Friday, December 26, 2014

East of Yang Pass, With Love

It is the day after Christmas. In Ireland, we call it St. Stephen's Day - but I shouldn't say 'we', because my family call it Boxing Day, and hating people who call it Boxing Day could be called one of the last acceptable prejudices in Irish society.

My mother bought me a copy of The True Secret of Writing, by Natalie Goldberg, in which Goldberg quotes the work of the poet Wang Wei.

Seeing Off Yuan The Second On A Mission To Anxi

At Weicheng morning rain has dampened light dust,
By the hostel, the willows are fresh and green,
I urge my friend to drink a last cup of wine;
West of Yang Pass, there will be no friends.

I am blessed to live my life east of Yang Pass. A belated merry Christmas to everyone celebrating, a happy 26th December to everyone not, and a wonderful 2015.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How To Keep The Faith As A Writer/Artist/Singer/Creative Person

Warning: There will be a little bit of profanity in here.

I started this blog in 2009, back when God was a boy and Big Brother was a thing people cared about and before I fully accepted the healing power of chai lattes into my life. I was 24 years old, almost 25, and I didn't think I would still be here five years from now, blogging about my life as an unpublished writer. I blog infrequently now because I have very little to say about being an unpublished writer that I haven't already said.

But when (if!) you log into Feedly and think 'hmm, haven't heard from that Irish girl who likes Dorothy Parker in ages. Hope she didn't, like, die or something. Or quit writing,' don't worry. I haven't died and I haven't quit, and here is what I've been doing while not updating my blog:

  • I've won Nanowrimo five times (2010-2014 inclusive)
  • I have been an ML for Nanowrimo for five years (2010-2014 inclusive) and I ain't going anywhere. Nanowrimo participants in Dublin wrote 5.1 million words this year and I am beyond proud of every one of them.
  • I have written four complete novels
  • I have edited two of them to what I feel is query-able standard
  • I've queried one of them (The Curse of the Carberrys - my own favourite of my books so far, I think, but probably not the best one) and had positive feedback, but ultimately it hasn't found representation. I'm still looking but it's slightly on the back burner in favour of a newer project. I feel I can wring another edit out of the second edited one, The Ripple Effect, and improve it a lot, so I haven't queried that yet. That's slated for January/February 2015.
  • I have two more incompletely-edited novels that I feel have potential (whether it's the character, the voice, the setting - they each have something in them that I got right) but that need major edits. I plan to turn my attention to these after The Ripple Effect (April 2015-ish). It was from one of these novels, The Soldiers of Bruges, that I read at the Irish Writers' Centre and at Dalkey Creates to positive responses, so they are definitely still on my radar.
  • Speaking of which, I've read my fiction at two open mic events, once in the premier literary venue in the country, and one of them on a Sunday afternoon in Dalkey, when my friend Catherine turned out to support me and one of my favourite YA authors EVER was in the audience and I had to not fangirl at her because no one deserves a fangirl hepped up on cinnamon and steamed milk. I pretended I was telling the story only to Catherine because otherwise I would have fallen off the stage. After both events, writers I respect hugely were kind about what I read and how I'd read it
  • I have had done professional freelance content writing, which I loved more than any other paid work I've ever done (although travel writing was a close second)
  • I'm looking into self-publishing two non-fiction/travel titles

But the book deal I've dreamed of since I was a kid, and worked solidly towards since I was 25, eludes me.

Given that nice bulleted list of achievements, do I even care?

Of course I care. But every single thing on that list started as a baby step, that I thought would lead nowhere, but taken together, it's not a bad list.

  • I sent a Nano mail to a friendly lady who was already an ML for Dublin, asking if she wanted help. She said yes, and became a friend and a mentor.
  • I started every one of those four novels with a blank page, a churning stomach, a hot beverage and a flimsy idea. One of them started as (I kid you not) 'Torchwood with fairies and not everyone is necessarily bisexual.' One of my friends still asks me about that novel and that is what she calls it ('Have you ever gone back to Torchwood with fairies, Ellen?')
  • I sent every query for The Curse of the Carberrys with aforesaid churning stomach, and I never imagined I'd get a response, let alone a positive one with useful feedback.
  • I signed up for the open mics convinced I would be rejected.
  • The freelance content writing came my way through no action on my part, I must admit - a former employer needed a writer and thought of me. They still hired me based on a sample I was afraid they'd hate, though.
So what do you do when you've been chasing your dream for five years and it feels like it's no closer?

I don't know what you do, but here's what I do.

I sit down and I quantify what I have done - even if the list is short, even if it consists of no recognition, just your own efforts ('I sang for twenty minutes yesterday. I emailed someone about my painting. I followed four YouTube tutorials and photoshopped my pictures'). Even if the list makes you laugh. You've done stuff - own that. It's better than not doing stuff. Even if the stuff you've done isn't directly related to your dream, it proves you have it in you to do the things you need to.

I tell myself that there are new innovations exploding around me all the time, that I have some ideas unlikely to find a mainstream audience so self-publishing is something to consider, that we might be telling our novels on YouTube in five years, or YouTube might have dropped into the ether, like Bebo. But avenues we can't even dream of are opening every day.

I tell myself that it takes years to be an overnight success, that I didn't rock my first job out of college either, that my first college essay probably sucked (I don't remember but if it was good, I'd bloody well remember that), that it may be my fifth or sixth book that gets me to where I want to go. It may be my tenth. I can't control that.

But I can control this. If there's breath in my body and I can sit and type, there will be a fifth and a sixth book. There will be a tenth book. As artists, all we can do is do the work. No matter how many people are doing better than us, no matter how demoralising and crap it all looks. I can't promise that I will post here this time next year and tell you that I have a book deal (although I hope I do, maybe even sooner than that).

I can promise you that there is a blank page, and that I will fill the fucker.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Open Mic @ Dalkey Creates festival, Dublin

The lovely Sheena Lambert is being kind about my recent reading at Dalkey Creates, so it seemed like a good time to share a photo of me reading out loud as though I am someone who can read out loud without passing out.

Dalkey Creates is a new writing festival in the suburb of Dalkey, which is just south of Dublin, very picturesque and quite famous in Irish writing circles as the home of the late Maeve Binchy. I took part in the open mic session on the Sunday afternoon (in case you're wondering if I do anything other than go to open mics these days, then yes, yes I do. I still drink chai lattes and pink tea sometimes. Between open mics).

Once again, I read from my novel The Soldiers of Bruges (STATUS: first draft finished, second draft OH DEAR GOD MAKE IT STOP - there is a very short extract here), but I had a longer time allocation at this event so read slightly more of it. As the novel is written in the first person, I read the piece somewhat in-character, hence Sheena's very kind remarks. It was a lot of fun pretending to be a somewhat over-privileged Dublin nightmare for three-to-five minutes, and while I can't promise I'll ever take to a stage for longer than that, it's great to know that the character and her voice resonated so much. It is making the thought of the edit marginally less terrifying.

Terrifying. That's a good note to end on, given the day that's in it. While I contemplate scary things like edits, the dawn of Nanowrimo and writing a one-woman show (eek!), happy Halloween!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Culture Night @ The Irish Writers' Centre

Culture Night happens once a year in Dublin - museums and cultural attractions stay open late, run cool events and everything is free. It's one of my favourite nights of the year. The streets have a real carnival atmosphere, but unusually for Dublin, almost everyone is sober. Except for that guy who is yelling (in Dublin, there is almost always a guy who is yelling, especially if you're on O'Connell Street).

This year it rained, so I spent less time wandering the streets aimlessly thinking happy thoughts, and more time closeted away consuming sugar. I hit the city centre at 7.30, registered for the Open Mic at the Irish Writers' Centre, then grabbed dinner and squeezed in a visit to the Dublin Writers' Museum (next door to the IWC) and the Hugh Lane Gallery before heading back to listen to the other readers and sweat quietly until it was my turn.

The Dublin Writers' Museum

Poet Dave Lordan was MC for the night and there was an interesting range of material  - stand up comedy about materialistic fish, a Gothic short story about an abduction and murder in 1970s America, poetry and prose. One attendee read a piece from his friend's novel - his friend is an American Hibernophile who was apparently thrilled to think his work had been read in Ireland. Louise Phillips read from her newly released thriller, Last Kiss, which features a female serial killer with a . . . unique take on the world.

Then there was me. I read the following piece, which is the intro to a novel I'm working on called The Soldiers of Bruges (STATUS: first draft finished, second draft looking less fun than root canal).

Soldiers of Bruges

The best way to explain about my dad is to tell you a story that my brother Luke told me. 

I don’t remember this, but one Sunday in 1997 my Dad made pancakes. When Dad made breakfast, he insisted that he got to choose what everyone watched on TV, so he switched on one of the news channels. Luke didn't remember which one. 

Across the bottom of the screen it said 'Diana, Princess of Wales, dies in Paris car crash'. 

“You should have seen his face, Sasha,” Luke said to me. “He didn’t go white. He went grey.” 

Dad slowly put his knife and fork down and reached for the cordless phone. Luke remembers that he only had to punch one number before the muffled sound of another phone ringing came from the receiver. 

"Michael. . ." Dad said. "Was that us?" 

When he put down the phone, Mum's face had gone all frozen. She did that when she got annoyed – it's one of the things I remember about her. She looked at Dad and said “Well?” in this cold voice she had. 

Dad shook his head. “No,” he said. “It wasn't the Soldiers of Bruges. All signs point to a regular, run-of-the-mill car crash.” 

Luke said Mum's face didn't unfreeze for a little while. Even when she knew the Soldiers of Bruges weren't responsible, the moment of suspicion had been a lot for her to take. She was a big fan of Diana – maybe because she was another woman who married into an impossible dynasty.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Guest Post: The Streets of New York, Paul Anthony Shortt: Memory War blog tour

Guys, I've been following my friend Paul Anthony Shortt's writing journey since Facebook was not yet a thing and dinosaurs roamed the Earth, so it's a real honour to feature him on the blog today as he promotes his latest novel and the final instalment of his debut trilogy, Memory War. Memory War is set in New York, Paul's favourite city, and it seems fitting for him to talk about the city, its role in the life of his protagonist and its unique soul, on the anniversary of the day when all the world's eyes turned to New York and its heroes. All yours, Paul - Ellen.

Paul at the launch of the first instalment of his debut trilogy

The Streets of New York 

Cities breathe. They have a pulse. People are their lifeblood and the streets rise and swell with the tide of life running through them. New York exemplifies this. I've been there twice, and each time it was all I could do to not get swept along in the wake of the city's rhythm.

New York is built for pedestrians. No New Yorker with any sense drives their own car. Certainly not in Manhattan, anyway. The ease with which Nathan gets his truck around the city is an artistic liberty I take, because you just can't have an action hero who has to get a cab everywhere. If you can get your pace in sync with everything else, you could walk from one end of Manhattan to the other, hardly stopping. You wouldn't want to, though, because that's a lot of walking! It's easy to forget, looking at a map, just how large New York is.

The streets of the city are important in The Memory Wars Trilogy. Nathan spends a lot of time patrolling, or simply wandering, and he keeps his perspective firmly on street-level. He's among the people he protects, seeing what they see, making sure they realise he's there to watch over them and fight for them. This contrasts to the Council of Chains, whose leaders rule from skyscrapers, sending out their agents to hunt the streets on their behalf. It's that direct connection that allows Nathan to feel his city breathe, and enables him to be guided by the city to where it needs him to go.
If you want to see how much of a melting pot New York is, the streets are where to do it. People of every walk of life, every belief and ethnic background, all walk the same streets. Stand in one spot (out of everyone's way, of course) and you'll see the world pass you by. There's hardly a piece of humanity not represented in New York, which is what makes it such a potent setting for Memory War. In this book, the odds are stacked against Nathan, and the stakes are higher than ever before. New York stands not just for Nathan's territory, but the world itself, and all of humanity. 

As Morrigan and Athamar bring their forces to bear, so too must Nathan rally his allies, and take the lead. Not just as the commander of the Conclave, but as a symbol for what the reborn can become, of the good they can do. New York, and the world, will look to him and Elena for salvation, but even with the strength of the city behind them, there are some battles no-one can help them with.

Even in the streets of New York, a hero must sometimes stand alone, and meet their fate.


A child at heart who turned to writing and roleplaying games when there simply weren’t enough action figures to play out the stories he wanted, Paul Anthony Shortt has been writing all his life.

Growing up surrounded by music, film and theatre gave him a deep love of all forms of storytelling, each teaching him something new he could use. When not playing with the people in his head, he enjoys cooking and regular meet-ups with his gaming group.

He lives in Ireland with his wife Jen and their dogs, Pepper and Jasper. Their first child, Conor William Henry Shortt, was born on July 11th, 2011. He passed away three days later, but brought love and joy into their lives and those of their friends.

The following year, Jen gave birth to twins, Amy and Erica. Their fourth child, Olivia, was born in January, 2014.

About Memory War:
War is coming to New York. Nathan Shepherd's growing band of followers is dedicated to protecting the city, but they now face their greatest threat.

Athamar returns, plunging the city into chaos. Uniting the forces of darkness against Nathan and his allies, Athamar strives to discover a secret hidden for thousands of years. A secret lost to Nathan's memories. Something so dangerous, even the gods themselves fear it.

Nathan and Elena were once the greatest of heroes, champions against evil. Now, haunted by Nathan's past-life betrayal, they must work together and brave the pain of long-buried lifetimes. Somewhere, locked within their former incarnations, lies the key to stopping Athamar, an enemy who has hunted them from one incarnation to the next.

As the city burns and innocents suffer, as heroes fall and hope dies, Nathan and Elena face their final battle, a battle where legends will be reborn.

Paul Anthony Shortt
Twitter: @PAShortt

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014: One Summer

“What I would really like said about me is that I dared to love. By love I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings." Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was a writer, among many other things. The summer before my second year of university, I sat in a cafe on the first floor of Hodges Figgis, a Dublin city bookshop mentioned in Joyce's Ulysses, and I read every volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography. I began with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and I read them out of order until I had finished them all. I don't know how long it took - I am a fast reader and her writing is fluent, so probably not as long as I think it did.

But I remember it as a whole summer. I hadn't been able to find a job, so I left the house every day and read books and did work for the college English Lit society, of which I was a committee member for the first and only time. I was in love with books, with writing, with the passion you get when a group of young writers come together and learn from each other how to be human beings as well as how to be better writers. Some of the writers in that group were giants - I dreamed of being the Dorothy Parker to their Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I dream of it still, sometimes.

It was a warm summer. I read Maya Angelou's memoirs and drank tea. I watched the green leaves of the giant tree that grows outside Hodges Figgis. I took photographs of Dublin. I compiled a guidebook for book-loving students moving to Dublin for the first time (I found an old copy of it recently. It wasn't as bad as I had come to remember). Sometimes when I got tired of the cafe in Hodges Figgis, I crossed the road to Waterstones and wrote in the cafe there. I wasn't working on novels then - I was writing about my life, such as it was. I was preoccupied by a schoolfriend who had died the previous March, by the lessons I could (or couldn't) take from her life and her passing. And into this strange, intemperate Irish summer stepped Maya Angelou, an African-American poet, memoirist, bus conductor, sex worker, waitress and nightclub singer. 

Walt Whitman, maybe the most American of all poets, wrote "I am large, I contain multitudes." One of the architects of the white male American canon, I don't think he could have imagined Angelou, but was ever anyone larger than she? Did anyone contain more?

The cafe in Hodges Figgis is long gone. Waterstones across the road is gone. I am no longer in college, no longer a young writer who thinks she can be successful if she buys the right sunglasses (God, I was a nightmare. The others were so kind to me). Maya Angelou is gone, too. Hodges Figgis is still there. I pass it on my way to work in the mornings, may it stand for ever, God bless it - and so is the tree I used to stare at. Its leaves still blow when the wind picks up, and this autumn they will fall, and the rest of us will walk underneath it, dare to love, and build bridges.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Books That Are 'Bigger' Than You: Tell Me Yours

It was late February 2008. I was in the centre of Dublin, killing time until the next showing of Juno. I went into the Kylemore Cafe in the Stephen's Green Shopping centre - not somewhere I eat often, but it has a couple of huge advantages:
1. No one aggressively whips away your plate saying 'Can I get you anything else?' with a fake smile if you sit there for too long, and
2. It has a great view of Stephen's Green and the southern end of Grafton Street (I call this the bottom of Grafton Street. The entire rest of humanity calls it the top. I think I'm right).

I ordered a mug of vanilla rooibos tea and looked out the window. I remember that I had a headache. I can't remember if I'd bought aspirin to take with my tea. I know I considered it. I'm a hypchondriac - I remember these things.

I started a novel that day in the Kylemore. My first novel as an adult, a big novel. A novel bigger than I was then, probably bigger than I am now. I don't remember starting it, but the opening of the novel never changed, and I have it still.

After her father died, it took a while before Hannah and her mother managed to fully
sort through his belongings. The very day that he died, within an hour of leaving the
intensive care unit, Nora had started to dispose of anything that visibly reminded her
of Jack. His alarm clock, his work files, the watch he’d left on his bedside locker, his
shoes, his laptop were boxed up and stowed away or thrown out. His books took a few
weeks to disappear, mainly because no one knew which books were his and which
he’d borrowed. Hannah’s brother Tony sorted the books and Nora distributed them
between his friends at the golf club and in his local. His clothes took the longest,
because they still smelled of his aftershave and cigarette smoke.
No one dared touch his desk.

Inelegant and clunky, that is word for word what I wrote that day, looking down at Grafton Street. I think it was raining outside? But I live in Ireland, so all of my memories are rainy, like photos left in a damp attic for too long. Afterwards I went to see Juno, which I loved, and I sat there in the dark thinking, for the first time in years, that I could do that. I could make a whole world out of words.

That novel was never quite finished. I wrote most of it, including the ending, but never managed to complete some of the necessary filler chapters. It was a product from my father's death when I was 21, being directionless in my early 20s, not knowing what career I wanted. It was about grief and loss and parenthood, the latter of which I've never experienced. It was about Ireland's history and the church and homes for 'fallen women'. I read more Irish history while I was writing that book than I have before or since, and let me tell you, it was bloody depressing.

But I don't regret starting my life as a writer with a book that was too big for me. I hope to come back to it someday, and get it right.

Am I the only one with a book like this?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Link: Elizabeth O. Dulemba on Stories Bigger Than You

Every now and again I'm browsing the net and something hits me between the eyes. Today it was Elizabeth O. Dulemba on Janice Hardy's excellent blog, talking about tackling stories that are bigger than you are. She says:

Over a decade ago I found myself in a small wood-paneled room surrounded by a crowd of angry people I didn’t know. Well, I knew two of them. My husband, and the new friend I’d made when we moved to the small mountain community, who invited us to the meeting.
It was a meeting between former copper miners and the mining company who wanted to open a scenic railway going north from the town around an interesting and rare turn-around. They wanted to fund the railway by reopening the mine and shipping one load of sulfuric acid out each week. The miners wanted nothing of it. 

They stood like gnarled oak trees in their denim overalls and plaid flannel shirts and told heart-breaking stories of their family, friends and coworkers who had been lost to injury or illness—all because of the mine. Their emotions were raw as they made thinly veiled threats that if the company went forward with their plans, the tracks would be sabotaged. 

I sat with my mouth open wondering what I had stumbled into. I didn’t choose to write A BIRD ON WATER STREET that night. I was chosen to. 

That last line gave me shivers. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, March 24, 2014

5 Reasons To Finish Writing That Novel, Even If It's Really Hard

"I know I'm 40,000 words in, but there are so many problems that I think I should scrap the whole thing and start again."
One of my friends said this to me in a train station. It may sound familiar to a lot of writers. I've said it when I hit the 18,000 word mark in every book I've ever written.

I've always been wrong.

Here is why quitting is a bad idea:

1. The act of finishing a book is psychologically powerful and it's something you need to experience (also: it's fun!).

I still wonder every day if I have what it takes to be a professional novelist, but nothing has given me more confidence and more joy than finishing a whole book, even when I knew it was a terrible first draft and needed tons of work. Bringing a story from beginning to (flawed) end, looking at the entire thing, realising you created something you can hold in your hand, that you brought some fictional folk on a complete journey - it's a damned good feeling.

When I had a crisis of confidence about the novel I'm currently querying, one of the things that gave me comfort was the knowledge that I had taken Claire and Max, my main characters, on a journey and together we'd reached the end. Don't ask me to explain how the fact I'd done right by some people I made up had such an impact on my mental state - it just did. Finish your novel and we'll compare experiences over a chai latte.

2. Some problems only come to light when the book is complete and you can assess the entire plot arc.

I recently beta-read a friend's new novel. One character served no narrative purpose at all. We'll call him Billy-Bob Superfluous. I liked Billy-Bob, but he didn't do anything.

I'm willing to bet my friend didn't put the character in with the intention of having him do nothing. When he started, I'm sure there was something planned for Billy-Bob, even tentatively. If the book had been truncated halfway through, Billy-Bob would likely have made it into the second draft and been far more difficult to extract when his essential uselessness came to light. Now that my friend can see Billy-Bob's role against the completed plot arc, he can make a better decision on whether to get rid of him or to give him something to do.

3. Your ending may change the whole book.

I'm getting close to the end of my work-in-progress, The Ripple Effect. My ending is about to change, and as a result I will have to look back over the book and make changes - some minor, some major. I may even wind up getting rid of a few Billy-Bobs myself. But I won't know until the ending is done.

4. Endings aren't like the rest of the book.

The old showbiz mantra of 'always leave 'em wanting more' applies to novels too - especially if you intend to write a sequel. The skill of creating a good ending, which leaves your reader satisfied yet wanting more, is distinct from the skill of creating a compelling beginning or a strong middle. You need to learn how to do endings well.

Even if you come over all experimental on me and end your novel in mid-sentence, or with ten Becketty blank pages, it needs to be a good mid-sentence, and they need to be powerful and well-used blank pages. Endings are vital, and not finishing your novel is like learning how to drive a car but not knowing how to park (ask me how I know what that feels like). It may be fun and you may have learned many awesome things, but you can't undertake a full journey until you have that missing piece.

5. Published novels have many things in common - one of these things is an ending.

There are many things that elevate published writers from those of us who are still working and dreaming. One of the most fundamental is finishing the novel. If you wrote a list of the things published authors always have, the first item on the list would be A Finished Novel. You cannot publish something incomplete, and unless you fancy writing your book in super-quick time like Marian Keyes did the first time out, you can't query something incomplete either.

Oh, and my friend who was 40,000 words in and contemplating quitting? That was Paul Anthony Shortt and the book in question was his upcoming steampunk fantasy YA, Lady Raven, which is due for release in 2014 (click to sign up for Facebook updates). I think it's the best thing he's ever written.

Good luck with your endings, guys, and don't curse my name til you're done :p