My writing journey began with Mills and Boon.
As a child, I regularly came home from school to find my mother lost in Mills and Boon romances behind the counter of our small grocery shop. Doctors and nurses adorned the covers of the hardback library books that served as an escape from a noisy brood of gearcachs.
Our elderly neighbour, Mrs Flynn, an avid reader also, brought me to the library with her. I tilted my chin towards the high countertop. But, mo léir, I would have to wait until my seventh birthday to borrow books of my own.
Reading and writing are inextricably linked. My imagination was fuelled by fairytales and series from Noddy onwards. In primary school, I wrote about our Spanish holiday at the Matador Hotel and the wonder of picking oranges directly from the tree. I was well into my 30s before I set foot on Spanish soil.
My father has no interest in books but he has a powerful command of language, particularly words that would sit well with Van Gogh’s blue period. There was a texture to the nicknames he used – Garibaldi, Jack Palance, bosthoon, gouger, latchico, oinseach.
Much of what we learn of writing and language is derived through osmosis. My own language has layered accretions of Hiberno-English: the language that Con Houlihan would term English woven on a Gaelic loom. Language that one day found its way into my debut novel, ‘Eat the Moon’.
Unsure of the prospects of supporting myself as a author, I chose to become a journalist. “Journalism is literature in a hurry,” Poet and Critic Matthew Arnold wrote.
My work as a regional journalist was a mixed bag. The humdrum reporting of courts and local authority meetings was often frustrating but what a ringside seat I enjoyed to observe human character in so many manifestations!
While I spent years trying to escape this career, I grew in time to value my contribution to two newspapers, The Kerryman and Kerry’s Eye. And my experiences proved to be a rich resource for my second and third books, Hidden Kerry, The Keys to the Kingdom’ and The Wit &Wisdom of Kerry (Mercier Press). Prior to this, I had written Against the Odds, a biography of MEP Brian Crowley on a commission from Brandon Press.
For much of my journalistic career, I job-shared to give time to my son and my creative writing. My knowledge of the craft of writing was gleaned from poetry, drama and fiction workshops at Listowel Writers’ Week and the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry. I took my education a step further in 2010/2011 by studying for the M. Phil. in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin. That college year was better than winning the Lotto!
Every genre of writing I studied fed into each other and nothing was wasted. Drama informs dialogue. Poetry breaks out in fiction. Journalism, in the words of Frank O’Connor, helps you to ‘get it down right’.
My debut novel, Eat the Moon, the favoured child, was made possible by the spur of the GreenBean Novel Fair at the Irish Writers’ Centre where I met Agent Jonathan Williams.
Jonathan sent my ‘Moon’ to Poolbeg Publisher Paula Campbell. A three-book contract followed. As I type, my second novel, ‘Under a Skellig Sky’, a romantic comedy with a bite, is launching as an eBook on Amazon.
Having my novels published is a dream-come-true. It’s such a privilege to be included among the ranks of published Irish writers.
Writing is intricately bound up with observation. I am a born observer, always registering moods, smiles, gestures, tones, expressions, the change of seasons. I notice the way people walk, what they say and don’t say to each other.
I was sitting on a Melbourne tram once, taking a visual inventory of the rest of the commuters, when my eyes locked with those of a woman. In that instant of connection, I realised she was an ‘observer’ too. The same thing happened to me in a more chilling way when my eyes scanned a courtroom in Tralee and met those of a murder accused.
Turning and shaping words and images as best I possibly can gives me most satisfaction. I write to create beauty and meaning. Poet Patrick Kavanagh summed it up perfectly in his poem, ‘The Hospital’.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge; For we must record love’s mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.
Chief among the essential advice I’d give an aspiring writer is not to be isolationist as I have been with the crucial exception of joining a small writing group in Killarney 15 years ago. The support and the constructive criticism of the members advanced me hugely on my writing journey.
Here are some more tips. Don’t worry about the first line. Just ‘turn on the taps’ and write furiously. The first line may emerge later.
Writing is all about re-writing. File down the pages. Make every word count. Make the language work harder. Limit adjectives.
Join/form a writing group. Alternatively, read your writing aloud, especially poetry. Take constructive criticism but retain a belief in your work.
Read for enjoyment but also read like a writer, noting the technique.
I write a first draft longhand. Use notebooks you like when writing. Keep everything as a record. Save a page at the front to note your subject titles and date.
Keep diaries. Jot down phrases you hear, things you notice. Push yourself to find new ways of describing things.
Enter competitions. Don’t expect instant success. Don’t give up if you don’t win. Persevere.
Go to literary festivals, workshops and readings. Teach yourself by reading, writing, using online resources. Join writing.ie and the Irish Writers’ Centre.
Writing is a craft like any other. Remember that the work of even the best of writers can look like a mess before it’s re-written and edited.
Write for the sheer pleasure of it, and if you are published it’s a bonus. Believe in the value of your individual voice and manner of expression. Savour the joy of a sentence, an image or a character coming to you as if coming from beyond you or ‘given’ to you. That’s what we call inspiration!
(c) Breda Joy
About Under A Skellig Sky:
Nomadic Carol O’Connell’s return to Glenosheen, overlooking the Skellig islands, is turning into one more in a series of half-baked decisions that pass for her life.
She searches for peace to recover from a broken relationship but her sleepy valley homeplace has woken up to Star Wars fever and mass tourism.
An experiment with Airbnb in her mother’s old farm guesthouse on the ‘Wet Atlantic Way’, a calamitous reunion with an ex and the rescue of a troubled friend sets her tumbling through the year.
As she follows her dream to become a successful artist before she hits forty, one of the bright lights under the ever-changing Skellig sky is a mystery New Zealand guest called Oliver. But tensions rise with the arrival of an eccentric, bingo-loving B&B inspector.
Friendship and the promise of a new love sustain Carol when she unwittingly introduces danger to the valley.
Order your copy online here.