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Joseph O’Connor’s Top 10 Tips

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Joseph O'Connor

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Author and broadcaster Joseph O’Connor is to receive the 2012 Irish PEN Award for outstanding contribution to Irish Literature. The award will be presented at a dinner on Friday, 10 February, 2012, at the Royal St George Yacht Club, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.  The award will be presented by President Michael D. Higgins.  To learn more about Irish PEN see ourEssential Resources for Writers section for details and links.  Tickets for the Gala dinner cost €60 and can be purchased online here.

In this superb list of essential techniques, international best selling author Joseph O’Connor tells writing.ie his top ten tips for writing fiction – more information can be found on Joseph’s own website

Writing isn’t easy. That’s the first thing. 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.

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We collectively own this beautiful creation, the English language. It’s been made by countless multitudes of people, in dozens of countries, over hundreds of years, and it changes every day. It’s part of our inheritance, though we can never fully possess it. Old words die. New ones are born. What is the language for?

Nobody knows anything. These are just some ideas. Other writers have different approaches and doubtless would disagree passionately with much of what I am saying here. And they’d be right to disagree. This is only how I approach it myself. I’m going to give you my Ten Commandments. But they’re not carved in stone. And there are thirteen of them, not ten. But you get my general drift. They’re my touchstones, my guide-ropes, my signposts, my targets. I hope they help anyone who wants to write, as they’ve often helped me. They might.

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1: Learn to Read Like a Writer

If we don’t read very regularly, and in a particular way, we’re never going to be skilled writers of fiction. It’s that simple I’m afraid. There’s no point in my finessing it. Read newspapers, novels, magazines, short stories, poems, rap lyrics, whatever. Assemble your ten favourite novels and read them again, and keep reading them until you any interest in the plot has been ironed out of you, until you can see through the prose to the skeleton of the book. Learn from how other writers have done it. Think about howthey’re doing it. What is it about your favourite writer’s work that you like? Something in you is being touched by the way that author writes. You’re amused, chilled, turned-on, gripped, moved, engaged, taken on a journey. But why? Answering that question will help you find your writing voice. And once you find it, you’ll never lose it. By reading, I mean the close, attentive act described by FR Leavis, but I also mean the way a six-year-old reads: slowly, considering every word. Learn to weigh the words. Learn the cadence of a novel. Ask yourself why those words were chosen instead of other ones. Some time, read a novel in another language than your mother tongue, but a language you know a little of, a language you studied at school, maybe, so that you need to use a dictionary often while reading the novel. You’ll be amazed at what you learn about fiction by doing this.

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2: Beginnings

Whether it’s a novel, a short story, a letter to a loved one, a gossipy email to a friend, a blog entry, a book review, or any other kind of writing, always give the reader a reason to be interested. They have a lot of reasons not to be. They’re busy. They’re tired. They have endless other things they need to be doing. So introduce yourself. Try to make an impression right from the start. Be bold. Grab your courage. Otherwise they’re going to leave you. Think: ‘I’m on a date. And the clock is ticking. And this is someone I’d like to stay.’

A song by the Australian rock-star Nick Cave commences with the line: ‘When I came up out of the meat-locker, the city was gone.’ Who wouldn’t want to keep listening to such a tale? A short story in Anne Enright’s collection The Portable Virgin begins: ‘Cathy was often wrong.’ What a brilliant opening sentence, so simple and pure. We all know a Cathy, right?

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Look at the beginning of John McGahern’s novel That They May Face the Rising Sun. It doesn’t waste time. You’re immediately into the world of the characters. Some readers (myself among them) were so startled by the suddenness of the opening that they wondered if a printing fault had somehow omitted a few pages. But it’s that refusal to waste words that makes McGahern’s writing great. He knows he’s on borrowed time.

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. To be honest, I was even going to cut the first paragraph from this paper I’m reading now – but I decided to leave it in, and that was probably a mistake.

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3: Structure it.

One of the hardest things to do is to put shape on what you’re going to write. Where to start, where to finish, whose point of view? There are massively complicated questions but we can make them far more tortuously complicated than they need be if we forget that the point of what we’re writing is to communicate. ‘Only connect,’ wrote the novelist EM Forster. That’s what all writing is about. Making connection. Describing the world as accurately as we can, in such a way that the reader can see it.

We’re lucky in Ireland because a hugely important part of storytelling culture comes to us in song form, and no song can afford to be the length of a novel. Think of how a traditional Irish ballad is structured. ‘Arthur McBride’ or ‘The Fields of Athenry.’ It has a beginning, a middle, an end. Like a life. We’re born, we live, and we stop. The same is true of a Greek tragedy, a popular movie, a Brian Friel play, an episode of Father Ted, a U2 song, a nursery rhyme, a fairytale, a joke. It’s as true of William Trevor’s novels and Peter Carey’s, John Banville’s, Dermot Bolger’s, Graham Greene’s, Toni Morrison’s, and it’s particularly true of popular fiction, a genre where structure is everything. Literary critics call it a three-act structure, and most stories have one. My own novels certainly do. I draw it out on a page and keep it by my desk as I write. But essentially that’s just another way of saying ‘beginning, middle, end.’ The story should work like a series of milestones, allowing readers they’re making progress through the text. So always think about the roadmap of how to take the reader through what you want to say. Never let the reader get lost.

The great Hollywood screenwriting guru William Goldman once wrote that all stories are variations on the following Cover-Cowboys-Booksshape. Act One: Man sees tree. Act Two: Man climbs up tree and gets stuck in it. Act Three: Man somehow escapes from tree. It’s ludicrously reductive but it contains a kind of truth, and Aeschylus said pretty much the same thing. So, here’s my way of finding the structure of a story or of anything else you want to write. You could call it The Barstool Test. Imagine you’re sitting in a pub with a friend, and you’re telling them the two-minute version of your story, or your essay, your article, whatever it is. What would say? Actually recite the words in your mind. That will give you your beginning, your middle, your end – the usually three-act structure you need.
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4: Know the ending.

You and I could agree that we’re going to meet outside the GPO in Dublin at 7 p.m. this evening and make our way from there to Cork. The problem is that there are 500 ways we could go. We might drive straight to Cork, or cycle there, or walk there, or get the train to Galway and from there take a bus, or fly to London or Paris or San Francisco first. But we have to know the ultimate destination is Cork. Otherwise we’re going to get lost.

The same is true of most kinds of writing. You have to know the end before you begin. It might change as you write – it probably will, at least a little – but setting out without a conclusion in mind is only blackening pages, not writing. So give at least a little time to deciding where you’re ultimately going. You won’t regret it. And neither will your reader.

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5: Make something happen.

Stories are change. They are records of the exceptional. Even great writers forget this self-evident fact. Pretty much anything worth writing will be a record of change. Little Red Riding Hood didn’t just walk through the forest – she met the wolf and disobeyed her mother by stopping to talk to him. Casablanca isn’t the story of a guy who owns a bar; it’s the story of what happens when his old girlfriend comes in one night, disrupting all his certainties. Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ isn’t, as widely described, a play in which nothing happens. It’s a play, as one critic put it, ‘in which nothing happens, twice.’ And that’s what makes it engaging. A speech, an article, a chapter, a report – any kind of writing you’re ever likely to do – will turn quickly to ashes if nothing happens. So make something happen and the reader will stay with you. Fail to, and the reader gets bored. And goodnight.

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6: Understand Why Clichés Should be Avoided

The reason for not using clichés is that they numb the impact of language. Using a hackneyed figure of speech is like wrapping your meaning in fog. You’re making it harder for the reader to see what you’re getting at. You think you’re making it easier. But you’re not.

The first author who ever wrote ‘her cheeks were like roses’ did a fine job of portraying the complexion of the woman he was looking at. But the phrase means nothing now. We’ve heard it too many times. Our eyes just skate over it, as though it wasn’t actually there. In a way, it makes the woman invisible.

A traditional Irish song features the line ‘her cheeks were like blood-drops in snow.’ That’s so much more powerful. You can see that face.

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Yeats tells us that Maude Gonne had ‘beauty like a tightened bow’. Wham! You feelwhat he means. ‘When you looked at this woman, it was as though an arrow went through you. There was danger, tension, something pent-up.’ Lesser authors would have written a thousand words explaining how Maud Gonne looked. Yeats does it in five. Read Yeats.

On the opening page of Colm Toibin’s novel The Master, the central character, the novelist Henry James, awakens from a dream. He is feeble, weak, tired, creaky. He feels, Toibin writes, ‘like an old door.’ Anyone reading that image feels immediately what it means. Flannery O’Connor has a farmer’s wife whose head is ‘like a cabbage.’ If you’re going to use a simile, allow it to be real. .

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7: Sometimes be simple.

If there’s a way of saying it simply and directly, do. In other words, write what you mean. Raymond Carver has a character say ‘I felt everything was about to change.’ It couldn’t be described more accurately. It’s simple and perfect. Sometimes we don’t metaphors at all. William Trevor’s entire body of work contains almost no metaphors. Sometimes, they actually get in the way.

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8: Sometimes be funny.

To make a reader laugh is to catch him or her off balance with the guard briefly dropped. At such moments, immense possibilities become available to the writer. It’s something that was been understood by many of the greatest Irish authors: Swift, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Roddy Doyle. Think of the physical processes involved in laughing. We briefly lose control. Our facial muscles contort. The stiff upper lip and all other defences have abandoned us. We are emotionally vulnerable when we laugh.

There are few kinds of writing, and I mean very few indeed, that are not made more powerful by humour being an occasional part of the texture. Hugo Hamilton’s magnificent memoir The Speckled People uses comedy extremely cleverly. At the very moments when the reader is thrown by laughter, the hardest-hitting material is deployed. Like that other classic book about childhood, Sallinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, it works by employing humour to evaporate the reader’s defences.

9: Be truthful.

The poet and great short-story writer Raymond Carver wrote: ‘I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say “No cheap tricks” to a group of writing students. That should go on a three-by-five card. I’d amend it a little to “No tricks.” Period. I hate tricks. At the first sight of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick, or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are boring, and I get bored easily.” So don’t have your narrator wake up and discover it was all a dream, or be actually a cat, or a piece of furniture. The world we live in is interesting enough as it is. We don’t need tricks. Be honest in your writing. There’s a good chance that the reader will always respond to honesty. Tell it like it is, or you’re finished.

10: Personality

Many of us were taught in school or even in college that there is a correct way to write. I don’t mean grammar and sentence structure, which are absolutely important, and anyone wanting to write should know the basis of those. I mean tone, feel, atmosphere, correctness, the awful dreary production of grey, flat prose. It’s as though the Irish educational system wanted us all to be bank managers writing letters about interest rates and the Dow Jones average. 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.

11: Energy in the Sentence

We are told that James Joyce would often spend an entire day working on one sentence. Many new writers don’t have the time or the inclination to do that. But we can learn to love the language, to value its possibilities, to respect the fact that words actually mean something. We live in a world where language is debased every day. Politicians say ‘I’m glad you asked me that question’ when they mean the very opposite. Invasions are launched, with tens of thousands of innocent people killed, so that ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ can be introduced. Advertisers use words to persuade us we need things we don’t need. So be sceptical about language. Always ask why these words are being used. It helps your own writing to be lively and energetic. And if it’s lively and energetic, you’ll have readers.

You don’t agree with everything Eamon Dunphy ever wrote, right? (I suspect even Eamon Dunphy doesn’t do that.) But the work of a writer as committed and passionate will always be regarded as worth reading. The same is true of Orwell, of Montaigne, the late Nuala O’Faolain, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Paul Durcan, Morrissey. You might think those are unusual bedfellows. But not really, when you think about it. We want writers to give us their all. The half-baked doesn’t interest us. We go to writing to be told something we didn’t know.

As for the perfect, beautiful sentence, we do it by practise. But there are ways we can help ourselves and one of them is to read aloud. At the end of a session of writing, or once a week, or once a month, actually walk up and down the space where you write and read your work aloud to yourself. Learn to trust your inner ear. It will tell you if the sentence is right. And always mistrust the way a computer screen lays out perfect, beautiful paragraphs. If you can read it aloud without halting as you do, what you’ve written might be on its way to being right. The more I’ve written myself, the more I have come to see that prose needs music or it just doesn’t work. It needn’t be the operatic gloriousness of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with his page-long sentences and symphonies of adjectives. The plain music of Claire Keegan has its beauty too. Discovering the music of our prose and allowing it to be heard is a way of getting through to what we want to say.

12: Show don’t tell.

An old piece of advice you’ll have heard by now, but it’s good one, worth remembering and stressing. As Checkov said: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me moonlight reflected on broken glass.’ One of the strangest paradoxes of writing fiction is that the more you tell the reader, the less he or she knows. If you write ‘we were very happy indeed’ the reader thinks ‘big deal’. If you write ‘we grabbed each other and hugged and we couldn’t stop laughing’ the reader is in the scene. Putting the reader in the scene is everything to the storyteller. So describe what you can see, not what you know. Use visual words when possible. And never be afraid of leaving something out. Leaving something out is a powerful invitation to the reader, an incitement to the imagination of the person you must never forget. The reader is an essential participant in what you are writing. Meet them half way, and never more than that.

13 Know Who It’s For.

This is really important. It could be a letter to your lover, a short story, a piece of experimental drama, a comedy sketch, a poem. But having a clear idea of who it’s for will reveal a massive amount about the piece and will ultimately help you to write it.

Some writers, while composing their work, literally think of a real-life person who’ll be reading it. The English novelist Kingsley Amis once remarked that he had two ideal readers: his son (the writer Martin Amis), and the journalist Christopher Hitchens. And all good newspaper writers develop a sense of who is buying and reading their paper. If they don’t, they won’t last too long. The same is true for novelists. If I don’t know who’s reading, I get lost. Writing in a vacuum is really very difficult. So try to have a sense of who it’s for.

I think of it 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.

About the author

(c) Joseph O’Connor

Joseph O’Connor is the author of several novels, including the international bestsellers Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls. His seventh novel, Ghost Light, spent nine weeks as a no. 1 Irish bestseller. Packed with music and memories, O’Connor’s new novel Ghost Light is based loosely on the life of Molly Allgood, the Abbey Theatre actress who was the lover and muse of the great Irish playwright John Synge. Ghost Light has been chosen for the One Book, One City initiative for 2011, and a month of exciting events are planned for Dublin in April to celebrate the book, it’s music and subjects.

Joseph O’Connor joins an illustrious list of previous winners and honorary members of Irish PEN: John B. Keane, Brian Friel, Edna O’Brien, William Trevor, John McGahern, Neil Jordan, Seamus Heaney, Jennifer Johnston, Maeve Binchy, Thomas Kilroy, Roddy Doyle, Brendan Kennelly, and Colm Tóibín.

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