Tag Archives: writing

Emma Leavy on her love of lists

Emma Leavy is an Intern at the Irish Writers’ Centre this summer. She is a rising senior at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC where she majors in Culture and Politics. Emma fell in love with Ireland as a study abroad student at UCD this past fall. She is delighted to be back for the summer as a part of the IWC team. In her free time, she dabbles in short stories and spends inordinate amounts of time poking around used book stores.

As a lover of words, I am fascinated by lists. I find them inexplicably comforting: lists of the top ten liveliest pubs in Dublin, lists of books that will change my life, lists of the most gruesome serial killers to roam the streets of Edinburgh. I take a sick delight in to-do lists, scribbled on loose leaf with little boxes I can check off. The anticipation of checking off one of those tiny boxes is enough to get me through a first draft or a sinkful of dishes. Some of my very favourite writing exercises involve lists. For example, I find it helpful to list the contents of my characters’ nightstand drawer or CDs which line their shelves. Lists like these help me grasp onto the shadowy details of the characters lurking in the crevices of my brain, transforming them into a living and breathing imaginary friends. This bizarre interest of mine bubbled to the surface whilst looking for online resources for writers. The internet is chock full of lists. So my fellow neurotic writers, I present to you a LIST of the top lists for writers on the internet:

12 Essential TED Talks for Writers

I have a confession: I love trashy television. I find the antics of reality television stars incredibly therapeutic. My life seems instantly normal and organized in comparison. TED Talks are the perfect antidote to the delights of reality TV. It’s a non-for-profit organization which holds conferences where people from all walks of life give fantastic talks on their passions. These informative and moving talks are then uploaded on their free website. Here’s a list of the best TED talks for writers.

1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list

This list of 1000 novels both terrifies and delights me. The folks at The Guardian really know their stuff and the list contains both well-known literary classics and a few mysterious gems. I intend to post this on my desk and tick off my reads one by one.

The 18 Most Popular Articles on Writing of 2011

A direct channel into some great and varied advice for writers. There’s a bit of business sense and some solid words of wisdom on the nuts and bolts of writing. Your writing will thank you for poking around this website.

Best Creative Writing Exercises

An entertaining and useful list of writing exercises. Some of them are silly, but all will make you smile. Some might even make you write. My favourite? “Open the dictionary to a random page. Find a word that you do not know how to define. Write an imaginary definition for it. Repeat.”

Top Tens

This is a list lover’s wet dream: over 400 “Top Ten” Lists of Books. Searching for the top ten bedtime stories, the best tales of Americans in Europe, or the ten best deranged characters? Look no further! Some author has contemplate the same bizarre theme and made a list for The Guardian.

Thirty-Three Twitter Feeds to Follow

Twitter is a virtual treasure mine of literary advice, suggestions and ideas. If you’re having trouble sorting through the endless amount of feeds, this list will give you a sold starting point.

The Joy of Lists

A wonderful mediation on lists in literature and why we enjoy them. I would love to have lunch with the author, Arthur Krystal. I have a feeling we would have a lot to talk about. Favourite line: ‘Isn’t every list in reality a ceremonial flourish against amnesia and chaos?’

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Filed under Irish Writers Centre, IWC


Writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir is guest blogging at the Irish Writers’ Centre Blog for the month of June. Today we host her final post.

My last blog post for the IWC today – aw! So I am back to where I began: with novels. Thanks for reading and commenting over the past month; it has been a pleasure. To round off my stint here I am giving away a copy of the brand new Stinging Fly magazine. Leave a comment to win! I will post to anywhere in the world.

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Writing a novel is like making a jigsaw with blank pieces – not only do you have to fit all the shapes together, you have to paint the picture too. That is hard and it can feel very confusing and frustrating early on in the work. And the sorriest bit of the whole game is that each time you start, it is like starting over. No two novels come together in the same way.

So, as a budding novelist, what can you learn from those who have gone before you? Maybe the most helpful thing I can say is that there is no one way to write a novel. There is no right way. Just start writing, continue with it and push through to the end. You will learn more by finishing one novel than by starting ten. Whatever way you do it, as long as you end up with a novel at the end, you’ve done it ‘right’.

It takes me about a year to write a novel. It might take you three months (like Kevin Barry) or it might take you ten years (like Arundhati Roy). How long it takes depends on lots of things: family and work commitments; time issues; your personal pace as a writer. I would definitely write books quicker if I had less children and therefore more time, but things are how they are and, truly, I wouldn’t want them any other way. )Though it will be nice when they are all at school and I have five blissful mornings to call my own. Only three years to wait…)

Some writers lay plans for a long time before they even begin to write their book: they think about their characters and their plot, they gather lots of notes and do research. Some write the end first and then compose the rest of the novel to work towards the ending. Others – like myself – have only the vaguest notions of who their characters are or what is going to happen to them when they begin the novel, and they write to tell themselves the story of these characters. I never know how a novel or story will proceed before I write it. I rarely know until I am near the end how it is all going to turn out. I can write scenes out of sequence and then slot the whole together, though I become more linear at points. It suits me to write that way but it may not suit you. Try things out and you will hit on the best way for yourself.

In a sense it surprises me that I wade in so blindly at the start, but perhaps if I didn’t, I wouldn’t write at all. I am super organised in so many areas of my life but when it comes to writing fiction, I free fall. It is a great feeling because when it is going well the act of writing is the best sort of relaxation for me.

To expand the jigsaw analogy I started with, most novels are made up of lots of different pieces that fit together well. You have gathered many of these pieces – ideas, phrases, fragments, observations, passions, interests – over the years and you will gather more of them as your novel progresses. Our brains are tuned in to disparate things as we write and so is our subconscious. It is important that you keep a notebook and that you jot down anything that occurs to you, whether it seems relevant to your novel-in-progress (NIP) or not. If you bring these snippets to your desk, you might be surprised where they can be woven into the narrative, or how they are relevant. Our antennae is out and probing for stuff that will fit, whether we realise it or not.

Novels are not sounded on the one note and it is best if they aren’t. If your novel is sad, you don’t want it to be sad on every page or you will wear the reader out, so make sure when you are fitting together the pieces – paragraphs, chapters – that you mix it up a bit. Lighten the tone after a dark scene; pick up the pace when things slow down; mix dialogue with narrative blocks; vary the conversation (repeated chats about the same topic are dull); get your characters moving – change the location from time to time. Think of it this way: your novel needs to be a little bit bipolar. There should be ups and downs, positives and negatives. These will create an energy within the story that helps move it along while keeping the reader interested.

Learn to love editing. You must, must, must be your own best editor. On re-reading your glorious NIP, if the prose seems a bit pedestrian or flat, liven it up with the senses. Readers love the sensuality involved in scenes where characters smell, touch and taste things – including one another. Don’t be afraid to show your characters enjoying food, or sex, or both.

I began with jigsaws, so I’ll end on them too: when the pieces of your NIP start to fall into place, there is nothing like the self-satisfied glow you get. Hell, you might even find yourself being nice to people. Good humour and literary novel writing rarely share the same space. (Or maybe that’s just me?) Suddenly, you understand what the book is about and why you have bothered to write it. Enjoy the glow, you won’t feel it again until the next novel is neatly slotted together and ready to be abandoned for the next one after that, and so on. Good luck!

Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin and lives in Galway. She has published three collections of short fiction, including Nude (Salt, 2009) which was shortlisted for the 2010 Edge Hill Short Story Prize; three poetry collections – one in an anthology, one a pamphlet – and one novel, You (New Island, 2010). Nuala’s third full poetry collection The Juno Charm is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2011.

Blog: www.womenrulewriter.blogspot.com Website: www.nualanichonchuir.com


Filed under Beginning the Novel, Fiction, Irish Writers, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, literature, new writing, novels, writing

Writer Interview: Órfhlaith Foyle

Writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir is guest blogging at the Irish Writers’ Centre Blog for the month of June to coincide with the short story course she will teach at the Centre on the 25th and 26th of June. Tune in here every Wednesday to see what she has to say.

Órfhlaith Foyle

Today I interview fiction writer and poet Órfhlaith Foyle. Órfhlaith was born in Africa to Irish parents and lives in Galway. Her first novel Belios was published in 2005 by Lilliput Press to critical acclaim. Patrick McGrath called it ‘a dark, rough, funny novel about a dying genius’. A collection of Órfhlaith’s poetry and short stories, Revenge, was published in September 2005 by Arlen House. Recently her short story ‘Somewhere in Minnesota’ was in the Faber anthology New Irish Short Stories edited by Joseph O’Connor. That story will be the title story of her forthcoming short fiction collection, due from Arlen House in September. She is currently working on her second novel.

Welcome to the IWC blog, Órfhlaith. Can you tell me what was it that first got you into writing and when did you start writing?

My family had a bit of a nomadic life. We lived between Africa, Ireland and Australia, primarily Africa and reading was just a natural thing for me to do as soon as I could do it. Television was never encouraged as a past time. My mother had a collection of books. She loved reading and still does. My father was more into non-fiction.

Reading meant I could escape into another person’s world. You don’t just read words, you imagine as well. I began to imagine little stories in my head. Usually they were just extensions or variations of some story I had read but, after a while, I began to make up my own stories.

I think I was about eleven or twelve when I got serious about stories – mainly reading them; not so much writing them. That happened later in my teens when I began to realise that I had to write things down.

Which writers have influenced you the most?

My mother’s collection of books contained Shakespeare and Dickens and a huge volume of American Plays.  My father had also bought us the twelve book collection of American Classics for children. I loved the American plays – the dialogue and how the words just drove the story. Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller. I loved Macbeth far more than Romeo and Juliet. I loved Oliver Twist.

I didn’t read much Irish writing and right up to now, the writers who have influenced me the most are Katherine Mansfield, Anna Akhmatova, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Emily Bronte – all dark and rather lonely, I suppose.

What kind of things do you write?

I write about things that frighten me. Most of my characters I would hate to have a coffee with but I also know deep down I’d want to find out their story – because something made them that way – not just what lies in their nature – but something else as well.

My first novel Belios is about a man who cannot love but craves it, and I find this is in all of my work. All my characters have that fear and longing for love and to belong to someone or somewhere.

What are you working on now?

Well, I am finishing up a collection of short stories called Somewhere in Minnesota and Other Stories. It is to be published by Arlen House this September. I am also still writing my second novel.

I am a slow writer, in so far as I have to feel and think a lot before I write. After Belios I had that clichéd idea that I now was going to write a marvellous post-modern ‘grown-up’ novel. It never happened. I have countless of useless drafts to support that fact.

Describe your writing day.

I usually prefer mornings. I write for about 3 to 4 hours. Sometimes I can work at night but not really.

How does poetry differ from the writing of fiction for you?

Poetry is the closest I will ever come to composing music.  I don’t rhyme much but I like words that move. Poetry condenses that movement so you have to reach right down into what you are feeling or seeing. You have to get that flow.

With fiction the borders go further. I always go by a ‘voice’. Whether it is a first or third person voice, it has to have a rhythm. I need to know what the main character is deep down afraid of. I need to know how his/her demons drive them. I need to understand how they dream they might be saved. The voice is the thing.

What advice can you offer the beginning writer?

Well, first of all, I am just beginning myself.

Just READ.

I was at a writers’ workshop once and the celebrated writer was telling us how he was going to write his next novel. Then he mentioned that he never read books. I lost a lot of respect for him after that. I don’t care what you say…if you don’t read books, then your words are missing something. If you don’t read other writers then your own work narrows down. I know writers write from their own experiences as well as how they react to the world – then all of it is coloured by imagination and that comes from reading in the first place. So, if your writing experience does not include reading anybody else’s – what kind of world can you write about?

Thanks so much, Órfhlaith, for dropping by today. Next week for my blog post I plan to talk about the writer and self-promotion. Do tune in!

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Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin and lives in Galway. She has published three collections of short fiction, including Nude (Salt, 2009) which was shortlisted for the 2010 Edge Hill Short Story Prize; three poetry collections – one in an anthology, one a pamphlet – and one novel, You (New Island, 2010). Nuala’s third full poetry collection The Juno Charm is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2011.

Blog: www.womenrulewriter.blogspot.com Website: www.nualanichonchuir.com.


Filed under Fiction, Irish Writers, literature, new writing, poetry, Reading, Short Story, writing


Writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir is guest blogging at the Irish Writers’ Centre Blog for the month of June to coincide with the short story course she will teach at the Centre on the 25th and 26th of June. Tune in here every Wednesday to see what she has to say.

I was thinking lately about the novels I write, about themes and concerns that re-occur in them. What do they have in common, I wondered? I have one novel published, You (New Island, 2010), one novel-in-progess (my NIP) and a couple of failed attempts, which will live forever in that limbo where dead novels go. And here is what I realised as I pondered my obsessions as a novelist: all of the novels I have tried to complete have been about mad mothers. Well, maybe not so much mad mothers as unsuccessful mothers – women who are not very good at being mothers. And these mothers drink – they drink in public and they drink in secret. My own Ma doesn’t drink and I’m a half-bottle-of-wine-on-Friday-night kind of Mammy myself, so I’m not altogether sure where the obsession with drinking mothers comes from. And obviously that is not all that my books are about – they usually deal with the breakdown of love (separation/betrayal), and there are generally children involved.

Setting is also very important to me in my fiction. I am hugely affected by my environment – as are most people, I presume – and I like my setting to get under the skin of my characters and to be as important as the people it serves. You was set in my home place in County Dublin – I grew up across the Liffey from the Strawberry Beds. The river and the valley it runs through are crucial to that novel in terms of atmosphere and in terms of plot.

My NIP is set between Dublin and the Scottish Highlands. I worked in the Highlands for almost a year when I was younger and it has been a thrill to revisit it for the purposes of the novel. So far my visits have been imaginary and virtual; I have also been (excruciatingly) re-reading my diaries from that time. But in July I am going back there, to soak up a bit of the Scotland that I remember and to taste it anew. I feel like I couldn’t do the Scottish Highlands justice without a quick trip to make sure I am getting it right in my NIP. What better excuse for a few days away?

When I teach Creative Writing, I always urge the participants to be mindful of their fiction’s setting, both the place and the time. Characters, and their actions, have to be located in a physical reality, not in some grey nowhere. In our giddy rush to get the story down, we should never forget the importance of the setting and the atmosphere created by it. The setting, when well evoked, is like the glue that holds all the pieces together. The writer Nigel Watts has a better analogy for setting in fiction. He says: ‘The setting is like the flour in a cake: perhaps less compelling than the nuts and dried fruit, but if you forget to include flour in the recipe, you’ll have no cake.’

I like my reader to feel rooted in the story and by naming places and describing them with care, and by being succinct with detail, I think that is achievable. To that end, I keep a mini notebook on me at all times and I endlessly jot down what I observe around me. A lot of my writing ideas come to me on the edge of sleep, so I have made myself stick to the notepad beside the bed rule. It helps, particularly in the long haul of the novel, which is constantly on your mind, asking questions of you.

Jottings that have made it into my NIP include rain-flattened daffodils; the sight of hundreds of jellyfish on an otherwise empty beach; and a dead crow that hung from a wire between my two neighbour’s houses. It is funny how things present themselves just when you need them. My main character was going through a tough time and I wanted to conjure a foreboding atmosphere while showing that she was becoming slightly unhinged. I went for a walk with my baby daughter to get some clarity on the scene and I spotted the dead crow, lurid and menacing as it swung by one leg from the wire. It was the perfect detail to carry me through the scene.

So, if you want to write believable fiction, here are a few tips: be nosey and sensitive to the world around you; always write down your observations/thoughts/ideas as they occur to you; be specific: name things; use your senses when you write – readers love the sensuality of touch, tastes, smells etc.; gift yourself time to write; stick with it and be patient; read lots of good books; and, whatever you do, don’t forget to add the flour.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin and lives in Galway. She has published three collections of short fiction, including Nude (Salt, 2009) which was shortlisted for the 2010 Edge Hill Short Story Prize; three poetry collections – one in an anthology, one a pamphlet – and one novel, You (New Island, 2010). Nuala’s third full poetry collection The Juno Charm is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2011.

Blog: www.womenrulewriter.blogspot.com Website: www.nualanichonchuir.com.


Filed under courses, creative writing course, Fiction, IWC, literature, new writing, setting in fiction, Short Story, writing