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Filling The Blank Page by Jennifer Burke

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Getting Started

Jennifer Burke

There is no one right way to go about getting published. But there is one thing you do need – a finished book. Once you have an idea for a story that you are really passionate about, start writing. Nothing else. As ÓrfhlaithFoyle said in her article yesterday just write.

It sounds too simple to be real advice, but if you look at interviews with published authors, you’ll see that a common answer to the question “What advice would you give aspiring writers?” is “Just write.”

The trouble with our interactive world is that there is a myriad of distractions that make you feel productive. There are books on how to write novels. Websites dedicated to the craft. Twitter and Facebook page updates from the industry. You could spend all day working on how to write, but never actually write anything.

When I first started my first novel, The Secret Son, I wrote as much as a could – then hit a brick wall. I knew there were problems, but I just couldn’t pinpoint what they were. So I took a day long course in the Irish Writers Centre with Juliet Bressan on how to write a novel. During those few hours, I learnt valuable tips on plotting and planning, hints on style and pros, and advice on how to overcome the common stumbling blocks of first time writers. It was invaluable.

Afterwards, I remember talking to my family and friends about the day. I gushed about how it had been brilliant meeting other aspiring writers, and how I had learnt so much. A few people asked me – “Well, if you enjoyed it so much, why don’t you do another course?” It was a fair question. There were plenty of other courses out there, and I would have had great fun doing them. But I wanted to be a writer. And deep down, I knew that what I really needed was not another course, but to take what I had learned and just write.

Pictured Jennifer Burke, author. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.I’m not saying to stay away from courses, or self-help books or free advice on the internet (like this!). I got exactly what I wanted out of the course I took – help from a published author on the aspects of writing a novel that I was having trouble grasping myself. But I could easily have fallen into the trap of distractions.

It’s ironic, but the hardest thing about writing is actually sitting down with a blank page or screen in front of you, and getting the words down. It is far easier to amend something that is already written than to write from scratch. So I advise not worrying about the order or flow or finesse of your novel on the first draft. Just get words down on paper – you can tidy it later.

When I began The Secret Son, I started getting up an hour earlier in the mornings before work. It wasn’t easy, because it was the middle of winter. Still pitch black outside and freezing. Plus I had a full time job – I could have done with the extra hour of sleep. But I wrapped up and forced myself to type for the hour. By the time I actually set up my computer and cocooned myself in my extra-woolly duvet, I probably only got 40 minutes done a day. But after a few months, I had a solid word count and a developing story, and so the motivation to continue.

When I finished the novel, I felt it wasn’t as good as I could get it, but I didn’t know how to make it better. Again I was stuck. So I did another course, this time a ten week ‘Finish Your Novel’ course with Conor Kostick.

While in the first course I had learned how to plan and start my novel, in this course I found the tools I needed to polish and complete the book. There were people there who had done the course before. They enjoyed it so much, and got so much out of it they came back. Nothing wrong with that – I was tempted to myself, because it was so helpful. But again, I knew that repeating the course wouldn’t finish the novel for me. I had taken it for a reason, to learn specific techniques to help me, and now I had to apply those techniques to my own work.

There is no substitute for just writing. And with new terms beginning, September is the perfect month to start.

(c) Jennifer Burke

Check out the rest of this series of articles here:

Finding a Story

Plotting and Planning

Reworking the Finished Story

About the author

Jennifer Burke is a Dublin based author and solicitor. In July 2013, her life changed forever when a TV3 camera crew burst into her office to announce that she had won their Write A Bestseller competition, and with it a three book deal with Poolbeg Press. Her first novel The Secret Son was published in September 2013 to critical acclaim. Its success in the bestsellers list prompted Poolbeg Press to establish a new imprint, Ward River Press, which focuses on accessible literary fiction. Jennifer also writes shorter fiction. Her short story, Leaving the Cold Behind, was published in the 2012 From the Well Anthology and she has been shortlisted for the past three consecutive years in the Fish Flash Fiction competition. Jennifer takes part in a monthly writing group in the Irish Writers Centre. Her second novel, Levi’s Gift, will be published in September 2014.

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