The Mountains to the Sea festival, programmed by Tim Carey, Bert Wright and Sarah Webb is one of the busiest, most comprehensive literary festivals in Ireland today. In a whirlwind of workshops, seminars and readings, writers meet readers, aspiring writers meet published writers and, this year, almost 7000 enthusiasts celebrated one of the richest cultural locations in the country. I was privileged to facilitate several events, including a seminar with Dun Laoghaire Writer in Residence and bestselling author Chris Binchy, best seller Claire Kilroy and international sensation John Boyne. All three have studied for a Masters degree in Creative writing, Claire and Chris at Trinity College, Dublin, and John at the University of East Anglia. All three writers have their own way of working, of developing ideas and of committing those ideas to the page and revealed their top tips for ‘Getting the Job Done’. But first let me introduce the authors:
Claire Kilroy’s, debut novel All Summer was described in The Times as ‘compelling … a thriller, a confession and a love story framed by a meditation on the arts’, and was awarded the 2004 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Her second novel, Tenderwire was published to great acclaim in 2006, and was shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes Irish novel of the Year as well as the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. Educated at Trinity College, she lives in Dublin Her most recent novel is All Names Have Been Changed and, set against the backdrop of a creative writing class in the Trinity College is seeped Irish literary tradition. The Guardian said that this is a book about emotions rather than events ‘And her best chapter, in which Declan strikes up a perilous acquaintance with Giz, the delinquent drug dealer downstairs, should be cut out and pinned up in creative writing classes throughout the land.’
Chris Binchy studied English and Spanish at UCD and as mentioned above, later graduated from the master’s course in creative writing at Trinity College Dublin. He has worked as an embassy researcher, painter and hotel manager, and later trained as a sushi chef. He is now writer in residence for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, a much sought after position. His first novel, The Very Man, appeared in 2003 and was shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes / Sunday Independent Irish Novel of the Year award. He has also written People Like Us, Open Handed. Five Days Apart is his US debut. An American reviewer recently said, ‘Like Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle, Chris Binchy interweaves his characters’ lives in a tale of their irreversible mistakes, poor timing and undeniable affections. Readers will appreciate the honesty of this first novel, and the humor with which it is told.’
John Boyne is best known for the global success The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which to my mind is a modern classic, but has written many more books including a book for young readers Noah Barleywater Runs Away, and for adults The Thief of Time (2000), The Congress of Rough Riders (2001), Crippen (2004), Next of Kin (2006), Mutiny On The Bounty (2008), The House of Special Purpose (2009) and The Absolutist (2011) John has won 2 Irish Book Awards, the Bisto Book of the Year Award and has been shortlisted for many international literary prizes. His novels are published in over 40 languages. His latest novel is The Absolutist which is set against the backdrop of the Great War, the emotive subjects of conscientious objection and family honour, deep friendship and secrets. Colm Toibin said of it: “A wonderful, sad, tender book. There are some amazing things about this novel – one is the simplicity and purity of the narrative line; another is the …complexity within the characters and the emotions and the motives; another is the sense of the period, with all its restrictions. The book is going to have an enormous impact on everyone who reads it.” So what are their tips for Getting the Job Done? John kicked us off:
- Read your work out loud. At the end of every writing day, John reads his work out loud to no-one in particular (or maybe his dog). It enables him to identify areas not working, words that jar. (Interestingly Joseph O’Connor describes using this same method at the end of his writing day.)
- John cannot stress enough how important it is for writers never to rewrite a first draft until they have reached the end of that draft. Rewriting the opening chapters until they are perfect will not write your book – and you are very likely to get to the end and, with the discovery of new twists along the way, rewrite those opening chapters anyway.
- For anyone writing for children, don’t try and write a crossover book. Be true to your audience and focus on them. If it becomes a book that is read by adults and children, great, but don’t focus solely on that.
- Sometimes, at the start of a career, a book is finished and it might not be good enough to publish but you will have learned so much from writing it that all that knowledge can feed into writing the next one. Setting a book aside – permanently – is a difficult thing to do but it often has to happen.
- Exercise! Oxygenate your brain in the gym or by going for a walk, it will help your creativity.
- Expect your first draft to be crap
- Delete the inbetweeny bits – there is no need to include all the incidental details of your character’s day. The reader will automatically fill in the blanks – for instance your character can arrive at the bottom of a flight of stairs without having to step on every tread.
- The form of a novel is a unit; it needs to work as a whole. Make your novel coherent by linking character, events and symbols – let them echo through the text to draw the whole together.
- Use agile verbs. Your verb should do as much work as it can to make your text vivid and to truly bring it to life.
- Don’t tell anyone you are writing a novel! It might take longer than you think to write, and longer to get published.
- Balance confidence and self doubt. Try not to be consumed by either – just keep writing on the days that it is hard or not working and you will be able to shape those words later and improve them on re-writing.
- An edit will improve anything – leave any bits you aren’t sure about and come back to them later.
- Get other people to read your script, but ask people who read a lot in your genre or write themselves. You are looking to hear what is wrong with your book, not what is right with it.
- Whenever you get an idea, write it down. Use the notes or voice record function on your phone if you don’t have a pen. You will always forget your best ideas!
- Keep the first draft simple. Don’t over complicate the plot. Plot can be added but it’s very hard to take it away.
And finally, a point they all agreed on – publishing is a very small business, be nice to everyone. Today’s editorial assistant is tomorrow’s senior commissioning editor!