Thought bubble

29.06.2014

The Writing Process

A little while ago, I was asked by writer friend Lesley Richardson to take part in a blog hop. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘so long as it’s not happening any time soon.’ (‘That was my reaction too,’ said Lesley, ‘you can do it any time you like.’) So here we are, five short months later, finally getting around to it. The idea is to answer four questions on your writing process, and then nominate up to three other writers to do the same, so here goes.

 

What are you working on?

A book - a novel to be precise. Don’t ask me for the title – I have a list the length of my arm, each of them suggesting a slightly different sort of book and the chances are that none of them will stick. I don’t know what it’s called because I don’t know what it is yet. As for what it’s about – it’s set on Rathlin Island, County Antrim, around the time of the wireless telegraphy experiments there in 1898. At least part of it is set then, and part of it is set in the present day, although that’s giving me lots of problems so that could all change. (You’re sorry you asked now, aren’t you?) I don’t really like talking (or writing) about it. It feels like a private thing while it’s happening. I would like to create the impression that it appears on the shelf fully-formed, jacketed and lovely, every word where it should be. I don’t really want you to know what an ugly malformed thing it is right now. I have to have faith that it will all work out in the end but dwelling on it in its present form with all its workings on show like a disengorged clock is not helping me.

 

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I’m really beginning to regret that I agreed to do this now. What genre do I write in? Literary or historical fiction seems to be the agreed category, although, interestingly, none of my short stories have an historical setting, unless you consider the nineteen eighties to be historical, which I suppose you could argue they are. Where were we? Ah, yes, ‘others of its genre’. Well, I suppose the most obvious thing is that my characters tend to be from Northern Ireland since that’s where I spend most of my time, the royalties not having yet stretched to the purchase of the little flat in Florence. There are lots of writers I admire and whose writing skill I would like to emulate – some female, some male, some Irish, some not. Some of them write short stories, some write literary or historical fiction, some don’t do any of that. I don’t know how my writing differs from theirs except to say that most of them manage to produce more of it than I do.

 

Why do you write what you do?

I don’t think I have any choice. It’s certainly not a conscious thing. I don’t wake up in the morning and think: ‘Today I shall write like Alice Munro.’ If only it did work like that, if only you could take on another writer’s skin. (I’m always amazed when writers in workshops say they’re afraid to read too much in case they get influenced by other writers. As Patsy Horton of Blackstaff Press  said at the recent LitNetNI Literature Development Day – ‘If you’re not reading, what are you doing?’) You can develop and improve your writing through reading and workshopping but I don’t think you can ever shoehorn it into a place where it won’t fit. You just have to try and do what you do better than you did it the last time you tried and the more of it you do, the stronger your voice becomes.

 

How does your writing process work?

Mostly, it doesn’t. It’s a very flawed and frustrating process but since it’s the only one I have I’m going to have to try and use it to finish this book at least. It involves writing lots of scraps of things in Scrivener and then moving them all around until they make a kind of sense. Then I print it all off in neat, double-spaced, typed drafts that are subsequently read and written over, through and under in biro with comments such as ‘check this’; ‘delete’; ‘rewrite’; ‘develop?’ and ‘What do you mean by this, you idiot?’, all of which are then incorporated into a new typed draft so that the process can begin again. There’s something slightly subversive about it. I like to deface the page. I find Scrivener really helpful but as for the rest of it, I wouldn’t recommend it. When this book’s finished, I’m going to shop around and find myself a new process, one that gets a book written in fewer than five years. (The picture at the top of this blog is of Altachuile Bay on Rathlin. It’s my chosen background when I’m writing in Scrivener. It gets me down the page.)

That’s it. And now for my nominated blog hop writer. Debbie (DJ) McCune is the author of the Young Adult trilogy Death & Co, published internationally by Hot Key Books. Death & Co. and The Mortal Knife are the first books in the series; the third book will be published in January 2015. Debbie was born in Belfast and grew up in Carrickfergus, a seaside town just north of the city. As a child she liked making up stories and even wrote some down, including a thriller about a stolen wallaby. She read Theology at Trinity College, Cambridge but mostly just read lots of books. She lives in Northern Ireland with her husband, daughter - and two cats with seven legs between them. Debbie’s on Twitter  and her Author Facebook Page is here

 

A footnote

I’m delighted to say that Sleepwalkers has been shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize along with collections by Jaki McCarrick, David Rose, Rachel Trezise and John Burnside. The winning collection will be announced on Thursday 3rd July at the Free Word Centre in London where I will be quaffing something fizzy, regardless of the result.



15.04.2014

Writings and Readings

Well, the daffs are out and still no sign of that book being finished. I have been working on it – honest, I have. (Just ask the staff at the library in Coleraine – Debbie (DJ) McCune and I are like two Occupy protesters, camping out there with our laptops practically every day.) Here’s the thing. I went to Oxford, to the Bodleian, to the Special Collections no less and there I found some very interesting things in the Marconi Collection. (Thank you again, The Society of Authors and The Authors' Foundation.) I didn’t really expect to find anything new. I thought I was going to do a bit of fact-checking, just to make sure there wasn’t anything I’d missed in relation to the Rathlin experiments. But, oh, was I wrong. It’s a treasure trove in there. What is it about libraries and archives that gets me so excited? Just give me a dusty old box and a foam book support (not forgetting a swipeable plastic card) and I’m in my element. So I found out more things and now there’s more to write. That’s just the way it is. 

In the meantime, there are some readings to talk about. On the afternoon of Saturday 3rd May, I’ll be in Randal’s Bar in Cushendun, Co. Antrim (3.00pm) reading from and conversing about Sleepwalkers and The Butterfly Cabinet as part of the Cushendun Big Arts Weekend (free event). I’m not sure you know how exciting this is. I spent some time in Cushendun in November of last year writing with friends. The high point of the visit may have been a sighting of the goat, tethered outside Randal’s, in his high-visibility jacket. (I know I’ve mentioned this before but it’s not a sight you see every day.) By May I reckon he’ll be in his spring/summerwear. I’m very much looking forward to getting reacquainted. If you fancy a bit of craft, picnicking, sand-sculpting or even Percy French it's most definitely the place to be. There's a 'Share a Poem' session in Randal's at 1.30pm on the 3rd May, just before the reading. Full details at www.cushendunbpt.org

Then on Wednesday 21st May at 1pm, I’ll be reading (from Sleepwalkers) along with the fabulous Sheila Llewellyn at a Literary Lunchtime event in the Ulster Hall in Belfast. Sheila is a student of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her short stories have been shortlisted for the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize, the Bridport Prize and the Costa Short Story Award in both 2013 and 2014. Her radio play won the RTÉ P.J. O'Connor Radio Drama Award in 2011 and the New York International Radio Festival Silver Award for best scheduled drama broadcast in 2012. Tickets (£4) are available from the Ulster Hall Box Office or tel. 028 90 334455.

But (STOP PRESS!) before any of that, I'll be reading from Sleepwalkers at the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry on World Book Night (Wednesday 23rd April) at 7pm. (See? I do, occasionally, come out at night.) I'm told the programme includes Jennifer Johnston, Brian McGilloway, Kenneth Gregory and Carlo Gebler - so there's four more good reasons to come. This is a free event. The VAC will be giving away free books and offering a book swap shop on the night. How many more reasons do you need? For more details contact the VAC on 028 71 266946.

And now it's back to the writing again for a little while before I'm let out to play. More news anon.



20.02.2014

Nearly There

These are the sturdy daffodil bulbs that have sprouted, unaided by us, in the wasteland that is the cleared garden of our new house. I’ve been keeping an eye on them, using them as a measuring gauge. I have a week left before I need to deliver a draft of the Rathlin book to my agent. I think a flowering before then would be a good sign.

The book still needs a shed load of work but it’s getting closer and closer to what I want it to be. Because I’ve been working on it like billy-o over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing methods and all the problems that I create for myself. About a year ago, I started using Scrivener, a software package that allows you to import your sources (images, page references, weblinks etc.) into one virtual space and to navigate easily within a large body of writing, something that suits my working method very well. I’ll be working on a passage that’s currently placed about two-thirds of the way through the book and realize that if this is what’s happening now (and it looks like it is), then I’m going to have to rewrite that section on the third page and if I do that, I’ll have to move (or delete) the scene that follows directly after it and actually, now I think about it, maybe I should move that section that’s currently on page 84 so it comes much later in the book… You get the picture. I have never been able to write a story chronologically. I have always written in fragments, in scenes, laid them down on the page more or less in the order in which they’ve been written, on the understanding that I’ll be able to move them around at a later date. In many ways, it seems counterintuitive to me to use words to tell a story. (Bear with me.) By its very nature, reading is an orderly process, letters follow one after another on the page or the screen, black type on white background, top left-hand corner to bottom right (at least they do if you’re reading in the western world). But that’s in no way representative of what the writing’s trying to do – to evoke a life in all its messy, multi-textural, multi-dimensional, multi-sensory, technicolour glory. There are days when the challenge of achieving that with marks on a page seems like asking for the impossible.

One of my favourite quotes on writing is from E.L. Doctorow: ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ Except for me, it might be a little more like stumbling about in circles by torchlight. The pace is much slower and much less assured and could in no way be described as linear. I often begin by writing about a place so when I start, I don’t even know whose eyes it is that are viewing the scene. I don’t know who it is who’s just spoken in that last passage, I don’t know what’s happened to them or what’s about to happen. It’s a very free way to write - I like to surprise myself. I like to do what I never like to do in real life – I like to get a little lost. As a writing method, it would work really well if it didn’t matter that no-one ever read what I wrote but me. The thing is, I do want other people to read what I write and when it comes to the stage of making it readable, it gives me a massive headache to put the whole thing together in a great big eighty-thousand-piece jigsaw.

It's not that I haven’t looked at other methods of working. Over the years we’ve investigated quite a few in the writing groups I work with. Author David Mitchell suggests drawing a kind of herringbone: ‘The spine represents the whole novel, bones coming off the spine represent chapters, and sub-bones represent scenes with sub-sub-bones spiking into foliage of dialogue, lines and ideas which will feature in those scenes. A godawful mess, to be sure, but it makes sense to me.’  I’ve also read about the snowflake method although I have to confess, I’m none the wiser. I recently heard Barbara Taylor Bradford interviewed on the radio, saying that you should approach novel-writing the way an architect approaches building design – with a ‘sketch’ of what you intend to do. I have a friend whose writing method relies heavily on post-its and laminated A4 and A5 sheets. But here’s the thing I’ve discovered about myself – I don’t like being told what to do, even when it’s me that’s doing the telling. Writing (or drawing) a plan for a book feels a little to me like stitching yourself into your own straitjacket. I can’t do it. It seems perverse to try. Instead, I engage in something I’ve described retrospectively as ‘the patchwork quilt method’. I create each ‘patch’ (or scene, or fragment – whatever it is I see in the torchlight) as colourfully and as fully-textured and as completely as I can and while I’m doing that, I begin to think about pattern and how the pieces might all fit together. If I place the blue velvet beside the red plaid and the yellow corduroy below the border between the two will the blue seem paler beside the red, will the red make the yellow pop out? And when I reach the stage of devising the pattern I do it old-school style: I take a big pair of scissors to the printed manuscript, arm myself with a pen and a roll of tape and experiment with colour and texture and position. At the end of it, there will still be gaps, there will be scraps on the cutting-room floor, more patches will be required, but finally, finally, the stitching can begin.

I’m not too far off that stage now. Wish me luck - I’m going to need it. If the fates are in my favour, there’ll be a finished book before the daffodils are gone and before the wild Rathlin fuchsia is in full bloom.



01.01.2014

Happy New Year

A very Happy New Year to you one and all. I’ve been a lax blogger, I know, but to make up for it, here’s a (slightly coggly) gingerbread house. I can take no credit for its making – it’s entirely the work of my daughters. My one contribution was to attempt a halved chocolate button sombrero for the snowman, a move that resulted in the pinched, somewhat demonic look he’s sporting. I quite like it. He reminds me of Licht in John Banville’s Ghosts: ‘His eyes are brown and his brow is broad, with two smooth dents at the temples, as if whoever moulded him had given his big head a last, loving squeeze there between finger and thumb.’ The literary allusion cut no ice with the daughters, though, I was banned from all further tampering. Domestic goddess I am not (but then look at the trouble that can get you in…)

The truth is, it’s been a very busy few months. We moved out of temporary rented accommodation into our newly built house so for the past number of weeks, we’ve mostly had our heads in boxes saying, ‘I wonder where that would be…?’ At this stage, we’ve found all of the most urgent things but I must admit, after sixteen months without one, I’m very much looking forward to the first unspooling of tissue from a toilet roll holder that is fixed to the wall. That’s the true sign of a family who have no intention of going anywhere. It is, as Epicurus says, in the very small pleasures that we count our happiness.

There has also been some writing. There was a memorable November retreat to a house on a hill overlooking Cushendun Bay with good friends working on writing projects. We did our best to be tranquil and focussed and for the most part we succeeded, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the after-dark rescue of a car from a ditch on a narrow road above the bay, or the threat of night-time terrors and somnambulists, or the stories by the range (lit specially for us) in Johnny Joe’s in Cushendall, or the delights of the caves, or the encounter with a goat, tethered to a post by the hotel in a high-visibility jacket. We each of us came away with our heads a little busier, and with more words to show for it.

I’m not much of a one for resolutions (although I’m thinking of adopting Woody Guthrie’s ‘Rulins’ recently shared by a Facebook friend.) What I can say with a degree of certainty, is that 2014 will be the year that I finish the second novel. It’s been a difficult one to write (when is it not difficult to write?) but the thing has a shape now, I can see what it might be. Its completion has been made more imminent by some welcome late 2013 news – a letter from the Society of Authors to say I’ve been awarded a research grant. The Authors’ Foundation at the Society awards grants for work-in-progress to writers under commission from a British publisher (or to writers who have had one book published by a British publisher and whose next book is likely to be published in Britain). What this means for me, is that I can take some time out to travel to the Bodleian Library and to the Museum of the History of Science, both in Oxford, to research the Rathlin story. I don’t want to say too much about the book, I’m a little bit superstitious in that way, but I’m excited at the prospect of finishing it. That will be a very big pleasure and in the meantime, a wall-mounted toilet roll holder will do just fine, thank you. Bring on 2014. I'm ready for it.



05.11.2013

Intermission

It’s quiet, isn’t it? If you listen carefully to this picture, you can hear the frost thawing on the leaves. Think of it as the equivalent of the 1970’s BBC test card, but without the scary clown face. There are no broadcasts. There is writing going on. I’ll be back when normal services resume. Thank you for your patience.



23.08.2013

My Lady of the Chimney Corner

At 11.30am on Saturday 31st August 2013, you will find me up Pogue’s Entry (no nonsense out of you Irish speakers) where I will be ensconced in the chimney corner in the birthplace of Alexander Irvine, reading from his much-loved book, My Lady of the Chimney Corner.

The reason for this is that Antrim Borough Council is currently celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of its most famous sons. I didn’t know much about Alexander Irvine, but I’ve been reading Alistair J. Smyth’s introduction to the book and I like what I hear about him. Born in Antrim town on 19th January 1863, Alexander was the ninth child of Anna and Jamie Irvine. His father was a shoe-maker, poor and illiterate. His mother had been educated, was destined before her marriage to become a teacher and was a sincere devotee of the Church, but her love for Jamie led her to leave her home in Crumlin and to set up house with him in Antrim to a life of severe poverty and hardship. Despite their difficulties, she is portrayed by Irvine as a beacon of wisdom and hope to her family always and as a profound inspiration to her youngest son.*

As a youngster Alexander worked as a barefoot paperboy and then as stableboy to the local landlord. He laboured as a miner’s mucker in the coalmines of Scotland before joining the Royal Marine Corp where he finally got the education he’d missed out on as a child. After spending some time at Oxford University, he emigrated to the United States where he began his ministry in the New York Bowery slums. In 1903 he took his doctorate in theology from the University of Yale. He was a YMCA padre in the trenches during the First World War; he was invited by Lloyd George to address the miners of Britain who refused to return to work after the General Strike; he was later elected to the National Executive of the American Socialist Party. Wherever he went and whoever he met, he never forgot where he came from. He had an abiding affinity with the working classes and he accredited his philosophy on life to the woman who taught him so well as a child. ‘Sunk in direst poverty all her life,’ he wrote, ‘my mother in her chimney corner was a minister of light. Her sayings came to me with fresh meaning: “There’s only one kind of poverty, and that’s to have no love in the heart.” … In the face of poverty, when food was poor and scanty and our clothes in rags, my mother, in every respect but the material one, was a lady…’ My Lady of the Chimney Corner is a fascinating social history of late nineteenth century Ireland and a heart-warming, often humorous, and moving tribute to the mother who had such a profound influence on the man.

Admission to the reading is free - you’ll find directions to the Irvine cottage here. I’ll be reading a chapter from Alexander Irvine’s book and an extract or two from The Butterfly Cabinet as well. The life that Anna Gilmore Irvine led in reality seems not that far removed from the life that Maddie McGlade’s mother would have lived in fiction. I wish I’d known about her before. The Irvine celebrations include a lecture by Alastair J. Smyth and continue into September of this year so come along if you get the chance. I guarantee that by the end of it, you'll be as transfixed as was Hughie Thornton in Irvine's book, with your blood frozen like the icicles hanging from the thatch and the hair standing on you like the bristles in O'Hara's bog.



10.08.2013

Goodreads giveaway

There’s a bit of a giveaway starting next week over at Goodreads. It opens on August 13th and finishes on August 15th. If you live in the world and are awake during some of these hours and are a member of Goodreads (or happy to sign up) you have a fair chance of winning a signed print copy of Sleepwalkers. I say ‘the world’ but to be honest, when I was selecting all the eligible countries, I think I may have missed out Zimbabwe, what with that being the last country to be listed alphabetically and what with me not being able to make the mouse go past it and therefore (I suspect) not actually selecting it. (The problems of being an inept Mac user...) But if you do happen to live in Zimbabwe, do not despair. There will be other opportunities to win a signed print copy of Sleepwalkers and when I set up the next giveaway, I will be sure to start with Zimbabwe and work my way up the list, thus avoiding this problem. Of course, this may well mean that I miss out Afghanistan, since it’s the first country listed. I will attempt to hone my mousing skills between then and now, but if you live in Afghanistan, and you’d like a copy, it might be worth entering this time, just in case I don’t manage that. Zimbabwe – your time will come. You can enter at Goodreads here and if you win, a copy will be posted to you wherever you are. You can also read a sample story here FOR FREE. And if your nerves are not up to the suspense of competition entries, and you’re a digital kind of bod, and you've got some cash to spare, you can go ahead and buy a copy on Kobo  or on Amazon  or on iTunes. At the moment, you can buy print copies from the excellent No Alibis on Botanic Avenue in Belfast. We’re working on making these more readily available in the near future. That is all. Good luck.



02.07.2013

Rock to Rock

I went to Rathlin, I got rained on. I was saved from the downpour by a friend in a car in which the windscreen wipers did not work and the doors needed a little encouragement to close - and I’m very thankful for it. I had toasties, I had soup, I had fish and chips in a wooden hut. I had great chats with islanders. I wrote down a recipe for barley bread, I photographed some thistle. There was a very insistent greenfinch outside my bedroom window and a thrush on the patio beating the bejasus out of a morning slug. In the west, there were kittiwakes and razorbills, fulmars and puffins. In the east there were beams of light from Altacorry and from the Maidens and from Kintyre. There was fog, there was sunshine, there were rabbits, there were seals. There was a book in the Visitors’ Centre that turned out to be a treasure. There were stories and now, there are some words. If I’m quiet for a little while, that may mean that more words have come, or it may just mean that I’ve fallen asleep.

If you’re in or around the north coast the weekend of 5th-7th July, you may want to check out the Castlerock/Mussenden Festival which has everything from music to arts to crafts to sports to food to books to segwaying. I’ll be reading along with poet Frank Sewell at the Visitors’ Centre, Castlerock on Sunday 7th July at 2pm and again at 3.30pm that day. Frank is a poet, translator, editor, songwriter and singer. Formerly a co-editor of literary journal The Honest Ulsterman, he has collaborated with many artists, including poet Cathal O Searcaigh, visual artist Roger Robinson and poet Mutsuo Takahashi. His first book of poems (Outside the Walls) was published in 1997, a joint collection with poet Francis O'Hare; and his next book (a solo project) will be published by Lagan Press in 2014. I’ll be reading from The Butterfly Cabinet and from Sleepwalkers.  Admission to the reading is free. For more information on Festival events for the weekend email castlerockbusinessconsortium@hotmail.com.

Have a great summer. See you when the rain stops.



04.06.2013

Sleepwalking

If I had a hat (I don’t suit them), I’d take it off to the man who walked across the bed of the Bann from the strand in Portstewart to Castlerock in the mid 1800’s, at a time of severe drought in the country and before the river was dredged. (The things you discover when you’re researching a book…) Needless to say, I haven’t done that, but you could be fooled into thinking that I had, if you watched the new video from Whittrick Press, made to celebrate the publication of Sleepwalkers. The strand is to the east of the river, Mussenden Temple to the west, the Bar Mouth between the two. Check out the video. It’s spooky!  

It’s been all about the digital lately. We launched Whittrick and Sleepwalkers on the Belfast Barge in early May – a memorable night of friends, family, fellow writers, flowers and fizzy things. I can’t sum it up better than did D J McCune who said this about it and made me laugh a lot: ‘[We] made it our mission to eat our own body weight in complimentary gherkins. I know more about the savage whittrick and its anal glands than I ever thought possible. And the whole thing happened on a boat. 11 out of 10!’ There’s a video of the whole affair (minus the glands and gherkins) hereSleepwalkers is available on Kindle, on Kobo  and on iTunes  and in traditional print format, I’m delighted to say, from No Alibis Bookstore on Botanic Avenue, Belfast. It was longlisted for the 2013 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. It didn't make the shortlist of six, but given that these are the writers that did - well! Let's just say it was very good to be in their company, even if it was just for a little while.

Undigitally, I’ve been busy for the last couple of months, facilitating workshops and readings in Moyle, Limavady and Ballymoney for Creative Causeway in collaboration with the University of Ulster. And just last weekend Flowerfield hosted a group of writers from Belfast Metropolitan College for a writing residential which included a sparkling night of readings and song. We were joined by writers from a number of local groups including the Jane Ross Writers from Limavady, Ballycastle writers and Queen’s Writers’ Group in Belfast. (There are some pictures of the revelries on my Facebook Page.)

My plan now is to get some words down so I’ve scheduled a short trip to Rathlin for a bit of island inspiration. If I appear back here in a month or so with no words to show for it, I hope you’ll have something to say about it. One last gig before school’s out for summer - I’ll be appearing (undigitised) at the Linen Hall Library on Thursday 13th June, on a panel of short story writers hosted by Sinead Gleeson, talking about the future of the short story form. The event follows the launch of the Faber and Faber New Irish Short Stories, edited by the spectacular Kevin Barry and is part of the excellent Belfast Book Festival. Featured in this year’s festival are a host of international stars from travel writer Paul Theroux, to John Boyne, author of the internationally acclaimed The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; world renowned food critic Jay Rayner and the Scottish National Poet, Liz Lochhead. One other event of note - PR for Writers with Sara Sheridan at the Crescent Arts Centre at 4.30pm on Thursday 13th June, organised in collaboration with LitNetNI. The full programme is available to download here. See you back here again when it's all quietened down a bit.



09.04.2013

Events News

As promised, I have returned with news of upcoming Spring/Summer events (and somewhat randomly, a clump of wild Rathlin fuchsia - because you’re worth it).

On Tuesday 23rd April I’ll be reading at Waterstone’s, Fountain Street, Belfast along with author Tony Macaulay (Paperboy and Breadboy) to celebrate World Book Night. Proceedings kick off at 6.30pm and wind up about 8.30pm. You’re very welcome to join us there. I’m told that there will be giveaways, refreshments and a quiz! Further details from: Waterstones, 44-46 Fountain St. Belfast, BT1 5EE. Telephone: 028 90 240159;  E-mail: manager@belfast-fountain.waterstones.com.

As part of a project funded by the Garfield Weston Trust and the University of Ulster with additional support from Causeway Coast Arts, I’ll be leading a number of workshops and readings in the Causeway area in April and May. ‘The workshops will focus on how to approach the blank page. Using practical exercises and writing techniques to help generate creative ideas, participants will be guided to write something from scratch and will learn something about the approaches they can use to develop their own writing.’ So if you’ve always fancied giving writing a go, this could be the time to try it, and if you already give it a go on a regular basis, come and give it a go some more. (The workshops are open to anyone over 16. Under 18s must be accompanied by an adult.) Details of venues and times as follows.

On Saturday 27th April the first Writing from Scratch workshop takes place at Sheskburn House, 7 Mary Street, Ballycastle (10am-12.30pm), followed by a reading and Q&A at 1pm. If you’d like to book a place on the workshop and stay for the reading, you’re advised to bring a packed lunch. To book (workshop fee is £5; admission to the reading is free) contact Sheskburn House, Ballycastle – Tel: (028) 2076 3300. To download full details of this and other events from Moyle District Council go here and search for Creative Causeway.

On Saturday 4th May there’ll be a second Writing from Scratch workshop, this time at Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre, Limavady from 10am-1pm, again followed by a reading and Q&A from 1.30pm (so bring a sandwich). To book contact 028777 60650 or email tourism@rvacc.co.uk. The fee for the workshop is £5; admission to the reading is free. For full event timetable for Limavady 400 go here

The third Writing from Scratch workshop takes place on Tuesday 7th May, 7pm-9.30pm, at Ballymoney Town Hall, cost £5 and the reading (admission free) is on Tuesday 14th May, 7pm – 9.30pm, also at Ballymoney Town Hall. This final evening will also include readings from some of the creative writers who take part in the Ballymoney workshop. For further information and to book a place please contact Ballymoney Town Hall – Tel: 028 2766 0230.

Thursday 9th May is the launch date for my new short story collection, Sleepwalkers & Other Stories, published by Whittrick Press  and launched during the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. You’re very welcome to join us at the Belfast Barge, 1 Lanyon Quay, Belfast at 7pm (admission free), to smash a bottle of champers against its side and send it on its way. Full details here. For great events throughout May 2013, including comedy, music, theatre, visual arts, sound and vision and words and ideas see the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival brochure.

And since we’re plugging arts festivals, The John Hewitt Spring Festival takes place this year at the Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough, Co. Antrim on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th May. It includes workshops by poet Cherry Smyth, the Great Northern Novel Debate (always a good set-to) with Kim Lenaghan, Anita Robinson and Kenneth Irvine, and talks and readings from the likes of Sarfraz Manzoor, Louise Doughty and Ronan Bennett. Cherry Smyth will read on the Saturday with local poets Heather Newcombe, Elaine Gaston and Michael McKimm. This is a great festival that supports local writers as well as attracting international names. You can attend individual events, book in for a half or a full day, or for the whole weekend. The hospitality is fantastic, the food is delicious and the craic is mighty so support it if you can. (I always come away with my brain worn out from thinking.) The novels under discussion this year for the ‘Great Northern Novel’ accolade are: Bernard McLaverty’s Grace Notes, David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam and Maggie OFarrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine. I am, of course, keeping an open mind until the debate is aired, but I LOVE Maggie O’Farrell's writing, plus we share a publisher and an editor so I may be just a little bit biased. Full programme details here

On Saturday 1st June at 7.30pm, we'll be hosting our annual Say the Word event at Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart. Say the Word is a reading extravaganza to which the Flowerfield Writers’ Group invites writers from groups from across the country to join us for an evening of readings, music and song. We will be joined this year by students from Belfast Metropolitan College who are attending a writing residential at Flowerfield for the weekend, but we would like, as ever, to extend the invitation to anyone of a writing disposition who’d care to join us. We ask that you come prepared to read something of your own (up to three pages of poetry or five hundred words of prose) and to listen to the other writers. We also ask for a small donation to cover the cost of light refreshments. Our in-house band will be back in residence (one ukelele, one guitar – additional instruments welcomed). To secure a reading slot, get in touch at info@berniemcgill.co.uk.

That's your lot. Come out and let your brain dance and in the meantime, enjoy the fuchsia.