An Interview with Cynan Jones

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer

Aspiring novelists are often told that every word in a novel must do a job. That’s great advice, but what does that kind of precision actually look like? Answer: it looks like any novel written by Cynan Jones. Jones writes the most evocative prose, without wasting a single word. His writing is so precise that fellow author, Jon Gower, described him as writing ‘with a scalpel, rather than a pen’.

Aspiring novelists are also told not to write reams of static description. This is a faux-pas that even established novelists struggle to avoid, but Jones skillfully and seamlessly interweaves descriptive language into the narrative. It is never cut adrift from the story itself. Something that is very difficult to achieve.

I recommend that aspiring authors read, at a very minimum, one of his novels. Not only will you enjoy it, but you might learn something about the two elements of the craft that I refer to above. Things that I’m very much still working on.

I met Cynan Jones at the West Cork Literary Festival (link to blog post on the festival). I very cheekily asked him for an interview and I’m very grateful to him for agreeing to it, and offering his insights and advice as a successful author for the benefit of my readers.

Your writing is vivid and evocative, but there is no superfluity in it. It’s clear that you are very efficient in how you approach the editing process. Most aspiring authors find editing be the most bewildering and daunting aspect of the process.

(a) How do you approach it? Mercilessly. You can’t fall for your own prose. You can’t let poetry seduce you. Are the words earning their place? If they’re not, what is their function? That’s how I approach editing.

(b) How do you know when to stop cutting words? Instinct. I put things under such pressure. Actually, I’ve found myself in situations when I’m cutting words for the sake of it, just to prove the words aren’t in control. So… the only thing you have is the instinct that put them there in the first place, and the intuition to keep them if they were the right ones.

(c) Do you have any editing tips for aspiring novelists? In most cases, the clearer you are about what you want to say, the fewer words you’ll need. If you’ve gotten wordy somewhere, it’s usually because you’re not clear yourself on the story. You need to spot that before someone else does.

You now have five novels under your belt. Is this pared-back style of writing now instinctive, or do you still have to edit heavily?

It’s different with every book. With every story, even. But in general, less unnecessary stuff hits the page now. The technical side of things is more competent, so I’m more free to concentrate on the effect beyond that – much like a sportsman gets to a point where they’re thinking about what to do with the ball, rather than ‘how’ to hit it.

In Cove, the protagonist suffers from amnesia after being struck by lightning whilst at sea in a kayak. He has a shard of a memory of his past. A wren’s feather is the anchor for that memory. Through this simple object, you manage to create a delicate poignancy without sentimentality. You ‘see’ your stories before you write them, but as emotion cannot be seen, how do you manage to ‘visualise’ emotion and what process do you go through to express it through the setting and the objects that surround your characters?

The things we see trigger emotions, so you show the reader something they react to, rather than try to deliver the emotion to them pre-packaged. You have to trust the reader to get it, and have the instinct and technique to write it right.

You are courageous enough to write the story that is meant to be written, and refuse to ‘write-by-numbers’. Many aspiring authors fear breaking with convention, despite the fact that their story may require it.

(a) How difficult did you find it to stay true to your story? — The key is to let the story speak louder than every other voice that wants to offer advice on it. The story knows itself better than anything else does, but you have to give it the time to be able to transmit that.

(b) What other risks have you taken with your writing that paid off? — At the risk of avoiding the question, there are so many. It was a risk from the start. I’ve ditched other opportunities to pursue it; I’ve stuck with what I believe I should be writing, not adjusted in order to be published; I’ve made massive calls with most of the books, on the grounds those books themselves demanded it. (See above note about the story knowing itself!) I cut 60,000 words from the precursor to The Dig, for example. In one stroke.

(c) What convinced you that the risks were worth taking in the first place? — The thrill of writing a strong story outweighs the risk of not being published. If ‘being published’ is your end game, you’ll always be compromised.

You set many of your novels beside the sea, or in Cove’s case, on the sea. Given that you live close to the sea, can you describe your own relationship with the ocean?

No different from my relationship with the solid ground around me. I’m a product of this place, and so are my stories. In essence, I populate the place around me, as I did as a kid. It’s make-believing.

 What I loved about Cove was the fact that the descriptive language used was woven carefully into the story itself, there was no static description. At the same time, in your interview with Cressida Leyshon for The New Yorker you stated that you wanted your readers to pick ‘their patch of ocean’. How do you balance a need to inform and guide the imagination of the reader with description, whilst also assisting the reader to maintain their autonomy over the picture painted in their head?

It’s just trust. As I mention above, regarding emotion. That sounds glib. But it’s trust in the reader.

Quick-fire Questions:

What is your favourite part of the writing process and why?

The spark of a story. That’s what makes you go to the desk, put the time into learning to write. To do justice to that. It’s the driver.

What one piece of advice that you would give to people that want to learn the craft of writing?

Read.

What do you think are the fundamental elements of a good story?

There’s no easy answer to that. A story has to have life. It can only be broken up into fundamental elements in the way a baby can be broken up into sets of arms and legs and so on.

What have you learned about yourself since you started writing novels?

I actually do like writing in the way I imagined I would if I made a fist of it.

Who is the writer you most admire?

Impossible. Gun to the head, one author. John Steinbeck.

What was favourite childhood book?

Childhood goes on for 16 years or so, and I read avidly for all of it. I guess the Narnia Chronicles were huge; Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Trilogy. But I also remember titles I could tell you only the broad strokes of: The Indian in the Cupboard. Young Legionary. The Sword in the Stone. Later on, Cussler, Conan Doyle, Alexander Cordell’s Rape of the Fair Country. The list is endless, and responsible for me writing in the first place.

If the writing ended tomorrow, and you could pick a dream job, what would it be?

If I don’t do the writing, it does end. Nothing is going to ‘stop it’ other than a collapse in the conviction it is my dream job.

You mentioned at the Cork Literary Festival that you like to paint. Who is your favourite artist?

Sounds like a cop out, but I just don’t do ‘favourites’. Sentimentally, I’ve had a print on the wall of John Singer Sargent’s The Black Brook since I was in Uni. That’s rich and evocative, fluid and detailed. I also have a lithograph by Viani. One simple, subtle line suggesting form. Two utterly different ends of the visual medium.

To read more about Cynan, visit his website here.

Best Writing Online Resources and Apps

Feeling uninspired when you want to get stuck into a new project is fairly fecken demoralising. Some people eschew writing prompts, but like everything, there are the good, the bad and the ugly.

There are many online/appy resources offering writing prompts, but my pet peeves are the auto-generated ones or the ones that consist of a single word. The entire point of a prompt is that it moves you in some way. A machine generating groups of unrelated words and spewing them out, or a person opening a dictionary, closing their eyes and picking a random word with their finger isn’t going to cut the mustard.

The best prompts are generated by human beings who have actually put some thought into the exercise. Human beings can find something intriguing in the composition of a sentence, or the appearance of an object, or a picture. AI is yet to develop that gift. And so auto-generated/ lazy-human generated prompts are going to be the less effective ones.

I know, I know, I know. Some nutters like silly prompts because they like to write for fun.  Not me. I like my writing like I like my coffee: difficult, dark and utilitarian. No. I don’t want to write a story about a psychic ballerina whose arch-nemesis is a three-legged unicorn that works in Starbucks. No sirree. You might disagree with me on this, and if so you’re welcome to leave your comments below. Maybe you found a market for your romance novel about the lion-tamer that falls in love with the ghost of a near-sighted juggler until he receives a mysterious invitation to herd alpacas in Peru. I’d love to hear that silly prompts led to something good and publishable.

In terms of the benefits of using good prompts, when I first started writing this blog, I made it clear that I claim no expertise on anything but my own experiences. I find prompts great when I’m letting the novel rest and I want to work on other things. The idea of working on other things is great, but sometimes I can’t summon even the tiniest germ of an idea for a new project.

Thanks to the use of writing prompts I have the makings of five good short stories, two plays and a novel. I might go back to them after I’ve finished my novel, or I might not. ‘How can you afford to be so casual in your disposal of good ideas?’ you ask. Well, a happy side-effect of my success with writing prompts is that I’m confident that there’s no limit to the number of stories I can summon up from my imagination. If nothing comes naturally to me, I know that ideas can be lured out from their hidey-holes with the assistance of a writing prompt. There are loads of ideas knocking around up there, some of them are just a bit shyer than others.

Here are my favourite resources for fiction writing prompts. I’ve linked to them so that you can explore them at your leisure. As you’ve probably guessed the sites/ apps with silly/one-word prompts don’t feature.

Apps

There are about a thousand writing-prompt apps. Here are the best available on Android. Please recommend iPhone apps below:

  1. Writing Prompts Pro– I don’t usually promote apps that cost money, but this costs a bob. One piddling little bob. It’s worth it. It’s a good’un.
  2. Writing Prompts- Data Mixer
  3. Writing Prompts Short Stories- Invariant Labs

Twitter

#WritingPrompt is a hashtag that will lead you to many wonderful things on Twitter. The prompts are generated by multiple people, so the quality varies. If you scroll through you’ll find a prompt that sparks something. I guarantee it.

Writer’s Websites

Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of great websites dedicated to prompts. Here are the best I’ve come across.

  1. Poets & Writers
  2. Think Written
  3. Creative Writing Prompts
  4. Gratis Graphy
  5. Think Written
  6. The Writer’s Digest

Tumblr

Tumblr has a load of really good member pages with great quality writing prompts. Check these out:

  1. Writer Prompts these are quite dark-leaning, which I like.
  2. I Dare You To Write
  3. Unblocking Writers Block
  4. The Writers Handbook
  5. Awesome Writing Prompts

Instagram

These are the best accounts I’ve found on Instagram:

  1. Writing Prompts
  2. Creative Prompt

Pinterest

Pinterest is awash with great visual and written prompts. These are just some of the good boards I found after a quick scan.

  1. Mandy Corine Writing Prompts 
  2. Fakerhead 47 Writing Prompts 
  3. PS Literary Writing Prompts
  4. Explore Daily Writing Prompts

Facebook

Most of the Facebook pages dedicated to prompts are, instead, a mix of inspirational quotes, memes, links to writing advice blog posts etc. I could only find one page dedicated solely to writing prompts, and it’s good: Writers Write

Google

Some interesting things pop up when you type ‘writing prompt’ into Google, and click on images.

Over to you: Do you use prompts? What are your favourite sources? Please leave links to any I’ve missed in the comments.

Creativity Boosters for when The Well Runs Dry

When I first started writing my novel, I had ‘writing fever’. I didn’t have to try. The words just flowed. It was like I’d turned on a tap marked ‘creativity’, and the ideas were just pouring out of me.

‘This is easy’ I thought ‘I can’t believe I didn’t do this years ago! I’ll have this novel written in no time’.

And then.

Ten days in, I had a bad day. I sat down at the desk, and there was no natural ‘flow’ of words from brain-to-fingertips-to-keyboard. Words were coming, but it was like pulling teeth.

I stayed at my desk, but it was as though a constrictor knot was strangling the life out of my writing. The more I tried to force words onto the page, the less happened.

Eight hours later I hit my word count, but the writing was terrible. Uninspired, flat, lifeless. I was angry with myself, and scared. I was full of fear that tomorrow would be another bad day. And perhaps the day after that. And the day after that.

Luckily, the next day was a good day, and I’d learned that sometimes writer’s block is a very temporary thing. But I never forgot it. It dawned on me that as a writer I had no control over whether or not I had a good day, or a bad day. That there was no ‘creative tap’ that I could just turn on at will, and it terrified me. In every other job I have done, I was in charge of whether or not I would go in and do a good day’s work. There were certain things I couldn’t control, but even if I was in a bad mood, or tired, or a little sick, or just feeling low, I could still go into work and do my job. One thing I always had control over was my productivity, and whether my work was of a decent quality.

The realisation that writing didn’t work the same way shook me.

Writer’s block is a thing. Many writers have experienced it. I’m lucky that it hasn’t bedded down with me for too long at any stage. Yet. I’ve managed to find a few ways of getting things moving again if I get stuck, and so far they have all worked for me. I hope they always will.

Here are my top ten ways to get one’s groove back:

Find your calm

It can be very stressful when you hit the wall. Stress kills my writing stone dead. So if I hit the wall, stress feeds that feeling of powerlessness, and puts the final nail in the coffin of my creativity.

In the past, I’ve found that refocusing and putting things in perspective are ways of combating this, and finding a way to calm the panicked thoughts in my head. I like meditation or getting outside, going for a walk in the park.  When I was a child/teenager, knitting and drawing were things that worked for me. But there are loads of ways to find that sense of peace. Listening to music, reading, playing an instrument, dancing, painting, yoga, cooking/baking, visiting a museum/gallery, gardening, picking up a colouring book, spending time with your pet, hygge, being with nature, valium (not valium, I’m being facetious… try magnesium first).Pick your antidote.

Read

Read all kinds of things. Poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction. I find that it not only does reading get my creativity tap flowing, it motivates me. You’re holding the finished product of someone else’s hard work in your hands. You can do this!

Write every day

I found that my mini-blocks usually happened after I’d taken a weekend off. I find that taking even a full day off from writing can kill my flow. It is good to write every day. I mean, every day. Even if it’s just a little bit. Even if it isn’t your novel. In fact, sometimes writing a poem, blog-post or starting a short-story can be just the thing you need to reset. Whatever you do, it’s important to keep the creative engine ticking over.

Walk

I find walking better than other, more strenuous, forms of exercise, because your focus isn’t on the movement itself or watching the clock and thinking ‘SWEET JESUS, WHEN WILL THIS TORMENT END?’. It is pure, unadulterated, thinking time with the extra benefit of bringing additional oxygen to the brain. Not only does it calm me, but it magically generates ideas and solutions. I’ve written about the magical effects of walking, here.

change your surroundings

I find that sometimes a change of scenery helps. I work in the same office day in, day out and it can feel a bit like a sarcophagus at times. Occasionally, I’ll work in a different room, or get out of the house and work in a cafe or the library. And there are people there, so it feels sociable. Sometimes, something more drastic is needed, and it’s good to get away on a mini-break or holiday, with your laptop/ word-processor/typewriter/pen and pad/quill and parchment/tablet, hammer and chisel for a couple of days.

Learn

As well as learning about your craft, open your mind to other forms of learning. Watching a documentary, learning a language (I recommend DuoLingo for this), picking up an instrument, acquiring a new skill or learning a new craft. Learning opens up fresh neural-pathways in your brain, shakes up your thought-processes and give your head a kick up the backside. Okay. That’s a strange image, but you know what I mean.

Listen

It’s easy to become consumed by your novel. Writing a book is an intense and draining process, and unlike the vast majority of professions, it is almost entirely solitary. It is good for creativity to be around others, to listen to their stories, to engage. Seek out all kinds of interesting people. Especially, people that are different from you. Humans are my biggest inspiration. They are each so incredibly interesting in their own unique way. Writing groups are a great way of combining work with socialising. Learn more about the benefits of writing groups here.

Be Curious and Alive

Modern life can be a deadening thing. There’s a lot of anxiety-inducing negativity swirling about on social media, and that bleeds into everyday life. It can make the world seem like a bleak and uninspiring place. This is not the mindset a writer should have.

The world might be a dangerous place, it might be a tragic place, or a wondrous place, or a joyful place. But it has to excite you as a writer. Seek out experiences, sensations and emotions. Explore what delights you, horrifies you, scares you, disgusts you, saddens you. Ask yourself ‘why?’

Also, Practising mindfulness is a good way to open yourself up to inspiration. I’ve written a post all about the benefits of mindfulness here

Over to you: Have you ever experienced writers’ block? If so, how did you handle it? How did you shift it?

Writer’s Tools: The Coded Kind

The writer’s toolbox is something that is much referred to in Stephen King’s, On Writing. The writer’s metaphorical toolbox is filled with a knowledge of grammar, punctuation, syntax, vocabulary etc. But what if there was another kind of toolbox? One filled with programs that can help you get your novel written, or edited? Or even help you sharpen the contents of the toolbox in your brain?

Here are my top writer’s tools of the coded variety:

FOR REMEMBERING: zoho notebook app

Inspiration can come at the most unexpected times. It’s a disaster if you don’t catch an idea before another thought jumps into your brain. Never forget/mislay a good idea again by installing a notebook app on your phone.

My mobile came with a basic one preloaded and it was grand for a while, but I found that over time my writing-related notes ended up lost among to-do lists and shopping lists. There are hundreds of notebook apps available but I opted for Zoho’s Notebook app. The app is compatible with Android and iPhone and is an intuitive and aesthetically beautiful thing.

You can store writing, PDF documents, images and audio in individual notebooks. Multiple notebooks can be opened up so that you can assign a notebook to each project. In the screenshot above, you can see that I have a notebook for my novel, a notebook for my blog etc.

Although it wasn’t specifically designed just for writers, it feels like it was, with inspirational quotes (mainly from authors) popping up every time you open a new notebook. And I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but just look at those notebook covers? Look at them! Beautiful. They could only ever contain worthwhile things.

For vocabulary: wordnik

I love my thesaurus and dictionary, but even though I have my physical books right beside me on my desk, I rarely use them. More often than not I end up using online versions. It’s just quicker. Wordnik brings a number of trusted online dictionary and thesaurus entries together. In terms of its role as a synonym generator, I prefer it to a standard one. It’s so extensive that it will make some more obscure/tenuous suggestions, but that makes it a little edgier than your average thesaurus.

FOR WRITING: SCRIVENER

I was amazed to attend my writer’s group and learn that many of them hadn’t heard of Scrivener. I sent them to read my blog post and so that’s where I’m sending you. Read all about it, here.

FOR SYNTAX & CULLING zombie WORDS: HEMINGWAY

When I got to the final draft of my novel, Hemingway was a lifesaver. It identified stylistic offences that verge on the criminal in modern writing. It highlighted the use of the passive voice, adverbs, weak verbs and lengthy sentences. Trust me, by the time you reach your final draft you won’t have the energy to go looking for these things to weed them out. Do yourself a favour, save yourself the time and heartache and get the Hemingway app, here.

FOR GRAMMAR, TYPOS, AND PUNCTUATION: Grammarly

Grammarly identifies misspelled words, grammatical mistakes, and mistakes in punctuation. When suggesting that a word is misspelled, it checks for context, which is really clever. The app works across the web, meaning that it’ll also flag up errors in your social media posts and blog posts.

Is the app making me lazy or complacent? No. In fact, Grammarly is making me a better writer. I’m a person that learns best by doing. For example, I read a book on punctuation to improve my difficult relationship with commas. It was a painful read, but I managed to wade through it. When I’d finished, I put it down and promptly forgot 99% of the rules listed. This is why I love Grammarly. Each highlighted error comes with an explanation as to why it has been identified as a mistake, and I’m instinctively making fewer errors. I’m being conditioned to write better.

If you use the basic Grammarly plus Hemingway you should catch MOST serious errors for free.

Get Grammarly, here.

to avoid distractions:Freedom app

The internet is by far the biggest distraction for most writers. The momentum of the first draft kept me away from the internet, but I found that going into the second draft a few bad habits began to creep in. I ended up downloading this app. I highly recommend it. The app blocks listed sites at specific times/for specific durations on multiple devices. Simple, but effective. Your productivity will increase significantly. Get the Freedom App here.

to tap into the musical muse: spotify

Some people detest any kind of music when they write, but many more of us love a bit of musak! Spotify recommends music to the user depending on their taste, and there’s no limit to the amount of music you can download. I’ve created a number of playlists for writing. A general one, a playlist for tension, love/sex, violent scenes, fear, fun and sadness. All are available here.

To cure writer’s block: writing prompts

There are loads of wonderful ways a person can unclog a word blockage, but if they don’t work, there are websites and apps for that. I’ve listed the best online/ appy writing prompts on a separate post, because there are too many to list here. They are all unique, and great in their own special way. Click here to have a look at the best of them.

What apps/programs/websites do you recommend to aspiring authors and why?

The Final Edit Fear

In Ireland, we have this thing called ‘The Fear’.

It’s not quite the same as the Hunter S Thomson ‘Fear’, but it’s similar. Drugs can be an aggravating factor in the Irish ‘Fear’. But mostly it is anxiety resulting from a night of drinking. Of course, it isn’t exclusive to Ireland. People experience it anywhere in the world that alcohol is consumed, except over here, we’ve given it a title.

The Fear tends to strike hardest on a Sunday afternoon, as the realisation dawns on you that you’re due in work the next day and will be required to do stuff. Stuff that requires actual thinking.

You lie in bed: mouth like the Sahara, head thumping, stomach lurching, sweating like a morbidly obese man in a hot-tub. You attempt to piece your memories of the events of the previous night together. Try to fill in the gaps. The weight of a horrible, nameless shame bearing down upon you, cementing that awful certainty that you said or did or something terrible. Of course you did. And that many people witnessed your downfall. Most likely, they filmed it on their phones. Whatever you did, it’s definitely on YouTube. Probably going viral on Twitter right now.

Perhaps you split your skirt/trousers attempting an overambitious dance-move and had to slink off in shame, covering your arse with your handbag/jacket.

Perhaps you got over-amorous with a stranger in a public place.

Perhaps you said some shitty things to a person you care about.

Whatever it was, you know for a fact you went too far.

Way too far this time.

The Fear will convince you that you are a worthless human, you have a tendency to make terrible life choices, and it’s best that you remove yourself from normal society. That way you can’t do any more damage.

You only have three options:

  1. Fake your own death, move to Colombia and start a drug empire. You are such a complete degenerate, this should be no problem for you. Or,
  2. Find some spot in the wilderness and live on your wits and instincts, in total isolation. You’ve watched a couple of episodes of Bear Grylls: Born Survivor. You’ll be grand. Or,
  3. Find religion, join a religious order and live a cloistered life forevermore. Only Jesus can save you now.

I’m currently preparing a pros and cons list for each of the above options. The strange thing is, that The Fear that I’m feeling isn’t alcohol or drug induced. It’s writing-induced. Editing-induced, to be precise. I’m neck-deep in my final draft and I’m in a loop of negative thinking. I’ve missed two deadlines because I’m afraid of being finished.

I don’t think I’m alone in my thought processes. I’m sure you have felt the same way, or will at some point.

The fear that:

You’ve come too far to turn back.

You’ve invested too much time (ergo, money) in this novel.

You’ve TOLD people that you’re writing a book for fuck’s sake- and so you have to produce something. And you’re so close to the end. You can’t give up, walk away, can you?

But your book is terrible. Isn’t it? It’s awful! It should never see the light of day.

It is the worst book ever written in the history of books.

You should destroy it with fire immediately.

You begin to have nightmares that your book has been published and is being badly received.

You imagine that your readers’ reactions will range from: outrage that you could even consider publishing such a literary abomination, through to disgust, through to pity and amusement that you ever thought it might be a success.

These thoughts enter your head so you begin to shrink away from your book. You begin to fear it. It is like something that has crawled blackly from the deepest depths of your nightmares. Like that young-one in The Ring.

And it is part of you.

And that scares you the most.

That you will never be able to hide from it if you finish it. If you put it out there.

I read an excellent piece recently that said that it isn’t procrastination but perfectionism that is the writer’s biggest enemy. I’d love to link to it but I stupidly didn’t save it and I can’t find it anywhere. I think that this pretty much hits the nail on the head. Writers want to produce something beyond reproach. Something perfect. And the longer you delay, the longer you can put off the day you have to face the criticism, because there will be plenty.

I know that ‘perfect’ is an impossible standard to meet, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get close. How can I know when my novel is as close to perfect as I can get it?

How will I get over this massive speedbump in my path?

I don’t know yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as I do.

Over to you: how do you deal with a sense of fear/paralysis when you are coming close to the end of your novel? How do you ready yourself for the criticism of others?

The Best YouTube Channels for Learning the Craft of Novel Writing

What do you do when you want to keep learning, but you’re totally done with reading about the craft of writing?

When the thoughts of reading even ONE MORE WORD makes you want to build a pyre of ‘how-to-write-a-novel’ books and watch them burn them while laughing maniacally.

How can you possibly learn anything, if your books are in flames and you’re refusing to read? Well, I have the answer right here, my friend. Burn your books safe in the knowledge that there’s help out there in the form of a little thing they call YouTube.

Yes, YouTube has its dark side. Yes, there are pranksters on there that light their own farts and taser their grannies because ‘bants’ and ‘lols’, but recently, I discovered that good people also make YouTube videos. Heroes without capes, here to save your manuscript.

Another benefit of listening to these videos is that you feel that yes, ‘there’s someone ooouuuut there’. They’re right in front of you. On your screen. You can see them and hear them and let’s face it, misery loves company. It’s satisfying to know that other writers are out there slogging away and suffering along with you.

So, I’ve had a gander, and a listen, and I’ve found what I believe to be the best ones. I’ll also link to some great videos from those particular channels.

Sit back, relax, watch, listen and learn.

Don’t forget to learn.

TED Talks on Writing

I love TED Talks. I trust them, because TED always manage to get the most amazing speakers onto their stages. The speakers are always polished and engaging, funny and informative. And most importantly, they know their stuff. There are talks on writing and story on the Ted Talks channel. Here is a great one on storytelling. Not specifically writing, but then, who the hell is going to read a novel with no story in it?

Andrew Stanton walks his way around the elements of a good story. He should know a thing or two about story, seen as he wrote Wal-E. A story with no words. A STORY WITH NO WORDS, PEOPLE. He talks about the importance of ‘making promises’ to your reader at the start, making them ‘care’ about the story you are telling, the roots of drama and character motivation.

The Creative Penn

Author and entrepreneur, Joanna Penn, has a great website, and this is her YouTube channel. She shares her own learnings here as well as advice from other authors in the form of author interviews.  You can subscribe to her channel, so that you don’t miss any new videos as they are released.

This is a good example of what’s on offer on Penn’s channel. A brilliant interview with James Scott Bell on dialogue. Bell offers advice on how to write authentic dialogue, maintaining a distinctive voice for each individual character, how to get information in through dialogue in a natural way, weaving subtext into dialogue.

Vivien Reis

Author, Vivien Reis, Reis produces short, engaging videos with great advice on how to improve and slim down your bloated writing, and how to shape its flabby ass up. This is a great video on identifying words to cut from your novel, and sharpening up your prose.

Katytastic

Kat O’Keeffe isn’t a published author (yet), but boy does this woman read. A lot! She focuses mainly on book reviews on her channel, but gives great writing advice in some of her older videos. Because the advice is old it can be hard to find on her channel, but it’s worth having a good rummage. The tips aren’t new, but they are communicated clearly, concisely and vividly. Not only did I enjoy watching the video, but I actually think the advice was communicated with so much energy that it might stick this time around. I highly recommend the video below.

Over to you: If you can suggest any other YouTube channels or specific videos that you feel help with the craft of writing, please suggest them/link in the comments below.

My Writing Soundtrack

I’m in the thick of final edits and I’m working to a deadline, so I don’t have time to write a long post this week. In the evenings, while I take a break from my novel, I’ve been curating my writing soundtrack on Spotify. I love listening to music when I drive, when I exercise, but particularly when I write. I find that being in close proximity to someone else’s creative output gets my creative juices flowing. Plus, it’s an elixir for the soul. And I need an elixir that doesn’t come in a glass now and again.

I like all kinds of music, so this playlist an eclectic mix from dark country to hip-hop to opera.  It’s comprised of music that makes me feel something, whether it be because the lyrics are inspirational/oddly beautiful/traditionally beautiful, and/or because the melodies/harmonies/beats are evocative/interesting/gorgeous. As I put them in, they’re naturally arranged in clumps in terms of genres, so I recommend you listen with ‘shuffle’ switched on.

I think I’ve managed to weed out the embarrassing stuff! If not, you’ll only have to tolerate it for a second as you skip through. Let me know for the craic if anything especially cringeworthy has slipped through the net. Click here to access my ‘Music to Write To’ Spotify Playlist.

I’m also in the process of putting together playlists for specific types of scenes. Those are a definite work in progress, except for the Suspense/Tension one, which is in pretty good shape. It’s made up primarily of pieces from some of my favourite movie scores. Click here to access my Suspense/Tension Playlist.

Over to you: Do you have a writing soundtrack? What are your favourite bands/ movie scores/ songs? What is the worst music to write to? What woefully poor music have I left on my writing soundtrack?

Literary Events: Dead in Dun Laoghaire

 

Paula Hawkins reading from her second novel, Into the Water

\Dead in Dun Laoghaire is a brand spanking new, one-day festival run by Penguin Randomhouse in partnership with The Irish Times. As you’ve probably guessed, the festival is held in Dun Laoghaire, which is a lively, seaside town. And in case you haven’t guessed, it’s a crime fiction festival. Nobody died at this event.

The festival took place in the lovely Pavillion Theatre and it was €40 for a full-day ticket. Dun Laoghaire is quite a drive from my house so I took advantage of the good value and attended all four events.

For a new festival they managed to assemble an incredibly impressive lineup of guests: Paula Hawkins, Kathy Reichs, John Banville, Stuart Neville, Liz Nugent and Karen Perry. All very commercially successful, as well as being extremely good at what they do, but then I suppose with backers as high-profile as they had, maybe it isn’t so surprising. The interviewers were all professional journalists, and so the questions asked were very interesting and incisive.

Overall the festival was very well-run. The venue is modern, clean and the auditorium is well-designed with great views of the stage. For two events I sat at the back and in the far corner, and at all times I could see and hear everything as though I was in the front. There were brilliant goodie-bags with BOOKS in them.

Goodie-bags with BOOKS!

The book-signings were well-organised and the staff were polite and helpful. The events started on time and were spaced nicely for breaks between events. I took advantage of the breaks to spend a fortune in the Dubrays’ bookstall outside the theatre. I can’t wait to get stuck into my purchases.

Paula Hawkins gave a fascinating and candid interview. She spoke about the ‘dreaded second novel’, and how difficult she found it in comparison to her first. She also spoke about how The Girl on the Train evolved from a different story and a character that kept hanging around in her head. Just to show that from small acorns big trees grow, and that if a character won’t quit, it’s usually for a reason.

I love hearing how writers start out their careers, it always reminds me that we come from all walks of life, all backgrounds, and for 90% of us, it wasn’t our first ‘proper job’. She started out as a journalist and was eventually commissioned to write a few romance novels under a pseudonym. These novels were fairly successful and sold well.  She spoke about how those novels began to slowly creep into thriller territory, and that each of them has ‘dark elements’ to them, which was an early indication of her true calling.

She is proud of those early novels, as she learned about the craft of novel writing through writing them. I found this a really interesting point, in that when we start out it is all trial and error as we find our voice, learn the craft, find out what works and what doesn’t. It is interesting that one of the most successful thriller writers of this decade started out writing romance.

John Banville and Stuart Neville spoke about their experiences of writing under pseudonyms. Neville, who writes under the pseudonym Haylen Beck, talked about how working-class children aren’t encouraged into the arts. I’d agree with him on that. He also spoke about his experience of writer’s block, and how the problem shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

I was very interested to hear from Liz Nugent, having seen her MC at an event earlier in the year, where she spoke very little about herself. I’ve read Unravelling Oliver and really enjoyed it. It was nice to hear from a local writer, close enough to my age, and a woman. She has also broken America, which is very exciting, and she told us about the edits she had to make to make her novel understandable to the American audience.

Karen Perry and Liz Nugent

Karen Perry is actually a pseudonym. They are a team of two writers, Paul Perry, a poet, and Karen Gillece, an author, who write collaboratively. They detailed how they go about writing their novels together, and how they tackle the female and male characters separately. They each write a chapter of the book and pass it back to the other writer like a baton, so that they can progress the plot. I have to admit to having some envy at the way they work. It must be great to be constantly getting feedback on your work from someone you trust and who is as invested in the outcome as you are. I’ve just finished Girl Unknown, which had me on the edge of my seat, and I’m looking forward to reading their next novel.

Given that I’d bought the group ticket for the event, I stayed on for the final event, a chat with Kathy Reichs. I hadn’t read any of her work beforehand, but I knew she was very popular, so I thought I might learn something. The organisers gave us a free brandy cocktail before we went in. It blew the head off me, but it was exactly what I needed after a day’s active listening.

Popular is an understatement. Kathy Reichs spoke to a full house and it isn’t surprising. Wow, this woman is fascinating and very witty. I didn’t think I’d have the energy to be riveted so late in the evening, but she held my attention from the moment she opened her mouth. If you hadn’t guessed by my nickname, Cathy DayDream, my attention-span isn’t the best.

Reichs is a doctor in forensic anthropology, and explained exactly what that was and how she ended up writing fiction. While working in a university, a fellow professor confided that she was writing to supplement her income. Reichs decided to do the same. The rest, is history. She is now a prolific author of wildly successful crime fiction, and a screenwriter on Bones. This is on top of her work as a forensic anthropologist. She is a busy woman!

She spoke a lot about her work as an anthropologist, both as an academic, and someone whose expertise is called upon in practical ways. She is sometimes asked to assist in the identification of bodies, where alternative methods of identification won’t work. Everyone can draw inspiration from their workplace, no matter how mundane they might think it is. If you’re going to pick a job that gives you the material for novel-writing, I don’t think you can go far wrong with forensic anthropology, difficult as it would be to the majority of us.

She has co-authored young-adult novels with her son. Interestingly, her daughter is abandoning Law to become a writer- which makes me feel better about my decision! I bought Reich’s most recent book, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

Overall, Dead in Dun Laoighre was a brilliant festival, and I’ll definitely be back next year.

Do you attend literary festivals? What is the best author interview you’ve seen? Whats the best tip you’ve cleaned from an author at a literary festivals? What is your favourite festival?

What can an Aspiring Novelist Learn From The Movies?

Do you ‘see’ your story before you write it? I know many writers do. For me writing a piece of fiction is like taking a movie that’s playing away in your head, and attempting to put it down in words. Trying to do so in a way that it can be understood and visualised by a reader.

Given that most novels/short stories start out as a movie in a writer’s head, I began to wonder if I could learn anything about writing a good novel from watching movies. I thought about the movies that I most enjoy, and I decided to watch them again, but actively, the way that I read now, and see what I could glean from them.  To try and uncover what made them so magical to me.

It sounds obvious, but actually a movie is probably the best way to study the craft of storytelling. The story structure jumps out at you much more clearly and cleanly than with a novel because you watch a movie in one sitting. On KM Weiland’s website Helping Writers Become Authors she includes a Story Structure Database . She is a novelist herself, and is an expert in story structure, but most of her focus in this database is on film. In this database you will find analyses of the structures of some of the most famous movies ever made. It is worth having a look before watching your next movie. You’ll start to see the structure emerge as you watch it.

On a micro-level I found that, you can a lot from movies about scene building, perspective and focus, point-of-view, shifting timelines, juxtaposition, pacing, settings, characterisation through clothing, gesture, communicating emotion through facial expressions, tone of voice, body-language and dialogue, creating suspense and tension, pacing, opening and closing a scene.

Here are the movies that I re-watched, and what I found to be the best lessons from each in terms of good storytelling:

1. The Talented Mr Ripley: The Flawed Protagonist and        Tension-Building

This is one of my favourite movies of all time, and I think it offers writers a lesson in subtle tension-building. The story starts out pleasantly enough and then slowly, slowly the tension begins to build. It simmers, and then it fizzes and then it crackles, and then explodes, before subsiding and slowly building again. In this movie, a look, a movement, a gesture can create ripples of unease.

In terms of points of view, it is very interesting. Ripley is the villain, but he is also the protagonist. It forces viewer into an awkward position. Though we feel a certain sympathy for Ripley, he also makes us feel uncomfortable. We dislike him, and yet we continue to root for him.  It goes to show, we will root for the protagonist no matter how flawed he is, as long as he inspires some sympathy and those around him are a little less likeable.

The scene below is just beautiful. It demonstrates how to make a villain sympathetic, and how beautiful dialogue can be.

2. Blue Valentine: Juxtaposition, Emotion and Characterisation

Love stories begin when the two people first meet. They chart their relationship as they start to develop feelings for one another. Then (oh no!) there’s an obstacle in the path of their love, and then (yes!) the obstacle is overcome and there’s some big romantic crescendo and they finally get it together. At the end it’s all ‘and they lived happily ever after’.

No normal relationship is ‘happily ever after’. Nope. ‘Happily most of the time after’ is the best you’re gonna get. Characters in romantic movies are pretty impulsive and liable to make very bad decisions, so let’s face it, happily ever after is most definitely not on the cards for these people.

This is the movie about what happens to those characters after the credits roll.

And it’s about the slow, painful demise of a romantic relationship and I love it. Like Dickens this movie uses juxtaposition very effectively. The best of times are powerfully juxtaposed with the worst of times. We witness the characters’ journey as a couple. Their naive hope at the beginning of their relationship and the moments building up to its heartbreaking conclusion.

In terms of characterisation, the two main characters are complex, and their emotions are incredibly raw. Their interactions with one another are worthy of study. Their body language, their facial expressions- how she folds into herself when he holds her. They say so much without saying a word. An important tool in the writer’s toolbox.

The clip below is an example of the use of juxtaposition in the telling of the story. The making of a promise alongside the breaking of it, tears of joy alongside tears of pain.

3. Pulp Fiction: Dialogue, Changing Points of View, Timelines, Characterisation

Pulp Fiction combines memorable dialogue, with bucket-loads of action, vibrating visuals and an unforgettable soundtrack. Subtle, it ain’t. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer to the chops. Unlike Ripley or Blue Valentine, watching this movie won’t teach you anything about subtlety. What it can teach you is how to successfully tell a story using multiple points of view and shifting timelines. It can also teach you how to characterise using compelling dialogue, and through hairstyles, makeup and clothing.

So much is communicated in movies through facial expressions, body language or gestures, but in this film either the characters are speaking or they are doing pretty horrible things. The main characters have good poker-faces. Given that most of them are shady individuals, that makes a lot of sense. So we depend on dialogue and action to learn about the characters. Setting aside the action, Tarantino writes great dialogue. It’s witty and snappy and interesting and powerful and meandering and occasionally it appears superfluous, but it feels authentic. The authenticity of the dialogue lends credibility to the action going on around it.

I’ve linked to one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. Iconic for its use of powerful dialogue.

4. Boogie Nights: Dialogue, Story Structure and Character Arcs

I seem to have a dark penchant for stories where everything starts off nice and dandy, and everyone is loving life, and it’s all just grand and then everything goes to absolute shit. The Great Gatsby, The Talented Mr Ripley, Boogie Nights…it all goes to hell in a hand basket and I love it.

Boogie Nights focuses on the story of ‘Dirk Diggler’, but it also interweaves the narratives of porn director Jack Horner, and his other young proteges, as they seek to fulfil their various dreams. Dirk’s star in the industry quickly ascends due to his massive ‘talent’, and it is a happy time for him and the other characters. As Dirk becomes addicted to drugs and his star begins its steep descent, the rest of the characters go down with him (pun totally unintended).

After a number of harrowing scenes, where it is made clear that they will never be treated with respect by the hypocritical members of ‘normal society’ characters emerge battered, bruised, jaded. They are each forced to compromise as they come to the realisation that the most valuable thing that they have is their highly dysfunctional, porn ‘family’. In spite of the fact that it is a movie about the porn industry, there is a purity to the story that I find really endearing, because it is fundamentally a story about finding out where you belong, and the importance of family.

Of all of the movies I’ve picked, this one most clearly demonstrates the concept of  a story arc and character arcs. The director does a lot of fancy tricks with cinematography and the soundtrack is amazing, but the story structure is simple and powerful.

Another thing I love about this movie is the dialogue. The characters are mostly naive, delusional dreamers. Dirk in particular is hilarious, but with absolutely no sense of self-awareness and not a hint of irony. The result is equal parts funny and tragic. In the clip below Dirk and his best friend Reed, are trying to get out of porn by breaking into music business.

Over to you: Let me know in the comments below what movies inspire you to write? What movies do you think demonstrate best how to tell a good story?  What have you learned about good writing from watching movies? What is the best dialogue/your favourite scene from a movie?

Special Island Event, West Cork Literary Festival

Last week I started to get a longing to go to another literary festival. I don’t know where it came from. Actually, I lie. I do. I wanted to anything but edit my novel, but what better way distract myself? As I read through the the programme  for the West Cork Literary Festival I couldn’t believe my luck when I spotted A Special Island Event with Cynan Jones & Jon Gower to be held on Whiddy Island. These men tackle similar themes in their books that I do in mine. I felt it was an opportunity to learn from them and get a fresh perspective on my own novel.

I set aside my novel, told myself this was a ‘work trip’, booked accommodation and packed my bags.

Cynan Jones’s latest novel, Cove, is about a man who is struck by lightning whilst kayaking on the open the sea. Consequently, he loses his memory. It is a story of his struggle to remember and his struggle to survive.

The theme of memory is central to the novel. Memories lost, and memories found. It explores how memory shapes our present reality, how the past and the present relate to one another, how objects confirm and reaffirm the memories that we have and finally, how unreliable and fragile our memories are. The novel is beautifully written, and the prose tightly wrought and vivid. As you read you feel the overwhelming intensity of the man’s isolation and vulnerability. The image of the flimsy body of the kayak floating over the vast might and magnitude of the sea beneath him is a powerful one.

My novel deals with similar themes: isolation, memory and the fragility of the mind, but in a different way. Mine opens with young man washing up on the shore of the island, a stranger who has apparently lost his memory. Despite this. the main focus in terms of memories lost, is the slow erosion of memories, and our desperate efforts to anchor and preserve them: through passing them on to others, photographs or attaching memories to objects or places. The need to remember, so as to to prevent the second death of those loved ones that have passed.

An Island Called Smith is a book about an island off the American coast that is likely to disappear due to rising sea levels. The island (Smith Island) is an island with a unique history and culture and is an important habitat for birds and other wildlife. Smith island is in danger of sinking into the sea and being forgotten. Thankfully, that won’t happen because it is now immortalised in this book.

The book captures the colour and the heart and soul of the place. Jon does this through interviewing locals and through presenting the story through the filter of his own personal experience of the island.

We learn about the beginnings of this island community and how it has developed in its own unique way. What would be considered eccentricities have become part of the fabric of the island’s culture. Jon is careful to record facts and figures in his book, but they are not presented in a flat, static way. Anecdotes are woven through to add colour. Names of bird species are clustered together so that they read like poetry.

No two islands that I have visited over the past year have been the same, they really are unique, and that is why Jon’s work to preserve the memory of this place is so very important. We risk losing many more islands to the sea: breaking up tight-knit communities, destroying cultures and destroying habitats due to a lack of action on climate change.

Despite their differences, on all of the islands I’ve been to, the older people  share a fear of their community dying out and their culture and local history being forgotten. There is a natural desire in the older people there to prevent that.  A human need to be remembered. The excitement and opportunities offered by the mainland are luring young people away in their droves. Neither Smith Island, nor the island in my novel are any different.

Cynan and Jon read from their books. The parts they read out were gorgeous, but learning about the two men, how they write and how they came to writing, was just as interesting to me. Both men hail from Wales. They each spoke about their childhoods in Wales, discussed the influence that the musicality of the Welsh language has on their English prose and the place that the landscape of their native country has in their writing. They shared personal stories, which were in turns moving and funny, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them.

After approaching them to sign books, I very cheekily, asked both men for an interview. Both agreed, so hopefully in the next few weeks I’ll have something up on my blog.

This was the only event I managed to get to at the West Cork Literary Festival this year, but it was well worth the trip. I’ll definitely be back in 2018. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to explore Whiddy Island before or after the event, but I did make a new friend. I named him Island Cat. Yes, he is a cat, and yes, I came up with the name all by damn myself.

His body was sinewy, he had an angry little face on him and there were chunks taken out of both ears. He looked rough as a badger’s bum, but I was missing my own cat. I needed to get me some moggy love. But was petting him worth losing a finger? Island Cat looked like the kitty equivalent of Vinnie Jones. Despite fully expecting a clawing for my efforts, I tentatively petted him. To my surprise, I found that he was extremely friendly.

We managed to become temporary best buds as we basked in the sun outside The Bank House pub. He was a lovely little fella and I might even find a space for him in the final draft of my novel.