What not to buy the writer in your life for Christmas

As a follow-up to my post entitled ‘What to Buy the Writer in Your Life‘ I thought it prudent to outline the items that you shouldn’t buy for your writer friend under any circumstances:

Another Notebook

I find it hard to resist the allure of a nice notebook with its pretty cover, and the blank pages and all the potential they hold. I’m sure that most writers have a notebook fetish, but it’s more of a magpie instinct. An urge to collect and leave to gather dust in a drawer.

One of my bestest friends, who may or may not read this post, will probably be horrified and think I’m an ungrateful wench when she reads this, but I’m willing to take that risk for your benefit, dear reader. She bought me a very special notebook.  It is tan, leather-bound, monogrammed and gorgeous. But can I write in it? Hell no! It’s too beautiful. I could never defile its crisp white pages with my hideous handwriting. It’s sitting in a drawer in its fancy protective bag and that is where it’ll stay.

The moral of my story is this: I appreciate the sentiment, the expense and the beauty of the thing. In fact, I love the notebook so much I will probably ask to be buried with it. But it will never be used as intended. Not because I don’t appreciate it, but because I do.

I’m not a writer that uses notebooks. I use my phone to jot things down. The benefits being that I (a) always have it on me, ideas pop into my head in the strangest of places and (b) it is lightweight and fits in my pocket/hand (c) I don’t need anything more than my finger and the phone. Notebooks pose two problems, (i) you must always have the notebook with you to avoid forgetting important ideas and (ii) you must always have a pen. Pens tend to gather in gangs when you need them least and abscond when you need them most. There are many writers that claim to only use notebooks as they prefer to make notes freehand, but those writers already have a favoured notebook of exactly the right size and weight for transporting around with them.

If you’re determined to buy a notebook, buy a particularly lovely one to be used for Instagram photos, but don’t expect it to ever have the nib of a pen touch its pages.

Distractions

Sometimes writers like to disappear down rabbit holes for hours at a time and hide from their writing. So buying a writer a computer game/console/ or series box-set which might be appreciated, isn’t going to keep them focused. It’s hard enough for writers to resist the lure of the internet but they can easily lose hours in a game or a series. I’ve been known to lose days to computer games. I lost 24 hours straight to The Sims when I was a teenager. My mother confiscated it when I emerged from my bedroom at 8pm in my pyjamas, with dehydrated eyes, grey-tinged skin and a twitch.

A lot of creative people have addictive personalities. Of course, we only become addicted to things that are bad for us. For example, I break out in a cold sweat if I don’t inhale at least one packet of salty corn snacks once a day, but somehow never developed an addiction to running…

If a writer is going to form an addiction, encourage them to develop one that’s good for their writing. See my Blog Post entitled ‘What to Buy the Writer in Your Life‘, # 1, ‘alcohol’.

Books

I loooove going to a bookshop to buy books. I could easily spend an hour in a bookshop browsing. But I don’t like it when people buy me books. The danger is that I’ll have read it, already have it (waiting to be read) or hate it. Most writers have a ‘to-be-read’ (TBR) list (many people put those lists on Goodreads, just FYI). Unless you can get a peek at that, don’t bother buying a book for your writer. If you have a book that you really like, lend it to your writer. Otherwise, give them a voucher and let them buy their own damn books you control freak!

There is one exception to the ‘don’t buy a writer books’ rule. Most writers will accept the gift of a particularly gorgeous classic in hardback that’ll look fabulous on their bookshelf but which nobody will ever be allowed to read.

Novelty stuff for Bants and Lolz

There are lots of silly, gimmicky things aimed at writers. They are an absolute hoot! Things like notebooks for the shower and writers blocks that are actually (wait for it) BLOCKS OF WOOD! Hilarious.

If you give the writer in your life one of these items they’ll say ‘haha, hysterical, my sides are splitting’ and then dump it at the first opportunity.

Ugly Mugs

Your friend is a writer. They sustain themselves almost entirely on caffeinated beverages. They are also pedantic. They have the strong belief that they are mug connoisseurs and there’s a right kind of mug and a wrong kind of mug for various drinks. They already have at least one ‘special’ mug. Probably three (I have a mug for white coffee, a cup and saucer for black coffee, a mug for tea and a transparent mug for herbal tea). The mugs will gather on their desk until they absolutely have to be washed.

If you have your heart set on buying a mug for your friend, how can you ensure that your mug can compete with the tasteful mugs your friend has carefully chosen? How is it going to stand out from the crowd? The answer: buy something that looks like some thought was put into its design and it might actually be used. Whatever you do, don’t pick a fugly mug. You don’t want your mug banished to the back of their cupboard with the rest of the fugly mugs. What makes a mug fugly? It’s basic, usually white, it features a cliched quote, and worst of all, the quote is written in a horrible font. Writers take great offence to an ugly font. When I’m gifted a hideous novelty mug I leave it by the edge of the kitchen counter for my cat to knock off. That’s about the only thing it’s good for. Don’t let your gift meet a similar fate.

Christmas Presents for the Aspiring Writer in your Life


(If you’re a writer reading this, this post isn’t for you. This is for you to surruptitiously leave open on the iPad/phone/laptop of a loved one. You deserve gifts. Goddammit, you deserve good gifts! It’s not like you can afford to buy them for yourself!)



Buying gifts for a writer is a nightmare, but I’m here to wake you up to the fact that it needn’t be. I’ve carefully curated a list of twelve things your writer friend is very likely to appreciate. You may buy some or all of these gifts for your writer friend/lover/family member. Don’t forget, everyone knows that sums expended on presents directly represent the amount of love you feel for a person, so give generously.

1. Alcohol:

Unless they are a rare breed of teetotal writer, your writer will welcome alcohol. Alcohol helps with writing. That’s a fact. All of the best writers were/are notorious booze-hounds. Especially Jane Austen. If your writer is not yet a drinker you need to give them a nudge in the right direction. This is for their own good.

Fancy booze is the in-thing these days. Artisanal gin infused with essence of unicorn horn and whiskey aged in wooden barrels once owned by King Arthur and the likes. Get some of that so that they can work on developing their drinking habit without worrying that they might become some common-or-garden alcoholic. Bonus: Posh liquor will look Instagrammable tastefully placed beside item #2 on your writer friend’s desk.

My Pick: Writer’s Tears Whiskey

2. A Cat/ Multiple Cats:

 

Mr Purrfect, making a writer of me

The best thing about a cat gift is that most shelters are giving the little feckers away for free! Can’t wait to get rid of ’em! It’s a win-win-win situation. Cats help with writing. All the best writers have/had desk-cats. This is a fact. For bonus points teach the thing to hold pens, so that it can earn its keep.

 

My Pick: Something like this

3. Good coffee/ vouchers for the closest coffee shop/ coffee paraphenalia:

Coffee will provide much-needed fuel for your writer friend. They are going to need it to counteract the effects of imbibing fancy whiskey. See # 1.

My Pick: Homitt Cafetiere

4. A Fancy Pen:

This is for when your friend/lover/relative is signing books at their swanky book launch. They’ll probably have forgotten all about you by the time they reach the heady heights of international stardom. At least you’ll get the satisfaction of nudging the person beside you in the book-signing queue, pointing to the pen and saying ‘I gave him/her that’. 

My Pick: Handcrafted ballpoint

5. A Holiday:

I know, I know, I know. Holidays are pricey, but believe me, the writer in your life deserves it. Writers are constantly working. Even when they’re not. Their brains are constantly ticking over, searching for new ways to entertain their readers. This selfless act is, quite frankly, exhausting. They are willing to make this sacrifice for the benefit of their adoring fans, of which you are one. Be a good fan, and pay for their holiday. I hear Barbados is good this time of year. Even better, don’t insist on going with them. Send them off on a writer’s retreat. Alone.

My Pick: find a comprehensive list of writer’s retreats here. 

6. A Book Voucher for an Actual Bookshop:

Though they love their kindles, writers love an excuse to visit a bookshop. They enjoy spending hours browsing and carefully selecting books from the shelves in the ‘literature’ section. They like to conspicuously read random passages from hifalutin novels while nodding thoughtfully and saying ‘mmmm’. As they do this they are sneaking glances at the pile of commercial fiction on a nearby table, choosing the book that they’ll actually buy on their way out. New books are expensive, so don’t be a tight-arse. Give generously.

7. Writerly Cufflinks /Jewellery / Pins /Clothing/Bags:

All writers secretly want everyone to know they’re a writer. You’ve probably already noticed how they attempt to introduce it into conversation with strangers whenever the opportunity arises. Save them the trouble by buying them a statement piece that screams ‘I’m a tortured writer, ask me about it!’. Etsy , Amazon, Penguin , Out of Print Clothing and The Literary Emporium all sell nice things. These sites also sell non-wearable stuff for the writerly naturist in your life. I recommend bookends, luggage tags, framed posters, bookmarks, coasters and keyrings for those weirdos.

My pick: For the pedantic lady in your life

8. A Writing Course:

Writers love a good writing course. Online or in person, it doesn’t matter. Just pick wisely. ‘Poetry for Beginners’ isn’t going to please a person that already believes they are the 21st century’s answer to Lord Byron. Handle their fragile ego with care, or you might inadvertently ruin their Christmas.

My pick: Udemy online courses 

9. Time:

If the writer person in your life is a parent, the most beautiful gift you can give them is a day (or ten) of peace, quiet and R&R away from their offspring. Babysit, or get a babysitter, give them some ‘me’ time. They will adore you. They’ll probably end up writing during that ‘me’ time, but at least they’ll get to do so in blissful silence.

10. Apps or Subscriptions:

Scrivener, Grammarly Premium, Spotify Premium, Headspace, Audible, Journal of the Month, Amazon Kindle Unlimited are examples of great things to buy for writers, but your writer might just have them so make subtle enquiries/ hack their computer before you buy. Warning: don’t be alarmed/disgusted if you check their browsing history…anything that’s on there is probably there for research purposes only. Probably.

11. An Air-Purifying Plant (in a nice pot):

My office is like The American Office. I too have a Pam. My palm tree. She’s good for air, and humans need that shit, even writers. Pam is hanging onto life by a thread, but I’m sure I’d have choked on my own Co2 in this sarcophagus/office of mine without her. I’m alive and kicking, and that’s all down to Pam. Cheers, Pam! You deserve a drop of water for that!

12. Self-Care/ Wellness Gifts:

Writers often neglect themselves because sometimes the physical world around them seems less important than the world they are inhabiting in their heads. In other words, they can be awful slobs. Get them a couple of yoga classes, a massage, a spa day, a session with a personal trainer, a session with a stylist, a fecking haircut, pay for a cleaner for their gaff, bring their laundry to the local launderette. Warning: it’s probably a good idea to power-hose the writer down and treat any parasitic infections before bringing them anywhere in public.

Disclaimer: It is possible that the writer in your life will balk at all of these suggestions, as it it possible that I am writing this post purely out of self-interest and as a massive hint to my own family and friends.

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.

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, sweat lepping from your pores. 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. 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?