Would you like to write a book? Over the next 12 weeks we’ll be getting the help of successful authors to explain everything would-be writers need to know. This is the first step to your debut novel
When he wasn’t writing very short stories or novels about war, Ernest Hemingway also came up with many pithy one-liners about writing. “There is nothing to writing. All you do, is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” The idea that simply opening a vein is a fast-track to completing a 90,000-word manuscript sounds almost tempting to anyone who’s ever harboured an urge to write. Beginning next week, in a new series called How To Write a Novel, we’ll be examining all aspects of how to get writing, by asking published authors for their thoughts on what’s required.
Perhaps you’ve never written a word, but have been telling your friends and family for years that there’s a story you want to write for posterity. You may have completed an entire first draft that’s a baggy behemoth of words that you can’t seem to shape into anything. Or maybe there is half a short story on a dusty hard drive that’s begging to be finished. This series is about the scaffolding of writing, of the structural elements that every would-be writer should learn how to master. Anyone who has written something – anything – has already overcome that terror-inducing fear of sitting down with a notebook, or listening to the computer’s whirring fan as you stare at a blank Word document. Writer June Caldwell, formerly of the Irish Writer’s Centre saw many aspiring writers come through the door and advises that from the off, think yourself into the mindset of a writer.
“Make it real, and not just the writing bit – which involves sitting down regularly to do it – but identify yourself as a writer. It is such a lonely, obscure, strange thing to do, so meeting other writers and peer-grouping work in the early stages instills self-belief and gets a writer used to criticism, rewriting and thinking about their story more deeply.” If fear or discipline (not Twitter or the internet) add to your procrastination, there is safety in numbers. Join a course, which not only means deadlines for actually getting down to writing, but a supportive hub of people to share your work with and gain feedback. Dave Lordan, author, writing teacher and editor of the New Planet Cabaret anthology thinks that creative writing courses are excellent for personal development as well as facilitating an urge to write. “No one can inject you with the talent, intelligence and determination to become a writer – these must come from within – but a good teacher, who must also be a good writer, can help to improve your writing and expression skills. They can motivate you enough to get up and running at that crucial starting stage. They can also instruct you on the practicalities of writing and clarify the structure and aims of your writing project.”
Over the coming weeks, established and award-winning authors will share their thoughts on everything from language and setting, to point of view and editing. Who have we asked? Goldsmith’s Prize winner Eimear McBride talks language; Ron Rash, 2010 winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and Man Booker Prize nominee Deborah Levy (who write poetry, novels, plays, essays and poems between them) will discuss form. Ross Raisin, one of Granta’s ’20 Under 40’ Best of Young British Novelists, will delve into character while Paul Murray (Skippy Dies) will give his insight into dialogue. In Week 1, we won’t ask you to craft Joycean sentences or a drum-tight plot: we’ll start with how to ease yourself into the concept of writing and how to find ideas and inspiration. At a recent Dublin talk, American author Anita Shreve said that the best way to write was to “do it as soon as ANY kind of idea grabs you, right there and then”.
Not every fiction writer wants to tackle the bulkier form of the novel, so we’ll also look at the short story. When we think of our favourite writers, it’s often inextricably linked to fully realised characters: authors who have brought to life memorable creations will reveal their approach to characterisation. How any character communicates – whether they are effusively chatty or almost non-verbal – is essential to a story, and we’ll explore dialogue and how to make it authentic. There are talky books and there are novels where characters say more by speaking little. We’ll discuss the pitfalls of dialogue and when it might be best for characters to keep schtum. The engine of many novels is plot, and while some authors minimise it, others award it centre stage in their work – how do they do it?
Alongside the structural backbone (characters, dialogue, plot), we’ll talk to writers about themes – deliberately working them in, or allowing the story to hint at them. Deciding point-of-view or who tells a story is crucial. Whether it’s Roddy Doyle’s child narrator in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha or the very effective first person plural voice of Japanese war brides in Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, a story can stand or fall on a convincing voice. When Patrick DeWitt was asked at Listowel Writer’s Week in 2012 how much research he did for his Booker shortlisted novel The Sisters Brothers, he replied that he preferred (and that it was easier) to “just make things up”. Historical novelists may disagree, but research can be central to work set in the past, or based on real events. We’ll examine the balance of proper research versus using your imagination.
Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won huge acclaim, particularly for the linguistic risks it took. Winner of The Goldsmith’s Prize and shortlisted for the Folio Prize, Desmond Elliott Prize and the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize, McBride’s work has been lauded as experimental and unique. She’ll discuss the role of language and her own style for this series.
Writing – and completing – an initial draft is the hard part, followed closely by sitting down to purge and tighten your work. Editors, writers and publishers will advise on how best to redraft, and not be afraid to lose thousands of words if a story is not working. Getting work out in the world is important, as is honing and crafting a manuscript. June Caldwell believes that showing your work to a writing group is essential, and helps iron out kinks. “Creative writing courses or joining a good writer’s group are a great kick-start. New eyes on your work will not only help uncover ‘technical’ problems, they highlight nuggets of beauty your conscious self is blind to. Also, it acts as a further education to read and think about other people’s writing. Go to literary readings and events, drop by Facebook groups and festivals; there are oodles – with some great workshops on offer. Meeting like-minds and demystifying the process will help hugely.”
This series can’t promise six-figure book deals or guaranteed publication, but we will ask editors and literary agents on your behalf what they’re looking for and how to submit a manuscript. Each column will go through the technical aspects with the help of some of the world’s best writers, but it’s up to you – yes you, the wannabe writer – to put the work in and watch the word count add up. Still afraid? Don’t be. “Go after what excites you, and what you fear,” says Dave Lordan. “The one thing that excites us all, and that we all fear, is the truth. Also, if you want your writing to have power, if you want to be set alight, tell the truth – your portion of it.” June Caldwell believes that putting aside fear is the first thing a writer should do. “This is about spilling your guts in a dignified way, but don’t be frightened if a speckle of madness rears its head too. Let it bring you where it will; don’t look back. Be excited. This compulsion is a courtesy, not a curse. Don’t compare your writing to others – instead get totally obsessed with what you want to write and start chewing the cud of the storyline/idea every day. Feel the words, develop a voice, put manners on your demons, write regularly.”
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on May 17th, 2014
The full ‘How to Write a Book’ series is here: