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 my 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.

Lessons at the 12 Month Mark

Today, the 1st July 2017, is the one year mark since I went a bit mad, quit my nice, secure, well-paid job with paid holidays and a pension, and decided write a novel. It’s a good time to take stock and reflect on where I am, the big lessons I’ve learned, and where I want to go next.

Lesson 1: A year isn’t a long time when you’re writing a novel

I thought a year was loads of time. I thought I’d have a bit of spare time at the end to kick back and chill while waiting for the publishers to come-a-knocking. I’ve missed my twelve month deadline, but I’m not beating myself up about it. I’ve shifted it to my birthday, the 14th August, and on that date I am just stopping. Ready or not. I’m drawing a line and accept that ‘this is my novel’.

When I set my twelve month deadline I didn’t take into account the following:

  • Learning, learning and more learning
  • Trial and error
  • Reading, reading and more reading
  • Allowing the book to rest between edits
  • Cats demanding belly rubs
  • So much editing, oh sweet Jesus, the editing
  • Waiting
  • Life outside of writing
  • Instagram
  • Perfectionism
  • More editing
  • Cats lying on my keyboard
  • Avoiding
  • Twitter
  • Paralysing fear
  • Procrastination
  • Blogging
  • Amusing cat videos
  • Facebook
  • Did I mention editing?
  • YouTube
  • Cats

and FINALLY

  • That a year is a very short time to write a novel. Even seasoned novelists struggle with twelve month deadlines. Given that I had so much to learn, it was always going to be tight for me.

Lesson 2: Writing full-time is feckin’ lonely, man

Writing is lonely. There are aspects of office work that I definitely miss, and people are one of them. I’m not as much of an introverted misanthropist as I thought I was. I like humans. Most of them are grand. I miss my co-worker humans, not enough to leave writing behind, but just enough to make me think I need part-time work outside of writing, because I need people. No woman is an island.

Lesson 3: Writing is a craft, so I have to keep learning

I wrote about this in an earlier post, about the craft of writing. I thought that having a ‘big idea’ should be enough. What an arrogant prat I was. How naïve! Having said that, I don’t like the idea of writing-by-numbers. I definitely believe that rules are made to be tested and bent and broken, but that ultimately, you must know the rules you’re breaking. Rule-breaking must be conscious, so that you can weigh-up risk and benefit, so that you can go into it knowing that this is the right decision for YOUR book. I know now that nobody else can make that decision for you and you have to trust yourself. But that knowing the rules first is imperative.

Lesson 4. Writing is hard and letting go is the hardest part

I was lulled into a false sense of security when I started writing my novel. I remember the elation I felt when I finished my first draft. I thought

‘I have something great here. That’s the hard part over with. Time to do a little tidying up, and on to the next book!’

How wrong I was. I thought the rest of the writing process would be as easy, if not easier, than the first draft. It isn’t.

Writing is hard.

I’m on my final draft now, and this is the most difficult part of the writing process by far. It is when self-doubt begins to sneak in, when you begin to question every word you’ve written, when you find it hard to be objective about your work.

I’m going around in circles trying to decide what needs to be fixed, and how to go about it, and where to start. I’ve never been in such a death-spiral of confusion and indecision before and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. I had a think about it the other day, and I think it’s a mixture of two things, fear and perfectionism which is manifesting itself through procrastination. I’m a bit afraid of changing my novel and making it worse. I’m a bit afraid of not seeing its flaws, not changing it, and that it won’t be good. I’m a bit afraid of finishing up and letting go and putting my novel out there. And I’m definitely afraid of letting go if my novel isn’t absolutely perfect.

I know what I have to do. I have to fix plot-holes, rework the story, rewrite scenes, revise dialogue, do additional research blah, blah, blah. But I don’t know where to start. I’ve ignored all my own advice, and found myself in a rut.

I just need to remember to just approach everything in small chunks, and not become overwhelmed by the mammoth task ahead of me. I’m taking a mini-break from the novel to write a few other bits, and I hope that’ll press the ‘reset’ button, and get me over this massive hump.

Lesson 5: Walking is amazing for problem-solving and inspiration

Stephen King’s, On Writing was what got me started with walking every day. I have always been averse to moving my lower limbs, so I would never have tried it only for he suggested it and he gives pretty good advice. I now believe this is the best piece of advice he gives in his book. I wrote about this in an earlier blog-post, but walking takes your addled and foggy brain and gives it a good shake. All kinds of amazing things flutter down from secret compartments up there. Inspiration is found, problems solved, plot-holes filled, story structure repaired. Your brain just whirrs into life, like a machine, and starts spitting out all this good stuff. I can’t explain it. I just know it works.

Lesson 6: I love writing. I’m addicted to it. I can’t stop.

What is getting me through this final-draft process is that, at the finish line, there’s a shiny new novel waiting for me to start writing. The first draft process, which is just so pure and exciting and so much fun, will begin anew, because I love writing. I’m not stopping. I can’t stop. I have to write.

Lesson 7: I’m willing to have less money if I can keep writing

I have a lot less money this year, and yet I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve learned that I’m willing to be financially poorer in order to write. I don’t know if I can make a living, let alone a good living, as a writer. I’m aware that in most cases, writers can’t live on their writing income alone. Although I hope to be the exception, and that my writing will sustain me, I’m realistic about this.I know the in the near future I’ll have to return to office work as I look for a publisher or an agent. What I know for sure is that when I do, I’ll choose a job that won’t prevent me from writing: either because it leaves me with no time to write, or because it causes me so much stress that I find I can’t write.

Lesson 8: Writing can heal you

Writing reintroduced me to myself.  As a young child I loved my own company. I loved to write and read and paint and daydream. Time alone was really important to me. As I grew older I began to feel anxious in my own company. Being alone meant that I had to listen to my own thoughts. I had become prone to some dark moods, and I would go through phases where I couldn’t shut off the loops of negative thoughts. Other people were my panacea. They were a distraction.

I am now content to be alone again. I no longer have anything to fear from my own mind. Though I spend more time ‘in my head’, ironically, writing has forced me to reconnect with the world around me. I am seeking out sensation, beauty, emotion. Writing helps me to make sense of the world, put my thoughts in order and put life in perspective. Regardless of whether you’re planning on publishing your work or whether you’re just journaling for yourself, writing is cathartic, and healing.

Writing is a really good thing. So I write. And so should you.

Over to you: How long have you been writing your novel/ how long did it take you to write your first novel? What did you learn about yourself along the way? What are your plans for the future?

Mindfulness: Harvesting Stories and Descriptions from the Everyday

My teachers nicknamed me Cathy Daydream, because if I wasn’t looking around me, taking everything in, I was imagining what I was going to write or draw that day. I certainly wasn’t listening to the teacher, because I was excited about the world around me. I couldn’t wait to get all I had learned down on paper. I was like that for a long time, until I started working full-time and pretty much stopped writing.

I found that before I started writing again, my curiosity about the world around me had waned almost completely. I was walking around in a fog of indifference. If I was alone in a public place drinking a cup of coffee or waiting for someone, I was glued to my phone. My little barrier to human contact, safely ensconced in my bubble. I mean, if I were to look around what was there to see, only other people looking at their phones, in their own little phone-bubbles.

I had tunnel vision.

Something magical started to happen when I began my writing practice. My sense of curiosity reawakened within me, and I began to have more and more ‘lucid’ moments. I wasn’t mindful of being mindful when it first happened to me. The fuzziness of apathy simply dissipated and the clarity just came to me.

I found that there were two major benefits to mindfulness in  terms of my writing:

  1. Mindfulness for Inspiration

One day, I was at Victoria Street Station, after getting the Gatwick Express. I’d just left my job to write my novel and I was spending the weekend with my sister in London. I was hungry and trying to kill time, so I had lunch in Wetherspoons. As I tucked into my avocado salad (*to be read as hamburger and chips), I noticed this old West Indian man standing by the door. He was dressed in a fedora and an immaculately pressed grey suit. He stood with a large box in his hand, wrapped in bright pink paper. He stood there for a good ten minutes, and kept glancing at his watch. Shifting on his feet. I began to imagine the person he was waiting for and why, and I found that my mind was flooded with stories.

One was that he was widowed and lonely for a number of years and his granddaughter had shown great patience in showing him how to use the internet.  Unbeknownst to him, she created a profile for him on a dating website, and found him ‘the perfect date’. This was to be his first romantic encounter since his wife’s death. Would she arrive and bring him happiness, or would she stand him up and if so, what would the impact of that be? This man who was tentatively dipping his toe back in the waters of romance again? Was his story a happy one, or a sad one?

He will make his way into a short-story in time, I’m sure of it. But he and his story came from nowhere. A simple moment. A nothing moment.  It was only because I opened my eyes a little more, and looked closer. It was like my mind had been a faulty camera lens, and finally I was able to focus and zoom-in again.

2. Mindfulness for Writing Emotion and Creating Texture

As babies we look around and notice and appreciate the novelty of everything and everyone around us. We are curious, we seek out sensation, we immerse ourselves in our surroundings. We want to listen to, feel, taste, sniff and examine everything, whether it be a live plug socket, or the pretty looking tabs for the washing machine, babies want to get to know it. Get to understand it. Of course, this obsession with examining stuff has to subside, or we’d never get anything done, and I’d be busy gumming my Mac to see how it tastes, instead of writing on it.

By the time we reach adulthood, we know everything, don’t we? Why should we pay any heed to the ordinary, the everyday?

I’ve smelled freshly-cut grass a thousand times. So have you.

I’ve seen thousands of sunrises. So have you.

I’ve felt an insect crawl along my forearm. So have you.

I’ve heard birdsong. So have you.

I’ve tasted lemonade. So have you.

We don’t even notice how these things make us feel any more.

Speaking of feelings, they are banal too, aren’t they? I know what it feels like to be afraid, to cry, to feel elation. To see others experience those things.

So do you.

There’s no unchartered territory to be found. Nothing new to feel.

But there is. And especially with books. Because feeling, or seeing through reading has the potential to be new and fresh every time. In reading a novel, a reader is interpreting letters on a page and converting them into images, into feelings, experiences. Just by virtue of that process, even the ordinary is rendered extraordinary.

So the writer must become curious again. A writer can inject magic into anything just by virtue of the words they choose. That’s why it is important that we avoid cliched or ways of describing the everyday, because that blunts the impact of the reading experience in the same way that everyday life blunts our real-world experiences.

A writer must learn to see past the banality of the everyday, and find the magic in it. And to do that, they have to learn to care again. Mindfulness helps me to do this. I find that by focusing on what I’m experiencing, it not only feels new to me, I also uncover fresh descriptions that I can use in my work.

When I first started writing my novel I decided to go to the beach, because a number of scenes in my book take place near the sea. Like most people, I’ve been to the beach so often that I didn’t think I’d get anything out of my trip. But I saw it differently that day. I walked its length and breadth in a mindful way. Scanning the sand, the water, the rocks. I closed my eyes, so that I could focus on the sound of the gulls, or inhale the sea smell. I plunged my fingers into the damp sand, and searched for the words to describe it. The words trickled into my brain, because I cared enough to look properly.

Conclusion:

Maintaining mindfulness can be difficult. Life is full of distractions, but I’m grateful that it comes at all. I’m grateful that I’m aware of know how powerful it is in terms of improving my writing.

I’ve downloaded the Headspace app, which is an app which trains the brain in how to meditate and live more mindfully. I’m persevering with it and hoping that with practice I can make these moments of clarity last longer, and become more frequent. Already, I am seeing benefits.

I hope that in being ‘in the moment’ more often, I can harvest even more stories from the simple moments that would otherwise pass me by. I now know that if I just remember to look, there is magic everywhere, just waiting to be captured.

Over to you: Do you find yourself lacking in curiosity about the world around you? What simple moments inspire you? Do you practice mindfulness or do you meditate, and do you have any tips for a newbie? 

The Final Draft: Breaking the Writing Rules

Having worked in the legal profession for a number of years I understand and appreciate the need for rules and principles, law and order. As with most lawyers, a good part of my job involved interpreting legislation/case law. Sometimes the law is rigid and inflexible. Occasionally, however, the wording is ambiguous, and therefore the way the rule is applied is open to question. I’ve learned that sometimes the most exciting and best things happen when you get a chance to test the limits of the rules. I’m currently editing the final draft of my novel, and I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of this month. As I go through my book with highlighters, and red pens I’m painfully conscious of the rules, both of good writing and of novel structure. I am trying my very best not to break the writing rules.

My novel breaks some fundamental rules around the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy, and I’m not sure how readers will receive it. This being my debut novel, should I play it safe, or is this the best time to break the writing rules? Will readers excited by it, or will it leave them cold? Does a positive experience for the reader completely hinge on following the rules to the letter? I don’t believe it does.

I’ve read so many good novels that break either structural rules or the oft repeated rules of good writing. I’m reading Child 44 right now, the debut novel by Tom Rob Smith. The novel is written in the third person, primarily from the perspective of the protagonist, and yet occasionally, we’ll drift into the minds of other characters and back again to the protagonist. The author commits one of the gravest sins of novel-writing: head-hopping. Yet this isn’t fatal. In fact, I’m finding that it adds texture to the story. The novel is considered by critics and readers alike to be an example of a great thriller.

The popularity of Jane Austen’s novels has endured despite massive shifts in what is stylistically acceptable over the past hundred odd years. Academics pull her work apart, word by word, in an attempt to unlock the secret of the world’s continuing love-affair with her writing. There are even infographics and plain, old fashioned graphs that show how many times a particular word or category of word is used. (I know. GRAPHS FFS!) When Jane Austen wrote her novels adverbs were totally acceptable ways of adding description to sentences. As a result her novels are peppered through with them. Nowadays, writers that use them regularly are considered ‘lazy’. Lazy? A bit harsh. I think Jane Austen would agree.

Trainspotting (another debut novel) is one of my favourite novels. I first read it when I was fifteen, and it was like nothing I’d ever read before. It was a controversial novel in many ways, but stylistically, its use of dialect was particularly risky. It broke one of the cardinal rules of good fiction writing: don’t write dialect. And it didn’t just break the rule once. The entire novel is written in the first person in the Edinburghian dialect. It took me a day of perseverance before I could begin to be able to read it fluently, but in the end the use of dialect made my experience as a reader so much more vivid and immersive. As I read I ‘heard’ the words in a way I’d never done before.

Writers are repeatedly told not to write sentences that are too long, but recently, Mike McCormack’s debut novel, Solar Bones, won The Goldsmith’s Prize. It was written in one sentence!

It would be beyond arrogant for me, a person that hasn’t even finished a novel, to challenge the wisdom of the academics and authors that have studied the tenets of good writing and novel-structure and written them down for the benefit of me and other aspiring authors. I wouldn’t dare. We humans love to find patterns in things.

It’s a natural instinct. It’s reassuring to the aspiring author to know that rules exist. That by doing x,y or z, your writing can be better. But at this stage in the process, the danger of over-editing is a real worry to me. Every single person has their own ‘way with words’ , and as individual writers we naturally and instinctively use words in our own unique way. I worry that in attempting to beat ‘bad habits’ out of my writing, I risk losing something of the essence of myself- and that if that happens, what will the consequences be for my novel? Will it become a write-by-numbers book? Stilted, pedantic, inauthentic, dull. Will it lose its soul?

I’m not writing this novel to prove a point about rule-breaking. I’m not here to lead the charge in a rebellion against writing rules. Far from it, I think my writing has improved because I am starting to internalise those rules. I think if I’m going to break the writing rules, the safest thing is to do so consciously, and to have weighed up the potential consequences. Those consequences are that readers will potentially hate what I’ve done, but I need to be true to myself as a writer and to my story. I must trust that my readers will appreciate that and understand why I’ve had to write my novel the way it is written.

My book has to be what it is.

Sometimes, the longest sentence is the truest.

Sometimes, the sentence with the adverb is the most sincere.

Sometimes, breaking the rules is the only honest thing you can do.

Over to you: What writing rules do you like to break? What is the most fundamental rule of writing a good novel in your opinion? What is the best resource for writing rules in your opinion?

Literary Events: The Dalkey Book Festival

The Dalkey Book Festival takes place from the 15th to the 18th June, and it is one of the best literary festivals that Ireland has to offer. Salman Rushdie called it ‘the best little festival in the world’. Ten years ago, I would have asked Salman if he’d  ever heard of Electric Picnic, but now, I’m a sensible person, trying to write a novel, so I’d be more inclined to agree with him.

It’s a joy to attend the festival, not only for the events, but also because the village of Dalkey itself is absolutely gorgeous. It seems to have cloistered itself from the insanity that is Dublin and its suburbs since the economy decided to resurrect itself. Even with the additional hubbub of the festival, it never feels crowded, just buzzy and exciting.

The festival itself had an incredibly eclectic line-up of speakers and panels this year, and topics ranged from the political, to the satirical. I had hoped to make a few of the events but this year, because there were so many good speakers, but I only had the time for one. Given that my own novel is a psychological thriller, I decided to attend Dalkey Noir. We have always enjoyed a wealth of incredible writing talent in Ireland, but at the moment there is a kind of a Golden Age of crime/thriller writing taking place here, particularly amongst female writers.  The panel for this event was made up of female thriller writers and they discussed  the current boom in crime/thriller writing and in particular the female authors that dominate the best-sellers lists.

The panel consisted of Liz Nugent, who interviewed Sinead Crowley and Jane Casey.

I was so excited that Liz Nugent was the interviewer, as I’ve just finished reading Unravelling Oliver, her excellent debut. I hoped to hear a bit about her own journey as a writer, but as good interviewers do, she was single-minded in her focus on her guests, Sinead Crowley (who writes thrillers set in a fictionalised Dalkey) and Jane Casey (of the successful Maeve Kerrigan series).

It was fascinating to hear about the backgrounds of these two writers, before they went on to become authors, how they ended up writing crime, the resources that they use to research their novels and where they find the inspiration for their writing.

They shared their views on why women write crime so well. Jane Casey believes that it has its roots in the fact that women are, from a young age, taught to see danger everywhere, and I agree with her on that.

They also discussed how technology has impacted the way that thrillers are written. Sinead Crowley observed that the thriller has had to transform itself significantly with the advent of the smartphone. Most thriller writers either totally embrace the new technology in their novels or set their novels in the past. Interestingly, I decided to set mine in the 1970’s and I didn’t really know why I was drawn to that era initially. Looking at it now I realise that at least one of the reasons why, is that if smartphones existed during the time my novel was set, it would be a completely different book.

It was a very enjoyable talk, and I learned a lot from three very accomplished women. I hope to follow in their bloody footprints one day.

Competitions: The NYC Midnight, Screenwriting Challenge Round 2

I got came second in my heat in this challenge and progressed to the second round. The feedback from the judges was really positive and encouraging, and I’m looking forward to writing another screenplay.

My assignment was:

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Character: A Hitman

Subject: A negotiation

I actually came up with a really good idea for a comic script but the romance part had me flummoxed. I had to write the entire story in eight pages, and eight pages in a screenplay is very little as there is so much white space in a screenplay due to the formatting rules. I found that my two characters weren’t playing ball. I just couldn’t force ‘love’ in such a small space. On top of that, the deadline was a problem. I hadn’t noticed when I applied for the competition that the three days landed on one of the busiest weekends I have this year. I ended up sitting this one out, but I’ll definitely enter again next year.

The story I came up with was that of a dastardly husband trying to off his wife for an insurance payout. He attempts to hire a hitman to do the job, but mistakenly hires a novice gigolo, who completely misinterprets the meaning of his client’s shady assignment.

Here is a small excerpt from the script I started, and will finish later, but didn’t submit:

SHOT THROUGH THE HEART

Giorgio the Gigolo       

Did you get any business from that online ad?

Frank

Nope. Not sure why.

Giorgio the Gigolo         

Well, it ain’t easy to get hot, rich women to hand you over their cash for something they can get for free any night of the week in any dive bar in town. You gotta be offering them something real special, like I do.

Show me the ad you put in.

Frank hands Giorgio his phone. Giorgio squints at the screen.

Well, this explains everything.

‘Hot guy, good value, specialises in women’. 

What the fuck is this? Where’s the finesse? Where’s the class? Good value? You’re not a fried chicken ball at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet! You’re supposed to be offering your clients the tastiest, highest quality man meat. Are you a deep-fried chicken ball or a medium to rare, Kobe fillet steak, Frank?

Frank

I’m a fillet steak.

Giorgio the Gigolo

Then behave like one.

Frank

Frank shoots Giorgio a confused look.

I would have put more words in the ad, but the company charges by the word… I only had five dollars…

Georgio the Gigolo

First lesson in business: ‘don’t expect clients to invest in you, if you won’t invest in yourself’, now invest some money in your business, you fucken tightwad. You managed to find the money for weed last week as I recall.

Giorgio squints at the phone again.

Oh, (squints at phone) and the ad says ‘hit guy’. It says ‘hit guy’ not ‘hot guy’. Now, not only do these women think you’re cheap, they think you’re an idiot too.

Bra-fucken-vo.

Competitions: NYC Midnight, Short Story Competition, Round 3

Catherine Day Sunrise

I managed to get through to round three and into the top 3% of the entrants in the competition, but alas my journey is over. A very worthy winner was selected, and I’m chomping at the bit to have another go! I thoroughly enjoyed the competition, and I now have three stories that I’d never have written otherwise, and plenty of useful feedback from the judges that I can use to improve them. I’d highly recommend entering this competition to a anyone who is stuck in a bit of a  rut with their short stories. Our final assignment was:

Genre: Open

Character: An undertaker

Subject: A sunrise

Of the three stories I put together, this one (despite having been written in 24 hours) was my favourite, and not having an assigned genre was better for me, because I generally don’t write genre fiction. I’ll be submitting this one to other competitions. The biggest challenge with this story was writing it in 1,500 words. I ended up writing far too many words and then I had to edit heavily, and I think I might have edited the heart and soul out of it. If I end up submitting it anywhere else, I’ll submit the unabridged version.

The story is about unhappy memories, and a man’s attempts to protect his elderly wife from them. This is an excerpt from the beginning:

THE DAWNING

We used to go ‘sunrise hunting’ whenever we went travelling. We’d plot out the route on our map the night before, estimate when sunrise would take place, set an alarm, and sleep in our clothes. When the alarm went off we’d rise groggily from our bed, one of us always needing to be coaxed by the other. We’d pour strong, black coffee into our chipped thermos flask and jump into the hire car to drive fast in the pitch-blackness; Gloria’s face obscured by a giant map as she barked out directions, yawns filling my mouth as I drove. We’d follow the line of the horizon, find a good spot and park up.

Gloria would spread out our old woollen rug. A rug we had picked up in India, that had lain on the soil of many different countries since, and pour herself a cup of coffee, huddling into her jacket. She’d smile a faint smile and watch the sky rapidly transform before us, whilst I ran around snapping photographs. Trying to capture every moment of the show, as the sky worked through whatever palette it had selected from its range that day- red, orange and yellow or pink and purple. Maybe shades of all of them. Better than a sunset any day. A sunset was an ending, a sunrise a new beginning.

Scary Times and Beta Readers

Waiting for feedback from my beta readers was one of the most nerve-racking experiences I’ve ever had. It was like I had a precious little kitten I’d nurtured from birth. Perhaps the little kitten had star potential, or maybe I was completely delusional (like many cat-parents are) about how entraining my kitten really is. It was like taking that vulnerable creature and handing it to a pack of wolves who would either be enamoured by it and nurture it, or tire of it and tear it to bloody shreds.

Many writing blogs/books recommend that you select only a few beta readers, and that you only select people who write. I pretty much ignored both pieces of advice. I’ve been unlucky with strangers reading my work in exchange for me reading theirs. Often my feedback would be more detailed, thoughtful and constructive than what I receive back. I’ve actually received feedback of ‘very good, really enjoyed it’ on short stories that I’ve written. This would be after spending forty-five minutes reading and typing up a critique on the work of the other person. I’ve just been unlucky, I know, but still, it made me think that taking a different path would suit me better.

I asked ten people I knew to beta read for me. In terms of their knowledge of writing and novels. I managed rope people in with a massive variety of perspectives to offer. Proofreaders, fans of the thriller genre, people with English degrees, people who write as a hobby, people who write for a living, to a psychologist, who offered a unique perspective on my characterisation. I agreed with many of their observations, and I’m making a number of changes to my final draft as a result.

My precious kitten came back a bit roughed-up, but mainly in one piece.

I knew that the risk of asking friends and family read it was that they wouldn’t be honest. They are more likely to ‘blow smoke up your hole’ as my uncle Finbar might say.

As I gathered the feedback from each individual reader, it became clear that the risk had paid off. The criticism I received was constructive, though occasionally brutal. Ironically, it was the harshest criticism that made me feel the greatest sense of confidence in my writing. It meant that I could trust my readers when they told me that they enjoyed the novel. I could believe them when they told me they couldn’t put it down. I don’t regret selecting people I know to beta read. It was clear to me that my readers took their job very seriously, and that they were invested in my success. I am grateful to each and every one of them.

I have a lot of work to do before the novel will be right, and I’m pretty nervous about launching into the final draft.

Over to you: What is your experience with beta readers? How did you find THE ONE(S)? What kinds of people did you use? Did you use friends/family or strangers? What interesting perspectives have they brought to your work?

Research Trip: Inishmore

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer
Inishmore Island, the Harbour

I think Inishmore was the island that sparked my love affair with islands. I’ve been three times now, and I can’t wait to go back. Of the many islands I’ve visited it remains the easiest to spend time on, for a number of reasons: there’s plenty to see and do and when you’re finished doing and seeing everything on Inishmore you can hop on a ferry from there to the other two Aran Islands and have three completely different island experiences.

It has plenty of amenities in comparison to the other islands I’ve been to, where I’ve had issues with restaurants closing early, shops being shut on a Sunday etc. On Inishmore there are lots of pubs, plenty of accommodation and pretty decent food. There are a number of craft shops and a decently stocked supermarket. Kilmurvey beach is lovely, as is the walk to the top of the Black Fort.

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

Inishmore has probably had the most influence on the shaping of my fictional island in my imagination, simply because I’ve been there so many times.

This time I came here with a singular focus: to find out as much as possible about the history of the island as I could from a bona fide islander. I booked a pony and trap tour, and embarked on the maiden voyage of Inishmore’s first, and only, female horse and trap tour-guide. She was young for a guide. Her name was Grainne, and she was incredibly knowledgeable, and told us stories about the island that were as funny as they were informative. As we clip-clopped around the island cars driven by proud island women tooted their horns at her. The Inishmore version of ‘you go, girl!’

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

Grainne was born and raised on Inishmore, and after spending a number of years on the mainland completing a marketing degree and working in an office, she decided to return to her home place and become a tour-guide. She clearly loves the island she grew up on. She told me things about the island that fascinated me. She told me about local history, information about the culture and customs of the island, and the simple, informality of life here. Things that I wouldn’t have gotten from a perusal of WikiPedia, and much of which is likely to find itself in my novel.