Category Archives: literature

Two courses, one writer, and a fantastic story

The Secret Son

By Jennifer Burke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click on pic to buy the book!

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

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

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

Line-up in order of appearance:

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

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

On Never Having Been Struck By Lightning

coloured lightning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you reading at the moment?

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

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Filed under Bestsellers, courses, Creative Writing, Dublin Book Festival, Irish Writers Centre, literature, new writing, novels, Short Story

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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Kevin Curran’s Book Deal!

Kevin Curran was a shortlisted ‘winner’ in our 2011/12 Novel Fair. Now he has a book deal with Liberties Press have laid claim to Kevin Curran’s novel, Beatsploitation. Here he talks about his experience at last year’s Irish Writers’ Centre Novel FairWhen you sent in your novel initially, what were your hopes/expectations? This was the first time I had sent any part of the manuscript off so I wasn’t sure how it would be received. I had work-shopped it with the Stinging Fly Novel Workshop about six months earlier, but there was still some trepidation.  I always hoped it would get selected, but didn’t hold my breath!

What is your novel about? How long did it take you to write it? The novel is about a teacher who ingratiates himself with a young African student in order to steal something from him. The two main characters, the teacher and the African student are the driving force behind the story. The initial push took a year of intense writing. Once I found the voice for the narrator – the teacher – and then found a voice for the African student, the thing really took off. Also, the main element of the story, its structure was firmly thought through in my head, but the sub-plot was hard work to make come in line with the overall plot. After a year of writing in shorthand and typing up after every chapter, I spent a year – right up until this month – getting the novel in shape. I’ve stood back from it and edited and edited, and then edited some more to try and really get down to what the bones of the story is about. So, all in, the novel took two years to get into shape.

When you got the news that you were shortlisted and invited to the Fair, were you finished the novel at that stage? I had finished the long hand and the typing, but now, a year later after getting the word I was selected, I can safely say I was nowhere near ‘finished’ as ‘finished’ should be. But, I suppose, that was one of the benefits of getting selected for the fair, it made me really work toward it and get my novel in the kind of shape it needed to be in.

Did you get any advice or prepare in any way for the Fair? Do you think it would’ve been helpful to have had some guided advice at this point, in say, how to pitch, etc? I did a lot of preparation for the fair. I was aware that such an opportunity, to get face time with publishers and agents alike, wouldn’t happen again so I made sure I did my research. I think finding interviews on the net that certain agents and publishers did was very helpful. There were certain things that kept on coming up in the pieces I read so I made sure to look at my novel through the terms and try to use the vocabulary that was being used by the publishers and agents. The pitch wasn’t something I had ready beforehand. I wanted to just sit down with the people and get a sense of what they wanted. As far as the synopsis went, the word limit set by the fair was great in that it really made me distil what I wanted to say about the story into one page. I used back page blubs from books I liked and really tried to get my opening synopsis paragraph to have the same impact as they did.

What was the day itself like, what was most memorable? The day itself was great. The people at the Irish Writers’ Centre made us feel very welcome and relaxed. The schedule was intense with the agents and publishers, but that’s what made it so exciting. You barely have time to take a breath after talking books and pitching to one big agent you just know you might never have had a chance to talk to again and then you started all over again with a huge publisher. It was surreal, but thoroughly enjoyable. The day itself was one buzzing blur so any one moment is hard to pinpoint as the most memorable. But I remember pitching to Daniel Bolger from Liberties and thinking he really got what I was talking about. That was exciting, just knowing a publisher was into what I was pitching.

Was it easier to pitch to agents OR publishers? Both were just as terrifying as the other to pitch to as you knew any one of them could make the difference!

What about the aftermath, how long was it before you got an agent or follow-on calls? We had the Novel Fair on Saturday and on Monday I had received a number of full manuscript requests. That week was fairly mad as a number of other requests then came in. The feedback and contact with the agents and publishers was a real opportunity to get out there into the world of publishing. 

What are you expectations now? I’m delighted to have signed my first book deal but am already working on my next book, so I suppose it’s a matter of looking forward and trying to make the next book as good as it can be. I’m just delighted I took a chance on the Novel Fair as I’m sure my manuscript, had I sent it out, would still be sitting on many slush piles today waiting to be read.

Would you do it all over again!? Tips for others entering the Fair? Of course I’d do it again, to get face time with so many influential people from the literary world was a once in a lifetime opportunity. My tips for others would be just go for it, and then if selected work as hard as possible in getting the book in shape for when you meet with the agents and publishers. The initial contact and interaction with the agents and publishers, if not beneficial in the short term, could really be of use down the line!

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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 www.amcd.ie.

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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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Just. Keep. Going.

The sun poured through the Georgian windows of the Irish Writers’ Centre for the duration of the Publishing Day event last Saturday. The room was buzzing with anticipation as people chatted with their neighbours. Jack Gilligan, the recently appointed Chairman of the Centre, kicked off proceedings with fire safety announcements. He apologised that unfortunately perfectly formed novels wouldn’t be dropped from the roof in the event of an emergency. I think there were one or two sighs of disappointment.  Do it because you love it and because you have to do it

Ciara Doorley, Editorial Director of Hacette Ireland, was the first speaker. She dove right into the nuts and bolts of the industry. Giving us guidelines for putting together a gleaming shiny submission, sure to catch someone’s attention. She really stressed the importance of being concise and professional in both the cover letter and the synopsis and for the writing itself to be as fine-tuned as possible before submission. Once you’ve submitted, she said, the key thing is to keep writing. Do it because you love it and because you have to do it. However, it could take months to hear back and it’s important to take the pressure off both yourself and the book while you wait. So learn the art of patience.

Ciara was the first but not the last to mention Stephen King’s book On Writing as a great book to check out for writers at all stages. And of course do I even need to name the other book that got more than a few mentions? Yes it’s a current trend, which of course publishers are aware of, but no she’s not an over-night success. Erika Leonard (E.L. James) had previously e-published other work. Another shining example of the ten year over-night success.

Gareth Cuddy, CEO of ePub Direct, gave an over view of the, blink and you miss it, ever-changing epublising industry. On average people with e-readers read at least a third more books than their 3D book counterparts simply due to ease of access. He ran through a couple of requirements for epublishing yourself. The technical things like formatting and where you can get it done. Who the major players are in the industry at the moment; Koby, Kindle, Direct Publishing and he spoke briefly about the constant battles (for battles read: hard-core litigation) between the traditional publishing work and the e-publishing world.

He showed a video, much to the amusement of the group, of a toddler playing with an iPad. The child successfully navigated her way around it; passwords, opening and closing of files, zooming into pictures, etc. Then the iPad was taken away and replaced with a magazine. The child repeatedly tried to expand the pictures in print without success. She got frustrated and tested her finger on her little chubby leg just to make sure it was working properly. Once she realised her finger, was in fact, working properly she gave up on the magazine. Gareth said that the child would forever more think that the magazine is an iPad that doesn’t work. Can evolution even keep up with that?

Then it was a quick breather for lunch and a chance to soak up some of the sun. Sitting across the road in Garden of Remembrance I thought about the little girl in the video and what would be lost if that was to become the reality for the children to come. What if browsing through an actual library or book shop was lost forever? What if we didn’t know what books smelled like? Or how it felt to flip over the feather thin pages of a dictionary? How can the ‘consumption of ebooks’ ever equal that?

Cliona Lewis opened the second half of the day. As Publicity Director for Penguin Ireland she knows a thing or two about what it takes to get out there and get noticed. Of course social media now plays a crucial role but traditional media, especially radio, inIrelandis still the winner. We are after all the biggest consumers of radio in Europe. She spoke about how important it was to be able to sell yourself and how gruelling a book tour can be. She said it was hotel to hotel, flight to flight. But even with that dampener put on our fire I don’t think any dreams were crushed in the room with that realisation. For the unpublished this still has a silver lining.

Emma Walsh took the podium next and spoke about the difference between the “art of writing and the business of publishing” and how important it was to not only to be able to tell them apart but to be well versed in the later. Browse your local bookstore to see what people are buying, keep an eye on blogs and websites, the Guardian in particular, so that you’re up to date with trends and industry gossip. And network, network, network. Along with Ciara she highlighted the importance of a professional, well edited and spell-checked submission. And more importantly not to lose heart, ‘if something doesn’t work try something else.’

There was no denying that most of the speakers did at some point express their dismay at the current upheaval in the publishing world. But any qualms were quietened with a belief that in the long run it’ll be positive for the industry and good work always gets through.

After yet another caffeine jolt and the aforementioned networking Arlene Hunt couldn’t have been a better end to the day. Herself and her husband took the proverbial bull by the horns and set up their own publishing house, Portnoy Publishing. Alongside this she also happens to be a best-selling author with no less than seven novels to her name.  And with the rights of one just sold in Germany she is on the up and ever up.

Determination, determination and some more determination along with never giving up and a drop of luck were her wise words. She too had been rejected at the beginning but she just kept going. Writing every day is crucial. And always with an eye to finishing the first draft and not getting bogged down in edits of early chapters before the thing is even finished. How can you know what is wrong with it when it’s not even finished? And then you must edit to the point where you don’t care about the characters anymore. That means there is nothing else to change and you’re ready to put it out there.

At the end of the day my head was fried, yes, but, I left with a renewed sense of conviction. Just. Keep. Going. Was the message that was received load and clear over the day. If the journey was easy it wouldn’t be worth it.

BIG THANKS to Niamh MacAlister who attended the Publishing Day & reviewed it for us! Niamh completed a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews, Scotland with the assistance of The Arts Council of Ireland, An Chomhairle Ealaíon.  She was selected as a ‘New and Emerging Poet’ for the 2010 Poetry Ireland Introductions Series and also for the Lonely Voice Short Story Series. She has had prose published in 3009 and poetry in The Stinging Fly, Raft, The Moth and Washington Square Review. She will complete a residency in Cill Rialaig in 2012. 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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

Mary Costello & The Short Story

As a reader I like the contained feel of a short story. The voice must reach me. I like to be disarmed, taken into a character’s head, to experience some small almost imperceptible shift in their being. The best short stories have a purity – like poetry – that reduces the reader. But of course, there must be a story worth telling, too – the reader expects this to be delivered. My own stories are fairly conventional in the sense that they tell a story in a mostly linear way. I’ve been writing for years and had some early stories published in New Irish Writing, and was shortlisted for a HennessyAward  in the 1990s.

I didn’t have much luck publishing anything then and I stopped sending work out. I did continue to write – I wrote a novel or two – but I was teaching full-time too so the writing waned. I taught in primary schools in Tallaght and more recently in Harold’s Cross. About two years ago I sent two stories to The Stinging Fly literary magazine. Sean O’Reilly was guest editing the summer issue and he liked a story I sent in and published it. Declan Meade liked them too and asked to see more. Luckily I had a bunch of stories written over the years. From that he wanted to do the collection. It was kind of a dream come true – I thought these stories and characters were destined to spend their lives gathering dust in the corner of a dark wardrobe! Getting a book published is something that stops me short when I think of it these days, approaching the publication. Putting it together for The Stinging Fly Press has seemed amazingly easy – Declan’s way of working with writers, I think, makes it feel that way.

It can be difficult to keep on writing if you’re not getting published. You lose heart and stop sending stuff out. That’s why literary magazines and online sites for the short story are so important. You need to feel part of some kind of writing community too. Some of the stories were written fifteen years ago, some are more recent. They are quite varied, both in setting and in characters; they deal with ordinary people – men and women of all ages – in both rural and urban or suburban settings. I am interested in the seemingly small events that can suddenly turn a life, and how the characters not only cope with these, externally, but more especially how they mediate them internally, how they strive for interior coherence. Fate and chance play have a presence in many of the stories. I always start off with a character, a voice. If that comes right early on, then you have greater faith in the story. If not, it can be quite disheartening.

Mary will read a story entitled And Who Will Pay Charon from her forthcoming collection The China Factory at the IWC tomorrow at 1pm.  

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