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100 Tips from Ireland’s Top Authors (Revisited)

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Writers’ Tips

Vanessa O'Loughlin

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In celebration of the relaunch of writing.ie with an exciting new design and tons more content, we’re going back to one of the articles that launched the original site in February 2010. We put out a call to authors for tips for our users – we hit our aim of 100 effortlessly, demonstrating just how generous Irish authors are to new writers. They are listed here in an utterly random order; we pulled the tips from a hat to bring you the very best of the best. A huge thanks to everyone! So here we go, starting with award winning author and journalist Martina Devlin (because she was the first to respond to my call!)

1.     Writing is like a muscle – the more you use it, the more limber you become. Write a little every day that you possibly can, even if only a few sentences. It’s a discipline that repays the writer, making it easier to return to a piece of work. Martina Devlin, Author and Journalist

2.     The true secret of writing is bum glue. A good dollop every day, no excuses, no exceptions. It’s the only way you’ll ever finish a book. Bum glue and damn hard work. Sarah Webb, Author

3.     Never give your readers an excuse to put down the book. Niamh O’Connor, Author and Journalist

4.     Writing isn’t easy. It’s like singing: most people think they can do it, and most people can, a little, but doing it beautifully doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We have to work at it. But it’s worth the effort. Joseph O’Connor Author

5.      ‘Don’t be afraid to use ‘said’ when writing dialogue. ‘Said’ is a word that sort of disappears on a page – the eye tends to skip over it, yet it serves its purpose. Sometimes when starting out, writers feel that they have to use their full arsenal of alternatives, (shrieked/yelled/laughed) when really, all they need to do is write ‘said’! Melissa Hill, Author

6.     When polishing, read the entire book aloud. It works! Sally Clements, Author

7.     This is my favorite story: Doris Lessing, seminal literary author, decided to play a trick on her publishers and send in her new novel for anonymous submission. It was rejected as “a poor imitation of Doris Lessing.” Kate Kerrigan, Author

8.    My favourite writing quote is: “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” (Louis D. BrandeisHelen Falconer, Author

9.      My favourite writing quote is this one: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow Sarah Webb, Author

10.  One of the very best craft books for writer is Stephen King’s On Writing. Every writer has it on their book shelf. A combination of autobiography and how to that is ‘Challenging, exhilarating, hilarious and often very moving’ says Ruth Long, Author. Sarah Webb agrees, she says: ‘If you want to write popular fiction, or any kind of fiction really, the best book I’ve ever read on the subject is without doubt On Writing by Stephen King. It’s funny, inspiring and honest.’

11.  Twenty years ago, when I started writing, the journalist Vincent Browne gave me a good piece of advice. ‘Cut the first paragraph. It’s nearly always not needed.’ Try it with any piece of writing, including your fiction. It usually works. Joseph O’Connor, Author

12.  What’s the point of your story? What’s the plot? If they’re simple, proceed. Niamh O’Connor, Author

13.  Everyone’s got a story to tell. Just keep writing and you’ll find your voice. Sarah Franklin Author and Editor

14.  “Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine e.g. ‘horse’, ‘ran’ ‘said’.” Roddy Doyle. Author & Founder of Fighting Words

15.  Don’t be afraid to have a personality in your language. Colour, power, wit, slang, the zest and juice of popular speech are some of the reasons Irish writers have produced truly great work. So don’t write the way anyone told you to. Always be yourself. You’ve got something to say. So say it.  Joseph O’Connor, Author

16.  The best advice I was ever given about writing is, simply, WRITE! Anywhere, anyplace, anyhow. A room of one’s own is all very well but in this day and age writing has to be a movable feast. In the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the living room, in the car, in the park, in the crowded café – wherever and whenever you can throw your laptop down and shut out the world for half an hour.  Evelyn Cosgrave, Author

17.  Consider yourself a writer – published or not. You are writing. There is no reason to believe you are not just as good if not better than your heroes. They are just a little further along the road. Claire Allan, Author

18.  The best book on getting published is ‘From Pitch to Publication’ by Carole Blake, an invaluable guide from an agent who really knows her stuff. Sarah Webb, Author

19.  For me, probably the most important piece of advice I’d give to someone who hopes to make a living from writing (apart from ‘Just Don’t Quit’) is this: know your ending. It’s much easier to plan a journey if you have a destination in mind. You can always change direction as you go, but you do need to choose a direction before you set off. Oisin McGann, Author

20.  Write every day – at least, every day that you break bread. Ivy Bannister, Author

21.  So true: “I can fix a bad page, I can’t fix a blank one.” — Nora Roberts. Vanessa O’Loughlin, Author and Founder of writing.ie

22.  Alan Sillitoe said: “Quantity produces quality.” It doesn’t matter if what you write is rubbish – writing is not a miraculous can or can’t “gift”. It’s the same as any other skill: practice makes perfect. Kate Kerrigan, Author.

23.  Write something/anything to keep the story moving along. It may feel like rubbish at the time, but a small nugget of an idea may come out of it. Hazel Gaynor, Author, Blogger & Journalist

24.  I think of writing in musical terms. The writer is providing the sheet music. It’s the reader who is singing the song. To know who you’d like to make sing is an important factor. It also helps to stop writing being egotistical. Writing must always be about the reader, in the end, not the writer. If I have one single commandment, that’s it. Joseph O’Connor, Author

25.  My favourite quote: “If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life” – Siberian Elder. Ruth Long, Author

26.  “Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.” Roddy Doyle Author, Founder of Fighting Words

27.  Never end your writing day at the end of a chapter – always much easier to start writing if you are bang in the middle of something, especially if it is exciting! Colette Caddle, Author

28.  A writer needs two things to survive: a thick skin and low overheads. Kate Kerrigan, Author

29.  Every parent of teenagers knows that their most important formative influences come from their friends.  You can only take your children so far; after that, it’s all down to a combination of luck and who they hang out with. Writing is like that.  Who and what you read matters.  The good news is that all it takes to be able to cosy up to the greats and learn from them – even if they’re dead, even if they live on the far side of the world or on another planet – is a trip to the local library or your nearest bookshop. Lia Mills, Author

30.  There is nothing like adversity to kindle creativity and push where we wouldn’t normally go. Kristi Thompson, Blogger

31.  Resist the urge to keep going back over what you’ve already written to edit and perfect – keep moving the story forward (leave the editing for later) Hazel Gaynor, Blogger & Journalist

32.  YA Author, Laura Jane Cassidy says her favourite quote is: ‘A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.’ Richard Bach

33.  The best books are the ones you can’t put down. One exception: the best ‘how to write’ books are the ones you keep putting down so you can get back to your writing! Claire Hennessy, Author and Writing Tutor

34.  I always keep a separate word file for each day so I can see exactly what I’ve achieved – it’s great to read the word count when it’s good, and a spur to keep working a little bit longer when it’s not. Colette Caddle, Author

35.  Zoe Miller, Author, says this one of her favourite motivational tips, especially when she has a tremendous urge to clean the layer of dust off the skirting boards instead of turning on the laptop, ‘Women with clean houses do not have finished books’ Joy Held

36.  Don’t give in to imposter syndrome. Don’t think you ‘can’t’ be a writer because you didn’t study English/don’t have a newspaper column/haven’t got a book deal. Everybody started somewhere. Sarah Franklin, Author and Editor

37.  Read. Look at any child who can write well. Bet they’re readers. Denise Deegan, Author

38.  Start a blog and a Twitter account – they are a great way to keep writing (even if the bestseller isn’t finding its way out of you!) and a fantastic way to connect and keep in touch with other writers, to help you feel less ‘alone’ through the writing process. Hazel Gaynor, Blogger & Journalist

39.  If you use social networking as a writer, don’t forget that it is a public forum.  Be conscious of what you say and the impression you give. You never know who is listening. Also be aware of the law.  What you say online is published and is subject to the laws of defamation & contempt of court to name but two. You can get in a lot of trouble from a stray tweet. Abigail Rieley, Author & Journalist

40.  Engage all the senses when writing. How does something smell, feel or sound? What can the character taste? Easiest way to make them real to a reader is to sink yourself deeply into their consciousness when writing and only deal with what that point of view character can experience at that moment. Ruth Long, Author

41.  Don’t spend weeks agonising over a chapter…..move on….as you get to know the characters, it will be easier to write at a later stage. Colette Caddle, Author

42.  Time is a great healer for editing work. Write your draft, and leave it –to spring forth in the dark. When you go back to it many of its ‘ghastlies’ and clunky bits will be apparent. It’s easier to root them out when you can see what you’re working on. Many writers want to go to print too early. Keep waiting till you’re as sure as you can be in this uncertain business that the present draft is the very best you can deliver. Of course every draft is your best and one of the many curses befalling writers is the shock when you behold a draft/play/story that you gave your all, to and see it with all its imperfections. But when you do persevere the reward is mighty (even if it’s only a private one!) Miriam Gallagher, Author and Playwright

43.  Don’t always sit in front of the laptop waiting for ideas – read books, watch TV, go for walks, read glossy mags at the hairdressers – feed your creative mind – it’s amazing where inspiration for an idea/character/name may be found. Hazel Gaynor Journalist & Blogger

44.  Save interviews with writers you admire – even if you don’t work in the same way they do, it’ll remind you that books are written by real people. Claire Hennessy, Author and Writing Tutor

45.  Your Roget’s Thesaurus is your friend, but not your only friend.  Kate Dempsey, Writer, Blogger and Poet

46.  DON’T set your goals too high or it will be counterproductive – set small goals and it will be a bonus if you exceed them. Maria Duffy Hello! Magazine Blogger

47.  When editing your finished manuscript, put all your talent, creativity, effort into perfecting the first few pages – they are what will sell your book to the agent, the publisher and the reader. Colette Caddle, Author

48.  ‘Writing’ is sitting on your backside every day, writing. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s no communing with your inner spirit, with the muse, with your creative being etc. It’s just sitting, writing words on a page. Now, this may seem rather depressing, to learn that most of writing is just slog, but it can be liberating, too. If you sit down in your chair, every morning or evening and write, something will come, even if the muse hasn’t descended. There’s no magic needed, just a bit of space and time. Alison Walsh, Author & Editor

49.  According to the magical interweb American author James Thurber said this first: Don’t get it right, get it written. In order to right well in the future (second draft) you have to allow yourself to write a little crappy now (first draft).  Catherine Howard, Author

50.  Make friends with Rejection and Disappointment. They are an unavoidable part of the writing process. Of course, they may not always be welcome visitors and you’ll feel terrible while they hang around, but they will eventually leave and then you’ll pick yourself up and get back to the writing. Hazel Gaynor, Blogger & Journalist

51.  Keep on keeping on! When you are knitting a novel or pottering about on a play eventually the parts add up. Like beads in a necklace. If you collapse from fatigue, disappointment or the sheer terror of it all just tell yourself, ‘it won’t write itself!’ Play some music (Mozart is terrific) while you take up your pen. Then go for an inspiring walk or pause for one of your treats. These need to be earned, otherwise life will be series of coffees, baths or cinema matinees- and enticing as this seems, they won’t get the words onto the page. Miriam Gallagher, Author and Playwright

52.  Plotting: When starting a new project, try to write the blurb on the back of the book first. It can crystalise a story and give an idea of direction. If you want to go further, try writing a simple 1 or 2 page synopsis. Write out 20 things that have to happen in the story, or a series of high-point scenes and then go back and find a way to link them together. A plot can be as detailed or as simple as you want. And it is never set in stone. The writer can always change the story. Ruth Long, Author

53.  If you’re working on the computer, try using different fonts for different styles/voices. Claire Hennessy, Author and Writing Tutor

54.  ‘The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers’ by Betsy Lerner (American) is a fascinating book described as ‘a riveting safari through the wilds of a writer’s brain.’ Ever wondered what exactly editors think about when faced with a manuscript? Then this is the book for you! Sarah Webb, Author

55.  Don’t forget that as a writer you are in the emotional manipulation business. Nobody has to read a novel. People read novels for the emotional experience, and it’s your job to provide that. Each genre has a specific emotion, or set of emotions, which are first stimulated and then satisfied. For a murder mystery, the emotion is curiosity. For a thriller, the emotion is fear. For a romance the emotion is love/tenderness etc. The more you can make the readers feel the emotions of the characters, rather than just observe them, the more successful a writer you’ll be. Tracy Culleton, Author, Writing Tutor and Mentor

56.  Sign up for NaNoWriMo – NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH (run every November) – it’s a great motivator and a wonderful way to get some words on the page. Hazel Gaynor Journalist & Blogger

57.  Author Julia Kellys says: Try to write in a room that has no internet access – it is horribly distracting and utterly addictive! Hello! Magazine Blogger Maria Duffy agrees, she says: Although social networking sites are helpful & fun, DON’T log into them (Twitter!!) before you start your daily writing or you’ll be sucked in and lose hours of valuable time – allow yourself some time on Twitter, etc,  AFTER you do your day’s writing, as a reward for work well done.

58.  “Whenever you come up against a dead-end or are in need of inspiration, remember that you’ve got a writing partner who’s prepared to work 24/7 and is more imaginative than you.  I’m talking about your subconscious.  Frame your issues as questions.  Write them down.  ’Consciously’ hand them over to your subconscious and go off and do something enjoyable.  You’ll be amazed at the (painless) results.” Alan Healy, Author

59.  Writing is like sculpting.  You start off with the bare idea and shape it into the rough form but it’s only after a lot of chiseling you get the finished piece.  Never underestimate the value of repeated edits. Abigail Rieley Author & Journalist

60.  When submitting work, always spell the editor or agent’s name correctly.  If you’re submitting to a gender neutral name and aren’t quite sure whether to go with Ms. or Mr. just go ahead and say “Dear Pat Riordan” instead.  It’s better than guessing incorrectly and starting off with an error! Beth Morrissey, Freelance Writer & Author

61.  Learn how to use the record button on your phone. Many times I’ve had the best idea ever while I’m in the car and forgotten what it was by the time I got home. Maria Duffy Hello! Magazine Blogger

62.  Abigail Rieley says “Some people can’t write with noise going on around them, I’m not one of them.  I have different playlists depending on what I’m writing, sometimes different ones depending on who I’m writing.  It’s the fastest way I know to get into the right frame of mind for the work ahead.”

63.  Just write. Don’t worry about quality; that’s what edits (and editors!) are for. I remember screenwriter William Goldman, quoting a famous choreographer: ‘do something, anything, so that you’ve got something to change’ Sarah Franklin, Author and Editor

64.  Treat yourself to a copy of ‘The Artist’s Way’ to get past fears, blockages and to boldly go. It is on every published writer’s bookshelf. Denise Deegan, Author

65.  Great books on writing: ‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamott is more memoir than writing guide, but is very entertaining. ‘And Writing Down the Bones’ by Natalie Goldberg, billed as how to ‘free the writer within’ is another good writerly pick-me-up. Sarah Webb, Author

66.  DON’T feel you have to conform to a certain way of writing, i.e. mornings, quiet room, etc. Write where, when and how suits you best.  The more comfortable you feel, the more the writing will flow. Maria Duffy Hello! Magazine Blogger

67.  Author Claire Allan’s favourite writing quote is from a song:

“Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten”

68.  This is one of my favourite writing quotes from one of my favourite authors – Margaret Atwood: ‘You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer.’ Patricia O’Reilly, Author

69.  Don’t worry too much about having the perfect idea/the perfect time. There’s no such thing. Start getting things down and tweak them. Sarah Franklin Author and Editor

70.  My favourite quote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” Virginia Woolf from A Room of One’s Own.  We might be good at working round the demands of a busy life but her comment still rings particularly true on those days when life gets in the way of uninterrupted writing…and it’s just as true if you write nonfiction by the way. Abigail Rieley, Author & Journalist

71.  End chapters on cliff hangers to maintain suspense. Mary Malone, Author

72.  Write down every idea you get – especially the ones when you’re drifting off to sleep or just waking up. Claire Hennessy, Author and Writing Tutor

73.  Writer’s Block is a scary thought and feeling you just can’t write a word is the most frustrating feeling in the world. But when there’s a looming deadline it tends to become a luxury.  Self imposed deadlines can work just as well – even if it’s only a couple of hundred words before lunch. Just get the words down. It’s only the first draft after all. Abigail Rieley, Author & Journalist

74.  Keep going. Don’t give up. If you do set something aside, start something new. Don’t be afraid to have more than one project on the go at the time because when one isn’t working you can always turn your attention to the other. Ruth Long, Author

75.  Work around your best time. Some folk rise with the lark and have a bestseller on the page by mid morning.  Good for them I say, but it’s not for everyone. What can work is to glide into the working mode with a relaxation exercise followed by a spot of free writing then return to your work of the previous session and complete a bit of it. A good tip is to leave a speech/sentence/paragraph half finished the day before so you’re off to a flying start. Not so brainy if you die overnight leaving your descendants to guess what you meant! Miriam Gallagher, Author and Playwright

76.  Read your dialogue aloud to ensure authenticity. Mary Malone, Author

77.  Don’t worry too much about what you’re writing. Just keep going. You can edit when you’re finished. And edit again. And again. Denise Deegan, Author

78.  For nonfiction, never forget that everything is a story and it’s your job to tell it.  It’s not just about getting the facts down in some kind of order, there has to be a narrative flow. It sounds obvious but it can still be easily forgotten. Abigail Rieley, Author & Journalist

79.  Print off your manuscript and always edit and proofread from a hard copy. You will be surprised at how many more little blips you will find. Mary Malone, Author

80 . Don’t judge what you write while you’re writing it. Plenty of time for that later. Creating is right-brain stuff, judging and fixing is left-brain, and you can’t do both together, so don’t try. Give yourself permission to write rubbish, and your writing will flow. Everything can be fixed. You have as many chances to get it right as you want. So there is no risk. Try to be fearless. Try to know that there is absolutely no cost to getting it wrong. Tracy Culleton, Author, Writing Tutor and Mentor

81 “You must lay down sentences and paragraphs, like an athlete lays down miles. Put words through your fingers, like a musician drums scales. Go on your knees to the mysteries of inspiration, like a priest before an altar.” Orna Ross, Author

82. Ensure any story questions raised are answered. There is nothing more frustrating than a forgotten plot! This isn’t an editor’s idea of a cliff hanger. Mary Malone, Author

83.  Think of the pace of your story like an arc, as it builds to a climax and slows back down to resolution. Mary Malone, Author

84.  My writing tip is: Don’t be precious about your first work of art. While you’re trying to get it published, you should already be working on your second. That’s good sense, not a betrayal of your baby! (I fear the first book I wrote was my best, but without my second, there’s every chance I’d never have been published.) Judi Curtin, Author

85.  Be aware of self- sabotage. Set aside your writing time and stick to it! Your work needs quiet and harmony. Your head will be busy enough without letting in distractions. As per the Desiderata, avoid vexatious people. The amazing thing is how many people still manage to bring off a novel or play despite having a family to look after (mothers mainly) or other calls on their time. Because we use words to communicate a lot of people don’t respect the effort of professional writers and may ask ‘Are you still at the writing/scribbling/the old poetry?’  My favourite time as a writer was when no one knew I was writing at all so I was free to just get on with the work. Miriam Gallagher, Author and Playwright

86.  Don’t overuse exclamation marks. Mary Malone, Author

87.  Be brave. You’re putting yourself out there when you write; it can be quite intimidating; but one person’s ‘normal’ is another person’s ‘amazing story’. Sarah Franklin Author and Editor

88.  Don’t overdo description on characters who will only appear in one scene! E.g. A delivery boy. Mary Malone, Author

89.  Consider getting a writing ritual. Maybe literally a thinking cap! Or a particular piece of music – or whatever you like. This will train your brain into getting into writing mode when the writing ritual is engaged. Just make sure your writing ritual is something that you can do easily whenever and where ever you want  – don’t make it too complex. Tracy Culleton, Author, Writing Tutor and Mentor

90.  Write at white heat and edit with steel in your heart. Mary Malone, Author

91.  You know that old saying “Dance as if no one is watching” – well write as if no one will read it! Try not to think about editors and agents and readers. Write what you are passionate about, not what you think the market will be passionate about. The market is a fickle friend – but good writing will win out. Claire Allan, Author

92.  Set realistic targets and treat yourself when you meet them. Mary Malone, Author

93.  Be proud of your achievements. Many talk about writing books but few reach THE END. Mary Malone, Author

94. London agent Darley Anderson gave me great advice – he quoted Ken Folett, saying there should be a dramatic turn in every story, every 4-6 pages. Make something interesting/exciting happen every 3000 words and you’ll keep your reader hooked.   Vanessa O’Loughlin, Author & Founder writing.ie

95. Get your facts as accurate as possible – you may not know everything about cricket but one of your readers will. Mary Malone, Author

96.  Write in your own voice. Don’t try to be the next Cecelia Ahern/ Marian Keyes/ Cathy Kelly. Be the first YOU. The originality of a voice is what will attract an editor. It will also mean you are being true to yourself – which makes the whole process a lot more enjoyable! Claire Allan

97.  Trust your editor – he or she is a professional and knows what they are doing. Remember they are on your side. Mary Malone, Author

98. Every sentence should move the plot forward, every line of dialogue, every line of description should be there for a reason – to progress the story. Vanessa O’Loughlin, Author & Founder of writing.ie

99. Know everything possible about your characters – Complete a detailed CV about each one. Mary Malone, Author

100. Never let the words get in the way of the story. Simple is more difficult than verbose. Focus on the story – you want the reader to live it, not to feel like they are reading it. Vanessa O’Loughlin, Author & Founder of writing.ie

And the simplest and possibly the most important advice from International bestselling author Monica McInerney:

Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Edit, edit, edit.

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