Category Archives: Bestsellers

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

Telmetale Bloomnibus, the e-book, streaming live around the world!`

ulyssesTo celebrate Bloomsday we asked 18 writers to bring Ulysses into the 21st Century. As Joyce once took inspiration from the texts of Homer, the writers have taken the 18 episodes or chapters from Ulysses and transported them to modern Dublin. They have each written a story inspired by a title from Ulysses and will perform them in the Irish Writers’ Centre on the 14th of June. Stories will be told through prose, poetry and song. The only rule we gave the writers is that the stories cannot mention Ulysses, The Odyssey or Joyce (though inspiration from the texts is allowed).  The stories are all original pieces of work set in contemporary Dublin. Guided by love, lust, alcohol, drugs and ever present moons, our heros and heroines battle scangie-gangies in Adidas, hooded drug pushers, administrators, chauvinist school principles, tourists, junkies, priests, giant cannibals and catholic computers. Pissheads riding the storm. We wake up handcuffed to beds, sanitary towels on the kitchen table; we encounter a Dublin where stealing laptops is the new stealing bread. A Telmetale Bloomnibus embraces both the beautiful and the obscene.

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Click on pic to buy the book!

When Joyce first started writing Ulysses 99 years ago the landscape of the city was very different from today. Globalisation, technology, independence, women’s rights, church scandals, Starbucks, Ryanair, Google and other such things have, in many ways, created a new city. But with all of these changes one thing has remained constant, high quality writers are constantly emerging. Writers that burst boundaries, challenge our perception. A Telmetale Bloomnibus celebrates Joyce by showcasing some of these writers and captures the modern landscape.

A Dublin of: HIV, Hep C, KFC, Twitter, Facebook, The Late Late, Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium, the Pantibar, the millennium spire, Madigans, The Gathering and Viking Splash Tours.

You can buy the e-book by clicking on the pic, and you can watch the event streamed ‘live’ thanks to our partners at Breac via this link from 7pm tonight.

Line-up in order of appearance:

Pat Boran, Colm Keegan, Jane Clarke, Niamh Boyce, June Caldwell, Steven Clifford, Christodoulos Makris, Jude Shiels, Jack Harte, Maire T Robinson, Emer Martin, Niamh Parkinson, Deirdre Sullivan, Graham Tugwell, Alan Jude Moore, Oran Ryan, Doodle Kennelly, Nuala Ní Chonchuir.

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Filed under Benefit Reading, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Dublin Event, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, James Joyce, literature, Ulysses

Niamh Boyce’s Blog Tour, all aboard!

niamhboyce

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

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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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, courses, Creative Writing, creative writing course, Irish Writers, Irish Writers Centre, literature, new writing, novels

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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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Irish Writers, Irish Writers Centre, Lunchtime Readings

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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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, courses, Creative Writing, creative writing course

The art of the short novel


Often criticised for stories that swerve uncomfortably close to truth, and yet hailed as a master of historical research, Eoin McNamee is one of those writers who never fails to cause a stir with his tales of dark, damp menace. The New York Times describes McNamee’s style as ‘refreshingly taut and spare, full of active verbs…He does not describe what his energetic characters are doing. He just lets them do it’. Eoin himself admits to having a strong interest in ‘people who have been corrupted,’ that this is what often drives his fiction. “My purpose as a writer is not to be controversial, it’s to explore themes and narratives…I draw things very close to me when I write and often emerge blinking into the sunlight”. For the next ten weeks he will be teaching a Writing The Novella course at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Monday evenings until 25th March. Here he answers a few strategic questions on the art of writing the short novel and why the term ‘novella’ is in need of overhaul:

Orchid BlueSome of your novels, ranging from Resurrection Man to the The Blue Tango, are novelised versions of real life events, i.e. the Shankill Butchers and a pre-Troubles murder and fitting up of an innocent man. What are the pitfalls on basing fiction on factual events, and how close can you come to falling into what is known as ‘faction’? I’m still waiting for the ground to open under me, for someone to produce the definitive argument against the form, but it hasn’t happened yet. Defamation can be an issue. There is a moral dimension to entering other people’s lives and writing about them. I’ve always been wary about getting on an artistic high horse and claiming some kind of special pleading on the basis of art. I’d prefer to say that I’m drawn to these stories, that  I want to write about them and I’m a writer not a priest and am prepared for messy compromises and sins of intrusion into other people’s lives if it gets me a good book at the end of it. If there is a wrong involved, and there may well be, then that’s my business.

There are lots of novels that deal with the Northern Ireland Troubles such as your books (see above) and The Ultras. However, while many authors deal with individual incidents or ‘spots of time’ in the conflict, there are no contemporary authors that have done the ‘fictional grand sweep’ of 1969-1994. There’s no War and Peace, no Life and Fate, covering a range of characters and their stories over three decades of war. Is this overdue? Or is it even necessary? There’s no rule that says that events get the art they need or deserve. If someone wants to approach what happened in the North the manner of War and Peace, then you’d have to see how good the work is. Whether people would need it or not….I’m not sure that explaining things back to people is a function of fiction. I’m sure you could find the stories though – there was plenty of epic going on.

loveinhistoryWith the novella, can you define its difference from the short story and the full-blown novel? As far as I can make out the novella is simply a short novel. Or at least it should be. It doesn’t require the precision of the short story, the formal demands that put the story somewhere between a poem and a film script. In a short novel you can veer off course a little, digress, even slip up here and there. Let’s say it bears more resemblance to the novel than it does to anything else. Perhaps the problem of definition lies somewhere with the word novella itself. It sounds like something fragrant and a little racy that you’d find lying on the chaise longue in a Victorian lady’s parlour. Maybe we need a better name for the form.

Does the novella lend enough space and time for key characters to ‘fill out’ both psychologically and in terms of the narrative? Depends what you mean by filling out. You can define a character in a sentence or in a hundred pages. What more would you want to know about any character in The Dead for instance? (A short story) Or the old fisherman in the Old Man and the Sea? (A novella). What more story would be needed?

What is your opinion on experimentation with the prose form? Is it mere literary pretentiousness and showing off? Should writers stick with telling stories? The only criteria for judging technique is whether it works or not. As for defining what works, you pretty much know it when you see it. It would seem that there are limitations on what can be done in the prose form and that invention has run up against the buffers. But maybe asking questions about experimentation is missing the point. I admire people who can tell stories but what I’m drawn to are how wide open a writer’s eyes are, how they see the world and then tell it.

Your course Writing The Novella at the Irish Writers’ Centre kicks off on Monday 21st January, what will it entail, how will it be taught? It will involve I imagine a bit of discussion about what the novella is,  and then all the other things which go towards any piece of prose fiction. Story, prose technique, dialogue, character…It would be good if participants have a bit of work at the start to work on, and hopefully have added to it at the end of the course, but people shouldn’t feel under pressure. If participants come away feeling like better writers, and I have helped them towards that, then we’ll all have reason to be pleased.

eoinmcnamee_mediumEoin’s ten-week workshop starts next week and is aimed at people who are working, or thinking about working towards completing a novella, those who have started a short story that looks as if it might outgrow the limits of the form, or a novel which may not fit the conventional length. It will be less concerned about the technicalities of what the form might be, and more concerned with getting words on paper, and hopefully having something to show at the end of the workshop. He is the author of fifteen novels including Resurrection Man (released as a film in 1998), Booker nominated The Blue Tango12:23 paris and Orchid Blue, and the novellas the Last of Deeds (shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize) and Love in History. He was awarded the Macauley Fellowship for Irish Literature in 1990 and is Writer in Residence at Trinity College Dublin for the Hilary term, 2013. He lives in Co Sligo.

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Janet E. Cameron on bagel-hating ghosts, novel writing and cinnamon toast

Writers are often said to have something ‘missing’ from the sane storehouse of life, but paradoxically have also something ‘added’ in terms of perception – the ability to scrutinise human behaviour and the connections between people and events. Where are you on the scale? What persuaded you to write? It’s true that a lot of writers have something socially weird about them, and I’m no exception. I was extremely shy as a teenager – still find other people a bit mystifying. As for what persuaded me to write…well, from the time I could read I thought stories were the best thing on earth, and the idea that they actually came out of a person’s head seemed like a miracle. So I’d find myself trying to imitate my favourite authors, with mixed results. 

What makes your heart fly? The cliff walk at Howth, and the woods on the North Mountain in Nova Scotia. I’m happy when the writing’s going well, grouchy when it isn’t.

A book that made you cry? After I read Skippy Dies I walked around feeling like I’d been punched in the chest for about a week. Also the scene in The Brothers Karamazov where Alyosha has a dream about Zossima in heaven. That always gets me for some reason.

Your working day, bring us through it? If I don’t have to teach, I’ll get up around seven or eight, spend some time getting coherent, and then go to my desk in the study/laundry room and work for three or four hours. The afternoon’s mostly a write-off because my brain’s fried by then, so I’ll do errands and housework, and then I’ll fall asleep for an hour around four or five o’clock. Then if it’s not my turn to cook, I’ll get in a few more hours before supper and a few hours after. I’m the most boring person on earth, in other words. And I get very antsy if anyone messes with that nap.

Strange avoidance strategies that pull you away from writing? For a while it was baking: bread, pies, cakes, muffins, bagels, pizza dough, pasta, gingerbread…when I finally got serious about the writing I lost a lot of weight.

Originally you wrote plays, how did you make the switch to fiction? The switch actually happened because I couldn’t find any night classes in writing drama after I moved to Dublin, and at that point I was still dependent on taking courses for motivation. So I decided to try stories like everyone else, and I found it was a lot less constraining. Sometimes I still write in dialogue and stage directions when I’m taking down ideas quickly, and I think the bits that work best in Cinnamon Toast were first written almost as play scenes and then I filled in the blanks with descriptive loveliness.

Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is your first novel which will be published by Hachette Ireland, what is it about? It’s about a bright, restless kid named Stephen who lives in a small town in rural Nova Scotia in 1987 and is counting down the last three months of high school so he can escape. But he realises he can’t leave until he’s dealt with certain problems – the most serious being that he’s secretly in love with his best friend Mark. For a lot of the book he deals with this by not dealing with it, but events keep pushing him towards the climax anyway. Sort of like Hamlet but with more 80′s song references.

Growing up in Nova Scotia sounds positively exotic! Living in a cabin in Nova Scotia, moving to Vancouver, working as a teacher in Montreal, etc. Tell us more! Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Exotic! The town where I went to high school had less than a thousand people. Until I was fifteen there were only two TV channels and most of us ordered our clothes off the same pages of the Sears catalogue. The cabin was a geodesic dome built by draft dodgers in the late sixties, no electricity or running water. My best friend and I were going through a back-to-the-land hippy phase around 1991, so we just had to try living there. I’d wake up every morning, chop wood, make a fire in the stove to heat up some coffee, and walk in the woods for hours. We spent the fall there, September to December, and then the next year I went back on my own. After that I moved around a lot. The teaching degree in ESL made that possible. Seven cities in fifteen years. I just couldn’t seem to stay put. Maybe it was because I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do.

You were chosen as one of the 20 ‘winners’ of last year’s Novel Fair (this year there will only be ten!), what was the process like, what was the day itself like? I was very impressed with the organisation and planning that went into the day. All the writers had tables where we stayed with our sample chapters and every fifteen minutes someone new would sit opposite and chat, a good mix of publishers and agents. I’d expected it to be nerve-wracking, but to my surprise I found I loved it. Going back to real life afterwards was such a let-down!

How long afterwards did it take to get a book deal? The Fair was in March and I was contacted by Hachette in May with a request to see the rest of the novel. The offer for the book came through a couple of months later. But it didn’t feel like a done deal until August.

What are you writing now? I’m working on a second novel and have a very, very rough draft finished. It’s about a family dealing with the aftermath of a suicide, based on a play I wrote in 1996, and set in the same town as Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World.

Have you ever talked to a ghost? In college in Montreal someone brought out a Ouija board at a party, and we contacted a spirit named Zola who had nine kids. Nobody could think of any decent questions about the afterlife – so we asked him if he liked bagels. Zola told us it was a stupid question, which I still find difficult to dispute.

What do you hate most in life? Currently I’m a bit sickened by this whole culture of self-promotion: collecting people on Twitter so you can bribe them into being mouthpieces for your product, making yourself into a ‘brand’, building an ‘author platform’…barf. But, that said, I’m having fun messing around with my website lately.

If not writing, what else would you do/be? It’s taken me most of my life to commit to writing, so…no. This is it. It might be nice to be Robert Smith or somebody, but only for a few days.

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Janet E. Cameron was one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre inaugural Novel Fair in 2012 which gave writers the opportunity to meet with and present their work to publishers and agents. Her forthcoming book Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is set in a small town in rural Nova Scotia, Canada during the spring of 1987. The protagonist, Stephen Shulevitz, is a socially awkward seventeen-year-old who has less than three months before he leaves for college. As Stephen prepares for the rest of his life, he finds himself in falling in love with the wrong person and, just like that, everything changes. It is a quirky, subtly humorous exploration of burgeoning sexuality, growing up in the confines of a small town community in the 80s while trying to come to terms with who you are. Born in Nova Scotia, Janet moved to Ireland in 2002 after she met her husband, an Irish journalist, while travelling in Japan. In November 2011, she completed a Master’s of Philosophy in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin. She has been short-listed for the Fish Short Story Prize (2008) and the Fish Short Memoir Prize (2012) and has published an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for younger ESL learners (2010, Black Cat Publishing, Genoa).  She now teaches part-time at Dublin Business School and is working on her second novel.

 

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Experimentation, comedy and metaphysics: Mike McCormack on the short story

The Dublin Book Festival came to a close last night, with two of Ireland’s finest short story authors, Kevin Barry and Mike McCormack, in conversation with Sean Rocks, presenter of RTÉ Radio 1’s ArenaMike McCormack has published two novels and won several awards, among them The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His story The Terms (video above) from his collection of short stories Getting It In The Head was adapted into an award-winning short film. Mike’s new collection of short stories, Forensic Songs, was published earlier this year. He is currently teaching a short story course at Irish Writers’ Centre exploring several aspects of the short story including structure, pacing, dialogue, endings and experimental compositional techniques. Please keep an eye out on our courses page for more short story deliciousness in the coming weeks for next term. Meanwhile, here’s Mike’s interview from last night, with many thanks to the Dublin Book Festival team:

You grew up in the West of Ireland and indeed studied there. How much does the element of place infiltrate your writing? 

Place is fundamental to my work. It is the generative ground of what I do and I am speaking about West Mayo and Galway – the villages, the fields and bogs of Mayo are a huge part of my imaginative landscape so too are the narrow streets of Galway. I would like to think that this deep rootedness and immersion in this landscape enables me to explore universal ideas of the human condition. It is both fount and ground.

Do you think there is such a thing as a distinctive ‘Irish’ voice when it comes to fiction writing? 

Speaking for myself, I think there is. I hear it as a three part harmony of experiment, comedy and metaphysics. Bringing those three voices together in close harmony is what the Irish voice is about for me in Irish writing.

Your first collection of short stories, Getting It In The Head enjoyed much critical success and indeed it won the Rooney Prize as well as being voted book of the year by the New York Times. Did this help or hinder you in terms of writing after that? Was there more pressure to live up to what others had seen in you?

No, the difficulty in writing my second book had totally to do with the nature of that second book. My first book was the book of the ‘head’ and the second, Crowe’s Requiem, was the book of the ‘heart.’ As such it dealt with emotions and sentiment and I found at the time a much more difficult proposition than writing about themes of ideas and things of the mind. So in answer to your question, any pressure I felt was self-inflicted. However, I look back on the writing of that book now and see it as a crucial experience in which, for all its challenges, it deepened the reach and register of my voice.

Your second book did not get the fanfare enjoyed by Getting It In The Head and you said in an interview with Peter Murphy, the short stories were a product of the head, while Crowe’s Requiem was one of the heart. Did this disappointment affect how you approached Notes From a Coma?

No, not really. In my mind’s eye, I have always considered Getting in the Head and Crowe’s Requiem to be two halves of the one book, My third book, Notes from a Coma was always going to be a further exploration of the governing ideas and impulses underlying those two books but now within a more experimental idiom and framework – hence the marriage of science fiction and domestic realism and the whole Event Horizon construct. It is a book in which the reader is invited to be an active, constitutive part of an evolving experiment, to become an integral part of an authorship in which the reading of the novel goes some way towards mirroring the tides and shifts of consciousness itself. Notes from a Coma will be published in March 2013 in the US by Soho Press and it will be interesting to see how it is received there.

There has always been a kind of tension between the short story and the novel as a form- something which the likes of Anne Enright has spoken about at length in her editing of the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story a few years ago. You started out with this form. Was this a conscious decision for you or did you toy with the idea of debuting with a novel?

It was a conscious decision on the part of the short story to have me write short stories at the time. Ideas, in different times and circumstances, for me, present themselves in varying shapes and forms. The ideas in Getting it the Head came to me as short stories, the ideas of Crowe’s Requiem came to me as a novel, the ideas of Notes from a Coma came to me as an experimental choral piece of six narrative voices. Forensic Songs as a collection of short-stories, continues this experimental marriage of various voices and idioms.

You seem to have a strong preference in your work for a kind of magic realist, dystopian science fiction if I may be so bold! You also, in the words of New York Times reviewer Michael Upchurch, ‘flout’ the strictures of Irish Catholicism.’ Do you think this is a fair summation of your style?

Yes, all of those elements are present in my work. However, I have always thought that fiction was the work of a measured and sober realist who has due regard for the metaphysical and fantastical elements which underpin every moment of our lives. One fundamental premise underpinning my work is not the fact that we are alive as humans but the incredible fact that we are alive when the cosmic odds are so stacked against us being anything at all, dead, alive or otherwise. It seems to me that any comprehensive realism is bound to be inflected by this cosmic wonder or anomaly – the unlikely being of the individual human being.

You have been compared, rather favourably to Ian McEwan and Edgar Allan Poe. How do you feel about this? Are there other writers and artists who you would see yourself as emulating?

Poe as a short story writer and as a theoretician of the form would be a big influence. I have said it before all the ‘Bs’ have been inspirational, totemic figures for me – Ballard, Bartheleme, Borges and Beckett and of course a K, Kafka. Those are my Olympian figures.

You once said that the 19th century Gothic in Ireland is ‘critically neglected’. With the Bram Stoker Festival coming up, do you perhaps think it’s time to broaden it out to include the likes of Le Fanu and Charles Maturin?

Yes I do. It would be nice to see a wider, more popular appreciation of Le Fanu and Maturin. They were extraordinary writers and sensibilities.

Who has influenced you the most in terms of your writing?

In short stories, all the ones I have mentioned already but especially JG Ballard. It was he who showed me the short story as a place of formal and thematic experiment. In the novel, the biggest influence was Thomas Pynchon mainly because his work illustrated how the glitter and bric-a-brac of popular culture could be redeployed and considered as high art. Also, his introduction to Slow Learner was a hugely enabling piece to come across as a young writer.

If you could absorb any one element from another artist, writer or musician- be it fashion sense, creative style or bank balance, what would it be?

If I could redeploy Maradonna’s goals against England and Belgium from the ’86 World Cup as a prose style – that would be a gift worth stealing…

What was the first book to have made a serious impression on you?

At the age of nine or ten, after I stopped reading children’s literature, I read from my father’s collection of westerns. So many of those novels thrilled me but the one that really got me was Shane by Jack Schaefer. It is a brilliant story, beautifully written and a powerful enchantment to this day. I can still read the opening page with wonder. ‘He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. I was a kid then…’

What are you reading at the moment?

I am reading two novels. One is a thriller from Northern Ireland, Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast and the other is an experimental work from Hungary by Laszlo Kransznahorkai, Santantango. Two very different books but both very good.

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Your First Novel – Halfway There

Novels usually begin with an idea. Sometimes that idea comes fully-formed and ready to be written with a cast of fleshed-out characters whose dialogue crackles with wit and wisdom. If that is your experience, you may stop reading at this point and continue laughing all the way to your bank. If, on the other hand, you are now half-way through your first novel and wondering why you did not take up bog snorkeling or hang gliding as a less demanding alternative, read on.

Writing a first novel begins on a wave of enthusiasm. You are finally taking your idea and moulding it into words. You are putting flesh on the bones of  ephemeral characters, endowing them with personalities, voices, locations and a time frame for their existence. They are doing your bidding and behaving with the exactitude demanded by your plot … or so you believe until suddenly at the halfway stage you run out of steam.  A friend of mine who is an experienced novelist refers to this stage as the ‘belly drop’. Suddenly that taut torso you are moulding begins to sag in the middle and develop cellulite. But enough of the metaphors and on to the real problems that can arise at this point.

Characterisation is one area where writers can run into difficulties. You start off with a female character whom you envisage as having a meek, timid personality but every time she opens her mouth she’s lippy and self-opinionated. The hard man you created behaves like a pussy cat with manicured claws. The middle-aged woman drinking a bottle of wine every night is becoming increasingly recognisable as your workaholic boss and you have a vision of yourself leaving the libel courts, pursued by photographers.

A character, whom you secretly love more than the others (it happens), must display a behavioural trait that casts him/her in an unflattering light. Your writing becomes defused as you over-explain this behaviour in an effort to make it acceptable to your reader. You won’t succeed. You have to trust your reader to understand the many dimensions of your character’s personality.

The plot that began with a clearly defined path has trailed into subplots that meander off in different directions. These subplots are fascinating but are causing confusion and weakening your main story line. You struggle with point of view. Who is telling this story? You began from a clear character perspective but other characters keep intruding, demanding to be allowed their point of view. If you allow them this liberty, how will it affect the development of your plot?

The back story you hoped would flow effortlessly into the main narrative bulges like a rather distressing carbuncle every time you cast your eye over the page. Your dialogue is (a) clichéd (b) a reflection of your own thoughts and beliefs  (3) indistinguishable between characters (d) static and does not move your story along (e) so repetitive and long-winded that even you are bored reading it back.

You attend a publisher seminar and come away convinced (a) it is impossible to find an agent (b) it is impossible to find a publisher (c) erotica is all that’s selling (d) you must write to a specific genre and your book can only be defined as ‘unique’ (e) you’ve discovered that writing The End simply means you’re starting your second draft (f) the writer you most admire and hoped to emulate has just listed the structure of your novel as ‘one of the great mistakes made by first time novelists.’

You discover that a real-life event linked to your fictitious plot occurred a year after the time frame you’ve established and a rewrite is necessary. A true-life incident that acted as a catalyst for beginning your novel is hindering your story as if develops its own energy and direction. As a stronger narrative emerges, this incident has to be distilled into fiction, otherwise it will limit your novel’s imaginative scope.

None of these problems are insurmountable. They are part of the learning curve that you travel when writing your first novel – and will be explored during the upcoming course: Your First Novel – The Halfway Stage, being held at the Irish Writers’ Centre, Sat 17th & Sun 18th November: 10.30am – 4.30pm. €150/135 members.

June Considine (aka Laura Elliot) is the author of sixteen novels for adults and children. As Laura Elliot she wrote The Prodigal Sister and Stolen Child,  published by Avon HarperCollins. Earlier novels include When The Bough Breaks and Deceptions (New Island.)She has also ghost-written a number of high profile non-fiction books and is working on her latest novel. Her novels have been translated in many countries, including Germany, Holland, Russia and Italy. She recently e-published Deceptions by Laura Elliot and gained invaluable experience in the on-line publishing field.

Her books for children include the fantasy Luvender trilogy and the popular Beachwood series of books for pre-teens Her young adult novels include View from a Blind Bridge and The Glass Triangle. Her short YA stories have been broadcast on  RTE’s Fiction 15 series and have appeared in a number of teenage anthologies in Ireland, the UK and US, including The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Annual Collection.

Website: juneconsidine.com

 

 

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