Category Archives: Beginning the Novel

Two courses, one writer, and a fantastic story

The Secret Son

By Jennifer Burke

I am so excited, I think I might spontaneously combust. My first novel – The Secret Son – is hitting Irish bookshelves this month. Yet this time two months ago, I hadn’t the smallest inclination of what was about to happen. On 4th July, Martin King of TV3’s The Morning Show burst into my office where I work with the Commission for Energy Regulation and announced that I was the winner of TV3’s “Write a Bestseller” competition. Life since then has been a whirlwind – of the best kind. I had spotted the competition, which was run in conjunction with Poolbeg Press, when I was happily procrastinating from writing my third novel. Clicking around Writing.ie I stumbled across it and my mind flew to the dusty old copy of The Secret Son sitting in my drawer.

lawI’ll go back a few years. In 2008-2009, I was training to be a solicitor. While studying Wills & Probate law I was genuinely amazed at the amount of cases that came before the courts involving families having fallen out with each other over the contents of a dead relative’s will. An idea began to form. What if I could write a story about a will that went one step further than the cases I had been studying. Instead of just dividing up the family fortune in an unexpected way, the will could reveal a dark secret that threatened the very stability of the family. And so the character of Andrew Shaw began to form in my head. A sick young man in need of a kidney transplant who is horrified to discover that a recently dead stranger is in fact his biological father. Unsure how to even begin constructing a full novel on this scrap of an idea, I attended Juliet Bressan’s one day ‘How to write a novel’ course in the Irish Writer’s Centre.

Meeting other aspiring writers was itself inspirational. I learnt the basics of creating a story arc, marking plot points and developing characters, all which enabled me to structure the novel in my mind. Though the story ultimately changed and matured over the months, I had a plan to work from and I finally got down to the serious business of writing a novel. I wrote whenever I could. I got up early before work, scribbled down sentences in the evenings and stole some hours at the weekends. Eventually, the words added uPictured Jennifer Burke, author. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.p and I had my book done. Sort of. It was mostly finished, but I knew it was lacking. I just couldn’t put my finger on the exact problem. So I returned to the Irish Writer’s Centre and took Conor Kostick’s Finish your Novel course over ten weeks. He gave me the tools to shape and polish the book – being true to your voice, how to write dialogue authentically and creating villians; writing love scenes, being certain of your theme and book endings. I left the course with the skills I needed to hone and perfect my story.

It took many edits, more reading around (I particularly recommend Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages), and ultimately taking time off work, but I eventually finished. A year later, I came across TV3’s competition and sent The Secret Son off to Poolbeg. I had no conception at the time how it would change my life. In the past two months, I got to see a whole new side of writing – the process of turning a manuscript into a book for sale. Normally this process takes months, but we had weeks, if we were to capitalise on the publicity I have been so fortunate to receive from TV3. The editing process was the best part. I was nervous – you hear horror stories of editors cutting characters and decimating storylines. But that wasn’t the case at all. All of the edits suggested were spot on and mostly centred around making the book readable and consistent. It was the final polish and ultimately professionalised the novel. Aside from editing the actual book, there has been plenty of other fun stuff to do – acknowledgments, dedication, front cover consultation, photo shoot, marketing and PR. I’m still not entirely convinced this isn’t all a dream. It’s just unbelieveable that all this has been made possible in such a short period of time. Right now, I’m busy organising the launch of The Secret Son and I have my minions (ie. my very dedicated family and friends) spreading the word to their friends, colleagues and book clubs. I hope The Secret Son does well and that I get the opportunity to keep writing. For the moment, I’m enjoying the crazy, crazy reality that I’m actually being published. To anyone who is mulling over a spark of an idea, I say go for it. Just look at what can happen!

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Competitions, Creative Writing, creative writing course, Fiction, How to Write A Novel, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, Juliet Bressan, literature, novels

Niamh Boyce’s Blog Tour, all aboard!

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Photograph: Alan Betson © The Irish Times

Three months after the Irish Writers’ Centre inaugural Novel Fair in 2012 Niamh Boyce signed with Penguin and was on the speckled road to becoming a novelist in realtime. Today, as the book hits the shop shelves the author and the story are ‘trending’ on Twitter. The genesis dates back to May 1942 (though the story is set a few years earlier), a report in a local paper of a ‘coloured man’ arrested for serious offences against girls. Irish Times journalist Sineád Gleeson, who interviewed Niamh for the paper earlier this week, says the book is loosely based on a real court case and is all the more intriguing because it’s a work of fiction based on one small abandoned fact.

‘It concerns an exotic potion and tincture seller, who arrives in a midlands town and sets up a market stall. Before long the townsfolk, particularly the women, are beguiled by him. A strong cast – a prostitute, an ageing wife desperate for a child, two young girls who suffer similar fates – dominate a story that is sharply rendered, and full of dark humour,’ writes Gleeson. ‘Boyce perfectly captures the hysteria in the town’s see-sawing obsession with the herbalist. “The market in the real case was in my home town so I could really visualise him,” she says. “I also thought about [Arthur Miller’s play] The Crucible . . . about mob mentality and how a town can scapegoat someone”.

The novel is completely fictionalised, because she was fearful of “trespassing on people’s real lives”. The story is set in 1939, and examines the class structures of Irish life, and the sense of predestination that comes with being born into a specific background.

“That structure was still there when I went to school in the 1980s,” says Boyce in her Irish Times interview. “We were all still divided into groups according to whether our parents were farmers or shopkeepers. Emily [a young girl who becomes obsessed with the book’s title character] has no standing and is a nobody. When you live in a small town, before you’re born you’re ‘one of the Kellys’. The day you start school is a new experience, in a new place – but not to the nuns who teach there and know exactly who you are. The herbalist character represents what an outsider can do – he sees Emily in a different way.”

Emily has competition for the herbalist’s attentions. The women of the town – the women from the big houses and their maids, the shopkeepers and their serving girls, those of easy virtue and their pious sisters – all seem mesmerised by this visitor who, they say, can perform miracles. But when Emily discovers the dark side of the man who has infatuated her all summer, once again her world turns upside down. And while we can’t give away too many of the book’s Gordian knots, we can say that it is a magical tale with an ability to capture Ireland at a certain point in time without any caricature or causticity.

What began as a ‘few sentences’ penned in a creative writing workshop with John MacKenna, finished up as a 2,000 word a day bid-to-combat until the story was done. “My children were young and I didn’t have much time to write,” she explains, “But I found the time, often into the early hours of the morning and soon enough I had a first draft completed. When I heard about The Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair I decided to enter The Herbalist. I was lucky enough to win a place at the Fair with twenty other writers. I can’t say enough good things about the Irish Writers Centre’s staff and the way they organised the day of the fair, they were wonderful!”

The Sunday Times has called it ’an elegant morality tale about the inescapable strictures of women’s lives’ and Dermot Bolger has commented that the book is ’richly layered and finely realised … compelling’, while reviews elsewhere (Image magazine, RTE Guide and elsewhere) are glowing.

Niamh Boyce’s fictional debut – about a 1930s potion seller whose real business is a dark secret – captures small-town Ireland of both then and now…

The herbalistWhat we can say is that we are ridiculously proud of Niamh’s acheivement and are delighted to take part in her Blog Tour to celebrate the launch of this unique and beautifully written book. Here are three questions we put to Niamh about sustaining the writing life, living with your characters and ways to stay sane in the process:

Which character in the book consumed you more than others? In the beginning it felt like I was taking dictation from a quarrelling Greek chorus. I wasn’t sure which of the women was speaking or who exactly they were, let alone if they were telling the truth! So it immediately felt like there was mystery to solve, threads to unravel and I liked that.  But as I worked on, Emily’s voice became strong and she became the central storyteller, so if there was any consuming she did it!

Did you ever have any premonitions about being/becoming a writer? Never! I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember.  I still do! I loved reading, and read constantly but it never occurred to me that I could or would write a book myself. I don’t know why. I started ‘writing’ in 2008, when I fell in love with short stories, but saying that my old notebooks are full of poems and half poems going back to when I was a teenager. I just didn’t consider them as poems back then, not in a real sense.  So no premonition!

What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer? The ability to retain perspective is important, so that you don’t fall into the very real temptation to use writing as form of a semi permanent escape. There’s a life to be lived, people to be loved, worlds to be seen. (And you’ll need the material!)
It also helps if you love the process, if you love the very act of writing and the way stories reveal themselves; the way characters surprise you, and the very simple and wonderful fact that something exists that didn’t exist before.

Niamh Boyce is the 2012 Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year and she has been shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story competition 2011, the Hennessy Literary Awards 2010, the Molly Keane Award 2010 and the WOW Award 2010. Originally from Athy, Co Kildare Niamh now lives with her family in Ballylinan, Co Laois.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Fiction, Novel Fair, The Herbalist

Cinnamon toast on the move

cinnamonFor the next three weeks Novel Fair winner Janet Cameron is taking her newly-published (and fab) book home on tour around Canada. The story is set there, so Janet is a little more nervous than usual and we just can’t seem to convince her they’ll love the story as much as we did! So…we’ve decided to publish some of her blog-thoughts during this three week stunt in blightey. The book is a fantastic read, the characters are well-rounded and believeable, the story is about a multitude of funny and serious things, from house parties to pick-up trucks, cherry-vanilla ice-cream, sexuality and unrequited love. A la blurb: ’Welcome to the spring of 1987 and the world of Stephen Shulevitz who, with three months of high school to go in the small town of Riverside, Nova Scotia, has just realised he’s fallen in love – with exactly the wrong person. Welcome to the end of the world. As Stephen navigates his last few months before college dealing with his overly dependent mother, his distant, pot-smoking father, and his dysfunctional best friends Lana and Mark, he must decide between love and childhood friendship; between the person he is and the person he can be. But sometimes leaving the past behind is harder than it seems…Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is a bittersweet story of growing up and of one young man finding happiness on his own terms.’

It’s a coming-of-age, coming-out, come-tither-and-look-closely-at-my-world-if-you-dare story that isn’t afraid to tackle hard topics such homophobia, bullying and parental abuse.

We are *big* fans of Janet’s at the Centre, and not just because she got drunk with us after the inaugural Fair (!), but because she’s sparky, bright, fun, positive and simply good to be around. She also happens to be a very good writer. The book is published by Hachette Ireland in March 2013, and is available in Canada now! We wish her all the luck in the world with her book. Here’s a snippet from Blog Post One. Expect more over the coming weeks (and yes, we have asked her permission!).

I raced through it, found it hard to put it down when I had to and wanted more when I was finished….Her prose gets more elegant the further you get in and, the further and further Stephen gets into what he sees as the end of his own personal world, the more you genuinely care for him and the screwed up kids and adults that populate his world….It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if someone were to option this for a film….page-turning, top drawer stuff in the genre it lives in….More please. – broadcaster Rick O’Shea, for the Bord Gais Energy Book Club, April 8, 2013

May 7, Dublin, Ireland, 8:00 a.m.

Okay, today’s the big day. Of horrible travelling. Dublin to London, London to Toronto, Toronto to Emonton, with two hours in Heathrow and five in Pearson. But it’s all worth it, dammit!

Boredom may drive me to report on the wonders of international airports on two continents. Will boredom drive anyone to read it? If your name is Nettie Morine, perhaps. Hi, Mom!

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May 8, Edmonton, Alberta, 11:00 a.m.

Well, over a full day later, I can report that two hours really isn’t that long of a time to spend in an airport, especially one with such thorough, and…um…disturbingly intimate security procedures as Heathrow. Getting onto that connecting flight was a bit of a stressful rush, but nothing terrible happened and no one was injured, by me anyway. On the long and uneventful journey to Toronto, the teeny speakers fell out of my in-flight headphones and I couldn’t be arsed asking for a replacement – however, I did have fun reading the capsule descriptions of the films involved, and now think that “As Bella awakens transformed into mother and vampire” is probably one of the most delightful dependent clauses I’ve ever encountered. I read Brian Finnegan’s new book Knowing Me, Knowing You, about a group of Abba fans reuniting after 30 years, and found it to be an excellent travelling companion and a very engaging and emotional read.

toastIn Toronto’s Pearson airport the sun set behind us in a deep haze of orange as I watched a fellow passenger loudly berating the employees of an A&W outlet for not providing enough ketchup to suit his needs. Parachute Club was on the sound system, Tim Hortons was very much in evidence, and I was surprised to see that our currency is now threaded with transparent plastic and that the latest incarnation of Elizabeth II bears a faint resemblance to Chico Marx. Also the internet access in Pearson is kind of poo. Otherwise it was a Jim-dandy five hours, and another four flying off to my destination. I started Mary Grehan’s Love is the Easy Bit – very impressed so far.

I arrived in Edmonton at around 6 a.m. Irish time, roughly twenty-one hours after I set off from the apartment waving goodbye to husband and cat. Dazed, drooling, and barely coherent, I awakened the next morning transformed into mother and vampire. No, actually. I just awakened, ate some strawberries, got reaquainted with my 16-month-old niece and wrote this update. Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is in stores in Canada now, which is still difficult for me to get my head around. If you see the book, please tell it I said hello.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, competition winner, Irish Writers Centre, Novel Fair

One writer’s metaphorical graveyard

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By Lara Áine ni Fhearghail

I’ve been dabbling in this writing lark for a while. And I do mean dabbling: short stories, bits of ideas, notebooks (piles of them) and a Documents folder on my computer that looks like the detritus of a bookshop caught in the London Riots. And honestly? I’ve never actually made it further than a short story.

fabregeI’m probably not that unusual among writers just starting out. A short story is an obvious thing on which to cut your teeth. You get a feel for your own writing, learn about tension and pace, and building characters, shaping plots, and all within a time-frame that seems reasonable. You’re not signing away years of your life in the process. Almost from the very start, you can see the end of the endeavor looming before you. Minimal emotional investment, maximum output. (Just to be clear, I’m talking about learning how to write. Obviously writing a perfect short story is about as easy as fashioning a Fabergé Egg.)

But what happens when your ideas and ambition seem to outgrow the form? Short stories may seem doable but  novels, on the other hand, are like some long, slow slog with the devil. A long, marathon across a huge expanse of wasteland, the end so far away it seems unattainable. It seems like writing with Sisyphus on one shoulder, and Tantalus on the other (or so I imagine at least.) And where, if some sudden madness compelled me, would I start anyway?

It turns out, not really at the beginning.

I was lucky enough to attend a two-day course with Keith Ridgway at the Writers’ Centre on a bleak and sleeting weekend at the end of February. The title of the course was simply, “Starting a Novel”.

There were ten of us on the course, all from different parts of the country, with very different ideas for our prospective novels. Prior to the class Keith had asked us to bring a book with us, a book that had engaged us and that we loved, and the type of book we would wish to write ourselves. The range that appeared was as wide as the possibilities, everything from literary fiction to children’s books and plenty of genres in between.

But back to this thing with beginning…It seems like the most obvious thing in the world (and I am blushing slightly with embarrassment that I had never thought about it before) but books are not written the way they are read. If there was one thing Keith tried to hammer into us over the weekend it was this: very few novels start out life in the same place the readers will eventually encounter them.

We looked at a number of examples. Very different novels, but all with beginnings that seemed almost arbitrary out of context. Starting points that the author had probably chosen long after they had begun writing. If you’re a bit like me and you obsess over the tiniest of details, of getting each sentence right before moving onto the next, this can actually feel quite revelatory to hear.

I don’t have to have every single scene plotted out. I don’t even have to know exactly how it’ll begin. Keith’s advice was simply to figure out the general shape of your novel, you might not even have a specific plot or even characters, but find the shape and let the rest take care of itself as you write.

There were plenty of other things to be gleaned from the course too. We looked at ways of generating ideas, of using other people’s writing to spark ideas of our own and spoke about the importance of feeling emotionally involved in what you’re writing, despite how teeth-chatteringly terrifying it is. We got to hammer Keith with as many questions as we could think of, and he answered them all with thoughtfulness and honesty.

But maybe my favourite piece of advice from the weekend was what Keith called ‘Writing as Performance.’ Never mind “Know Thyself,” try “Fool Thyself.” Do whatever it takes to write, even if it means convincing yourself that you’re not.

If it helps, pretend you’re not writing at all. A large part of writing a novel is simply accumulating information. Keep going. The bigger the pile of paper you have, the better off you are. Eventually you’ll get there.

Slavoj Žižek claims to loathe writing so much that he actually pretends to never do it. He writes down ‘ideas’ and then he ‘edits’ them, until eventually it begins to look like a coherent piece of writing. Keith echoed this idea. If it helps, pretend you’re not writing at all. A large part of writing a novel is simply accumulating information. Keep going. The bigger the pile of paper you have, the better off you are. Eventually you’ll get there.

I wouldn’t claim that I walked away from the weekend with an idea that writing a novel will be easy. It’s not. It couldn’t be, or else all our inner books would’ve been let out by now. But I still want to do it, even more than before, and at least now I have some practical ideas for how to get through the most trying bits.

Also, I think I’m going to print out the contents of that Documents folder. I’ll scatter the rubble across the floor of my house, my metaphorical graveyard littered with the bodies of false-starts, and tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and look at the size of it and feel like I’ve at least accomplished something. I might even find an idea there, hidden and nearly lost. You have to start somewhere, anywhere.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, courses, Creative Writing, creative writing course, How to Write A Novel, setting in fiction, writing

Pride and Petulance

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By Diana Friedman

A petulant writer confession: I almost didn’t make it to Dublin this trip. Many years ago, a good friend asked me: when is the last time you really let yourself feel desire for something you want? We weren’t talking designer shoes or beachfront holiday property but deep soul-wrenching desire, the kind that makes your heart swell and expand into your cavity when you finally give yourself permission to chase that long-elusive dream.

I answered that question by diving into my novel. With two young children and a demanding job, it was no small feat researching and writing a story partially set in another country. Never mind facing down all the fears that had kept me from attempting it up until then.

During the time spent writing the book, I’ve learned that the heart is a sensitive little creature. One of the consequences of reaching inside so you can hold this lovely little pulsating, squirming core of self in your hands is that when you hit a road block, as I did a few weeks ago, it truly can disintegrate, leaving you vulnerable to falling to pieces.

Back in October 2012 I submitted the first four chapters of my novel to the Novel Fair at the Irish Writers’ Centre. I knew it was a long shot—the first year of the competition, the Centre had over 500 entries. In general, odds are never good in contests like these.

lepglassesI wasn’t planning to submit, but a number of friends encouraged me to apply, as I’d already invested so much time researching the book and doing due diligence to make sure I captured Dublin as is, not just as a city rich in its past and pubs or, as portrayed through the typical Americanist-leprechauny-four-leaf-cloverly-Guiness-tinted glasses.

And, I was no longer a neophyte. I’d been at the book for six years, was working with a professional editor, and had just placed an excerpt for publication. Three pieces of my work had recently been shortlisted in competitions in the States.

So, what was to lose? For 40 euros—a lot of money for one contest, yes, but as a donation to a Writer’s Centre, particularly to the Irish Writers’ Centre and all it offers, not very much at all—authors were to submit the first 10,000 words of a novel, and two judges would pick the top ten entries. Those ten authors would then receive the privilege of one full day of pitching directly to agents and editors from Ireland and the UK. For the non-writers among us, this is the equivalent of being handed an all-you-can-eat card at ten five-star restaurants in France.

As the date approached, I grew more excited about the prospect of being selected. A year earlier, I had attended the Algonkian Pitch Conference in New York City. If I could survive pitching to New York editors, Dublin, I imagined, would be a breeze.

The format for the New York pitch conference was completely different than Dublin. After submitting a synopsis to the conference organizers, applicants were either accepted or denied. If accepted, for the price of trip to Europe, plus some, attendees registered to spend a day and a half learning how to hone their 30 second pitch, and were then given two and a half days to pitch directly to four editors from the New York City publishing world.

It was hard to delineate where the adrenaline bled into the anxiety at the New York conference, except to say that by day four, the hallways smelled like a slaughterhouse just before the cows went under the blade. I have relatives in New York, so I got off easy, financially speaking, but most attendees had spent thousands of dollars to get to and stay in the city. Furthering the tension, we were meeting at the Horace Greely studios in Midtown Manhattan, home to dance and theatre audition spaces. The two groups were easy to distinguish—the dancers cavorted in hot colored spandex with beautiful erect posture, while the writers slouched around in baggy pants, hunched over their manuscripts and laptops. The entire atmosphere was choose me, choose me, choose me, a cramped and antiquated New York City building jammed with dozens of people sharing the same fantasy—that all their years of hard work would finally be met with reward.

We were divided into four sections of 15 writers each, and lucky for me, I wound up with a remarkable group of supportive and encouraging women. We didn’t start menstruating together, but it was the kind of group that had we been there longer, I’m sure we would have. Under the guidance of our very able workshop leader, we were primed, edited, and then instructed in the basics—be polite, articulate, look the editor in the eye, keep the responses brief and focused. And dress nicely. It was a bit like finishing school for writers. By the end of the first day, excitement was running high.

And then the editors arrived.

The first one was from Penguin. She listened to our pitches, asked questions, told us what she liked and what she didn’t, and gave us suggestions for improvement. Over lunch she talked with our workshop leader and gave her the list of books she wanted to see. She selected three.

But as the editors made their selections, and people realized they might not get chosen, the mood shifted. The conference organisers had clearly stated that if your book was not getting selected, it probably meant your pitch was too unfocused, which in turn, was a reflection on the state of your book. This was, not surprisingly, very hard for people to hear. In the hallways, people insisted they’d been put in the wrong group and hence were pitching to the wrong editor, or, blamed the editors for being too narrow-minded. The environment truly was a bit like Survivor for Writers—there were only so many people who were going to be selected—but our group supported and cheered one another on so that by the end most of us felt that the impromptu community we formed was probably the most valuable part of the conference.

Before the New York Pitch conference, my novel had received interest from a prominent agent, who later rejected it after I completed significant rewrites, suggesting I work with a different kind of agent to bring it to publication. I suspected that this meant that the book was good, but not quite good enough for the big leagues. And I knew that selling a book at this conference—despite what the web site promised—was going to be next to impossible, so I entered with somewhat low expectations, which made the landing somewhat easier for me. I wanted to test the market potential of my idea, learn how to pitch the book, and then, if I was lucky, get the manuscript into the hands of an editor who could tell me what precisely the book needed. I was very lucky; I managed all three. The editor who read my novel gave me very concrete feedback on what the novel needed to come to full strength. She offered to look at it following rewrites and point me to some agents. It was a rejection, but as far as rejections go, it was as good as they get.

The Dublin Novel Fair was completely different. The price was right, but only ten lucky writers were going to be selected. It was pretty clear that anyone who made that cut would have a very good chance of getting their book into the hands of agents and editors, since the vetting had already been done.

anxI waited, waited, waited, my mind spiraling with anticipation and anxiety. And layered below my excitement percolated a question that I really wanted answered: had any of the passion I experienced in writing the book come through in the story telling in a way that would resonate on the other side of the pond (this side, that is)? In November, a very kind relative bought me a plane ticket as a birthday present, under the assumption that I would go to Dublin either way, as I was once again tackling significant rewrites. I made a hotel reservation and I was all set.

When I learned I was not selected, though, all I could manage was to reach for the phone, from very deep underneath the covers, to turn in my ticket. For days, I could not bear the thought of being in Dublin knowing that there would be ten lucky bastards eating fillet while I would be sucking up crumbs across town.

And, so, such is the nature of desire; when we heed its call, it takes us to amazing new heights, but how much harder the fall when we don’t reach the destination.

And yet, forcing myself to take my book to completion has taught me a few things about surviving this business. In particular, I’ve had to learn that staying the course sometimes means surrendering to the immaturity of my artist self.  It is a child-like and vulnerable being. It has to be. How else to open myself up and get under and inside the skin of the characters and scenarios I’m creating?

But when it comes time to face the world—the rejections and cruelties and dismissals, that artist self needs quite a bit of help. Because it is also petulant. And irritable. It becomes a delicate balancing act, allowing the artist-self some tantrum time, and then knowing when it’s time for the adult self to step in—first with compassion, and then a gentle shove back into the world, the same way a parent helps a child along with a skinned knee or a failed exam. And, most importantly, making sure that no matter how bad things feel, that the adult self is the one who faces the world in those hard times—with professionalism and decorum.

Somehow, this time I missed that part about the adult self. It wasn’t until after watching me drown my head in my seventh batch of chocolate chip cookies, that my very same good friend poked me in the ribs and asked: what exactly would be the downside to going? 

And this is why she is such a good friend. Because once I put away the chocolate I knew she was right. In fact, I realized, all the contest had done was paralyse me. I had two directions to take the rewrites of the book, one focused for an Irish audience, and one for the American women’s fiction market. In the three months while waiting for the response, unable to decide which one I was going forward with, I worked on precisely neither of them.

So I stuffed my suitcase with rain gear and then, for reinforcement, made a quick pit stop at my neighborhood hippie haven. Hillary, local Goddess extraordinaire, smudged me with sage and cedar for creative inspiration and good luck. Holly, a massage therapist of zero balancing expertise, passed along visions of me grounded inside a huge pyramid while on the plane. It was an image, I have to confess, I had never considered, but rather liked. It made take-off and landing a bit less traumatic.

By the time I arrived to Dublin, I had mostly forgotten about the Novel Fair. June Caldwell welcomed me warmly and has been an enormous help with my project, as have so many others around the Centre, including random writers popping in and out to talk with me, and the Ink Splinters, a writer’s group that so kindly opened their circle to me one night.

As the Novel Fair date approached and I watched the staff move chairs and tables around the Centre in preparation, I admit to some curiosity, but it was more fly-on-the-wall type.

Happily clicking away on my laptop on this blog and my book, what I mostly felt was relief that I wasn’t going through it again. Eventually I will be pushing the novel at US conferences when it’s ready, but for now, how much more fun it was to be in Dublin,  and, rather than suffer the anguish of selling, bask in the pleasure of writing.

The publishing industry may be fickle and arbitrary, but such is the nature of art;  no voice will ever speak to everyone. Expecting any work of art to resonate across the board is simply setting yourself up for disappointment. As artists, when we become dependent on others to validate our voices, it’s easy to freeze and lose ourselves.

I’ll close out with another confession: Halfway through writing this blog I still have no idea what it means to be an American writer in Dublin, as June dubbed me, but it’s a label I’ve happily worn and enjoyed. Because while the blog format will most likely never attain the same status as the short story or essay, it’s a powerful tool for a writer—pure voice, unadulterated and luminous and radiant as voice comes.

windowIndeed, gazing out from the Centre’s top floor classroom window over the rooftops and chimneys and historic buildings of Dublin, my heart once again thumping safely and softly, the words and stories erupting non-stop in an almost mystical energetic flow, I re-discovered one critically important thing: losing one’s voice may be misery-inducing, indeed, but in the whole entire world, for this writer anyway, there is absolutely and truly nothing better than getting it back.

 

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diana

Diana Friedman’s work has received several awards, including being selected as a finalist for the Howard Frank Mosher Fiction Prize, a top 25 pick for Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Contest, third place in Bethesda Magazine’s Annual Short Story Competition, and as a finalist in Sport Literate’s essay contest. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications, including Sport Literate, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Whole Earth Review, the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek, Bethesda Magazine, Stone Highway Review and the Legendary, among others. An excerpt of her novel will be published in a forthcoming anthology of Washington, D.C. writers, Defying Gravity, available from Paycock Press in 2013.  www.dianafriedmanwriter.com  and to keep up with her newest writings or hang out with her in cyberspace, you can “like” her on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/DianaFriedmanwriter or follow her on Twitter @Dfriedmanwriter

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Creative Writing, Dublin Event, new writing, Novel Fair, novels, publishing, writing groups

On Never Having Been Struck By Lightning

coloured lightning

I have been waiting almost 50 years now to be struck by lightning. It hasn’t happened yet. And I don’t expect it will anytime soon. So in the meantime I have simply been reading and writing. Waiting. For? Something. The tap on the shoulder. That moment of self-recognition. The moment when I become a true writer: someone inspired.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m misinterpreting the signs, missing the signals. Writers are inspired, of course – all the time. They are kissed by the gods. Beloved by their muses. Seduced by characters. Overwhelmed by plots. Overcome with ideas. To be honest, I’ve not had an idea since … I don’t know when. And the closest I’ve come to inspiration is a slight physical discomfort.

So, in the absence of all else, I have had to rely on my own resources – a little common-sense, some self-discipline, a few books. I have also sought out the example of other writers who seem as utterly uninspired as me. I have turned often, for example, to the work of the Oulipo group of writers – Raymond Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, the truly inspiration-deficient. (Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, the ‘Workshop for potential literature’.) ‘The goal of potential literature’, according to the Oulipo writers, ‘is to furnish future writers with new techniques which can dismiss inspiration from their affectivity.’ To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what this means. But it makes sense.

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iansansomIan Sansom will be teaching a Writing Fiction workshop on 23rd & 24th March: Sat & Sun 10.30am-4.30pm. €150/135 members. The course will seek to debunk some common myths about creative writing and will provide some simple methods and techniques that can be used by writers at any stage of their writing careers. Using class exercises, examples and reading, the course will explore some of the different ways in which writers appropriate, recycle and steal ideas. There will be no discussion of inspiration or story arcs, nor any profound insights into the meaning of life or the human condition.

Ian is a novelist, journalist and broadcaster who currently teaches creative writing at Warwick University. He has been a columnist for The Guardian and has written also for The Irish Times, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The London Review of Books, The Spectator, and The New Statesman. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous international magazines and journals, including The New York Times. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4. Books include The Truth About Babies (Granta, 2002), Ring Road (4th Estate/Harper Collins, 2004), and the Mobile Library series of novels including The Case of the Missing Books (2007), Mr. Dixon Disappears (2007), The Delegates’ Choice (2008) The Book Stops Here (2008), The Bad Book Affair (2010). A cultural history of paper, Paper: An Elegy (4th Estate/Harper Collins), is due for publication in October 2012. The first in a new series of novels, The County Guides: Norfolk (4th Estate/Harper Collins) is due for publication in June 2013.

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Susan Lanigan at the 2013 Novel Fair: all my heart and love

NovelIdeaIn 2009 I made the first rough notes for the novel I would spend the next three years writing. All I knew was the theme: the white feather: I had the barest of character outlines, no plot and had no idea I was going to be writing a novel. I thought it was a short story. I was trying, and failing, to write a novel about something else. Sometime in October 2010 I made a stark, bare outline – so stark I wrote it in Notepad, no word processing software for me! – and then got going. I joined an online group and the feedback they gave me, so early in the process, encouraged me to keep going as I pasted wodges of first-drafty material on the site and probably sorely tried their patience.
As the story began to flesh out and characters come to life (some quite rudely walking in and demanding to be noticed) the Irish Writers Centre were also coming up with the idea of their Novel Fair, which inaugurated in 2011. I had managed an unspeakable first draft and was part of the way through the second, so I sent in what I thought would be a good beginning, an in medias res effort. I remember just finishing printing it, glancing over the pages and my inner Reader remarking, a propos of nothing, “Don’t like it.”
“What do you mean, you don’t like it! The writing is good; it’s not dull or staying in the same place too long.”
“Dunno.” The Reader can be laconic beyond the point of frustration. “I just don’t like it, that’s all.”
I sent it in and sure enough it got nowhere. Then again given that the staff of the Irish Writers’ Centre were presented with several sacks and a total of 600 manuscripts – well, unemployment was high, what to do? – anything that was not coruscatingly good was not going to cut the mustard. And looking back on it, I was better off beginning at the beginning and not being a smart you-know-what about it. So I licked my wounds and kept on writing. And writing. And then next year came around.
I had a new character join the assembly, Lucia, an opera singer from Jamaica who had travelled over to England during the war. On her shoulders rested the prologue, and therefore the rest of the book. A night or two before the novel fair, I realised the prologue had to be rewritten. It was down to her. She pulled a blinder. And so I got the phone call and learned I – we – had made it through.
novel fairSo on Saturday 16 Feb, from 10.30 to 4, I went to the Irish Writers’ Centre with nine other novelists and pitched my novel almost non-stop to 14 publishers and agents in the industry. It was wonderful, exciting, overwhelming. When I got home that evening I went straight to bed and slept for several hours. (The three glasses of Prosecco I had afterwards courtesy of the IWC probably helped in that regard!)
It was an amazing privilege to speak about a dream that in Yeats’s words, “had all my heart and love” to luminaries in the Irish and English publishing industry. Each one of us novelists sat at a table and waited for the next publisher or agent to come around and when they did I would hand them my bio and, if they wanted to hear it, do the elevator pitch. If it happened that my particular elevator travelled five floors rather than one, I don’t think they held it against me they were all really nice  And also it was good to hear from the publishers about their own plans and what they wished to envision, as well as what interested the agents.
The people who spoke to us that day publishers: Penguin Ireland (Patricia Deevy); New Island (Eoin Purcell); O’Brien Press (Michael O’Brien); Hachette Ireland (Ciara Doorley); Liberties Press (Clara Phelan); Lilliput Press (Sarah Goff); Transworld Ireland (Eoin McHugh/Brian Langan); Picador (Paul Baggaley) agents: Ger Nichol from The Book Bureau; Faith O’Grady from Lisa Richards; Marianne Gunn O’Connor; Jonathan Williams; Sheila Crowley from Curtis Brown.
The previous Saturday, we had a talk in the IWC about what to expect. This was facilitated by Anthony Glavin, crime novelist Arlene Hunt and Niamh Boyce, who secured a publishing deal as a result of taking part in last year’s Fair. Anthony, one of last year’s judges, told us what worked in a novel and what he would have been looking for. Niamh explained what it entailed, advising full printing of partials for all and she was absolutely spot-on in her advice as partials went flying out. (In my bio a separate page with picture and writing CV I also added a public dropbox link in case people preferred the electronic option) Arlene was wonderful she made us all pitch on the spot and provided invaluable advice on how to structure the pitches. I took everything she said on board.
The Irish Writers Centre, ably staffed by June Caldwell and Clodagh Moynan as well as Gareth, covered the day very ably and efficiently. The all-important bell when the fifteen-minutes for each session was up made it very structured and well-organised. Food was on hand when needed, and at the end of the day, drink too!
I had an interesting conundrum in that two of the people I was due to meet had initially rejected my partial when I started tentatively subbing late last year. I decided I would tell them straightaway and offer them the option of having coffee and cake rather than hear me pitch. In a way these sessions were the best because I did not feel going in that I had to pitch and telling them they’d turned me down already broke the ice. As it happened, in both cases, they were happy to have another look so I pitched anyway!
By the end of it my head was in ribbons, but I also realised what a unique opportunity this is. I don’t know of anything like this anywhere else. And I realise how incredibly lucky I am to have been able to take part on a day like this and meet people you would normally as a writer never meet face to face. I would recommend 100 per cent that anyone seriously working on a novel enter this competition and I’m very grateful to the Irish Writers’ Centre and the publishers and agents for making it possible. No matter what happens, it was so beneficial to be there; the experience itself was an enormous boost to my self-confidence even if I was wracked with nerves beforehand!
But the fourth draft in full must still be honed. There is work still to be done. As a friend of mine said to me on the phone yesterday was a victory,Susan today is a day of rest. And tomorrow back to work on the MS!
Susan graduated from a Masters in Writing in NUI Galway with first class honours in 2003. Since then, she’s had short stories published nationwide in a variety of good quality magazines and publications, such as The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Sunday Tribune, the Irish Independent, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Mayo News. She’s been twice shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, and won highly commended awards for short stories and poetry elsewhere. Currently (as well as being a Novel Fair winner) she has one story published and another forthcoming in Nature Magazine’s Science Fiction section and is also featured in a special sci-fi/fantasy anthology Music For Another World. Her work has also featured in the fundraising anthology 50 Stories For Pakistan. Susan was shortlisted 30 out of 1,900 entrants to the Fish Short Story Competition 2011, where I have been longlisted in previous years. She’s  also a professional programmer/developer.

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Ken Bruen at the Irish Writers’ Centre

Ken BruenGalway-based author Ken Bruen is an enormously prolific, and celebrated author of crime-noir fiction. His many works include the Jack Taylor series which began with the Shamus Award -winning The Guards. As the series grew, it garnered many more awards. More recently, a selection of novels from the series have been adapted for a series of TV movies (one which was screened in 2012 and two more to follow in 2013). Ken’s novel Blitz was also adapted for the screen in 2011 starring Jason Statham, Aiden Gillen and Paddy Considine. In 2010, London Boulevard was turned into a film starring Colin Farrell and Keira Nightly. Other works include Dispatching Baudelaire, The Killing of the TinkersThe Magdalen MartyrsThe Dramatist and Priest (nominated for the 2008 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel), all part of his Jack Taylor series, which began with The Guards. Bruen is also the recipient of the first David Loeb Goodis Award (2008) for his dedication to his art. Ken will be reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Friday 22nd February at 1.05pm as part of the celebrated Lunchtime Readings series.
When (and why) did you start writing? I found it was a great way to off load rage, guilt, frustration. I was in my teens when I began to jot down notes, and see the value of words on the page, they seemed to dance, lilt and run riot on the very pages, fascinated me then, and even more now.
Do you plan more dark tales for Galway? Yes, C33, is out in September and is yet another jagged slant on Galway.
How does the ‘capital’ of Connaught view your portrayals of the city? Do you ever think they will make you a freeman of Galway? Will they put up a blue plaque? Galwegians  like Jack Taylor a lot as there have been five films shot in the city and as well as money for the city, many of the people appear in the movies. Channel 5 showed the the first of the Taylor movies last night.
Reading your work, is it true to say you adhere to Thomas Hobbes’ warning about the state of nature being nasty, poor, brutish and short? Indeed but always, vitally shot through with humour, and truly, if there is laughter, there is some light.
There has been an explosion in Irish crime fiction of late, at least in the Republic of Ireland. Do you have any thoughts on why that is so? Conversely, there seems to be a dearth of crime novels (Stuart Neville might be one exception) emanating from the north…any thoughts as to why this is the case? The Celtic Tiger and its demise made crime writing almost inevitable, chick lit isn’t quite the genre for deep recession and despair. I disagree about the North as there are a whole range of fine writers: Eoin Mc Namee, Gerard Brennan, Adrian Mc Ginty, Colin Bateman, Sam Millar.
magmartyrsDo you think that in the world of Irish letters, there is a snooty attitude towards crime literature? Some might even baulk at putting crime and literature in the same sentence! Yes, absolutely, it’s the poor relation you hide in the attic, and literary writers who do stoop to write a crime novel, describe it as………..slumming. A literary novel can bore you to a coma but a crime novel needs to be always…………always……….entertaining, entertainment in literary circles is regarded as sacrilege.
Is there any area of crime fiction yet to be explored in Ireland, geographically or topically? We haven’t yet seen canine sleuths but it can only be a matter of time. And probably canines with dope habit.
Do you think Ireland is finally coming to terms with the dark side of the Catholic Church and its abuse scandals? You wrote hard, disturbing, gritty books on those subjects….is the truth that leaked out about institutional abuse worse than you could have imagined fictionally? Every day, I read horrors that I didn’t dare put in my own works and on the news daily, the most abominable child abusers walk free because of age or some other supposed excuse.
What was it like growing up when the Church was such all pervasive political and social force? Did you experience the lash of the Christian Brothers’ strap? Yes, it was a long reed, fine honed for max swing and it cut into the side of your hand with precision, it had a sound I can still summon up. It was the sound of savages.
Edinburgh has its Rebus-Rankin tours, London’s Baker Street still attracts if fair share of Sherlock Holmes’ fans just as the east end draws in the Jack the Ripper devotees. How would you feel if Tourism Ireland started Ken Bruen tours around Galway? Unlikely as I’m on the Tourist Board Hit list, yet a bus of Japanese show up, asking for the Taylor tour.
Do you sleep well at night? I cycle a few hours daily so that kind of takes care of the sleep. My best and I hope darkest themes come when I’m walking past churches, in daylight.

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A year in self publishing

Maura Byrne

BY MAURA BYRNE

I didn’t plan to self-publish when I started writing but after a few years of rejections, a couple of half-offers and finally the offer of a book contract which my lawyer instructed me not to sign, I felt I couldn’t wait any longer. I’d worked with two story editors and children were telling me they loved the book – I knew it was time to release Bridget in Werewolf Rehab.

hamptonsThe first thing I had to do was find a printer. I chose Original Writing because they had relationships in the Irish retail network. The cover came next. I’d heard Easons say that an attractive cover was paramount. Since ‘Bridget’ is a werewolf and the story is comic fantasy, Matt Ryder’s quirky animal illustrations were perfect. I published on Amazon and Smashwords (it’s inexpensive) and ordered the book ‘Self-Printed.’ I took delivery of ‘Bridget’ two days before Christmas, immediately dropping copies into my local bookshop Hampton Books.

But how was I going to successfully reach 9-12 year olds with no track record and no contacts? I needed to network so I started by phoning a self-published author. He advised me to have a book launch where all my family and friends would come and buy ‘Bridget.’ I wasn’t convinced. It would cost a few thousand euros and I’d be lucky to land one photo in the paper. Besides, I needed to reach a far wider audience. I had to discover more about the retail, school and library network.

Over the next two weeks, I met with an independent book seller, the principal at my local primary school, a dog’s charity, the Independent Theatre Group, Pet Expo and an ad agency strategist. I also phoned Children’s Book Ireland and concluded that I wouldn’t have a launch but divert the money into hiring a PR agent. Once I’d found an agent, (Red Communications), we quickly agreed on a press release and a three month media plan.

What happens to werewolves who aren’t savage beasts and vampires who don’t like blood? They get sent to rehab, of course! Welcome to Bridget’s crazy world.

Building a web presence came next and Vanessa O’Loughlin of www.writing.ie suggested a web designer. Within three weeks, we had created www.maura-byrne.com. Suddenly, I had a Facebook page, a twitter account, I was blogging about Bridget’s life, and was listed on Author Central and Good Reads. I was a social-media pro! Children from The Independent Theatre Group came to my house to film a home-made ad and in return I presented a young writers workshop to them. Meanwhile, I continued to email retailers urging them to order my fabulous book but all I got back was silence.

WerewolfA couple of weeks later, we struck gold. RTE’s children’s programme Elev8 (with an audience of up to 200,000) invited me to give live howling lessons to the presenters Diana and Ivan. I notified Easons and five minutes later I got my first order from them. The Irish Independent agreed to an article, Woman’s Way wanted to interview me about reluctant readers, Southside and Northside did a spread, WLR and Sunshine Radio wanted to chat – we were on a roll! I kept the retailers in the publicity loop and the orders trebled in a month.

I began focussing on the library and school network next. Dublin South Libraries booked me for two presentations to 90 schoolchildren in Tallaght and Lucan. Initial butterflies subsided and I loved every second. Through my friends, presentations at an Educate Together School, Rathdown Primary, Abbeyside NS and Scoil Garbhain followed. I wanted to meet more children so I put together a database of libraries and began to email them. Soon, I had an avalanche of library bookings matched by continual orders from school book and library suppliers.

In early May, the influential Children’s Books Ireland published the first ‘Bridget’ review and my heart sang! I did an in-store presentation in Easons Dungarvan in June and they sold 150 books. Autumn saw me read at the launch of the MS Readathon. By mid September, I’d been booked to present werewolf and young writer workshops to 700 children in 23 city and county libraries and schools. The orders continued to come particularly after ‘Bridget’ got a stunning review from Niall MacMonagle in the Recommended Reads Guide 2012.

Today, the sales grow. Easons just re-ordered for the 7th time and last week Trinity College showcased ‘Bridget’ to 100 children. It is a hard slog to succeed at self-publishing and there are times when I wish I had the support of a publisher if only to ensure shelf space in the bigger stores. Getting your paperback noticed and purchased without a publisher requires monumental determination and focus. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned but for Books two and three of the ‘Bridget’ trilogy, I would love the support of an international publisher. So come on publishers, a building ‘Bridget’ market is waiting for you!

Maura Byrne lives in Dublin, Ireland with her husband, her two teenage children and her dog. Her writing life started early when she wrote, directed and starred in her first play at age 9. The play went so well the school principal gave the cast a massive Easter egg as a prize. Unfortunately for Maura she was at the dentist that day and by the time she returned, the cast had eaten the lot! A ferocious reader, Maura loved being transported into strange worlds with unusual characters. She had four brothers after all and getting away from them was essential. When she wasn’t reading she was making forts, rubbing doc leaves onto her nettle-stung legs, playing piano, dressing as a tom-princess and watching episodes of ‘Black Beauty.’ Her favourite childhood book is still ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.’ When she grew up, Maura studied marketing and later created an exhibition for parents and children. It turned out to be a good idea because 30,000 people came. Of course Barney the Dinosaur was also there. – Maura was the first person to bring this purple   Jurassic creature to Ireland. But writing was still in Maura’s heart and a few years ago she started writing again. She has written lots including two more books about Bridget the reluctant werewolf and her world of nutty friends.

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What children are saying about Bridget in Werewolf Rehab:

‘I give Bridget in Werewolf Rehab 10 out of 10. My favourite character was Annabel.’ Shona aged 10

‘I absolutely love this story and that there are so many characters and they are all so different.’ Jennifer age 11

‘This book kept my imagination going. It is full of excitement.’ Tianway aged 10

‘This is an excellent story and there is a lot going on.’ Aoife aged 10

‘I think it is a well written book and I love magical creatures. My favourite character is Bridget.’ Caitlin aged 10

‘I give it 99 out of 100. Good work.’ Thomas aged 11

‘I love Bridget. Her character is so interesting. I love that she owns her own website called Howlo. The boat race was so funny when Horst farted and Werner couldn’t talk. I think it is so sad when her Dad died.’ Esther aged 10

‘I think this book is cool and exciting. It is a good mix of adventure and courage. I love vampires and werewolves.’ 10/10 Erin Kelly

 

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Mia Gallagher on charactersiation

Mia Gallagher
To  me, characterisation is the art of developing, portraying and using characters to tell a story. The three things all work together. You can spend time developing great characters but if you’re not using them well in a story, you’re missing a trick. It’s really important to get it right. Characters  are at the heart of most excellent fiction and drama. We are storytelling animals and most of our stories are about us – humans. Even stories about robots (WALL-E) or other animals (Paul Gallico’s wonderful cat novels) are really about people. John Berger says we can never fully understand other animals, because after a point, communication with them is a mystery. But we can to some extent  understand ourselves – how each of us ‘works’, what makes us tick etc. If  characters are ‘right’ – by which I mean plausible – the story will come alive. If characters aren’t developed or working well, they can read as wooden, dead,  stiff or just plain implausible. Characters are the hook to most stories. If a character is implausible we won’t bother investing in them and we’ll give up on the story. If a character is wooden or ‘dead’ we’ll get bored and likewise give up on the story. If on the other hand a character is plausible, no matter how reprehensible their actions are (think of classic villain or flawed  protagonists, e.g. Milton’s Satan), they will endow the story with believability and we (the reader/audience) will want to keep with it.
What writers need to know about characterisation:
  •  It takes time and work to get characters ‘right’.
  • The only character you can fully know is yourself and even then there will be gaps in your knowledge.
  • If you can learn to map or extrapolate what you understand about yourself o  fictional characters you will find it easier to create tense, compelling and believable stories.
  • The more time you spend on a character the more they will reward you – often by giving you a great story.
  • It takes time and work to get characters ‘right’ – but it’s fun too!
jackmagsSome  examples of ‘brilliant’ characterisation and why:
    • I loved the narrator in Richard Ford’s Canada because of his voice – tender, wise, battered a little by life but always remaining curious and open about the people he’s met along the way.
    • I think Gollum is a beautiful creation because of the conflict between his vulnerability and his savagery.
    • Jack Reacher by Lee Child (the book version) is a brilliant hero; heroes are constructed in a slightly different way to other characters and child manages to create an original yet archetypal Wandering Avenger out of Reacher.
    • Another Jack that I love is Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs who is a riff on Dickens’ Magwitch from Great Expectations – like Gollum he can be brutal bordering on savage but he’s also tender and compassionate – and very clever.
    • With female characters I find it harder to think of them as ‘brilliant’ because I  identify with them more – I’m not so analytically aware of them, it’s more like I feel I am them or want to be them. Some fictional women whose skin I’ve really enjoyed living in include Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, Becky Sharpe, George from the Famous Five, all of Angela Carter’s wild girl female heroes, Kate Mosse’s female freedom fighters in Citadel (especially the flawed Lucie), Kate Atkinson’s Ruby (Behind the Scenes at the Museum), Zoe Heller’s narrator in Notes on a Scandal, Tolkien’s Eowyn in LOTR (the book version of Eowyn more so than the film one). I guess what they all have in common is that they’re active protagonists and none of them are ‘all good’– even Jane Eyre who appears meek is  fiercely intelligent and makes brave choices about her destiny at a time when this would have been extraordinarily difficult. I also identified a lot with Damon Galgut’s gay narrator in In a Strnge Room and with Ian McEwan’s Briony in what I think is his masterpiece Atonement; again it’s their flaws that grab me. And I loved all of Donna Tartt’s characters in The Little Friend. They all belonged so richly in the world she created and even the venal antagonists showed real vulnerability in a plausible way.

What  the course will cover

hellfireI’ll be introducing participants to a range of tools for unlocking characters so they can develop richer, fuller and more believable people to populate their novels, stories and drama. To do this we’ll be looking at characters from the outside (how they look, talk, move, behave) and from the inside (how they feel & think). We’ll be looking at voice, secrets, complexity, desires, fears and conflict, both inner and outer. I’ll also be introducing tools for using characters in stories – how do you get the most out of characters and allow them in turn to get the most out of story elements like plot and structure. This to me is equally as important as developing characters in themselves. I would love participants to bring to the course characters they are already working on and feel they are having problems with – like real people, the hard-to-access characters usually offer amazing rewards in the end. But it’s also suitable for people who feel they find character work challenging generally. I’ve run this course before but over a shorter period (one-week or a  weekend). I’m really looking forward to working with participants over a longer timeframe as I believe it will really help integrate the work into each person’s writing process generally.

Writing Great Characters with Mia Gallagher runs from 7th February to 11th April: Thursdays 6.30pm-8.30pm. The course will introduce participants to skills and techniques for developing and understanding characters. What they are, how they sound, how they think and feel, what they want and how you can work with them to bring your stories more vividly to life. The course will employ writing exercises, theatre games and a high level of feedback and dialogue. Participants are urged to bring along any particularly recalcitrant, difficult or inaccessible fictional characters they might be working on.

Mia’s short fiction has been published in the UK, US and Ireland; it has won and been shortlisted for many awards, including the START Chapbook Short Fiction award and the Fish, Hennessy and William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen Awards. Her debut novel HellFire (Penguin Ireland, 2006) was critically acclaimed and received the Irish Tatler Literature Award. An extract from her second novel Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Literary Imagination (Oxford University Press).  In September 2012, The Trick and Burning Love, two of her adaptations of classics from the French Grand Guignol repertoire, were directed by Ciaran Taylor (Carpet
Theatre) for Absolut Fringe. Mia has also worked as an actor, appearing with many companies in Ireland and abroad. Most recently she played Rosamund Jacob in Des Bell’s docudrama The Enigma of Frank Ryan (TG4). She has been facilitating writing and drama workshops since 1999 and has been professionally critiquing and editing fiction, drama, non-fiction, broadcast documentary and corporate and educational media and text for over twenty years.

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