This has been the year of the novel for me. Back in January, I set myself the task of actually getting a move on and finishing one of three novel projects I’ve been dabbling with for some years. I had a pattern of working on one for a while, becoming disheartened and bailing, only to switch to one of the others. It meant that all three were slowly being nudged along, but not getting to any kind of finish line.
So I found a spare space in my cluttered house, built my own flatpack desk (v proud!) and committed to getting stuck into the one that called to me the most. I can’t tell you how helpful the magical UL/Doolin Winter School was in this regard.
Because being accountable helps my productivity levels, I decided I would blog about it weekly (what do you mean you missed that?). Then the Covid crisis came stomping along like a germy Godzilla, and my year went the same way as everyone else’s.
Nonetheless, after several months of paralysis and doomscrolling Twitter during the first national lockdown in Ireland, I got back to work and completed a draft. It was actually beneficial to be immersed in one big project rather than dipping in and out of lots of small ones, and there was a side benefit that the research involved watching lots of comforting old films.
I sent the completed draft to two knowledgeable friends, who gave me excellent feedback. Following a rewrite, I sent it to another friend and got to work again when she came back to me with equally valuable notes. It has since been read by two more friends, who approached it more as readers. I received reports back of laughter, tears and an unnatural urge for biscuits.
The icing on the novel cake was that Fundamental Things was chosen as a runner up for this year’s Novel Fair, run by the Irish Writers Centre, making the top 24 out of 300+ entries. It’s given me some timely confidence that I’ve got something promising. I’m finishing the year with an MS that feels as rounded as I can make it, so the plan for 2021 will be to hopefully find an agent willing to take it on.
If you are currently struggling with a book, keep going. Break it down, chapter by chapter, thinking of each one as its own short story if that helps (this helped me in terms of structure, ie. what changes from the start of a scene to the end, how has the story moved along?). If I can do it, you can too.
Because my focus has been the book, I have written very little flash fiction this year, and only submitted to a few journals, most of which said ‘thanks but no’. However, the very encouraging Steve Campbell, editor of Ellipsis zine, published two of my flashes – ‘Saviour’, a tongue-in-cheek, Greek chorus-style piece about actors auditioning, and ‘Sing Hope from Rooftops’, a far more sombre piece about a pandemic.
I was pretty surprised when one of last year’s flashes, ‘Mind Games’, published by Lunate, made it on to the BIFFY50 (Best British & Irish Flash Fiction list 2019/2020). It’s quite a dark tale about a manipulative hypnotist, and it was a terrific boost to have it selected alongside some incredible work.
On the competition front, I largely struck out. It’s all part of the game, and I try not to take it to heart when a story I’m particularly fond of doesn’t place. But one of those stories, ‘A Guide to Keeping Birds’, which is a tale of loss told via a Wikihow article, did make it onto the Cambridge Short Story Prize longlist. The search continues for a publication home for it.
As always, my competition lists proved very popular with readers – a recent short story comp round-up racked up 3,500 views. I’ll certainly continue to do those in 2021, and have a flash fiction one ready to go in the next few days for anyone interested.
One of my New Year’s resolutions last year was to feature more Q&As with authors as I find it fascinating to read about other writers’ process. I didn’t manage to expand as much as I’d have liked, but the Q&As I featured were very enlightening.
The first was with Laura Besley, a flash fiction writer based in the UK, whose beautiful flash fiction collection The Almost Mothers is about various elements of motherhood. Her insightful stories examine that gap between romantic expectation and sleep-deprived reality.
Nicola Cassidy featured on this blog when her first book (December Girl) was published in 2017, and she returned for another chat to mark the release of her third historical novel, Adele. It tells the real-life story of Adele Astaire, whose colourful journey took her from being part of a Vaudeville double-act with her brother (a guy by the name of Fred) to life among the landed gentry as mistress of Lismore Castle in Waterford.
More recently, the wonderful Cork-based author Mary Morrissy spoke to me about her work as an editor and mentor, which is helped by her years as a teacher of creative writing and her own experience as an award-winning writer. It was a really illuminating discussion about the benefits of working with a professional if you’re stuck on a WIP. We spoke about deadlines, common pitfalls and knowing when to call in the Cavalry.
I usually do a bit about my top five books of the year, but to be honest it’s been an unsatisfactory year, reading-wise. I have started and abandoned so many books since March, and I know many people have had the same experience. It’s been tough to do anything other than watch major news stories unfold, with the occasional dive into a mindless box set or lighthearted reality show for distraction (thank you, Anne of Green Gables, Bridgerton, Strictly, Bake Off…).
My book of the year is not a new one. It’s Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, one of the few books that managed to hold my attention, and is so masterfully told – understated, moving, heartbreaking. The kind of book I wish I could write. I have the follow up, Olive, Again, on my tottering TBR pile and am sparing it for when I can truly savour it.
Otherwise, the best books I’ve read this year have been manuscripts by my talented writing compatriots, whose work you will be seeing on bookshelves in the next year or two. Honestly, you are in for a few treats!
It’s been more than a funny old year, it’s been a monumental one. I hope things haven’t been too bad for you in the grand scheme of things, and that you and your loved ones are safe and well. While we’ve all been grateful for tools like Zoom and WhatsApp to keep in contact this year, there’s no doubt that everyone is longing for the face-to-face contact we have a new appreciation of. Hopefully it won’t take too much longer before that’s possible, and in the meantime I hope you can take comfort in small things – sharing a laugh via social media, a thoughtful card or gift in the post, and of course our beloved books.
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read and interact with the blog this year, I love to know that someone out there is getting some benefit from it. It’s been a pleasure talking to you about writing matters – do please keep it up! – and I wish you all much writing joy in 2021.
Shorty McWordherding out [mic drop].