The power of storytelling…

“The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story… That’s what I do, tell stories.”

This is a line from a superb play I saw at The Lyric Theatre in Belfast at the weekend called The Pillowman. Written by the critically acclaimed playwright, screenwriter and film director, Martin McDonagh, the play explores the power of words – of storytelling – through a mediocre writer who’s been hauled in for questioning by a policeman and a detective with a penchant for shooting writers. The story is set against the backdrop of a totalitarian dictatorship, where to be different or to speak your mind – to have a voice – is dangerous.

PILLOWMANOur writer – Katurian – admittedly isn’t one of ‘the greats’, and he claims only to want to tell stories, not to create symbolic art, but as the play progresses, we see just how loaded his words really are.

Without giving anything away to those who haven’t seen the play, Katurian is arrested because his stories – tales which mostly depict the gruesome deaths of little children – have seemingly started to happen for real. He doesn’t understand it, and we go on a journey with him as the story unravels and we discover the truth behind the grisly goings-on.

Essentially, The Pillowman explores the potency of stories – how they can inspire people to good; others to bad. They have a weight, a depth that can resonate long after they’ve been read, and they can be interpreted in many different ways.chalkboard-620316_1280

In my opinion, this is a great play that’s layered with myriad themes and overtures. There’s lots to think about – both in terms of the play itself, the stories created by the fictional writer in the play and also how our upbringing can affect us adults. And that’s before you even begin to peel away the 1984-type world the play is set in.

It brings to mind a book I love, and must re-read –  The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov, who lived under the Stalin regime and indeed, initially enjoyed a level of approval from Stalin for his work, later saw his stories and plays banned, as critics condemned him and censorship won out. His fantastical tales, which critiqued Soviet society as he saw it and experienced it, lived on however, finally being published after his death.

Freedom of speech – of thought – is always at risk and should always be protected. The Pillowman, and stories like it, reminds us of this, and of the inherent power that the written word can have.



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CULTURE NI_I first discovered the treasure trove that is Culture NI a few years ago, when I was working as a newspaper reporter at The Coleraine Chronicle. The weekly newsletter that was delivered to our office inbox was a fount of information about what was going on in the arts across Northern Ireland, and it not only kept me and everyone else up to date on events, it also allowed us to follow up on north coast artists, and give them even more exposure in the paper.

Eoin McNamee (photo by Sarah Lee), who I recently interviewed for Culture NI

Eoin McNamee (photo by Sarah Lee), who I recently interviewed for Culture NI

Without Culture NI, we wouldn’t have heard of many of these artists and events, as there’s no other online resource which so brilliantly archives the cultural scene in Northern Ireland.

Culture Northern Ireland is, as it says on the website: “Northern Ireland’s leading arts and cultural website, covering music, literature, heritage, sport, dance, theatre, the visual arts and much more besides.

“With thousands of articles, reviews, profiles, event listings, and multimedia content, Culture NI is a unique and exciting resource.”

The cover of Oils, a poetry pamphlet by Belfast poet, Stephen Sexton, which I recently reviewed for Culture NI.

The cover of Oils, a poetry pamphlet by Belfast poet, Stephen Sexton, which I recently reviewed for Culture NI.

Produced by the Nerve Centre in Derry – Northern Ireland’s leading creative media arts centre – Culture NI was dealt a seemingly fatal blow this week with the announcement from the Arts Council NI – its principal funder – that its core funding was being cut.

It wasn’t the only organisation to hear such news of course. Blackstaff Press and Guildhall Press –  our leading publishers based in Belfast and Derry – also suffered the same, along with various other arts organisations. (More details on the story here.)

You can read more on the devastating effects of the cuts to Culture NI here, but suffice it to say, after 10 successful years in supplying Northern Irish readers and indeed, readers worldwide with news of our thriving arts scene, five jobs are now at risk, as well as many more part-time jobs in the myriad freelancers who contribute to the site.

The faces behind Culture NI

The faces behind Culture NI.

News of the cuts in Northern Ireland is nothing new of course. Belts have to be tightened, as the NI government, while telling us they’re committed to developing and supporting the arts on the one hand, continue to take away vital funding on the other. Budgets must be managed, but the question on many people’s lips is this – when the cuts not only threaten to reduce the output of a key service like Culture NI but will actually kill it altogether, surely there needs to be a rethink?

Culture NI has been campaigning about the funding cut since the news broke and so far, its 400,000-plus readers seem to be getting behind this, tweeting and signing the petition to have the funding restored. If you have a couple of minutes to add your name to that, it would be much appreciated. Just click here.

So, why keep Culture NI?CULTURENI

  • It’s NI’s leading arts and culture site
  • It updates daily with FREE content on ALL the arts in Northern Ireland
  • There are interviews, reviews, features, competitions and more
  • It’s FREE promotion for artists/musicians/writers/performers/festivals and more
  • You get a FREE guide to What’s On in NI
  • You can discover new events/artists that you’d never hear of otherwise

EwagoralsThese are but a few reasons why we should keep Culture NI.

You’ll notice the word FREE is mentioned a few times. This fantastic resource is free for anyone to browse, read and digest at their leisure at any time of the day or night.

It’s crammed full of more than 10 years of archived material on Northern Ireland’s arts and culture scene and if it goes, that’s an online museum lost.

The website also recently underwent a revamp just a couple of months ago, launching a fully mobile responsive site as it prepared to march on into the future.

Newspapers and magazines have little space to give to the arts. They offer massively reduced coverage of the vibrant cultural scene that we still have in Northern Ireland and the thing is – if Culture NI is to disappear, who will be left to champion this? There are other organisations and publications of course that promote the arts, but Culture NI is your one-stop shop and more. It’s unique in the level and quality of content that it provides. Read freelancer Terry Blain’s views on the matter here.

With (L-R) NI crime writers Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway and Steve Cavanagh

With (L-R) NI crime writers Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway and Steve Cavanagh

I’ve been freelancing for Culture NI for the past year and have enjoyed every minute of it. I love the arts and am a big fan of the local literary scene (as readers of my blog will know!). I’d hate to see this wonderful website disappear over money.

If you’ve read this far, then thank you. As a writer, this is how I can show my support.

The Arts Council NI has today posted this message on Facebook:

“We are receiving emails regarding the annual funding award made to Culture NI. Thank you for your views. You will know that the Arts Council has had to take difficult decisions in a very challenging funding climate and we appreciate your interest. We will be meeting with the Nerve Centre soon to hear their concerns.”

We know belts have to be tightened, and the Arts Council NI is, of course, a vital organisation in Northern Ireland that is very much appreciated for all that it does for arts and culture here. Let’s not forget that for a minute. They’re simply having to make tough decisions in an ongoing economic climate that’s battering the arts.

If you’re interested, you can read my archived work for Culture NI here, or on the Articles section of this blog.

I’ll keep you updated! #SaveCultureNI

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Poetry and prose!

With The Incubator editor, Kelly Creighton, and short story writer, Danielle McLaughlin

With The Incubator editor, Kelly Creighton, and short story writer, Danielle McLaughlin

It’s been a busy couple of weekends with the writing – both in terms of scribbling words and attending events – with the launch of the fourth edition of The Incubator journal last Sunday, and the launch of the Community Arts Partnership (CAP) poetry anthology this Sunday.

Last week, I enjoyed an afternoon of wonderful readings from a mix of Irish writers – north and south of the border – and had the pleasure of meeting and introducing acclaimed short story writer, Danielle McLaughlin, whom I interviewed (through the power of the internet!) for the most recent edition of the journal.

Introducing Danielle McLaughlin to the stage at the launch of The Incubator journal

Introducing Danielle McLaughlin to the stage at the launch of The Incubator journal

The editor of The Incubator is Kelly Creighton – poet, short story writer and soon to be published novelist – and she was also in attendance in Belfast today for the CAP launch. Kelly was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize for New Writing, with the overall winner of the prize being Stephanie Conn, and I have to say – I’m very happy indeed to be included in an anthology with them, along with a plethora of other talented Northern Irish poets.

The 2015 CAP poetry anthology

The 2015 CAP poetry anthology

With the arts under real pressure in Northern Ireland at the moment – as the government continues to axe funding left, right and centre – these events are, I think, all the more important in showing the powers-that-be that not only do we have a wealth of artistic talent in this country, but there’s an army of support behind it.

The arts benefit everyone and, I’d also like to mention here that the arts website Culture NI – which I often write freelance articles for – is also at risk, and could be shut down in April if the cuts go ahead as planned. CULTURENI

Core funding for Culture NI has been withdrawn and after 10 years, it would be a real shame to see it go. If you have a couple of minutes, I’d really appreciate it if you could show your support by clicking this link to help us save it: #SaveCultureNI

To the arts! :)


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Into the void…

379586_185659961515853_1429246874_nWith the editing of my short stories ongoing, and with other story ideas being worked on along the way, I recently decided that it was time to start sending my work out.

I tend not to post my stories and poetry online now, as uploading your work onto a personal blog still counts as publishing, and most literary journals and competitions won’t accept work already in the public domain. I’ve a fair few stories and poems written, but my collection isn’t endless, so until now, it’s stayed hidden up here on the north coast.

However, this week I received some fantastic news – and all on the same night! On Monday, I discovered that at least one of the three poems I submitted to the Northern Ireland Community Arts Partnership will be included in their 2015 poetry anthology, Making Memories. My work will also therefore be considered for the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, which is very exciting, although I think it’s a bit ambitious to even entertain the idea of winning that :)

I also found out that one of my short stories will be published in the second print edition of the new literary magazine, The Lonely Crowd, so I was doubly over the moon.

The Lonely Crowd magazine

The Lonely Crowd magazine

You always wonder when you send your work out, if it’s actually any good – no matter how much editing or rewriting you do, so to have someone actually say they like it and want to publish it is validation, for me anyway, that you’re on the right tracks. It helps to boost you onwards in your creative journey – to keep going – and, while I know not everyone needs such validation, I’m afraid I do, as I never quite trust myself when I think I might have written something ‘good.’

But I also had an enlightening chat with crime writer, Eoin McNamee, this week as well. Eoin is this year’s writer in residence for Libraries NI as part of Creativity Month in March, and he was carrying out writing clinics this week, so writers like myself could get feedback from him on our work. I’d sent him in an extract from a piece of faction I’d been trying to write (a short story based on a real-life story), and I wasn’t happy with it, so I was prepared for the worst.Eoin McNamee selfie

Being the gentleman that he is, Eoin was very kind about the writing, but said that yes, the story lacked something, and I told him I usually wrote magical realism fiction.

In this story, I’d tried something that wasn’t really me, and being so close to journalism (it was based on a news story), it had turned out a little too, well, factual. I was reporting rather than writing.

His advice? Stick to your own voice – when you find it, keep at it, and don’t write something just because you think that’s what you should write. It was a piece of rather timely advice for me, so I thought I’d pass it on :)

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The joy of novels

Tree of booksHaving read a lot of short stories recently – and worked on my own – I’ve also been reading up on advice on the short story form, and just today attended a workshop on writing a ‘killer first page’.

Suffice it to say, I think I’ve reached my saturation point and, while I still intend to work on my stories and still like reading short stories, I’m ready for a novel now. Much as I appreciate the short story form and the intensity this brings, I’m missing the indulgence of the novel – having the chance to get to know characters more deeply; to follow them in a longer story and to immerse oneself in descriptions which are so often lacking in short fiction.

There seems to be a trend towards overtly stripped-back stories these days and yes, I know, Flying letters1,500-2,000 words just doesn’t give you the luxury of lots of descriptive prose but still… I want some.  I’ve said before that I loved To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and I also enjoy James Joyce. What can I say – I love flowery poetic writing, and short, punchy prose tends to cut it out. I appreciate flash fiction and the like, but right now, it’s back to novels for me.

Meanwhile, however, I will have my editing hat firmly on as I continue to refine my own short stories, and I hope to put all that advice I’ve soaked up recently to good use :)

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Do you flash your fiction?

letters-632072_1280Flash fiction is something I’ve only really tuned into over the past couple of years, but the more I learn of it and read it, the more I like it. It’s inevitable then, that I intend to try my hand at it…

Having recently read about the art of flash fiction (or short fiction as I think I prefer to call it – ‘flash’ almost seems to detract from the amount of work involved – as if the stories are dashed out without any thought) in Short Circuit – A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, I subsequently won a book of short fiction – More Sawn-Off Tales - from Salt Publishing this week. It was purely coincidental, but it turns out that the author of this little gem of a book, David Gaffney, also wrote the chapter on flash fiction that I’d read in Short Circuit. Perfect.

Gaffney’s shorts are 150 words each, and offer a fascinating insight into the art – and it sure is an art – of flash fiction writing. As I often tell my copywriting clients – editing writing down to the bare minimum; stripping away all the superfluous information to convey the same message in fewer words, is time-consuming, and requires a real skill. Gaffney’s stories are intriguing, poignant, bizarre and yes, sometimes odd, but that’s why they’re great. They’re perfect polaroids of people’s lives – they drop us into a compelling scene, give us a taste of a life and leave us wanting more, but just satisfied enough to have enjoyed the story and not to feel cheated by the experience.

To do that, my friends, is a skill.Gaffney book

As daunting as it may be to think about writing my own little nuggets of literary shorts, I do like a challenge, so I am, of curse, going to attempt my own flash fiction very soon. I think the idea is to start long and then to strip the story down, as opposed to trying to write a few hundred words on the first go. (Unless you’re as talented as Gaffney of course, who wrote most of his 150-word tales on the train).

To the man himself, then, and some of his top tips:

  • Start the story in the middle – make sure the ending isn’t at the end
  • Don’t use too many characters
  • Make your title work hard
  • Make your last line ring like a bell

That’s all there is to it! (Gulp…)

Get writing short fiction :)

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Picking your plot


When it comes to plotting, how do you go about it?

Every writer, of course, has their own way of creating a story, but crime author, Stuart Neville, was recently asked the following question about plotting versus character building, and I thought it was worth flagging up:

Q: ‘When you’re writing, what do you create first – plot or character?’

Neville replied: “Plot is a consequence of the choices that characters make, so plot can’t exist without character.”

Author, Stuart Neville

Author, Stuart Neville

I liked this. It was clear and to the point. Often, we can get bogged down in creating the ‘perfect plot’ – I know I do – and I think Neville’s advice was simple but incredibly useful. If you consider character and plot as being intertwined rather than treating them as two separate entities, then your story will flow more easily and happen more naturally.

Really knowing your character(s) however, and placing them in particular situations and making them respond to those situations – to make decisions – will give you the beginnings of a plot. The consequence(s) of these decisions will subsequently lead to more situations, decisions and plot points – and so on and so forth.

As Neville said: “If a boulder rolls down a hill and hits a house, that isn’t plot. If someone pushes a boulder down a hill because he doesn’t like the person who owns the house, then that is a plot.”


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