Sunday 22 September 2019

How do you write a novel? Leading Irish writers including Sebastian Barry and Louise O'Neill explain...

We all have a book in us, but just how do you get it out on paper? Some of Ireland's best writers tell Caomhan Keane what it takes to get the job done

'If everyone has a novel in them, how do we best extract it?
'If everyone has a novel in them, how do we best extract it?
Literary light: Sebastian Barry photographed in Central Hotel, Exchequer Street, Dublin 2; Picture: Frank McGrath
Feeling the buzz: Rory Gleeson. Photo: Mark Condren
Author Nuala O'Connor
Author Louise O'Neill. Photo: David Conachy
Jess Kidd
John Connolly. Photo: Tony Gavin
John Boyne
Dubliner Rob Doyle.
Liz Nugent.

The Cúirt International Festival Of Literature enters its 33rd year of existence when it returns to Galway from April 23-29. Across the years, it has attracted dozens of Nobel prize-winners, Poet Laureates and prize-winning authors from all over the world.

This year is no exception, with appearances from Irish Fiction Laureate Sebastian Barry, two-time Booker prize nominee Patrick McCabe, Bord Gáis Novel of the Year winner Bernard McLaverty and Sally Rooney, Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year, penciled in.

But while many of the authors appearing have little else in common, they all share one accomplishment. And that's that they managed to put pen to paper and write the book that set them on the road to success in the first place. If everyone has a novel in them, how do we best extract it? Stephen King believes that "amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work". Here, some of Ireland's literary lions tell Weekend how they turned an idea into a novel.


You have to find the way that you write, which is much more difficult than writing like Joyce

Sebastian Barry

Literary light: Sebastian Barry photographed in Central Hotel, Exchequer Street, Dublin 2; Picture: Frank McGrath

"I regard the time I spent writing my first novel as my apprenticeship," says Sebastian Barry, the Irish Fiction Laureate. "You can't look for a style. It has to accumulate. You've got to find how you write, which is much more difficult than writing like Joyce. It's like the way a robin's bird song fits the robin."

He describes the first draft as "two people sitting in front of a fire, one person telling a story to the other, trying to keep their interest, so they don't fall asleep. It's a story-telling document. You may add stuff later but the actual blood of the book, its beating heart will be in that draft."

Though not his first published book, he considers Whatever Happened to Eneas McNulty to be the first one written in his own voice. "It started with an image of a man looking down on his own town but he could not enter," says Barry. "It was really quite a hard book to write. I had to wait between sections for inspiration to come and months would go by and I couldn't find anything to add to it. I was desperate. But when it came, it came, and there's not a huge difference between first draft and the published book.

"I spent an awful long time looking at everything closely, much like, I suspect, the jazz player does. Straying from the tune before you, working in the realm of the music, finding that certain tempo. You have to allow the work come at its own pace, and be there to hear it."

Sebastian Barry's 'Days Without End' is out now


The first drafts are anarchic, wild and freer. You have to keep that energy but make it comprehensible

Rory Gleeson

Feeling the buzz: Rory Gleeson. Photo: Mark Condren

Rory Gleeson, whose brilliant debut Rockadoon Shore looks at unspooling college friendships, used what he learned during his four-year psychology degree to map down his characters' flaws. "I used cognitive science and confirmation bias as a way to explain their behaviour. But ultimately I was writing a book about a bunch of people on the piss down the country. It wasn't a psych experiment."

A turning point for him was getting feedback from an acclaimed writer who was the writer in residence at the University of Manchester, where Gleeson was doing a Masters in Creative Writing. "I told him I was thinking of abandoning it and he read it and said 'Absolutely, don't do it. Just finish it'. Having just this one person say that to me meant a lot."

It took him a year to finish the first draft, writing in public spaces because "I found it difficult to separate my 'work' time from my 'being at home and messing about on my computer' time. I keep office hours, so that if it gets to 4pm and I haven't gotten anything written, the guilt is a great motivator.

"There is a lot of writing in my published book from the original draft. But it's pruned, hacked apart, and shifted around. First drafts are anarchic, wild and freer. You need to keep that energy, but make it comprehensible. But you can lose that sense of spirit, so you need to watch out for that."

Rory Gleeson's 'Rockadoon Shore' is out now


It came out like a fever dream. There are entire passages I can’t remember writing

Louise O'Neill

Author Louise O'Neill. Photo: David Conachy

Christened the "the best YA fiction writer alive today" by The Guardian, the image that inspired Only Ever Yours, sprung fully formed to Louise O'Neill while she was reading one of those trashy magazines that put the circle of shame on women's 'defective' body parts.

"This vision came into my mind - of a girl, in a bikini, in front of a classroom, while an older woman drew circles of shame and her classmates started chanting 'fat, fat, fat,' at her."

Around this she constructed a world where women were bred for beauty and schooled in the wants of men. "I was working at a fashion magazine and had had a relapse of anorexia so I was really giving a lot of thought to how the media portrayed women and how it impacted on me and my body image.

"I just sat down and started writing. And it came out like a fever dream. There are entire passages that I can't remember writing."

She wrote a thousand words a day, "even if I was cramming in 500 adjectives just to make that target," and becomes totally consumed by the work. "When I'm writing, I lock myself away in West Cork. I don't socialise, and feel absorbed by the world I'm creating and the characters in it. It can feel like method acting.

"Perfectionism is the enemy, not the friend of creativity," she says, quoting Julia Cameron. "There's a danger in becoming disheartened when you compare what you are writing to the work of others, when in reality, you are comparing their tenth draft to your first one.

"You have to accept that your finished product is probably only going to contain 85pc of what you set out to write. You'll never get 100pc of that vision. Learning to be, not just satisfied with that, but quite pleased with it, is the most important thing for a debut writer."

Louise O Neill's 'Almost Love' is out now


Don’t be looking for perfect. That’s where madness lies

Jess Kidd

Jess Kidd

"In your initial creative process you can't be too self-critical or it will squash your creative spark," says Jess Kidd, whose novel Himself landed her on the shortlist for Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2016. "Remind yourself that this isn't the finished product, it's a work in progress. All those books you love had first drafts, too, and they were nowhere near as polished as the published version."

The desire to revisit the setting of a previous short story was the impetus for Himself, about an orphan returning to his place of birth to investigate the disappearance of his mother.

"I know a lot of bad self-editors, who say, 'I can't move on 'cause those first pages aren't perfect.' That's where madness lies. Don't be looking for perfect. It's like life drawing. Draw the whole of the figure and keep moving over it, developing each part as you move on.

"Blocks come when you have written yourself into a corner, taking your story in a direction it didn't want to go," says Kidd. "You might need to go back a couple of thousand words and scrap stuff that isn't working, even if you're crying while you're doing it."

Jess Kidd's 'The Hoarder' is out now


Writing a book is like a marriage. The initial passion will only take you so far

John Connolly

John Connolly. Photo: Tony Gavin

Having sold over €13.5m worth of books in Ireland and Britain since his first Charlie Parker novel Every Dead Thing was published in 1999, John Connolly believes that writing has to become an active part of your day. "It's tiny steps. Write two hundred words a day for five weeks so that it becomes a chore. Then you get to a stage where you're not afraid of your desk."

He wrote Every Dead Thing after he was unable to shake the image of a man visiting the grave of his slain wife and daughter while reliving the facts of their brutal murder.

He worked the night shift as a journalist in the days before the 24-hour news cycle and read a lot of in-depth reporting in American Sunday newspapers to fill in the knowledge he lacked, not being a PI himself.

"You get an inkling of the beats of an investigation - who is in charge? Who are the team around them?

"Court reporting on cases can be meticulous and gives you a very good picture of what goes on behind the scenes. After that you can speak to some police officers themselves, to get the personal details that will give the whole thing a ring of truth for the reader. How people feel or prepare themselves before they entered a crime scene? How do they deal with the smell?

"Writing a book is like a marriage," he concludes. "The initial passion will only take you so far. Then it takes work. My advice is that you finish everything; I don't even have a short story in my drawer that I haven't finished, because if you start discarding things, you will end up with a drawer full of half-finished books."

John Connolly's 'He' is out now


Some days you produce a lot, some days not so much but you are achieving something by just spending time at your desk

John Boyne

John Boyne

"I don't have time in my life to get writer's block," says John Boyne, whose books have been translated into over 50 languages since his first book, The Thief of Time was published in 2006. "Time is short and I have a lot of stories that I like to tell.

"Print it out, scrawl all over it. There's no other way through it, other than writing through the problem. You start by putting down a sentence. A couple of sentences can become a paragraph and a paragraph can become a page."

When he started writing, he was working full time in Waterstones, getting up at 5am to catch the literary worm, sometimes printing off the pages of his book and working on it in a quiet section of the shop on a slow day. "Some days you produce a lot, some days not so much, but you are achieving something by just spending time at your desk."

The Thief of Time starts in 1758 and follows the same character up to the eve of this Millennium as he simply does not age or die. "I wrote a first draft without research, as I prefer to get a story first. Then I would go back and carve up the novel into pieces and work on it day after day.

"Then I went off and read about the different eras I had included - what they wore, what they ate, etc, and put it into the text organically, without making it seem like you read the rough guide to history. Reading fiction contemporary at that time is a good way of capturing the idiom."

John Boyne's 'The Heart's Invisible Furies' is out now


You are exhausting yourself with no guarantee that you are not being totally deluded

Rob Doyle

Dubliner Rob Doyle.

A phone call from his friends back home, who were drinking on a beach while he taught English as a foreign language in Italy, inspired the first chapter of Rob Doyle's Here are the Young Men, a distressing but devastatingly brilliant summer in the lives of the most nihilistic teens.

"Having gone through so much darkness and trauma in my youth, it was liberating to express all of that torment in fictional form."

He wrote 800 words a day in the library after cycling across London to teach Philosophy, flat sharing with eight other lads and living a malnourished, drug-fuelled existence. "Writing the first draft was not a happy period. You are exhausting yourself; dong this thing with no guarantee that you are not being totally deluded. It took four or five months to write that first draft and it was a real struggle."

Music played a role in shaping the book's tone. "I remember cycling around listening to visceral, violent songs by Nick Cave and other artists and that inspired the depraved nature of some of the writing.

"I sent it off to one editor, and he told me to make changes I knew were a disaster and that would entail six months of hard work. But it was in a desperate situation, so I convinced myself that it was the right thing to do. I felt like I was doing violence to my book and to myself, and that violence had a real consequence. I crashed and suffered terribly."

Once he returned to following his own path he enjoyed the process of writing the book again, and in spite of 'hitting the crossbar' a few times before landing with his publisher, the feedback he was getting from the industry was positive. "I always knew the book contained something new, that there was originality there. To have people telling me that they had every faith that I could get it published was heartening during a dark period."

Rob Doyle's 'This is the Ritual' is out now


Put it in a drawer for at least two months, then take it out and start rewriting it

Liz Nugent

Liz Nugent.

"There's the 30k barrier - and every writer I know says this, where, once you get to it, you just think, 'I have written utter crap. There is no point in going on, I will have to scrap it and start again.' It's a horrible feeling, that what you are writing doesn't make any sense. But you just have to get on your tractor and plough through it. You will always find the story you didn't know was there."

Nugent lived with the first sentence of her book, Unraveling Oliver, for over a year before writing it down. "I didn't know who was saying it or what he was talking about, but I always felt if I ever get around to writing a book that would be a good line to start with."

Initially a short story, the character just wouldn't let her be. "Oliver had beaten his wife into a coma and was very callous about it. He was quite a monster. But it bugged me I had never really thought about why he was a monster. I had mentioned a few other characters in the story and I thought, 'What did they think about him? Did he pull the wool over their eyes?' Setting out to answer that question is how I turned the story into a book."

She recommends employing a professional editor to look at your work. "It can cost 400 quid, but you get independent advice. They will tell you the truth, but do it kindly."

But never submit your first draft, she advises. "Put it in a drawer for at least two months, then take it out and start rewriting it. When you think you can't make it any better than where you have gotten it, submit it then."

Liz Nugent's 'Skin Deep' is out now


Routine works. I write every day and set myself a modest word count of 500 words

Nuala O'Connor

EMI_5542 (1).jpg
Author Nuala O'Connor

"The day you think, 'I just don't think I have anything to write today' is the day you have all the more reason to sit your a**e down and do it," says Nuala O'Connor, whose debut novel You was published in 2010. "You don't get up as a nurse in the morning and say, 'I just don't think I'll bother today.' You have to treat it like a job.

"Routine works. I write every day, and set myself a modest word count of 500 words. The beauty is, that when you do this, you remain in touch with your story. It consumes you. Your subconscious starts to come in and work on it for you.

"When I'm in that kind of a funk I'll edit the previous day's work, and then a sentence might occur to me, and then another, and then a scene will appear. You might not end up using it in the published book, but it's a way of getting you to the sentence, paragraph or page that will."

Nuala has been published in the US & Canada and has worked with editors who have asked her to change the endings of her books, or to change the point of view (POV), from two characters to one. "You have to be prepared for this and be ready to take on a lot of input and changes. I had to rewrite the whole thing, incorporating the information that had previously been shared by the character whose POV has been cut. You just have to find a way of doing it that pleases you."

Nuala O'Connor's 'Miss Emily' is out now


* "Entering writing competitions is a great way of giving yourself a target to have something completed by a specific date," says Jess Kidd. Next week the Irish Writer's centre will launch their annual Novel Fair. Nuala O'Connor is one of its judges. "Twelve novelists will be chosen to pitch their work to the country's top agents and publishers over the course of one day," she says. "When I was looking for an agent all those years ago, you'd be sending out submissions and it took three months to a year to hear back from anyone. This is fast-tracking the process."

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