The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl

I try and stay away from patriotism for two reasons. Firstly,  because she has an ugly sister called ‘nationalism’ and I want to give her a swift kick in the gee. Secondly, I think it’s a bit silly to be proud of the successes of other people that have feck all to do with you.

But despite all of this, I can’t help being very proud of the literary history of Ireland.

In fact, I’m verging on smug that so many great writers hail from this small island. It feels good to be able to walk the same streets they walked, to visit the places where they studied and honed their craft, and, most importantly, drink in the same pubs they drank in.

So, in a fit of patriotism, I decided to book two last-minute tickets for Dublin’s Literary Pub Crawl. What better way to indulge a totally undeserved sense of personal pride in the literary achievements of total strangers than a pub crawl? This tour has been on my ‘bucket list’ for the past few years and being a typical local, I kept putting it off. But I began to regret my decision to buy the tickets before securing a second person to accompany me.

Derek and Colm enacting a scene from Strumpet City

My mother is the biggest bookworm I know. She devours books at a phenomenal speed. In fact, she reads so much she’s like my book beefeater, she’ll read a book, give me a review and if she gives it the thumbs up I’ll read it. So, I thought the combination of literature and lushing would be enough to get her on board. When I mentioned that there would be a little bit of walking outdoors involved in she didn’t look impressed. Turns out she loves heat and shelter more than she loves books and booze. I feared that she was backing out, so I offered to buy her dinner. This was the clincher. Like mother, like daughter. Feed us and we’ll do anything. Even venture out on a cold Thursday in November.

We got a taxi to The Duke. No driving as we both planned on getting fully involved in the spirit(s) of the tour. We went upstairs and within minutes of having arrived, our tourguides, Derek and Colm, launched into a rousing old tune about drunken candle-makers, before popping on a pair of bowler hats and enacting a section of Waiting for Godot. I knew at that point, that it was going to be a good night.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that our guides are both actors and former history teachers. Not only that, but Colm is also a writer. He managed to fill an entire book with stories about Dublin’s writers and its pubs. An entire book! So, we couldn’t possibly drink in all the watering holes that the greats frequented or we’d be dead by pub number eight. Our guides had to choose the best of them and so we were limited to four.

Each pub we visited was patronised by at least one famous writer, and/or featured in their writings. Many of the greatest scenes in Irish literature are set in pubs. It’s not surprising to me that pubs are the source of much inspiration. They are fantastic places for people-watching, as after a few people tend to let their guard down. If you really want inspiration for characters in your book, I recommend visiting a few.

Between pubs the tour made various stops at places such as St. Andrew’s Church and Trinity College. Our guides shared trivia, quotes and anecdotes about famours writers, and enacted scenes from novels and plays. They covered most of the greats: Joyce, Beckett, Swift, Boland, Heaney, Behan etc. I absolutly adore Oscar Wilde. He led a very interesting life, so there were a few stories about him. The best was the one about him drinking a bunch of hardened American miners under the table after giving them a talk on art and aesthetics.

As well as sharing the literary history of the city, our guides also spoke about the social, economic and political history of Dublin. They told us about the birth of the city with the arrival of the Vikings up to the more recent history of the civil war.

There was a quiz at the end of the night which brought out a scary competitive side in my mother. Something I had never encountered before. I was grateful that she came second and won a little prize for herself. I don’t want to think about how she might have reacted to coming away empty-handed.

Mum after coming second in the trivia quiz, doesn’t she look happy?

The guides fit an incredible amount into a two-and-a-half hour tour. The great reviews are well-deserved. At €14 per person, it is very good value for something so entertaining.

Overall, it was a great night. I hope that in retracing the footsteps of some of the greats, some of their magic might just rub off on me.

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: potent, 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?