Thought for the week: Indie Magazines

The latest issue of Mslexia features a thought-provoking article “Who Killed The Alarmist? Life and Death Among Literary Magazines.” In it, Debbie Taylor points out that while thousands of writers submit work to literary magazines every year, only a fraction of that number actually buy (let alone subscribe) to them.  It’s an impossible situation for lit mags to survive let alone thrive in.

Don’t you find that interesting?  Is it true of you?  Do you try to support the mags and journals you want your work to feature in?  And if not, why not?

Who DO you subscribe to, and why?

Last question: do you read the magazines and journals you subscribe to?


BTW: the latest issue of the Stinging Fly will be launched in BOOKS UPSTAIRS (Dublin) on 28th June.


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Quote for today

Festival season is here. I was trawling through notes and wishing I could be more organised when I came across this quote from George Orwell, so brilliant I had to post it:

‘Ready-made phrases are the prefabricated strips of words that come crowding in when you do not want to take the trouble to think through what you are saying. They will construct your sentences for you– even think your thoughts for you – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.’

George Orwell

It’s an entire workshop in a single paragraph.

Thanks, Mr Orwell.

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Glimmer Train  Short Story Award for New Writers

This competition is open only to emerging writers whose fiction has not appeared in any print publication with a circulation over 5,000.

First prize: $2,500 and publication in Glimmer Train.

Deadline: 30th June

Enter here

Writers’ Guidelines here

Glimmer Train says: “Most submissions run 1,500 – 6,000 words, but stories as long as 12,000 words are fine.

“The 1st-place winner will be published in Glimmer Train and will receive 10 copies of that issue. Second-and 3rd-place win $500/$300, respectively, or, if accepted for publication, $700. Winners and finalists will be announced in the September bulletin, and contacted directly the previous week.”




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Svetlana Alexievich @ ILF Dublin

Svetlana Alexievich was in conversation with Conor O’Cleirigh in the Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity College Dublin. The interpreter was Alexander Kan. What follows is an attempt to summarise what was said during an enthralling event. 

images Alexievich was here to publicise her new book Secondhand Time, an oral history of post-Soviet Russia, which has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She was born and grew up in a family of rural village teachers. She told us that the early post-war (WWII) years were difficult in Russia, where every 4th man had been killed.

‘Women’s conversations formed me.  Our home was full of books but the streets were always more interesting to me because of the stories the women told.’

So when she graduated from Minsk University School of Journalism, she didn’t have to look far for her subject. Starting to write, she understood that both life and literature were changing really fast. She needed a new form to express what she wanted to say. ‘We didn’t have the luxury that Tolstoy & Joyce had, writing their novels over years.’

Her first book was about the war – a subject that was impossible to deny.

‘Women never talk about war as a heroic act, women talked about acts of murder. They never talked about the enemy but about the destruction of human life … I made the decision to write the book when a woman sniper talked about how hard it was for her to kill someone the first time… They call it hunting … she described looking through the optic and seeing a German officer. She knew her job was to kill him but she couldn’t do it, all she could see was a young, handsome man.’

She told another story about two freight trains in a station, one with people in it one with horses … when German planes came and bombed the station, everyone rushed to save the horses, not the people. Why? 1. Horses are not guilty of anything, and 2. their screams are more horrible and frightening. ‘That was the war that I was most interested in. Since childhood I’d been curious: How do people hold onto their sanity when they have to kill each other? Three books later I still don’t know the answer.’


Being in conflict with authority is a tradition for the Russian writer, going back 1000s of years. ‘Lots of things happened to me as a journalist – I was fired, I was taken to court – that’s not newsworthy, it’s to be expected. What is harder to take is that the times we live in now mean that we are in conflict, not with the authorities, but with our own people. When I wrote in support of Ukraine, I lost friends in Russia.’


‘We were naïve in the 90s when we believed that freedom could come overnight. People who live in a camp all their life can’t just step out through a gate and be instantly free – they need preparation, education.’


Russian culture and literature are all permeated by a reverential attitude to the Russian people – but we didn’t really know our people. I realised that we worshipped the idea rather than the actual people around us. We were building bridges over rivers but the rivers went another way.’

‘I want to understand why the people I live with and love are so divided, why they are prepared to return to the position of slaves.’

Important questions:

Why does our suffering not convert to freedom?

Why can people living under a dictatorship not come together?

Why did we seem to gain freedom in the 90s and let it go so easily?

‘Looking for those answers is more important to me than wondering why people reacted to my award the way they did.’ (She has been accused of being a traitor)

‘Being accused of being a traitor is unsurprising, it’s a return to old rhetoric.’



‘I first went to Chernobyl two weeks after the disaster. Few people understood the scope of what had happened. There was a crimson glow over the reactor. People came to look, they even brought their children, to see how beautiful it was. But I was also struck by the number of military – people with guns, helicopters. ‘Who are you going to shoot?’ I asked them. Their first instinct was to treat it as a military incident. Talking to the military … they were thinking about Hiroshima, Nagasaki. But this was supposed to be a peaceful site – they/we couldn’t understand this as being the same. We didn’t understand why fresh food had to be dumped. There were surreal scenes – soldiers washing rooftops or wood for burning – like scenes from a sci fi movie.’

‘It would be quite easy to write a book about how people were deceived and misinformed but at first no one understood what had happened and believed it was nothing too serious, you’d be okay if you only drank red wine … I wanted to look deeper into the essence of what happened. I remember feeling that I – a person of culture – didn’t know how to begin to find answers. Overnight, our culture became a chest of (useless) old manuscripts. (…) People looked for answers in Tolstoy but couldn’t find any. We had no previous experience to help us understand the nature of what happened. We couldn’t see, smell or touch it – this was a different perspective, a different reality. We had no instruments to perceive it. So people turned to religion. The churches filled.’

‘Writing that book was a most challenging experience. War is as old as history; the Soviet Union was not the first empire to collapse; but this was new, unprecedented.


COC: There was a tremendous sense of excitement towards the end of the Soviet Union, everyone excited by the promise of reform Can you talk about the sense of disillusionment in your book?

‘The 1990s was a beautiful time. Hope – there was a sense of being on the brink of a new, bright future. Now, looking back, we understand we were not prepared for democracy. It turned out there was no real free people. Everyone wanted a tsar to come and bring democracy to us.’

Now people feel deceived, robbed. Everything has been taken away from them.

‘7% of the population now own what everyone used to own. Everyone else is very poor. There are two outcomes from this. People either idealise the past, or a new fascism rises, called ‘new patriotism’.’


‘We shouldn’t demonise Putin; there is a collective Putin.’

‘People now read memoirs of Germany in 1930s or Russia before the revolution, looking for parallels, answers to what’s happening today.’

‘The only thing to do is to work for the future and not give in to despair.’




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People always want to know what writers have influenced you. Who’s your favourite author? they ask. What’s your favourite novel?

I find these questions impossible to answer, for reasons that might well bear discussion some other time. Last week, at the Hot Press Write Here Write Now awards, I offered a list of practical books on writing-as-craft as an alternative to my faulty favourite/influence response. But I got distracted and went off on a tangent instead. So here’s a short list of titles I’ve found helpful when I run aground, or in the later stages of rewriting and editing:

art of war image James Scott Bell The Art of War for Writers: fiction writing strategies, tactics, and exercises

The principles of Chinese general Sun Tzu adapted for writers. This (little, red) book offers aphoristic advice. The chapter headings alone amount to a rough guide to writing: ‘To survive over any length of time, you must turn any criticism into a strength.’ ‘An army travels on its stomach, so spear some fish.’ ‘Turn envy into energy and more words …’

Lawrence Block: Telling Lies for Fun and Profit 


The title is a clue: this is a no-nonsense, fun and practical guide to matters such as: ‘He Said She Said’; ‘Never Apologize, Never Explain’; ‘Burning The Raft At Both Ends’; ‘Writing With Your Eyes Closed’.


editingRenni Browne and Dave King: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers



Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird: Some Notes on Writing and Lifebird-by-bird

Wise, comforting, practical and funny. This is especially good if you’re in the early stages of your writing life – or for all shades of black moments later. Take a break and go for coffee with Annie, it’ll restore your understanding of (and affection for) the weirdness that writers, of necessity, inhabit. At the very least, she’ll make you laugh at yourself. You’re only human.

Sol Stein: Stein on Writing

Sol Stein’s best advice (imo) is that writing, like sex, should be good for both parties. But it doesn’t stop there. His approach to understanding conflict and making trouble for your characters alone make this a guide worth keeping. Use it when your imagination gets sluggish.

 Lynn Truss Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Because these things matter – but they can be fun as well.

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PIECES OF MIND (Two Days in May 2016 at Farmleigh House): AN INVITATION

What’s on your mind, as we move on from the centenary month of April?

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May is my last month as writer-in-residence at Farmleigh.  I’m asking people to come out to the Boathouse café and give me a piece of their mind. Talk to me about whatever you’re thinking about, planning, dreading or wishing, right now. It can be as trivial or as challenging, as personal or as general, as confidential or as wildly indiscreet as you want (no names will be given in my final written account).  You can give me subject headings or be specific and detailed.  Talk about Farmleigh and how you use it, if you like – or about books and writing, or about what you’re reading. Rant about whatever bugs you. The idea is to compile an account of what’s on people’s minds on two specific days:

Saturday 14th May & Tuesday 17th May

I’ll compile an impression of these conversations (with no identifying details). I’ll blend these impressions with my own train of thought and a summary of some current events in a no-names-given account of Two Days in Farmleigh in May 2016, a written time-capsule to be kept in the famous Iveagh Library.

If you’d like to take part but can’t come to Farmleigh on those dates, you can send your thoughts via email to on or before 17th May.

Emails will be opened and read – but can’t be responded to – on 14th & 17th May.

All contributions will be anonymous, but if you would like to be acknowledged as a participant in a general list of thanks, please let me know (see below).

Come and talk to me for five, ten, fifteen minutes – or slip me a note. I’ll be in and around the Boathouse café, Farmleigh on these dates and at these times:

Saturday 14th May:  11:00 – 1:30  & 2:00 – 4:00

Tuesday 17th May:  11:00 – 1:30  & 2:00 – 4:00


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*Acknowledgements will read something like this: Thanks are due to all participants including (your name here) and (someone else’s name here) … and others, who wish to remain anonymous.

Directions to Farmleigh HERE

Farmleigh map

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Dublin: Belfast: Two Cities One Book

2C1B blueApril was an extraordinary month for me and for Fallen, as the 2016 selection for the Dublin: One City One Book festival – except that this year, for the first time, it was Dublin-Belfast: Two Cities One Book. Two programmes, more than 100 events. From beginning to end it was a thrill and a revelation.

People ask what the highlight was. Some events and opportunities stand out because they never would have happened without this festival. Some stand out because of the energy the audience brought, or because of the chance to work with and in other art forms and with practitioners I’d never met before as well as with old friends. The cross-border dimension was a thrill, and that will be the general legacy of this centenary year: bookclubs in Dublin have been twinned with bookclubs in Belfast. The first book they read together will be Fallen but their connection will continue into the future.

The other standout experience has been the people. I want to thank absolutely everyone – readers, supporters, interviewers, presenters, the people behind the festival in Libraries Northern Ireland and in Dublin City Libraries, the 1916 Centenary Committee and people who came along on bus tours for the ride but stayed to chat and show an interest in the book. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Ardmhéara  Críona Ní Dhálaigh, has been a particularly generous host and supporter. A very real, whole-hearted thank you to every single one of you, it’s been amazing.

The 2016 festival is over and now it’s the turn of some other lucky writer and some other lucky book. Whoever you are, I hope you have as rewarding and enriching an experience as I did and I envy you your production and support team.  I’m going to miss them. And guess what I have to face instead?

A blank page.

Proper order.

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