I was half way through my first novel and like most of us, getting badly stuck. I’d been writing it in a bitty way for over six months, without any real discipline. I knew it was good enough to publish – I just didn’t know how to get the story tidied up and like a lot of us on our first attempt, I was rambling all over the place. Truthfully, I was just about to chuck it away and give up the whole sorry mess, but then I met up with an old friend for a coffee, the writer Conor Kostick, who was just about to start teaching at the Writers Centre. And Conor said, “You should do my course.”
Naturally, I resisted with every bone in my body. Going back to school was the last thing I wanted to do, I whinged. It was humiliating enough to be a failed novelist, without having to bear that in front of others who (I was convinced would be) brilliant and professional writers. I whinged some more.
“You should really, really, seriously do my course,” Conor said.
Of course, he was right. I hummed and hawed and eventually signed up, arriving late the first night – a sign of my fear and ambivalence! The others in the group were, I felt, streets ahead of me as writers. The last thing I wanted to do was to read anything aloud – and Conor made me do this, on the first night, a horrendously difficult writing exercise. I left the class, almost in tears, vowing not to return. But as Conor and I waited for the same bus, he gently suggested that as I’d paid the fee, I might as well finish the course. “But I’m the worst in the class!” I wailed.
“In that case, you should definitely finish the course,” he said.
So, yes, I did finish the course. By the end of the term we were a polished little group. I realised, after reading some more of my manuscript, that it was actually alright. Some of it was really good. It was publishable. From the feedback of the other writers I was able to quickly fix huge problems I’d been having – this is the major benefit of working in a group. Somebody else will immediately have the answer to a piece of bad writing you’ve been torturing yourself with, and you’ll cut blissfully to the chase. Joy of joys, by the end of that summer I had not only finished the novel but I had met a super group of friends, found a publisher, and had been signed for three more books.
I can safely say, that if I hadn’t had my arm twisted into doing that course at the Irish Writers’ Centre, I would never have become published. Like most people who have a yearning to write stories I lacked the professionalism and discipline to turn a story idea into a book. The beauty about working with a professional writer in a workshop is that you cut through a lot of time-wasting, and get down to the real nuts and bolts of what will make the story work. Now that I teach first-time novelists at the Writers’ Centre, I see the same problems that I had coming up over and over again – motivation to get the story down on paper, motivation to keep writing when everything else keeps trying to get in the way, and finding the confidence to just do it, just write it. Stop agonising over your words and write the story. Just write the story that you want to write.
Of course it isn’t easy. The most difficult thing, when you have set out to write, is knowing what to write. Then you have to know how to write it. Working in a group makes a huge difference. Working with a professional who’s done this before, who’s doing this all the time, can save you a lot of time wearing out the delete button.
I’d love to say that there’s a magic trick to getting your first novel published, but I guess that the magic is in taking a professional attitude (rather than dreaming that it will all just come together some day. . . ), and taking on the task.
Have the yearning and the love of writing. Learn the technique. Practice the technique. Practice some more. Get feedback. Use the feedback. Set goals. Stick to the goals.
Every professional writer will write in a different way. I plot first, write a synopsis, then a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, then fill in the gaps . . .and then all of the plotting and chaptering changes as I write. Others start with character, and let the character drive the plot. There are no hard rules. But you won’t know what’s going to work for you until you try.
Learn from professional writers all about the publishing industry and how it works. Read as much as you can, watch as many movies as you can, learn from television, film, journalism, theatre, keep learning from other literary forms about how story-telling works. And then write the story. Write it down. Keep on writing. Write some more. Write the story that you want to tell.
Juliet is teaching a six-week course packed with fantastic tips on how professional writers write novels and get them published. The course, which runs from 1st May to 5th June is workshop-based providing a chance to share work with others and enjoy their feedback. If you’ve just started a novel, or if you’re just at the dreaming and plotting stage of novel-writing, this is the course for you. Classes will focus on character development, motivation, writing from the imagination, plot development, structure, style, genre and tips for approaching the publishing industry.