Category Archives: How to Write A Novel

Two courses, one writer, and a fantastic story

The Secret Son

By Jennifer Burke

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

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

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

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

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

One writer’s metaphorical graveyard

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By Lara Áine ni Fhearghail

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

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

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

It turns out, not really at the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, courses, Creative Writing, Eoin McNamee, How to Write A Novel, The Novella

Lawless on lawlessness

In the first of a new Irish Writers’ Centre members & alumni series we are publishing the first chapter of James Lawless’ novel: Finding Penelope. It is essentially a love story marking a growth in self-realisation in the protagonist Penelope Eames. It delves into the drugs culture and its associated criminality in Spain (where a lot of Celtic Tiger money wound up laundered), Ireland and the UK. “The prompt for the novel was from Cervantes (I have Spanish in my degree) and a motif may be interpreted as a sort of modern day parallel of Don Quijote’s attack on the proliferation of romance novels of that time,” says James. “As seventy per cent of readers are now female, I wanted to understand more of the female mindset. So I picked the brains of women I knew, including two adult daughters and researched contemporary women writers and books like Everywoman and I re-read with new female (or at least androgynous eyes) my well-thumbed de Beauvoir, Anna Karenina and Portrait of a Lady. Simultaneously, I was studying the crime culture on the Costa. The result was the character Penelope Eames”.

James has won many awards for his poetry and prose, including the Scintilla Welsh Open Poetry Competition in 2002. His first novel Peeling Oranges (2007), a paternal quest set in the Liberties of Dublin and Franco’s Spain, was highly praised by Gabriel Byrne. He is also the author of two other well-received novels For Love of Anna (2009) and The Avenue (2010), and an acclaimed study of modern poetry Clearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a way of seeing the world (2009). A debut collection of his own poems Rus in Urbe was published in 2012. He is a freelance writer and editor who has worked with The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, Sunday Independent and Poetry Ireland Review. You can contact James via Facebook, Twitter, or through the Contact page. You can also find out more about James at Goodreads, on LinkedIn and on his Amazon author page or James | Irish Writers Online and James Lawless at The National Library of Ireland  and James LawlessWikipedia.

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She hears the voice on the sand, gravelly and authoritative like that of her father’s. Press the button and reject, that’s me, she thinks, Penelope Eames, that’s how I feel, or rather how I’ve been made to feel over the years, by him. Oh yes, the former esteemed professor of Histology and Morbid Anatomy with textbooks and learned articles to his name, who couldn’t teach compassion or filial love. The early Spanish sun is lulling her, making her mull over things, things that she had decided belonged to the past now, to another country. The top of her left breast is burning slightly, the new red bikini being skimpier than her usual black swimsuit (she should have thought of that), and then the skin is more sensitive there after submitting to the knife. It was Sheila Flaherty, her agent, ironically who had suggested she go in and get the implants  –  her breasts were an average size. ‘Good for your image,’ Sheila had said.

She was reluctant at first, considering it a vanity to don the anaesthetic mask to undergo an inessential butchering of oneself (she never even put a tint in her hair, for God’s sake). Sheila had had the job done a year ago, transforming her into the well-upholstered blonde that she now is. And for what?

For men.

Yes.

It was then they discovered the lump in her left breast. Quite young for that, the nurse had said, and Sheila tried to make a joke of it   –  ‘you’re the lump out and I’m the lump in,’ and the nurse taught her breast awareness.

She hears the voice on the sand, the smoker’s huskiness reeking of pseudo-wisdom; he thinks he is the cat’s miaow. ‘Not at all, my dears,’ the voice (clearly English) is saying; ‘on the contrary, chewing your nails is good for you; rich in protein you know. If I could reach my toenails, I…’ Men, stupid old men, but maybe there is a humour there  –  who can account for taste? She looks up coyly from under her straw hat to locate the provenance of the voice: that elderly guy a few yards away with the silver ponytail sitting under a huge parasol in the canvas chair. He is holding forth with a bevy of young sycophantic beauties  –  just like him. Trying as he is to be youthful looking like a born-again hippie or something out-of-date, just like him, the slate blue eyes, her father to a T.

Except of course for the ponytail.

The fine fawn-coloured sand she slides freely between her fingers, letting go, easing her life. She is delaying. The sun has made her lazy. She should be gone back to the quiet of her apartment to work on that recalcitrant second novel, before the sun reaches its zenith. She knows that, and to avoid the sunburn. There is a sound of laughter. She can just make out through the rising waves of heat: grinning young males (is the broad bronzed chap one of the lifeguards? She thought she saw him earlier on his perch) and two females among them playing volleyball as she gazes up into the sun from under the awning of her hand (for she has removed her sunhat which was chafing her forehead). She hadn’t noticed the net before. There are shouts in Spanish of ‘Anda’ and ‘Ole’ subsuming the elderly guy’s utterances. The young men, in a veil of light and heat, are laughing at a monokini-clad girl who has just missed the ball. The putdown. What always emanated from her father. She wanted him to be proud of her as he was of Dermot, her younger brother, when he started on his science degree. Oh, such voluble praise. A scientist in the family. Mixing chemicals and potions in Quinlan’s Laboratories. How right, how prophetic he was. And earlier her first book which she stuck at, she was sure he’d be proud of; she was hoping  -  her first novel to be published  -  but all he did was wonder if anything could be done about it, her writing that is, as if it were one of his studied pathologies.

Her right arm is going dead from resting on her side. She turns. Svengali of the bitten nails is calling the girls in from the sun. They are gabbling in different tongues  –  mainly Russian she thinks  –  among themselves, and in strained broken English to him. ‘You’ll sizzle up, my dears, out there.’ She can see him clearly now as he looks this way and that, his ponytail bobbing like a pendulum. And the girls come running. And he sits on his chair like a king on his throne, his harem in the shade at his feet, and the blonde who had been playing volleyball without her top  -  the shameless hussy. It’s a different matter to lie prone demurely in a topless state, Penelope convinces herself, with the towel on the ready to cover for any required movement, but to flaunt oneself in such a manner at sporting males, and he talking about fingernails… really! The girls are ignoring the taunts of the volleyball boys to come and play; they’re concentrating on the mature man, positively drooling over him. Is he some rich dude? Is that it? They’re after his money, or maybe he’s a powerful film director  -  the chair after all in its canvas making could be interpreted as directorial. They’re looking for parts; that’s it, to be made famous in his next film. And the chrome-haired lecher pulls at the string of the nearest girl’s bikini bottom.

Her father always called for Dermot, never for her when he wanted something, whether to announce or to confide, he made his bonding with Dermot. Dermot, the scientist, the proud son, the drug addict  –  pick the odd one out. Oh yes, Father did not know. In a moment of pique and green-eyed envy, which occurred of course when he called for him, she thought of telling her father, of releasing the cat from its miaow as it were, and of revealing to him what his whitehaired boy was really up to all those purblind years. The cocaine habit that started after their mother’s death at the in-set college parties, the social round ofDublin’s elite (some of whom less canny are reduced like Dermot now ironically to the gutter). The mutual admiration society was what she called it, of all that talent and intelligence of neophyte lawyers and doctors and dentists and financiers, and scientists, a veritable whirl of brilliance in a newly vibrant country.

But he called for him, at the first sign of failing, for this junkie. It was like a dismissal to her, a rejection to one who had been tending to his needs all along.

All those needs. All along. All those demands. All her life. The best years.

And the last time Dermot came  -  Penelope had found him with the help of the drug unit in a down-and-out place: a lane, she can’t remember the name of it  –  Crow’s Lane, that was it, strewn with bottles and syringes and faeces and a pungent stench of urine which was trapped in the narrow street by overhanging buildings, so that, she mused, junkies would find their way home like animals by following their own smell.

Sometimes she wished her pain on both of them for all the years, not of material neglect  -  she was never left short in that regard  -  but for all the years of indifference. It must be the cruellest of wounds to inflict on someone, she considered, to do something unaware of or indifferent to the harm it would cause: to impose on one a habituation to worthlessness.

But   –  and she looks down at her wriggling toenails like a chorus to her thoughts  –  she is not worthless. She is a writer. She wrote to stitch the wounds, to seek affirmation from other sources. The great world out there.

She had her first story published in a teen magazine. ‘Shows a lot of promise,’ the editor had said. The story was about an orphan girl. What else could it have been about? she realises now looking back, indulging the warmth of the Mediterranean sun at its zenith now (cajoling her to linger). And then her first novel several years later, Smelling of Roses, a romance about the unfulfilled yearning of a young woman until she met the dark foreigner on a beach just like this one, feeding into what her father deemed the frenzied imaginings of impressionable females.

Men, she muses, as the waves beat rhythmically (she will venture into the water soon; she is sweating; she can feel the drops meandering into her cleavage). She was able to give up her job  -  her last job where she’d worked as a temporary tour guide in aDublinmuseum, after a previous disastrous sojourn in a bank and an earlier stint at Telesales. She had wandered through an Arts degree but did not know what to do after it; had no one to guide her. ‘Any dolt can get an Arts degree,’ her father said, and that was the end of it as far as he was concerned. In contrast, she remembers some of her college friends with their careers mapped out for them by doting parents; the sangfroid of those young women, she marvelled at, as single-mindedly they pursued careers in the media or the diplomatic corps or later appeared in the society columns marrying some rich lawyer or dentist.

She bought an apartment on the Costa del Sol on the recommendation of Sheila (‘Such a romantic country’) from some savings she had, abetted by the royalties of her first book and the advance for her next one. A sequel, well not really, but in the same vein, more of the same, that’s what they said, don’t change a winning horse. Another love story maybe with a bit more umph this time, yes that is what they said. She could afford to be more daring in this second one  –  it is the twenty first century after all, Sheila said, as if  Penelope were not aware of that. Not exactly a bodice ripper no, we’re not looking for that, but quality of writing and candour of expression, those are the things we are seeking in a novel for the independent woman of today, who is not afraid to venture forth et cetera et cetera. But there is a problem this time: Penelope’s mind is in a flutter. After all, the first novel had been completed before her mother had died and before Dermot really went downhill. A mind needs, if not a stability, at least the semblance of it to write. She is thirty three now, and has to think of her future. All the time previously, because of her father’s conditioning of her (she blames that), she thought not of what she wanted but of what men demanded. But not anymore. Better not to have got hitched at all than to painfully suffer afterwards as her mother had done  –  such acrimony, and she was a witness to it all. Penelope Eames had run the whole gamut of negative emotions before she left her teens, and without having to put a foot outside of her family home.

She feels a palpitation as Mr Nails folds up his chair to make his departure. It’s like she’s missing him already in a sick sort of way, her father who is waning now, she has to admit, no matter what. She is afraid of loosening chains. Wanting and fearing at the same time. How had she come away? In what manner? The stubborn defiant Go if you must of his followed by the demented Where are you off to? And he refused to go into the nice nursing home in Booterstown which she would have arranged. To let someone else look after him, to take her place. But he would have none of it. Always winning the moral battle, to make the guilt hang on her.

Mr Nails has folded up his chair, his flapping gaudy shirt revealing a Brillo pad of hair on his tanned high ribbed chest. He is moving away, the line in the sand filling in already from the mark of his chair as his seraglio disperses.

She must get back too. She will forego the swim. But how can she write? She has lost the thread. She does not know where Dermot is, her only sibling, her kid brother. She thought it would be easy, just a matter of coming away to leave such preoccupations behind her, but it’s not so easy, she realises now; for such thoughts can travel too and can find their own berthing. Dermot started his disappearance act after their mother’s death; he would vanish for days, for weeks on end, and then reappear out of the blue with his dirty laundry and expect her to skivvy for him, while he chilled out, just as she did for her father. She was caring towards Dermot; she accepted it in the beginning with her mother the way she was. Even to know where he is, no matter what travail he may be going through, it is self-inflicted after all. But it would be a relief; it would put her mind at rest, just to know he was all right, still on the straight and narrow where she had tried to place him before she left, for she could not in her heart have abandoned him callously in the condition she had found him in Crow’s Lane. She brought him to the drug recovery unit on Merchant’s Quay before he realised where he was going, driven there, she remembers, to the repugnance of the taxi driver. After a few days with her cajoling (the strain of it she still feels), and on a course of methadone, he slowly improved. She spruced him up in a tie and suit, got him a job, not the big scientific position, no, none of  that now, but part-time work in a Supervalu off-licence. She knew the manager there who had worked with her in Telesales. It was all a rush but at least it was something to keep him off the streets before she departed forSpain.

The day she was leaving, she gave him her mobile number and her forwarding address.

‘You’re fucking off on me,’ he said trying to make her feel bad, just like their father had done.

‘If you ever want to come over…’

‘Ha.’ The sneer.

‘I mean it, Dermot…’

But she didn’t mean it, she knows, as she looks out on the crystalline water.

No, she is not settled here yet despite the apparent tranquillity of the surroundings: the rolling hills, the lenitive evening beaches sufficient to provide the balm but not the longed-for obliteration. But she is only a few days here after all; one must give time a chance to exact its healing powers. Her skin has hardly changed colour; she is still pasty-faced. Who used call her that? Dermot yes, pasty-face, he used to say, and he ironically always more pale than her. She intends to stay a full three months, at least, what Sheila had recommended. And who knows she may stay longer. Who can tell? She may even stay permanently; after all who wants to go back to what she had left behind. But a full three months gestation period is needed to make inroads into a novel, Sheila had said, thinking it was her only reason for her move to Spain, for Penelope never revealed the intimacies of her family to her. Once that initial foray has been got over, Sheila told her, it can all be tidied up in gloomy old Dublinduring the dark autumn evenings. And ‘the bleak midwinter’, Penelope adds mentally, finding masochistic consolation in the sadness of a song. And she looks now at the Spanish sky and is dazzled by the light. But  –  and a panic seizes her  –  she has made no encroachment, not even the slightest indentation on that carapace of the imagination, and nothing to constitute the happy ending de rigueur for her publishers. ‘God knows,’ Sheila said, ‘there is enough misery in the world, without adding to it in our imagination. Write that blissful ending first, and then go back and recount the obstacles.’

So what am I to do? she wonders. What are the obstacles to happiness?

Her own life now.

She can’t be worrying about Dermot. He’s what? Twenty five years old for God’s sake this June, a full quarter of a century. And yet the words: ‘I want out of it, I want out of it,’ which he kept repeating in Crow’s Lane are haunting her now, the cry of his, rebellious but hopeless it seemed to her, that time she met him sprawled as he was in the slimy alley, calling out to the world that he wanted to get off. Oh, will he relapse into that state again? That is the fear that is haunting her. And, as for their mother, where was she during all of this filial malformation? She was on a metaphysical journey of her own incapability through a fug of alcohol and self pity. An unloved woman, a woman scorned, the cruelty of the words hurled at her by her overarticulate spouse. How can one be overarticulate? No, but overendowed with the bad words, the cutting words, the saw words that fell one. A woman betrayed many times, and she looks towards the sea and a girl dipping her crimson toes in the water’s edge. Betrayed by his fawning acolytes who frequented the professor’s room in the hope  –  in exchange for some momentary fleshy transaction  –  of summa cum laude in the examination. All done and dusted behind closed doors in those pre-PC days. She saw one such creature with her own eyes the day she went to summon her father when her mother had taken an overdose of analgesics  –  they didn’t kill her of course but they were an alarm bell. She remembers the rumpled girl, freckled blueeyed, blushingly exiting, straightening down her skirt. Young enough to be his own daughter. To be her! And she remembers the monosyllabic dismissiveness of her father, ‘What, what is it?’ as she entered; the decoy of tidying his desk, lifting documents and placing them down in the same place again. ‘Why did you not contact the secretary with such matters?’ ‘The secretary? About Mam, Daddy?’ Did she not realise how busy he was, or could she not wait till he got home? Was it really that urgent? Not the first time. Not the first time, he repeated, that she had abased herself in such a manner. And there was an uncharacteristic dishevelled look in him too, she remembers, a brylcreemed hair out of place, hanging tellingly over his high brow.

A volleyball lands near her, tossing up sand, forcing her out of her reverie. She hears Spanish boys shouting, ‘Bravo’ to a good smash. And as she stares, here he comes, the lifeguard (it is he) towards her, that handsome, young man in his cornflower blue togs with their yellow side stripes, and that quiff of raven hair falling like a wave so… so sexily over his right eye. He is what? in his late twenties, thirty at the most, just right for her to snatch him away if only in her imagination. She sighs as he stoops to retrieve the ball so unhurriedly, so maturely, unlike so many impatient young men, such as… yes, such as her brother. ‘Lo siento,’ he says. ‘It’s all right,’ she says understanding the phrase. ‘It’s quite all right.’ She smiles but is conscious of the tremor in her voice. And someone shouts, ‘Ramón,’ and he turns answering to the name.

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Your First Novel – Halfway There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Website: juneconsidine.com

 

 

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Writing Desire: Flesh Made Word

 

“Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, or outright lunatics,” the physician and journalist Max Nordau cautioned in 1893, “they are often writers and artists”…is there any truth in this statement!? In the current situation in Ireland, where the arts seem to be a branch of tourism, of green jersey consensus, yes, it’s important to remember that the artist may be an outsider, an angry voice, a twisted voice, a moral outlaw, jailed and loathed, or a voice that doesn’t give a damn.

What empowered you to want to teach a ‘writing desire’ course at the Irish Writers’ Centre…was there a literary gap that needed to be filled (no pun intended)? Not sure what ‘empowered’ means. I’m interested in desire as a literary theme. As a subject. A premise. As the basic predicament for story. The question of pleasure for example. Anybody doing a deal with the devil will have erotic pleasure high on their list of demands. Or seduction. The magic of seduction. What is it to seduce, to cast a spell, to invade the fantasy life of another person? The story of a character’s desire-life is as interesting as the story of their intellectual or spiritual development. Or emotional. As morally interesting. In this course, I’d like us to look at how desire is represented in fiction, at how erotic tension is created, at descriptions of sexual fulfillment and disenchantment, at the body and its tastes but all of this with the aim of inspiring, reading and talking to inspire writing around these themes. People are there to write at the end of the day. 

What is the core difference between ‘romantica’ and ‘erotica’ in fiction, given that our romantic and sexual lives are so inherently fused in real life? Are they? All I can say is good erotic writing is an investigation of the character’s world. The foundations and the Iimits of the self. Power. Society. The Law, the inner legislator. Bernard Schlink’s, The Reader, for example. Or Kundera’s hedonists in occupied Prague . Or Edna O Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation. Books exploring a culture, a time, through the story of desire. Or Angela Carter’s work; the sense we are backstage with the dramatis personae of desire, the bored divas, the villains with their false moustaches, the acrobats, the broken-hearted, all our dreams dripping with greasepaint. Or those poets interested in the physicality of the line, the tactility of the spoken.

Is there a long-strong tradition of good erotic writing that we’re not particularly aware of? There’s been writing about sex and sensuality for as long as there’s been storytelling. For as long as we’ve wondered about what the meaning of life is or been curious about other people. Long before there was even a notion of the individual self. We have some erotically charged early Irish poetry. Chinese literature has some very early examples. Boccaccio’s Decameron, published in the 1400’s, the source for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a good starting point for the European stuff. Or you can go right back to the some of the stories in the Old Testament. What was happening in Sodom that had to be stopped? Aside from the Marquis de Sade, and his forensic encyclopedias of pleasure, and censorship, I’d say the most powerful effect on the development of erotic writing in the West has been psycho-analytic theory. I’d point to Philip Roth, and books like Sabbath’s Theatre, as an example of a modern writer using desire as the driving force of his characters.   

The ‘Writing Desire: Flesh to Word’ course will be taught by both you and poet Kimberly Campanello, how will this work in practice? Will participants have to be au fait at both prose and poetry or can they simply write in one genre if they prefer? The basic idea is to use the reading of both prose and poetry to inspire writing. Participants can write in whatever form they want but shouldn’t be afraid to read across a whole range of sources. For example I would encourage anyone to read Jean Genet’s play The Balcony. The course will suit anyone who is already working on/thinking about a piece of work with desire as the main issue. Each week there’ll be a loose theme, we’ll try to identify some of the different currents in erotic writing, the celebratory approach, the big Yes, as opposed to the more conflicted erotic text. Kimberly and I will take alternate weeks, using extracts from prose and poetry for discussion before we look at participant’s own work. Like I said, people should be there to write.

What do you think of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon? I think we’ll have to make it the starting point of the course. “This is wrong,” Anastasia says early in the first book during a romp with Mr Grey, “but holy hell is it erotic”. We’ll have a look to see if the writing actually manages to get above clichés and create any erotic tension, what makes a bad sex scene. And we’ll look at this notion of wrongness, of transgression, a common ingredient of erotic writing. But then again it’s interesting to think about reading and pleasure. Reading is sexy again. That can’t be bad. The book has now become a fetish object; it means much more than the words inside the covers. There was a story recently in the papers about a court case involving a couple who had a row about the book, the man annoyed at the woman for reading the book again, for talking about it too much. The woman went round to her mothers. After a while, there was a knock at the door and when she opened it there was her boyfriend who, she told the judge attacked her with a bottle of brown sauce, pouring it over her head. Saucy? the man was shouting, You like saucy? I’ll show you what saucy means.

How do you delineate between the erotic and the downright pornographic? Or are we being unfair to porn….discuss? Does some porn contain literary value? I don’t think there’s any need to delineate anymore when artists in every medium play freely with them. Filmmakers, writers, cabaret, hip-hop, painters. Porn, like erotic art, wants to arouse. To stimulate. To turn the reader on. That used to be seen as not a fit ambition for literary art. A half-decent sex-scene should cause a bit of a stir in the reader. But when it’s a very good scene, I’d say, it should also be telling us something about the characters involved, about the meaning of the sex between them, and about the context in which it’s happening.

Is the widespread availability of internet pornography ruining natural erotic thinking/feeling, i.e., expectations of what a sex life should/could involve, the pull/drive that gets people together, how this is then expressed in literature & art? I’ve heard it said the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon is a reaction against men and online porn. Against the infidelity of men on their machines. A rebellion. I’ve also heard it argued porn helps men NOT do certain things, a palliative so to speak. It keeps them off the streets. But the same was said about the use of prostitutes. And about sport! It could be entertaining to wonder what the 50 shades of Grey trilogy will help women NOT to do? Hopefully the internet is educating as much as it is ruining appetite. The sexual appetite, like any other appetite, can be sated and overindulged. It’s an old parable. The parable of excess. Think of Casanova. Those who have searched for wisdom in sensual experience. Enlightenment. Ecstasy. Think of Yeats poem, The Pilgrim. The sensualist, after years of erotic wandering, turns to fasting on Lough Derg, tired of “…passing around the bottle with girls in rags or silk/ in country shawl or Paris cloak” but by the end of it all, after excess and austerity, he concludes on his life’s journey, “I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say / Is fol de rol de rolly O.“

What is your favourite piece of erotic writing and why? It would have to be JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Published in Paris in 1955, it’s part of the uninhibited big Yes style of erotic writing. It was banned for obscenity. The central character is an American in Dublin, he’s got a wife and a kid, and money troubles. And when it comes to women, he just can’t stop himself. That’s his crime and his innocence. He can’t control himself. He is comically beyond any moral judgement or censor. His lust is all he has and leads him round in circles and deeper into the world of Dublin at the time, giving us a very real picture of the place, and even the predicament of women at the time. It’s the Dublin of Behan, Kavanagh, etc., and Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. He’s got a bigger appetite than any of them, free, guiltless. The writing, moving from sparse, short imagist sentences to rampant flows of interior randy monologues, will make you laugh from your guts as you savour and feel – and admire – his hunger: a powerful concoction. The flesh made word. I wish I’d been around to see Richard Harris in the stage version. Three nights it lasted in Dublin in 1959 before it was shut down!

Thanks to Sean O’Reilly for this Q&A. His published work includes Curfew and Other Stories, the novels Love and Sleep, The Swing of Things and an experimental erotic novella: Watermark. [Click the book cover on the right to buy Sean's book]. The Writing Desire: Flesh Made Word course with Sean & Kimberly Campanello runs from 25th September, on Tuesdays for ten weeks – 6.30pm to 8.30pm – and costs €280 or €260 for members. 

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Writing away from the agonies

In a week where we saw yet another person die on the streets of Dublin from random violence, do you think that contemporary novels are covering contemporary themes enough? I don’t know that we should look to novels to remedy the problem of violence on the streets – novels can do many things, but I think it’s a matter of some doubt whether they are capable of ameliorating severe social problems. But to answer your question more usefully, I think there is – at last – a gradual movement in Irish writing away from the agonies of the 1950s and towards an engagement with various kinds of contemporary experience. You can see it in Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and you’ll see it in Claire Kilroy’s wonderful new novel, The Devil I Know, which comes out in August. It was bound to happen eventually – sooner or later, all the people who can’t seem to get over the 1950s will be dead, and all the young turks will be complaining that older Irish novelists won’t shut up about the Celtic Tiger.

What was the very first piece of fiction you wrote? When I was about seven I wrote a story about a boy who travelled into the future with his Professor friend and had a lovely day out. It was about a page and a half long and I still have no idea what obscure impulse moved me to write it. But that was it, from then on I was, for better or worse, a writer. The next thing I remember writing is a ghost story called “The Thirteenth Floor.” I suppose I was eleven or twelve by then. It dealt with a bed-and-breakfast with a haunted thirteenth floor. Must have been one hell of a bed-and-breakfast.

Bad Day in Blackrock was set in an era of ‘easy credit, two-car families and cheap cocaine’…what kind of ‘recession themes’ are we likely to see in books over the next few years? The four year period we now mean when we use the word “recession” is already the most written-about period in the whole of Irish history, and the flood of nonfiction coverage isn’t going to stop any time soon. I suspect this will discourage novelists from tackling it directly, in the short term. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: novels work best when they don’t have an axe to grind. I won’t make predictions, except to say that in certain quarters, the response to the crisis will be to write about farms and priests, just like always.  As long as there are Americans to think of Ireland as a priest-ridden potato field full of shivering orphans, there will be Irish writers to tell them they’re right.

How long did it take? About six months, all told.

What has changed for you since it was first published? I’ve become a full-time writer, which I never thought was possible. I’ve also learned that “being a writer” is pretty much just a job, as opposed to a permanent state of adolescent daydreaming. It’s a good job, though. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

Do you have themes that you explore in all of your work? It’s too soon to tell.

What’s something that might surprise your readers about your writing life? I write at night, from midnight to four a.m. Plays havoc with my social life.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Laziness.

What is the trait you most deplore in others? Humourlessness.

Who’s your favourite writer? Martin Amis.

Inspiration? I have a three-by-five card pinned above my desk that says in big letters, “IT’S FINE.” That’s usually enough to keep me going, whenever I start to worry about the work.

Give us a writing tip. The trick to a good novel is to tell a secret and keep a secret all at once. Not my quote but a good one! Obey the Ancient Mariner principle: your narrator simply has to tell this story – he/she has no choice. Tell every story as if your life depended on it.

Can people be taught how to write!? They can be taught how to write better – but only if they’re already passionate about writing.

Have you ever seen a ghost? No, and I never will.

What’s the first record you bought? Oasis, Definitely Maybe. It was the Nineties and everyone was doing it.

Kevin Power is an Irish writer and academic. His novel Bad Day in Blackrock was published by The Lilliput Press, Dublin, in 2008. In April 2009 he received the 2008 Hennessy XO Emerging Fiction Award for his short story The American Girl. He is the winner of the 2009 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. He is teaching a one-day writing workshop on The Novel at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Saturday 14th July, 10.30am – 4.30pm. It’s aimed at people who have already done some work on the first draft of a novel and are interested in completing a full draft. Accordingly, we will be looking at techniques for structuring a novel-length story (how the story might best be told), and examining point of view and voice(who’s telling this story?), as well as emphasizing page-by-page issues, such as tone, style, sentence structure, paragraphing, and characterisation. Close readings of participants’ work will be combined with discussion of general narrative strategies. Participants are asked to submit NO MORE than 15 pages of their work – ideally, a brief section from the beginning of their manuscript. Typescripts should be double-spaced. Due to the nature of the course, spaces are limited to ten people. Book a place on the course here.

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IWC Novel Fair – A Winning Tale

I always kept notebooks full of poems, lists, drawings and rants but I started writing seriously in 2008. I went to a workshop facilitated by John Mac Kenna and became hooked on writing short stories. I wrote till the early hours of the morning most nights during that time, it was like there was a backlog of stories needing to get out there. My stories were very short, 1,000 words and eventually they got longer and I started sending them out to magazines. I was lucky that the first story I sent out was published by Crannog, a Galway-based literary magazine. It was called The Wild Cat’s Buffet. My next story was published  by The Sunday Tribune and shortlisted for New Irish Writing Award. It was an encouraging start and I think encouragement is important to writers, it helps keep you going. Literary awards and magazines are vital in that regard, especially for short story writers and poets.

Nowadays poetry would have the strongest pull. I enjoy writing it more than I do fiction, it feels closer to the bone, more powerful (though short stories come a close second). For me, poetry can say things that the other two can’t. When I’m working on a novel I get terrible cravings to write poetry, I keep it at bay by buying beautiful notebooks with birds on them and stack them by the bed, for later, for when this project is finished, that’s what I tell myself. Often when I’m writing I don’t know what form the piece will take - I have a piece in a notebook for months now that still doesn’t know if it’s a poem or a story, and neither do I…it’s the tale of a woman whose brothers turn into wolves, so maybe it’s a hybrid…

The novel fair was a great experience for me, there were no negatives. It may have been more useful to have had more than 15 minutes with each agent/publisher but obviously it worked out very well for my book as I met my agent Ger Nichols and publisher Patricia Deevy on the day and because of that The Herbalist will be published in May 2013.

Yes the first draft was finished, I’d written it in 2008 and it took between 8 to 10 weeks to write. I wrote it fast and in the mornings longhand, typing it up at night when everyone was in bed. I averaged around 2,000 words a day and they seemed to flow out. That wasn’t the case with my other novel. Saying that, writing that fast meant I didnt edit or worry about meaning, contradictions etc.. so the second draft was a much slower and harder process. In many ways it was like reading something a stranger had written!

The novel is about a herbalist coming to a small town in the late 1930s – it is written from the point of view of four very different women who become involved with him.

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The Novel Fair 2013 will be launched tonight at 7.30pm. It aims to introduce up-and-coming writers to top publishers and literary agents, giving novelists the opportunity to bypass the slush pile, pitch their ideas and place their synopsis and sample chapters directly into the hands of publishers and agents. By the time the deadline rolled around on November 11th last year, the Irish Writers’ Centre had received over 570 entries, a figure which demonstrates the vast number of people writing fiction in Ireland today. Twenty writers were selected for the Fair. Many of the shortlisted winners have signed with agents, a few of the books are under consideration as well as Niamh’s publishing deal above! This year’s Fair includes an additional prize of a place on a seminar on ‘How to Pitch Your Novel’ to help the novelists perfect their presentations and material for the day. The deadline for the competition this year is October 17th and the Novel Fair itself will take place on February 16th 2013. A judging panel will be asked to select a shortlist of ten successful entries, presented to them anonymously. There is no limitation on style, genre, or target market, the only requirement being that the writer has not published a novel before. Publishers and agents will be invited to come along on the day to the Irish Writers’ Centre and meet the ten selected writers in person. Each writer in attendance will have a stand at the Fair with copies of the synopsis of their novel, the finished novel itself and biographical material.”

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In Praise of False Starts by Belinda McKeon

 

Write an appalling first paragraph. Write an appalling first page. Sit down to begin a new short story, or a new essay, or a new novel, and write nothing but plodding, off-tune, cringe-inducing drivel for the first week, or the first month; for the first year, if that’s what it takes.

That’s fine. That’s the way to do it, actually, even though it feels like disaster, failure, an unforgivable waste of time; even though it feels as though your mind has atrophied, your vocabulary has dried up like a…thing. You’re writing. You’ll throw most of it out, but if you didn’t put it down in the first place, it wouldn’t carry you towards the writing you’ll keep. The writing which, by way of all this throat-clearing, as a teacher of mine liked to call first-draft beginnings, you’re allowing to emerge, clearer and surer, like a song that’s made  just for your voice, your timbre, your range. You’ll know it when you hear it. It will sound right to you. It will ring true.

That first bash at a beginning is something that the writer very much needs, which is why the writer can be tempted to hold onto it – it was so hard-won, after all. The writer is tempted to be possessive of that beginning, to dig their heels in and insist that it stay. But often, it doesn’t need to stay. In fact, often, it urgently needs to go. You as the writer needed it, but the reader certainly doesn’t need it, and they won’t thank you for it, and nor will the piece of work. So, once it has gotten you to where you need to be, lop it off. It’s extraordinary how many times you’ll find that the first sentence of your second paragraph, or the first place where the story otherwise takes a deep breath and moves on; that this  point is the point at which you’re best, actually, to begin.

Or another possibility, something I’ve often found: when I’ve been hammering away at a piece for a while, when I’ve written pages and pages trying to find a way in, and I step  away from the piece to take a walk, or have a shower, or wash the dishes which have once again been piling up in the sink; often, just then, the first line – the right first line – will  present itself to me. Not as I’m writing – not when I’m at the computer screen or sitting with my pen in hand. It comes into my mind like a line of something I’ve known a long time, like a line on which I can rely. I love that moment, but it doesn’t happen without the prelude of all the fairly miserable and apparently fruitless hammering-away, seemingly getting nowhere, letting the dirty dishes pile up in the sink. (If I washed the dishes more regularly, would this moment come more regularly too? Don’t answer that question).

And something else, probably not unrelated: immersion is what leads to authority of voice. So you need to immerse yourself in the world and the mood and the language of what it  is that you’re creating, even before – perhaps long before – you can recognize it for what it is. Jump in. It doesn’t feel great at first; it’s not meant to. When you start out on a piece, you’re not so much writing that piece as increasing, with every paragraph, with every hour spent at the draft, the chances that you will write that piece, that you will find its particular music. This is why rushing a piece of writing – crashing it – doesn’t really work. These are some thoughts about beginnings, and I think that a rushed piece which turns out to be a fine piece is often little more than a piece of beginner’s luck. Don’t bank on that trick turning for you the next night-before-deadline. That luck runs out, as well it should.

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(This wonderful snippet is just a taste of what’s to come from our soon-to-be-revamped website, which will be launched at the end of summer).

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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 www.writing.ie 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.

Research

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.

Plot

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.

Theme

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.

Rewriting

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.

Motivation

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

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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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