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Playwriting at the Irish Writers’ Centre: a review


When the Irish Writers’ Centre asked me to pen a review of the playwriting course with Jimmy Murphy, I was delighted to oblige them. As someone who has wrestled with a career in freelance journalism for more time than I care to recall (well, it’s only been a few years but the black lines under my eyes tell a different story), the chance to write a first-person review was too good an opportunity to ignore. I didn’t ask them to put a profile picture beside my by-line, with me looking out a window posing; wearing glasses that I don’t have a prescription for and chewing on the neck of a pen with one hand while stroking my chin with the other. I didn’t ask them to do that, but I have dropped several subtle hints. Unfortunately, I now regret that I agreed to write it.

playwriteIt has been a few weeks since I said my goodbyes to my fellow classmates and shared a firm handshake with Jimmy Murphy thanking him for the two-day course. When I got home I started rewriting a one-act I have been jousting with for two years – you’ll notice a common theme of combat when I discuss my relationship with writing. I have not left its side since: forsaking sleep, food, drink and other things. Regrettably my obligation to the IWC has dragged me away from my brilliant script and for that I thank them. Really though, I’m very glad to have the chance to recommend such a course to people who might otherwise not have considered it.

Firstly, the Centre is one of the most beautiful, intimate places I have visited in Dublin City for some time. From the moment you walk through the door to the sad but inevitable moment when you leave it, you cannot help but feel inspired. I arrived on Saturday morning with all my many anxieties about playwriting and left them all behind me on Sunday evening. The class consisted of people who wanted to write something but needed to relieve themselves of the inhibitions which led them to do the workshop. In the morning we gathered in the reception area and had a chance to meet and greet over tea and coffee. I found that iwcdoorI wasn’t the only participant in the workshop who suffers from what I call ‘Manhattan syndrome’. The opening scene from Woody Allen’s 1979 comedy/drama features a writer struggling with the opening lines of his novel, which he rewrites a couple of dozen times. Some people have trouble finishing their novel, but a more common problem is starting it.

It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous. You stand up and say: “My name’s Mark and I cannot finish a play!” And then someone else gets up and, patting you on the back, tells you they have the same problem. And then the tutor, in this case Jimmy Murphy, tells you what you need to hear. Jimmy, in the first half hour of the course, illustrated the importance of finishing work before getting all perfectionist with it. You can’t, after all, fix a car unless you have a car to fix. When you start a play – and this is the part that holds many people back – you need to finish it. Jimmy put us into groups to work on a play together. This allowed the chance to share ideas with one another and see how we all deal with the writing process. A good gender and age balance in the group gave the class the insight to get different perspectives on characters from colloquialisms to mannerisms.

“How do you deal with this character’s feelings towards that character?”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I like your idea.”

This is a great way of learning the fundamental skills of playwriting.

Gathering around a table and listening to someone who has been writing plays for over two decades was an invaluable experience.  Jimmy spoke candidly about problems which have arisen in his writing and exhibited the techniques he used to correct them. Using his own play, the engaging Hen Night Epiphany, he went through the entire writing process from early drafts to the final published piece. He detailed how he first envisaged the story; how some characters were nearly removed from the final draft, down to vital scenes from the script so that all of us could apply his techniques to our own work. Nothing instils a young writer with greater confidence than hearing a published author discuss the transition from original idea to published work. Jimmy said he simply had the idea for the play and got to work writing it.

A scene from Jimmy Murphy's play 'Hen Night Epiphany'.

A scene from Jimmy Murphy’s play ‘Hen Night Epiphany’ © Irish Theatre Magazine

Jimmy introduced techniques he used when certain characters were giving him trouble. He showed us a scene from his play done two ways: as a conversation between characters and as a monologue. Both told the story but it was obvious which did so more effectively. This served to show how there are so many ways to advance your characters and, indeed, get a better insight into their relationship with the other characters. He encouraged us to take characters that proved troublesome out, put them by themselves and write out what they want to say. Then bring what they have to say back into the play, turning monologue into dialogue. This practice advances the characters; who and what they are and exactly how they are feeling about the situation they find themselves in.

When we broke for coffee I found that other classmates were gaining confidence and had a better understanding of the writing process. We all agreed that if the class was to end prematurely we could at least take comfort from being able to get home and work on our respective plays. A weekend course might sound like very little time to learn anything of significance but the pace of the course, the constant, confident nature of its structure proved enlightening. It reignited excitement, an enthusiasm which informs the greatest creative thinking and leads to better creative writing. It’s all constructed in such a way that you go home with the confidence to say, “Wow, I know what I’m doing now. It makes sense.”  In my case I realised what was getting in my way was myself and my own anxieties. Others realised that they were on the right track. Some brought in work to be read out aloud as the class acted as an audience. When you hear other people react to your work it helps you see where you might be going wrong.

If you do take a course in the IWC try to show up early for class as the collection of books in the reception might take your attention as does the art scattered around the building, it’s well worth a good look around. I will be making a point of dropping in for a cup of tea and a goo at the shelves more often. I texted a friend when I left the centre that Sunday. He had recommended the course to me and I had to sum up my thoughts to fit a text: “Just home after what was an excellent weekend. Very enjoyable, informative and most beneficial. Thanks a million.”

MARK FOR BLOGIf only all reviews could be so brief.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. I’m going back to my baby and I might not be out until summer.

**Mark works in communications and PR. He is involved in local dramatics, is a keen theatre-goer and blogger of unpopular, serially-contrarian opinion. He also likes to read and write and basically do anything that doesn’t involve lifting heavy things.

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One writer’s metaphorical graveyard


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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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.


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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What Good is Poetry?


“Poetry isn’t a branch of art, but something much more. If that which distinguishes us from other species is the use of words and language – then poetry, the supreme linguistic operation, constitutes our anthropological and, de facto, genetic goal. So anyone who thinks of poetry as a mere pastime, a common reading, commits an anthropological crime, which is, first of all, against himself”Joseph Brodsky

Before we answer the question, let’s look at some things we know about poets and poetry.

Poets, through necessity, often find themselves stranded in what is commonly termed ‘The Real World’. Poets, generally, tend to spend a good deal of their time either alone or in the company of other poets; so it sometimes comes as a shock when they discover that most of the general population pay as much attention to our collective endeavour as they would to new developments in Norwegian embroidery. Maybe less – there are embroidery magazines on the shelves in newsagents and supermarkets but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a poetry magazine nestled between the jazz mags and TV guides. In general then, people might actually care less about the activities of poets than Scandinavian crochet. Bear with me.

While it is astonishingly easy for any poet without a Nobel Prize, and who is not Paul Durcan, to move about Dublin without fear of being accosted by hordes of admirers, every now and then someone finds out what you’ve been doing scratching away in your Moleskins and hammering on your laptop for the last decade. I say ‘finds out’ because it is mostly regarded as surreptitious. It can seem at times as if people think you are writing poetry against your own volition and that, god willing, you’ll be free of it soon enough.

A few years ago a colleague where I was working came over to my desk and, in hushed tones, noted he had read a review in the paper of record of a book of mine.

‘I never knew you wrote poetry’ he said.

‘Well, you’re not alone in that but, by the way, there’s no need to whisper’

‘Okay’, he whispered.

So, although your work might be published and might have been reviewed here and there, it is assumed that really you hope to keep it a secret and people will go out of their way to help you in this matter. We all know, however, that keeping poetry books secret is not very difficult. In fact, shortly after being published most poetry books become very secret indeed.

As a rule, when someone asks about / compliments / derides your latest volume, they will ask you where they can get a copy. Having fielded this question for close to 10 years, I’ve decided it is because a) they find the idea that bookshops might stock poetry books, particularly your poetry book, outrageous and they need to check with you what sort of retailer would actually clog up the shelves with them or b) they’re fishing for a free copy.

If someone you hardly know happens to compliment you on your book just thank them sincerely and be on your way. To avoid the embarrassment of awkward silences, do not ask them what their favourite poem was or whether they liked this book as much as your last one. They may have only read the blurb on the back at the launch which they went to because a man or a woman they are infatuated with told them they were going and that there would be wine and when they have wine they lose all their inhibitions.

In The. Real. World. (especially in offices and at suburban dinner parties) you will often encounter the ‘know-it-all’, someone who tells you that knowledge is king but what they really mean is their knowledge is king and everyone else is wrong. They will use phrases like ‘grow some balls’, ‘bust their ass / fire their ass / something something asses’ and, of course, ‘keep it simple stupid’, because in the playground, if you call someone else stupid how can you possibly be? They dislike poets because poets are constantly finding things out but still claim not to know much at all.

Furthermore, you might be lucky enough to learn, as I once did, that you shouldn’t bother because ‘all poetry is shite’. The logic behind this statement, made in all seriousness (I checked), by someone with an MBA or something like it, was that it was inefficient, a waste of resources, to read something you don’t immediately understand. (Ipso facto much bad poetry is not necessarily shite. Now you know). Aside from the fact that it shows people can gain a post-grad qualification in Ireland and still remain wilfully ignorant, it inadvertently answers the question: What good is poetry?

I can’t recall ever encountering someone who has even a slight appreciation of literature, art or music who would reduce the world and all its complications to something as simplistic as whether or not it is efficient. Poetry is room to think, to consider things and to maybe – if we’re lucky – understand our condition a little more than we did before.

blackstatecarsWhy do we do it? It’s not for financial reward or celebrity. It surely doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that you won’t live off the proceeds of publishing 40-50 poems every few years. And the longer you do it, the older you get and the more people and places you know, you will, perversely, find yourself relatively less well known than when you started out. But like understudies in Waiting for Godot, we carry on.

We need it to locate – emotionally and intellectually – where we have been and we need it to help us find out where we are going, without having someone proscribe it to us. We need to know that there is a cohort out there scraping away in the margins, arriving at new ways of looking at things using the same language and the same words as everyone else. At its best, poetry can be a manifest of the possible available to everyone.

While a stint in the Writers’ Centre might not give you a qualification, you will definitely learn something. Back when I was studying political science, when Post-Soviet Studies was a relatively new discipline, our lecturer was asked a question about the usefulness of the subject by a student who had to take the course as an elective. His answer was simple and brilliant: ‘We don’t train you to do anything, we train you to think. Then you can do what you want’. I mention it here because it reminds me of the function poetry can have: it both trains us to think about things and is also the product of that thought. Reaching the end of poems is sometimes like finding answers to questions we didn’t know anyone had asked.

In these days of panic and hyperbole, waves of information from a media often wielded like bludgeons to see how much we’ll take, poetry – literature as a whole I suppose – can allow us to better communicate with ourselves, know more about ourselves and just as importantly, more about the person next to us. Poetry, while it can be collective, is never groupthink; while it can be a comfort it is not a therapy; and while often born out of one form or other of isolation, at its best it is liberating and inclusive.

alanjudemooreAlan’s course runs at the Centre from 28th January: Mondays 6.30pm-8.30pm: it is an eight-week course that focuses on the workshop; it will concentrate on writing, editing and reading poetry. During the course, participants’ will be given constructive advice on their poetry. They will also focus on creating new work, applying what they learn each week to their writing.

Alan is the author of three collections of poetry, Black State Cars (Salmon Poetry, 2004), Lost Republics (Salmon Poetry, 2008) and Strasbourg (Salmon Poetry, 2010). His work is widely published in journals and magazines including: Poetry Ireland Review, Cyphers, The Stinging Fly, Poetry Salzburg Review, Iota (UK), and Kestrel (USA). His poetry has also been published in Italian and Russian. He has been short-listed twice for the Hennessy Literary Award for New Irish Writing for his short stories. Black State Cars was the recipient of a Salmon Poetry Publication Prize for a first collection. He holds a degree in political science from Trinity College Dublin and his first publication was in the TCD literary magazine Icarus. He has since been published across Europe and North America and has given readings in Ireland, Italy, Russia, and the USA. In 2007 he was a featured poet at the Riflessidiversi cultural festival in Umbria.


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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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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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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.




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Make a living from feature writing

Feature writing unlike news reporting is multi-facted and can be, at a high octane level, regarded as a non-fiction art form. Writing news is usually subjected to a tried and tested formula: the Who, the Why, the Where, the What and the How. By contrast, constructing a feature is far less formulaic and allows the journalist/freelance writer more scope. Some extended features can be regarded as works of art in their own right. Take for instance James Fenton’s feature for the British magazine Granta on the Fall of Saigon. Fenton’s depiction of the last days of the pro-American South Vietnamese regime and the entry into the city by the National Liberation Front is as vivid, imaginative, evocative, moving and insightful in terms of Indo-China and its wars as Graham Greene’s great Vietnam novel The Quiet American.

The travel features of Jan Morris such as her great work on Venice are arguably as literary and time-resistant as Thomas Mann’s little, tragic-masterpiece Death in Venice. In terms of conjuring up a sense of place or a moment in time, Morris’ travelogues are as dramatic and compelling as the great novels where the city, the countryside, the jungle, the river are characters in themselves. Yet while ‘features’ do require a higher form of journalism than the crash-bang-wallop of news reportage there are some basic skills, hints and structures you can convey to students of the form. There are, in my opinion, at least four key elements a feature writer should ensure are part of the feature-framework. These are: a strong, throat-grabbing introduction; a sense of place and time; an appeal to the five human senses and, most importantly of all perhaps, an emphasis on real people.

The feature introduction is not a dead give-away of every important detail in the story. The ‘curtain’ is only partially pulled back for the audience, the reader is lured into the feature rather than in terms of news, given all the salient facts in the first 30 to 50 words. In a feature the writer paints pictures of a place and a time period with religious attention to detail. This is compounded by an appeal to the sight, to eliciting sounds, to describe the texture of a location, to evoke the smells of a street or a house or a battlefield or whatever. Crucially any good feature should be populated by people who are strong characters and distinct voices.

Obviously features based around a single interview, whether that person is a famous in-vogue celebrity or an ordinary member of the public who has done something extraordinary, should focus on not only what they have to say but how they look, shift in their seat, what they wear, if they smell nice (or foul), etc. The feature writers’ main enemy is abstraction! With apologies to the New Testament scribes, there are many mansions in the house of feature writing. These range from obituaries of the rich, famous and infamous to focus-style Sunday paper news reviews of the key events of the previous seven days.

This upcoming course at the Irish Writers’ Centre will cover the disparate elements of feature writing from the personal opinion column through to the sports feature. Ironically feature writing is becoming more important in the age of the internet, the blogger, the new media brave new world. As breaking news becomes more “live” and constantly updated 24/7 on websites as varied as The Guardian Unlimited to  there’s a demand and a need out there for longer, thoughtful, more all encompassing articles that get behind the headlines.

The explosion of online magazines for instance has created a new space for feature writers to ply their trade and sell their wares. For those working in related fields, for example public relations and communications, a solid grounding in feature writing helps them tell a non-fiction story through lively, detailed, colourful language that is devoid of jargon and babble. More and more in this world of techno-speak, truncated, bastardised text-lingo and meaningless dialogue, descriptive features with a human interest element features are needed.




Henry McDonald is the Ireland Correspondent of The Guardian and The Observer. He has been a journalist for almost 25 years and has worked for, among others, The Sunday Times, Evening Press, Irish News, BBC Northern Ireland and Channel 5 News. His articles have also appeared in GQ magazine, The Spectator, Welt am Sonntagin Germany. An author of seven critically acclaimed non fiction books he is a regular contributor on Newstalk, BBC Radio 5 Live, Newsnight and Prime Time. He has also covered a number of conflicts as well as the Northern Ireland Troubles including the Middle East and the first Gulf War. His feature work has taken in subjects as varied as an encounter with Hezbollah in Lebanon to the story of how the Good Friday Agreement deal was done just hours after the historic 1998 settlement was achieved. HIs feature writing course runs for ten weeks ans starts on 27th September: Thursdays 6.30-8.30pm. €280/260 members. To book a place click here.

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The chromatic art of screenwriting

We are thrilled to smithereens to have screenwriter Ferdia Macanna teach at the Irish Writers’ Centre this autumn. His new ground-breaking course: Writing for TV Drama and Feature Films kicks off on 3rd October for seven weeks [Wednesdays, 6.30 - 8.30pm] and costs €200 / €180 (members). It will cover: the basics of TV drama writing, how to develop plausible characters for TV drama and film, the fundamentals of dramatic dialogue, critiques on participant’s ideas, treatments and sample scenes, how to get a handle on story structure and plot and developing intriguing character arcs and situations. Places are limited so if you’re interested contact the centre early.

Screenplays break down roughly on the lines of scene, action, and dialogue. Let’s take the first of these. In terms of scene what are the basic rules of writing? ‘Get in late and get out early,’ is the best rule for writing a scene. Sometimes writers have difficulty writing or constructing a scene for a film or TV drama or short movie, mostly because of the visual aspect. There are two basic things to remember. A scene exists as an ‘event’ to move your story forward – i.e. it should be about something and it needs to have a purpose. The ‘event’ can be as big as a crucial moment in a battle between soldiers in Saving Private Ryan a revealing disclosure between lovers (i.e. why Ilsa dumped Rick in Paris without an explanation) or some kids finally freeing an endangered whale or it can be as small as a car driving down a street or even a knowing look between two apparent strangers. The other thing to bear in mind is we are writing for a visual medium – let’s ‘SEE’ what your scene is about, rather than ‘hear’ it. Film is a ‘story told in pictures’. It’s not a play or a novel. Only what we can ‘see’ or ‘hear’ should go into your screenplay. There are no internal narratives.

In relation to action is it a case of less-is-more? Is there a danger of someone coming from say, a literary background, being inclined to write too much direction? Does a novelistic background work sometimes as a disadvantage? Visual writing is important. It’s a new way of seeing the world. Once a literary writer or a playwright or a short stort writer or a poet gets the knack of writing for a visual medium, then I believe it helps their literary work as well. There is nowhere to hide in a screenplay. Anything that isn’t essential or crucial must be jettisoned. I spend a lot of time in my workshops on Visual Writing because I believe too many screenplays are dogged by long banks of descriptive novelistic prose or excessive expositional dialogue. Your scene can be beautifully written, contain lots of witty dialogue and demonstrate intelligence and flair but if it doesn’t move your story along then it has no place in the screenplay. Keep it visual. Keep the pace going. Free your imagination. Learn a new language and have fun with it.

In relation to dialogue, is there also a potential problem in terms of the character saying “too much”, spelling out the plot when an image, a fleeting glance, scene dissolving into another call tell the story rather than words from thelips of a characte(s)? You said it. Too many screenplays come across like stage plays disguised as films. I come at these workshops from the POVs of a director and producer as well as a screen and scriptwriter so I hope that I can steer students towards more visual, creative and effective ways of realising their story. Are there any templates of scripts/screen plays you would recommend the fledgling screenwriter to look at? The best book for me is Syd Field’s Screenwriting. It’s straight forward and clear and puts over the basics better than any other work I’ve come across. If you want a guide book into screenwriting, Syd is your man. Almost all screenplays are free and accessible on the internet. You should be able to find the screenplay of your favourite movie – from Casablanca to Dawn of the Dead or even Critters 3 – or sites such as Drew’s Script-O-Rama or – Simply Scripts. Reading produced screenplays is the best instuction for a budding screenwriter.

What in your opinion is the perfect screenplay/script? Casablanca is up there. But my favourites are The Third Man and the French movie, Amelie. I also hugely admire The Insider, As Good As It Gets. Walk the Line and American Beauty and anything by John Hughes particularly Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. I also love When Harry Met Sally and Four Weddings and a Funeral. And the Swedish film, Let the Right One In. I also have a huge weak spot for Zombie /Horror flicks and low budget trash. I don’t want to mention Napoleon Dynamite but I will. There, I’ve mentioned it.

Who are yourfavourite screenwriters and list some of the films they are noted for? John Hughes (Ferris/Pretty In Pink/’Breakfast Club). Eric Roth (The Insider). Epstein Brothers (Casablanca). Anything by Walter Hill, John Carpenter, Nora Ephron, Kathryn Bigelow and John Hughes. I also like Charlie Kaufman who along with Tarantino, has probably the most recognisable ‘voice’ in modern cinema. The most exciting and enjoyable screenwriter I’ve come across recently is the Irish writer Kevin Barry – he really has a style of his own and that’s a fiendishly difficult thing to achieve in screenwriting.

Do you think directors always make for good screen writers because [as you well know] some like to combine the two? Sometimes but not always. There seems to be a big emphasis on ‘auteurs’ in our culture. Not sure if that is always a good notion. I like to think that screenwriting is a difficult craft and possibly the most undervalued and unappreciated writing genre. Screenwriting is often collaborate, unlike say, novel-writing. It’s a tough craft to learn but once learned, I believe it really helps with other writing genres. It helps cut out excess description and it helps shape and present fictional characters.

Very few extremes. Too many unconvincing gangsters. I think we make very conservative movies at the moment and I’m not sure than Irish film-makers or producers think in terms of targeting an audience.

What is Irish cinema lacking in? Not enough comedy? Too much The Field style rural idyll drama? A dearth of urban gritty realism? Or should we expand our imaginations further? I like the look of Grabbers. I’m going to see it this weekend. I wouldn’t be a huge fan of recent Irish flicks. Too many boxes being ticked. The politically correct box. The intellectually correct box. Redemption buttons being pressed on virtually every character. Very few extremes. Too many unconvincing gangsters. I think we make very conservative movies at the moment and I’m not sure than Irish film-makers or producers think in terms of targeting an audience. We seem more focused on festivals and awards and that sort of thing. I’d love to see a situation where word-of-mouth attracts Irish cinema-goers to Irish films. Perhaps it’s a transition time. Irish films reached audiences at home and internationally in the 80s and early 90s with My Left Foot, The Snapper and The Commitments. Perhaps the success of The Guard will change things for the better. There’s no doubting the talent and the actors and our short films are superb along with our animators. Let’s hope we are entering a new era. Like I said, I like the look of Grabbers.

Would you like to see the great Irish sci-fi script-cum-movie? Absolutely. And if it’s a creature feature, I’d like a walk-on part please.

If you were to recommend one recently released film -either out on cinema at present or now on sale in DVD/Blu Ray – for your students on the course to watch and analyse what would it be? I would go for a classic like Casablanca. Everything you need to become a good a screenwriter is in there. The best TV drama I’ve seen recently is Breaking Bad. I would urge students to have a look at Season One. And to access the scripts online.

Some say one of the greatest modern British screenplays is Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I….do you agree? It’s brilliant, but it’s a one off. I just wish the writer would come up witty another wonderful maverick idea like that. But let’s be grateful it exits in the first place. It’s hard to get a film made and even harder to get a good off-beat indie flick to an audience.

Outline the key differences between screenwriting for feature films and TV? Feature film writing is particular – you have 90 minutes or so to nail an audience. Usually it’s a three act structure that stands or falls on the set-up (i.e. the first fifteen or so minutes). If the audience doesn’t buy the first 15 mins, your film will usually fail. TV drama is quite demanding. It comes in many formats including what’s now known as ‘the 8 act structure’ ) mainly due to ad breaks on US TV. I’ll be looking at both film and TV drama in these workshops. Most of the best screenwriting is now happening on TV drama series such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire or The Killing. Which TV drama-soap context would you like to set in an Irish context? Our stuff isn’t much fun. I’d like to see some really engaging extreme characters being created. An Irish Walter White. Or an Irish Cracker. Or an Irish Amelie.

What Irish book-novel would you love to dramatise on television? A really good question. My vote goes to City of Bohane by Kevin Barry. I’m also surprised that nobody has tried to make a movie out of Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home.

Are we in danger of following ITV’s route and putting on too many cop-based TV dramas? Dunno.

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