tame Impala ‘Let It Happen’ and ‘The Less I Know The Better’. I find their lyrics most amusing:

Someone said they left together
I ran out the door to get her
She was holding hands with Trevor
Not the greatest feeling ever
She said, “Pull yourself together
You should try your luck with Heather”
Then I heard they slept together
Oh, the less I know the better

Whatever happens in the year to come, here’s hoping that it brings us lots of great books and music to help keep us sane. This is the kind of stuff that helps make life worth living. Creators, you’ve got a very worthy job to do. Do carry on with it.

I’m feeling rather sociable. Let’s connect on Goodreads!

Good reasons to study Creative Writing

Good art often takes patience and determination. It can even be gruelling, maddening, and heartbreaking. When we neglect skill, we can toil for a lifetime and remain mediocre. People often quip that writing is one of those skills that is inherent. “You’ve either got it or you don’t.” Hmm. It’s true that people have inclinations and abilities in specific areas, but everyone has the potential to be better.

Successful and invested creators are in it for the long haul. They have a vision for how good their art can be, and they find ways to improve and evolve. Right now, I’m midway through a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University. Here are some of the benefits I’ve experienced in studying creative writing at postgraduate level.

1. I’ve explored my passion with like-minded people, enriching my writing – and my life – considerably.
2. I’ve found out what I am capable of when I rise to a challenge. Literary criticism? Sure! I guess i can do that now…!
3. I’ve surprised myself by writing poetry and dark comedy, turning my hand to genres I’ve never considered in the past. It’s exciting to explore new creative territory.
4. I’ve been inspired and moved by the writers I’ve met. We struggle and we celebrate together. Writing can be hard work and mutual support is invaluable.
5. I’ve gained discipline in my writerly practice in order to meet the demands of the programme. I know that this will stand to me.
6. I’ve identified my strengths and weaknesses and I’m more sharply tuned as to how to improve my work.
7. I’ve received valuable, high level feedback on my writing from esteemed tutors and well read fellow students.
8. I’ve been exposed to inspiring, experimental literature that I just wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.

A structured and mentored creative writing programme, such as the one I am involved in, can be a powerful and life-affirming experience.

Writing is precious to me. It drives me. With one life to live, we should throw ourselves in at the deep end as often as we can; the more we give to our passion, the higher the return.

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.” Buy it now!

How I Gave Up Coffee Without Meaning To

Note: The word coffee will be referenced many times in this post. 

For one third of my adult life (ten years), I have relied on coffee as a pick-me-up, a concentration-enhancer, and mood booster. I had this idea that coffee ‘pulled me together’, assembling the working parts of my brain into a super slick mechanical instrument that would efficiently enable me to power through all the tasks I was required to perform on a given day. Every morning, I feverishly anticipated holding that hot little cup in my hand and breathing in the rich aroma of a fresh brew. I drank a coffee in the morning, and a coffee in the afternoon, but these were not your standard coffees. I heaped many tablespoons (teaspoons are for wimps) of the stuff into my cup, and the resulting coffee was very, very, strong indeed. So much so, that I could only take small sips at a time, because the taste was so bitter. But I kept heaping that stuff into the cup. If I didn’t have time to step away from my desk and make a fresh one, I would happily drink it cold. I won’t deny that coffee was helpful in increasing my ability to concentrate. When I had work to do, coffee assisted me in pouncing on top of the task at hand. And having a coffee is very much intertwined with the working world; we drink coffee to look busy, we drink coffee as we bond with our colleagues, we drink coffee as a welcome relief from a task that is mentally strenuous. Those are all good things. And coffee meant even more than that to me. Coffee time was a ritual escape from the flurry of daily activity that is so much a part of modern life. Plus, I’m not much of a drinker, so my idea of good old-fashioned bonding time with a friend was to meet for a coffee.

So, why have I stopped drinking it?

On a handful of occasions, I’ve made myself quite ill as a result of drinking too much coffee. Recently, it happened again. I organised a hen party for my best friend, well-known Galway milliner Mary White, and we went for a delicious Afternoon Tea. I’d just arrived after a lengthy journey in a hot car, and was feeling pretty groggy, so I ordered a large cappuccino with an extra shot. It revved me right up, and I promptly ordered the same again. That, combined with platefuls of sugar-doused treats, ushered me into a semi-transcendent state during which I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I also had trouble feeling my own arms. (This was after I’d polished off two scones, several macarons, and multiple slivers of tasty sandwiches). Later that night, as I lay in my bed, I experienced a heightened anxiety, the likes of which I have never experienced before. I was wired and miserable, my heart was thumping erratically in my chest, and the horridness lasted for about forty-five minutes.

I like to pride myself on taking reasonably good care of my health, but this was unjustifiable. I told myself that it was really unhealthy and unnatural to feel this way. After that night, I felt a physical reaction every time I passed a coffee shop, or smelled coffee, or saw someone enjoying a coffee. My body said nope, nope, nope. My stomach seized up, and said nope, nope, nope. Even when my mind said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to go and take a break now and have a coffee?” my entire system said nope, nope, nope. The days passed, and then the weeks passed, and now there’s a powerful bodily aversion to the bean that is just not letting go. When people told me they’d given up coffee, I was semi-envious, as I assumed I would be unable to do the same thing. Sometimes you have to have a really bad experience with your substance of choice before you are ready to walk away from it, and before your body intervenes and says nope, nope, nope.

What’s different now? I definitely feel different. This sounds very alternative, but I believe my energy is different now. Instead of experiencing peaks and lulls of energy, my energy level is more stable throughout the day. I feel that life is moving more slowly, though of course that’s not the case. Instead of the pointed ability to concentrate that you gain with coffee, I feel a more ‘rounded consideration’ of matters at hand, if that makes sense. And my day is not punctuated with the urgency of needing to run for coffee. I’m chilled out. Surprisingly, I had no physical symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. I hope this is a permanent change, and I feel that it is. At the very least, I have experienced an extended phase without coffee, something that hasn’t happened since I was a teenager. If I’m honest, however, I’d still be heaping that tablespoon if I hadn’t overdosed on caffeine that day in May.

I’m feeling rather sociable. Let’s connect on Goodreads!

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.” Buy it now!

My short story The Shadow Sister featured on Reddit’s NoSleep podcast. YES.

no-sleep-podcastI was so totally stoked (!) to have my short story The Shadow Sister featured on a recent episode of the NoSleep podcast. This podcast was one of iTunes Top 100 podcasts in 2015 and has a significant listenership. Each story is produced using talented voice artists, music and sounds effects. I just listened to the episode today, called Suddenly Shocking Vol. 4, and my story starts at 42 minutes in. It sounds so damn cool produced in this way and I got such a thrill to listen to it. The Shadow Sister is an unsettling, subtle horror tale with a human cloning theme. Sign up for a Season Pass to the NoSleep podcast to listen to the story.

I’m feeling rather sociable. Let’s connect on Goodreads!

I have published a very scary novella called ‘The Diary of Natalya Zlota’ and I would very much like you to read it.

I’ll cut to the chase. I have written a very scary story that you will enjoy very much. The Diary of Natalya Zlota is now available on Amazon!

The Diary of Natalya Zlota - eBook Original Cover.jpg

Now seeking 5 ★★★★★ reviews and stellar ratings, so get to it!

“What’s this story about, then?”

Here’s the summary:

Natalya Zlota is missing. Nobody knows. Nobody cares.
Castledaly is populated by haves and have-nots. Sharp-witted student Nora may not have the same resources as some of the townsfolk but she’s a pragmatic young woman, doing what she can to get herself through college. There’s something about the Calder House that has always intrigued Nora. When Nora is asked to babysit for Marianne and Colin Calder, she gets her wish to spend some time inside the old mansion. Over the course of Nora’s visits, it becomes apparent that the house has an interfering entity. And this entity refuses to leave Nora alone.
When Nora comes across the diary of the Calder’s former housekeeper, Natalya Zlota, she learns the unsettling truth about the Calders and what exactly what has been happening behind closed doors. These people have a sheen of respectability but are dogged by rumours and gossip.

Marianne left her society life in Dublin to move to Castledaly with her husband. Since then, life has been unsatisfactory and she struggles to find her purpose. The neighbours poke fun at the grand opinion she has of herself. Colin owns a property company, and business has been up and down. He’s got a wandering eye and there’s talk that he’s committed insurance fraud.
“How boring life must be, to have so much money but not to know what to do with your life. I unfortunately have not much money but a huge passion for life!”

Natalya reveals her true character through her diary entries. She has a deep hatred of Marianne.
“I want to barge down there and knock her off her white throne.”
And she lusts over Colin, the man who can give her what she wants.
“He has a certain smile. I know what it means.”
The lifestyle and money that she’s never had, and will never have with boyfriend Joe.
“I’ve taken a box of Marianne’s mother’s jewellery too, she will never miss it. It’s ugly and old-fashioned but valuable.”
Nora summons up the courage to investigate the diary further and try to learn what has happened to Natalya. There was a peculiar arrangement made between Natalya and the Calders, but, as the reader will learn, somebody lost out. Big time. Will justice prevail? And will Natalya’s ghost ever leave Nora in peace?

There’s just one way to find out! Buy the ebook now for just £1.99 or $2.95.

Wrap that duvet tightly about your shoulders and allow yourself a little creepy time.

http://www.amazon.com/Diary-Natalya-Zlota-Frances-Macken-ebook/dp/B018VB6RG0

So I’m now studying Creative Writing at Oxford University. Who’d have thunk it?

About this time last year, I was preparing my application for Oxford University to take part in their Masters in Creative Writing. There were many redrafts of my Personal Statement, valiant attempts to track down the appropriate referees, a scrabble to put savings together. I really, really, really wanted it. Anyway, I got all of my paperwork sorted out and became very singleminded. The course is competitive with up to 200 applicants for 30 places. I tried not to trouble myself with that and just focused on doing myself justice.

I got in. That was a Very. Good. Day.

So what’s it like? Speaking in very general terms…

It’s challenging. And you have to keep up. I’ve had to dig deep at times, particularly because of my job. It requires a great deal of discipline.

It is intellectually stimulating. I’m writing things that I never thought I could. I am meeting fellow writers from all over the world. I am realising how much my identity and culture and background play a part in my writing. I once thought that my perspective on the world was not unique but have realised that this is not the case. I am taking myself more seriously and paying closer attention to my ideas. In one word, it is expansive. Damn it, I didn’t intend to be so gushy.

I think it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. And the photo opportunities are immense.

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[Selfie taken at the Sheldonian Theatre]

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[Matriculation Ceremony at the Sheldonian Theatre]

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[Just one of the very many beautiful college buildings, not sure which one this is. Seems there’s something to gape at around every corner.]

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[Spot the pigeon mid-flight! Here’s the very grand Ashmolean Museum, just around the corner from where I have my workshops.]

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[A filthy, coffee and lipgloss stained cup – sorry. But I do rather like the fabbo insignia.]

What I want from the programme is Challenge and Discipline. I have to rise to the great challenges presented to me. I have to find the discipline to work very hard at my ideas and get the words onto the page. Writers need to train like athletes, and we need to reach for something. We either set the goal ourselves or someone else creates the challenge for us.

I’m very glad to be at the beginning of something that I know is going to be life-changing.

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.” Buy it now!