Category Archives: creative writing course

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 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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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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A dynamic new MFA in Creative Writing

The majority of ‘lit-interested’ tourists visiting Ireland seem to show a preference for dead distingué, while ignoring a very vibrant ‘living writers’ scene. How will the new MFA in Creative Writing at American College Dublin concentrate on contemporary Irish authors and what their writing can offer students? The historical legacy of the Irish literary canon is extraordinary. Still, its weight can be a burden in terms of the perception of contemporary literary activity. The quality of writing produced in Ireland right now is remarkable. The recent Guinness world record Read For The World marathon event at the Irish Writers’ Centre was a striking snapshot of the excellence and breadth of the work of Ireland’s current writing fraternity. Over a hundred contemporary authors read from their works and the standard never flagged. It’s not surprising. A quality standard has been established in this country over a long period of time. Much as it’s hard to get anything less than an excellent espresso in Naples, the expected writing standard in Ireland is such that the general quality is very high – and the best of it is world class. And the writing environment is great. You need only attend a book launch on any given evening in Dublin, or indeed a random event at the Irish Writers’ Centre, to be impressed by the vitality, generosity and enthusiasm of Ireland’s writing culture in the here and now. Without wanting to gainsay the glories of the past – indeed, much of the MFA is delivered in Number One Merrion Square, the childhood home of Oscar Wilde – the programme seeks to tap into the rich and diverse resources of the present Irish writing and publishing scene, in terms of teachers, engagement with the contemporary Irish literary community, exposure to a wide variety of writing styles and approaches, and access to current publishing industry players and trends.

Who will be teaching on the MFA for the first year, what are their credentials? The writing workshops will be taught by Sean O’Reilly and Mike McCormack, both of whom are highly regarded authors and experienced teachers of creative writing. Sean is the author of a short story collection Curfew and Other Stories, novels Love and Sleep and The Swing of Things as well as an experimental novella Watermark. He is also contributing editor to the literary magazine The Stinging Fly and has a wide range of contacts in the Irish writing and publishing communities. Mike was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1996 for his short story collection Getting it in the Head and has also published novels: Crowe’s Requiem and Notes from a Coma. He has been a writer in residence and teacher of creative writing at NUI Galway. The academic modules will be taught by our head of liberal arts, Dr Peter Sadowski and Dr Peter Rooney, both of whom have long experience teaching in the English literature field. There will also be a number of guest lecturers teaching on the publishing industry module in the second semester, among them agents, publishers, booksellers and publicists. The second semester also provides for master class presentations by a variety of well-known writers.

American College Dublin is a small University compared to most, but this surely has several advantages above some of the gargantuan institutions out there? The established institutions have many advantages over a small, private, not for profit college like ACD – vast resources, lofty reputations, the unswerving support of the state. But they are also, by nature, establishment-bound, conformist and conservative organisations. The state institutions have an internalised, inward-turning hierarchical culture that makes them genetically less predisposed to a programme of the sort we have developed – outward-looking, drawing heavily on interactions with the writing community outside the academy, open and reacting to the influences of non-academic prose practitioners and organisations. Make no mistake, the MFA is as academically demanding as any master’s level creative writing programme in Ireland. However, it does not limit itself to the confines of academia – it pursues an active and intimate engagement outside the walls of the academy with the current practice and practitioners of writing in Ireland today.

Could a compendium of courses by living Irish writers across many genres - the short story, the novel, artist as critic - make the point to the world Irish literature is not parked in the past but is very much part of the present? Exactly, that’s the point. The achievements of Ireland’s literary past are astonishing. We’re right to treasure them. We’re delighted to be able to deliver a creative writing programme in the childhood home of Oscar Wilde. But let’s use those historical associations as inspiration for new achievement, not huddle meekly in their shadow. There’s a richness of writing in Ireland today. Let’s celebrate that. Forget the robber bankers, the vapid ephemera of the recession, the gloom – writers and writing are building new monuments right now – ones that will stand long after the last ghost estate is bulldozed. We’re living in an exciting age for literary endeavour. This MFA wants to be a part of that.

Do you hope this course will allow students to see 21st century Ireland through a modernist prism, to observe a country not through the misty lens of rural Celtic arcadia and theme-park Paddy-Whackery!? There are no prescriptions on subject matter or interpretive approaches. The students’ themes may or may not be Irish, and the programme accommodates all manner of writing styles. The only thing that the programme insists upon is that the writing is done well. Having said that, students will be encouraged to develop material that steers clear of cliché, that is located in original experience and perception and reflects their own imaginative impulses. Some of that process may involve referencing of historical issues, popular imagery, popular culture. On the whole, the direction of the course is geared towards the production of material that is engaged with the writer’s contemporary concerns, rather than the creation of self-consciously canonical works.

The publishing industry and how writers are ‘getting their work out there’ is changing rapidly at the moment, so much so, it will be hard to apply the usual retrospective learning techniques to a module on publishing, for instance, how do you propose to overcome this? With difficulty! The pace of change in publishing is such that whatever you describe today will be different tomorrow. We’ll be using a team teaching approach on the publishing module in order to cover the gamut of publishing possibilities available. There are challenges in publishing as there are in all sectors of the economy. That said, the new technologies mean there are a lot of opportunities for getting work into the public domain. Alongside a full coverage of mainstream hard copy publishing and marketing in the programme, the class will also hear a lot from industry experts in present and emerging fields in electronic publishing, social media and the like.

How cost effective is the course for US students? Very. The tuition for the course is €8,000, currently about $10,000. Add accommodation and expenses for the year and return airfare and the total outlay is competitive by US standards for a master’s degree in creative writing – especially when you throw in the overseas experience in Dublin, a literary epicentre and as stimulating a city for the creatively inclined as you could expect to find. One important matter to note for US students – American College Dublin’s accreditation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education means the MFA, like all the institution’s programmes, is eligible for US federal financial aid.

What other resources and add-ons will be available to students during the year? The programme’s association with the Irish Writers’ Centre is the first that springs to mind. Although most of the classes will be delivered at ACD’s Oscar Wilde House on Merrion Square, there will be regular programme events at the Centre. Students will be members of the IWC for the duration of the course, and will be encouraged to be fully involved with its community of writers and to participate in its schedule of activities, such as the novel fair and publishing days. It may be whimsy, but we also like to think that the regular peregrinations between ACD’s campus on Merrion Square and the IWC building on Parnell Square will provide a stimulus for the students’ creative processes!

Would one of the key achievements of the course be the production of real material from students potentially for publishers…to have this course as a practical launch-pad for writing careers on both sides of the Atlantic? That’s the ultimate goal. First and foremost, we want to work with the students so that they are producing material that is of a publishable standard and represents the best of their abilities. Over those processes we have a lot of direct influence. The goal of publication follows on from those primary aims and, although we cannot guarantee publication post-graduation and have a limited influence over such decisions, the course will do everything it can in terms of technical instruction, advice, motivation and education in how publishing works to facilitate the students in developing careers as writers.

When is the deadline for application(s) and how can people apply? The course begins the week of 17 September. We will be accepting applications up until the course fills, which we trust will be before then! Potential applicants can ring our admissions office for guidance on the application process at 01-676-8939, or applications can be made directly online through our website at


June Caldwell in conversation with Rory McEntegart before the start of the new MFA. Rory has been with American College Dublin since its foundation in September 1993, serving as Lecturer in History until 2001 and later as Academic Dean. He holds a BA in History and Politics from the University of Auckland, an MPhil in Reformation and Enlightenment Studies from Trinity College Dublin and a PhD from the London School of Economics. He is the author of Henry VIII, the League of Schmalkalden and the English Reformation, as well as numerous chapters, articles and reviews in historical books and journals. His current research is concerned with Assertio septem sacramentorum and the development of the theology of Henry VIII and the culture of religious discourse in England in the 1520s. Rory was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2007.

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How to write a bestseller (with Sarah Webb)

Bestselling author Sarah Webb is teaching a Writing Popular Fiction course this weekend, Saturday 12th May. It will cover motivation, breathing life into your characters, plotting, point of view, dialogue, research, rewriting and editing. Places are still available. Here’s what Sarah has to say about biting the bullet and becoming a bestselling author:

Two months ago I spoke at the Waterford Writers’ Festival. The subject of the panel discussion was How to Write a Bestseller. The chair of the session, the very able Vanessa O’Loughlin from asked us to consider the key elements of fiction writing and what makes a bestselling novel: character, dialogue, plot, making your book stand out. Also on the panel were fellow popular fiction writers Monica McInerney, Sinead Moriarty and Niamh Greene.

It got me thinking about the nature of the ‘bestseller’. A bestseller is simply a book that sells a lot of copies, a book that has thousands of happy readers, all actively recommending it to their friends and family, and on Facebook and Twitter (which I think is the way most bestsellers are created – by word of mouth).

So I thought I’d jot down some of the things that came up during the panel discussion in case they are useful. And at the very end I’ll let you in on the secret – how to write a bestseller – as yes, there is a secret!

First of all: Character

We all agreed that creating big, interesting, real, lovable yet flawed characters is the key to writing good popular fiction. Monica McInerney said she creates her characters before plot; for Sinead Moriarty it’s the other way around. But when it comes to characters, you have to think BIG. Monica writes warm, funny family dramas; Sinead’s books tend to have an issue at the centre – breast cancer, anorexia, breakdown of a family unit – and she takes her research very seriously indeed.


Sinead said something very interesting – she said that you can write about anything as long as you do your research, which she finds very freeing. You keep reading until you know your subject backwards, she said. One of her books, Pieces of My Heart (about an anorexic teenager and her family’s struggle to help her get well again) took a lot of research and after the first draft she had to go back and unpick the chapters that were too research heavy and rewrite them. She was very honest and open about this, which I think was helpful for people to hear. Rewriting is a topic that came up a lot. More about that in a second.

But next: Dialogue

Niamh Greene talked about dialogue and how important it is to get it right. She reads out her dialogue and works on it until it’s perfect. I talked about how each character has to have their own way of speaking in a book, their own voice. If you are unsure about how to approach dialogue, read some of the masters – Roddy Doyle, Marian Keyes, Anne Tyler.


I explained how important it is to select a subject/setting that you really, really want to write about. It has to be something that fascinates you and that you’re dying to tell your readers about – eg zoo keeping (my latest novel, The Shoestring Club has a zoo keeper in it), the life of a young ballerina (Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze – now that research – in Budapest – was such fun!).

I always say there are two types of people, the planners and the seat of the pant-ers. Planners know where their passport is weeks before travelling, seat of the pant-ers don’t. If you’re a planner, you may need to plan your book. I’m a planner and I make detailed plot notes for every scene of every book. Now, often these change once I start writing, but I need the plot notes to start a book in the first place – it’s like my safely net in case I get stuck along the way. A book takes a long time to write, and you need all the help you can get!

Monica is not a planner, her books evolve as she writes; Sinead is a planner. We are all different writers, just as we are all different people.


I talked about theme, about how your book has to say something. At the heart of The Shoestring Club is a family secret and the book is about how a buried secret can have devastating consequences.

Julia, the main character, blames herself for her mother’s death – this is at the heart of every mistake she makes in life. And until she comes to terms with this, she will never live a full life.

What’s your book about?

Can you tell me in a few lines? If not, you need to work on your book’s theme. And this doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes the theme won’t be clear to you until after your first or second draft.


The difference between a published novel and an unpublished novel – the rewrites. Simple as that. Your first draft is just a starting point. Keep working on it until it’s a perfect as you can make it. Again, see my Write a Book Course for more on this.


You have to want to write more than anything in the world. If you don’t have this overwhelming drive and passion, there’s no point in writing. Marilyn Munroe once said: ‘I wasn’t the prettiest, I wasn’t the most talented, I simply wanted it more than anyone else.’ Do you want to get published more than anyone else?

Because that’s the secret. Motivation, tenacity, drive. And the willingness to be honest, to cut a vein and bleed all over the page; to write about things that scare you, upset you, terrify you. You have to dig deep. It has to hurt. If it doesn’t, there’s no point writing. Unless you have to write, unless you have a burning need to tell people about something that means everything to you, don’t bother.

I’ll leave you with these final words from Pablo Neruda:

‘For me writing is like breathing. I could not live without breathing and I could not live without writing.’

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX


Sarah Webb has written nine bestselling novels including Always the Bridesmaid, Anything for Love, and The Loving Kind. Her books have been published in many different countries including the U.S. and Indonesia. She has also written many children”s books, has contributed short stories to several collections including “Moments”, and has compiled and edited two charity collections of her own, “Travelling Light” and “Mum”s the Word”. She writes a hugely popular series for readers of age 10+, Ask Amy Green. After studying Arts in Trinity College, Dublin, Sarah worked in the book trade for many years as a Children”s Buyer.

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Why not to throw your novel away

I was half way through my first novel and like most of us, getting badly stuck. I’d been writing it in a bitty way for over six months, without any real discipline. I knew it was good enough to publish – I just didn’t know how to get the story tidied up and like a lot of us on our first attempt, I was rambling all over the place. Truthfully, I was just about to chuck it away and give up the whole sorry mess, but then I met up with an old friend for a coffee, the writer Conor Kostick, who was just about to start teaching at the Writers Centre. And Conor said, “You should do my course.”

Naturally, I resisted with every bone in my body. Going back to school was the last thing I wanted to do, I whinged. It was humiliating enough to be a failed novelist, without having to bear that in front of others who (I was convinced would be) brilliant and professional writers. I whinged some more.

“You should really, really, seriously do my course,” Conor said.

Of course, he was right. I hummed and hawed and eventually signed up, arriving late the first night – a sign of my fear and ambivalence! The others in the group were, I felt, streets ahead of me as writers. The last thing I wanted to do was to read anything aloud – and Conor made me do this, on the first night, a horrendously difficult writing exercise. I left the class, almost in tears, vowing not to return. But as Conor and I waited for the same bus, he gently suggested that as I’d paid the fee, I might as well finish the course. “But I’m the worst in the class!” I wailed.

“In that case, you should definitely finish the course,” he said.

So, yes, I did finish the course. By the end of the term we were a polished little group. I realised, after reading some more of my manuscript, that it was actually alright. Some of it was really good. It was publishable. From the feedback of the other writers I was able to quickly fix huge problems I’d been having – this is the major benefit of working in a group. Somebody else will immediately have the answer to a piece of bad writing you’ve been torturing yourself with, and you’ll cut blissfully to the chase. Joy of joys, by the end of that summer I had not only finished the novel but I had met a super group of friends, found a publisher, and had been signed for three more books.

I can safely say, that if I hadn’t had my arm twisted into doing that course at the Irish Writers’ Centre, I would never have become published. Like most people who have a yearning to write stories I lacked the professionalism and discipline to turn a story idea into a book. The beauty about working with a professional writer in a workshop is that you cut through a lot of time-wasting, and get down to the real nuts and bolts of what will make the story work. Now that I teach first-time novelists at the Writers’ Centre, I see the same problems that I had coming up over and over again – motivation to get the story down on paper, motivation to keep writing when everything else keeps trying to get in the way, and finding the confidence to just do it, just write it. Stop agonising over your words and write the story. Just write the story that you want to write.

Of course it isn’t easy. The most difficult thing, when you have set out to write, is knowing what to write. Then you have to know how to write it. Working in a group makes a huge difference. Working with a professional who’s done this before, who’s doing this all the time, can save you a lot of time wearing out the delete button.

I’d love to say that there’s a magic trick to getting your first novel published, but I guess that the magic is in taking a professional attitude (rather than dreaming that it will all just come together some day. . . ), and taking on the task.

Have the yearning and the love of writing. Learn the technique. Practice the technique. Practice some more. Get feedback. Use the feedback. Set goals. Stick to the goals.

Every professional writer will write in a different way. I plot first, write a synopsis,  then a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, then fill in the gaps . . .and then all of the plotting and chaptering changes as I write. Others start with character, and let the character drive the plot. There are no hard rules. But you won’t know what’s going to work for you until you try.

Learn from professional writers all about the publishing industry and how it works. Read as much as you can, watch as many movies as you can, learn from television, film, journalism, theatre, keep learning from other literary forms about how story-telling works. And then write the story. Write it down. Keep on writing. Write some more. Write the story that you want to tell.


Juliet is teaching a six-week course packed with fantastic tips on how professional writers write novels and get them published. The course, which runs from 1st May to 5th June is workshop-based providing a chance to share work with others and enjoy their feedback. If you’ve just started a novel, or if you’re just at the dreaming and plotting stage of novel-writing, this is the course for you. Classes will focus on character development, motivation, writing from the imagination, plot development, structure, style, genre and tips for approaching the publishing industry.



Filed under Beginning the Novel, creative writing course, Fiction, How to Write A Novel, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, Juliet Bressan, literature, new writing

Arlene Hunt on crime fiction

Your stories have been described as ‘dark and atmospheric, why did you get into crime writing above other genres? Without a doubt, crime fiction is my favourite genre to read, so it was natural for me to want to write it above all else. I’m trying to imagine attempting a romantic fiction or sci-fi novel: I wouldn’t even know where to start. Where would I hide the body?

There’s lots of talk about Ireland being more crime-riddled and dangerous since recession, has this impacted on how crime is portrayed in fiction? Is there? I thought we were pretty bloody before and during the recession, that seems to me to be era the gangs rose. It’s possible that lesser crimes like burglary have increased, but murder and other violent crime seems ever present regardless of who has what in their pockets. There are definitely more weapons available, that translates into fiction. Weapons and drugs.

How long does it take you to write a book? About nine months, a good old gestation period.

Do you interview sources or pluck the details & plots from the ether!? Depending on the book, I’d say both. I did a good bit of research for my last book, The Chosen, as it was set in the USA. I had to be very sure of my terrain which was essential to plot, and I had to learn how to operate a long bow and how to make arrows and so forth. It was very enjoyable. I read a lot too, hunting magazines, forensics, books on psychology, that sort of thing, but that’s a pleasure and something I would do in my spare time anyway.

Do you have any quirky habits when writing or a particular time of day when you’re most creative? I write in the morning (badly) and in the evening (fluidly), with the mid-afternoon taken-up with reading submissions or editing. I’m also training for a marathon at the moment, so it’s a pretty full day, with little time for quirks: unless you consider operating as a cat butler a quirk. I don’t. More a chore. Stupid mammals, not having opposable thumbs.

Are any of the characters based on people you know? Not really, most of the people I know are far nicer than the people who appear in my books. That said, if I met someone I actively dislike you can be sure they’re going to meet a grisly end amongst my pages.

You list your favourite authors as: Robert Crais, George Pelecanos, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, John Connolly – what do you particularly like about them? That they have the ability to combine good writing with escapism without losing credibility. I think it’s fair to say that you can read any one of their novels and come away with something you didn’t have before you cracked them open. The older I get the more I appreciate the skill and practice that goes into good writing.

Give us a writing tip! Read! Don’t ever stop reading. I cannot fathom people who write but do not read.

Your last book The Chosen was a departure from the QuicK Investigations, was it harder to write? No, but I had the story kicking around in my head about a year before I sat down to write it, which is unusual for me. It was kind of nice to stretch myself mentally too. It’s easy to get moored to one particular formula, so this was a nice break.

What inspired you to launch your own publishing company? I thought the time was right for such a move. It was a huge learning curve of course and many lessons were learned in the process, but I’m glad we did what we did; it seems to be working out for us with two titles behind us, and hopefully two more to come this year.

What are you working on now? A novel set here in Dublin about two children who run away from home to escape an abusive father and walk straight into a drug war in the process.

“Arlene Hunt may just be the best female crime writer to have emerged from these islands in recent years” – John Connolly

Arlene who will teach a Crime Writing course at the Irish Writers’ Centre from 25th April began writing at the age of 27, and produced her first novel, Vicious Circle, within the year. This book was eventually published by Hodder Headline at the end of April 2004. Her second novel, False Intentions, introduced two characters, John and Sarah of QuicK Investigations, who were set to become a regular part of Arlene’s work, and was published in May 2005. Her third novel Black Sheep was published in June 2006. Arlene’s 4th novel, and the third in the John and Sarah series, is called Missing Presumed Dead (MPD) and was published in June 2007. It was translated into Dutch and is available under the title ‘Vermist’ and is due to be published in Russian. Her fifth novel, the fourth QuicK Investigations book, is entitled Undertow and was published in Septmber 2008. It was nominated for Best Crime Novel at the 2009 Irish Book Awards. In 2009 Arlene completed her 6th novel, Blood Money, which was published in March 2010. It continues the QuicK Investigations series. Her 7th novel, ‘The Chosen‘ was published in October 2011. It is a standalone thriller based in the USA and will be published by Portnoy Publishing.

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Writing The City To Right

by Sean O’Reilly

The other week, scanning the bookshelves in one of those charity shops, in Dublin city centre, I had the uncanny experience of realising that a number of the books used to be mine. I’d moved house a few months earlier, shed a few boxes of books and here they were back again, resurfaced, broken spines, dead barcodes, some of the titles still hot and resonant of another time. I slid one out: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It was scalded by the evidence of my past in a note I’d made in a margin and I saw myself years back, an older younger self, still silently walking the streets of Dublin in the first days after arriving here, trying to memorise the street names, that book in my pocket.

I loitered around in the shop for as long as I could, checking out the ties, the DVDs, a red bucket full of watches, waiting to see if some punter might be tempted by one of my old books, that man with the blackthorn cane, that woman taking sly photos with her phone, and whether I would give in to the desire to follow them, the desire to end up somewhere new, out of my depth, stripped bare, ecstatic, to create a new path through a suddenly mysterious city. But nobody was interested in the fiction shelves that afternoon.

Outside on the streets I watched some men putting up posters for One City/One Book 2012 above the anti-household charge placards. This year it’s Joyce’s Dubliners. He fought the printers for the right to name names, to use the real names for real places. Johnny Rush’s, cab and car rental in The Sisters, The Shelbourne Hotel in Two GallantsThe Herald in A Painful Case, Brown Thomas’s in A Mother. This type of scrupulous realism was unheard of here and so was the guilt-laden psychological realism Joyce had learned from Ibsen.

It got me wondering about the contemporary city, and how in the writing groups I’m involved with, the question of naming always seems to come up, whether a writer should use the actual names of recognisable places. Funnily enough, it’s a question that only arises in writing about the city. A story set down the country, so to speak, is rarely as nervous about naming as an urban story. The rural story can rely on a sense of place, nostalgic perhaps, and usually created by vaguely animistic descriptive passages about landscape and weather that the city story turns away from, preferring instead to indulge in the naming of iconic sights in the city like the Spire, Connolly Station, The Grand Canal. It’s a small detail but symptomatic, I think, of a desperate straining to find a city we all share, a city we have in common, a visible city.

Maybe naming the names is not enough any more. Maybe there are so many eyes these days it has led to even more doubt about what is being seen. So many screens and portals nobody knows who is really doing the looking, the watching, or who is really browsing who? I’ve read that new writers are less interested in place than verbal pyrotechnics or that the crime thriller is the last hope for the realist novel now that the city is big enough to have a dark underbelly! Maybe, unlike Joyce, writers are wary of dealing with anything topical, having bought into the idea that literature and politics are a bad mix. Or does it just seem impossible now to capture the cultural complexity of the city, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the hybrid sexualities, the trafficking of languages.

One City is a PR touch-screen phantasy. We all have our own secret city, our private monuments and parks, graveyards and houses of pleasure, burning unnamed ley lines twisting from Clondalkin to Skerries.Maybe in our dreams it all joins up, like Calvino’s description of Zobeide, the city of desire. Founded when men from many nations came together and discovered they all had had the same dream: a naked woman running through the streets of an unknown city, each of them in pursuit, each of them losing her. These men decided to build a city just like the one in the dream but at those points where they had lost her, those intersections where she had escaped, they would make some changes, alterations, a wall here, no wall there, to prevent the woman escaping again. In time more and more men arrived and each of them made their own corrections. No one in the city of Zobeide has ever seen the woman again. Even the chase has been forgotten now.

Sean O’Reilly runs the Stinging Fly’s New Way to Fly Novel Workshop, which is now accepting applications for 2012-13. His published work includes Curfew and Other Stories, the novels Love and Sleep, The Swing of Things and Watermark  (The Stinging Fly Press). He has been writer in residence with Dublin City Council, Fingal Country Council and IADT Dun Laoghaire and has led writing workshops at Listowel and Cuirt. Between April 24 and June 12, Sean will also be running a short story course, Tales of the City: Short Fiction at the Irish Writers’ Centre. The course will focus on the challenges of writing short fiction about - and set in - modern urban environments. There are still places on this course – ring 01-8721302 to book a place. Thanks to The Stinging Fly for this interview.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, creative writing course, Fiction, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, new writing, short fiction