Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Me and the ACES award, and Lorca and Manchester Shirley-Anne McMillan

Last year I applied for and received an Artists Career Enhancement Scheme (ACES) award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I knew when I was applying that the proposal would have to be something a bit special. I couldn't just write 'I need some more money to write another book please'. But the truth was that I really did need some more money to write another book. I started wondering how to sex up my application and I started asking other artists who had received the award in the past what they'd done.

One of the best pieces of advice I received was to stop thinking of it as a way to get a grant, but rather to ask myself 'If I had this money to spend on doing things that would help me creatively, what, in my dream life, would I do?' Which is, of course pretty much what it's meant to be for- enhancing my career (durrrr, Shirley!)

So, I decided to dream a little bit, and what I felt would be most helpful would be to go and spend time in the places where my next story was going to be set, and to go and meet those writers that I admire and whose work I have connected with very strongly. It seemed a bit nebulous but I liked the open-endedness of that idea- to just go and be somewhere, or to just go and be with these people. I liked the idea that there were no guarantees with it, because when you live to a budget you need guarantees- you can't just jet off to Granada on a whim with the idea that it *might* be amazingly helpful for your writing. But if someone *gave* you the money you could do it, just to see what happened. You could let your imagination shape that journey and open yourself to more possibilities than your budget normally allows.

So that's what I'm doing. I have a synopsis and a couple of chapters of the book written. It's set in a couple of locations in Belfast with some time in Granada. I'm using the ACES award to take time to write, to read a lot about Garcia Lorca (current literary obsession and tie-in with Work-In-Progress), to visit Granada and New York where he lived and spent time, and to visit writers who inspire me, with an open-ended agenda. 

This year so far I have spent time at Downhill Beach House which is a hostel on the North Coast of Ireland which opens its doors specifically for artists once a year so that we can go for long walks on the beach and write in our rooms and possibly even talk to one another once in a while.

This is Mussenden Temple as viewed from Downhill beach.
There is a scene in my next novel, Every Sparrow Falling, which features a seance in the temple.

And then last weekend I went to Manchester to meet Paul Magrs, one of my favourite writers who has written some beautiful YA fiction and tons of others things including mysteries, sci-fi novels and Doctor Who stories. I have to say it felt a bit weird asking if I could just go and meet him with no planned agenda. I had in mind that if it all didn't work out I could use the weekend as a writing retreat in lovely Manchester, and that would have been fine. But I did meet him and his partner Jeremy, and we had a great chat about all sorts of things including writing, art, politics, Pride, and our cultural differences relating to all those things. It gave me loads to think about. And some of the things that Paul said were really useful in thinking of myself-as-writer.

The next day I had lunch with Keris Stainton- another really wonderful writer who I had only known on social media previously. It was great to meet her too and we talked about writing, fan fiction, Bros and New York... It was so good to connect with people who are as genuine and kind in real life as they are online. The discussions were easy (for me. I hope for everyone else too!) and on reflection I feel like this year might be a kind of grounding year for me in terms of discovering what I'm about as a writer. I hope so.

Frank Sidebottom. Northern Quarter, Manchester.

So I'm writing this really to update people who are interested, and also as a little record of how 'ACES' is working out for me so far (really well! Thank you Arts Council NI!) but maybe also to encourage other people to apply for Arts Council grants. I think lots of people don't because they don't feel qualified enough or because the forms might put them off, but I got my first SIAP award before I was published and I'm currently writing on the laptop ACNI bought me. If you're frightened of the paperwork, ask the Arts Council themselves for help- sometimes they have info days to help with this kind of thing. 

Anyway. Here's a pic from the film Little Ashes, which I watched when I was at Downhill. It's a fictionalisation of the relationship between Lorca and Salvador Dali and once I got over seeing Edward-The-Sparkly-Vampire-From-Twilight playing Dali I quite enjoyed it. 

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