Masterful Maeve sets us all on the write lines
Writing may be difficult but it needn't be a chore if you follow some basic rules set out in a new book, says Alison Walsh
THESE days, it seems that the world is full of writers. Everyone is putting pen to paper, or has dreams of writing a best- seller. We hear tales of six- figure advances and authors magically transported from their jobs as bus drivers into the best-seller lists and figure, well, why not me?
And why not indeed? Writing is, thankfully, no longer the elitist preserve of Oxbridge graduates with inheritances to sustain them. But it is still hard work, can take a long time, and the road to success is littered with rejection letters.
For those of you who want to go further than a hastily written paragraph or two squeezed in between EastEnders and Match of the Day, here are some essential words of wisdom from experts in the field.
Maeve Binchy, doyenne of popular writing, was involved in a "novel" venture three years ago at the National College of Ireland. The aim of The Maeve Binchy Writers' Club writing course was to support and encourage writers to write, and to finish, a piece of work over the 20-week duration. A tie-in book, The Maeve Binchy Writers' Club, containing her advice and related words of wisdom from professionals in the area, has just been published by Orion. She cheerfully describes the book as "real recipes, not mother-in-law recipes". There are no crucial missing ingredients in her advice to writers, but some truthful and generous support.
Beginning at the beginning, what does she see as the essential "rules" of the process for budding writers? According to Maeve, "There are really a few simple rules. Write about what you know. You are going to be an authority on that subject." Her second rule is, "don't put on an accent" -- meaning a false voice: "you'll be found out in no time. Write as you speak, as if you're writing to a friend." Next, "use your ears as a tape recorder and listen to people the whole time." A snatched, intriguing bit of conversation might well be the spark for a strong story. Also, your dialogue needs to sound as natural as if a real person were speaking it. "When you write first, one character makes a speech and then another character makes a speech. This isn't the way it is in real life, where people interrupt each other all the time." Fourthly, "use your eyes like a camera, to watch people's body language, I used to be so interested in people that I would follow them along the street to see what was going to happen."
Real writers are curious about other peoples' actions and motivations. Brendan Nolan is a published writer, and a writing tutor who teaches at the Irish Writers' Centre in Parnell Square. He also runs a resource website for writers, allaboutwriting.net. He feels that writing requires the same kind of practice as any other art. "If you're learning to play a musical instrument you have to practise and practise, but there's a myth going around that you can pick up a pen and write perfectly first time off."
As he suggests, "You have to keep writing and writing. And very often rewriting is the key -- anything that you've written can be reduced by a third -- at least. You can make it better, without losing anything." One crucial rule for anyone serious about writing is "make time to write". Many would-be writers moan, "I would write, if only I had the time," but if you don't actually sit there and put the hours in, a novel or a biography will not materialise out of the ether. Maeve Binchy conquered the "making the time" conundrum when she started to write: "I had to steal time from the night, by getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning and working until 7.30 ... and then go to work, exhausted. But it was the only way I got the book finished. I got a big novel finished in a year."
Brendan Nolan feels that writers should be able to find one hour a day: "If someone said to you, would you like a day off to do nothing else but write, you'd say yes please, but you have seven hours, one hour every day. I very much doubt that there is anyone who hasn't got one hour in the day."
And, if you get stuck, keep at it. Maeve Binchy writes out a list of narrative propulsions to make sure her story keeps moving. "By the end of chapter one she has to have started working in the department store and met all the staff," and so on. Brendan Nolan advises writers to "just keep going, just keep writing anything that comes into your head, and what happens is you pass through the arid part and have entered fertile ground again. Don't stop -- it will come right, just like catching your second wind. You can fix it up later on."
So, you've been writing away for a few weeks, getting up early, or missing out on Corrie, and are feeling very pleased with yourself. You've written two chapters of your novel and feel ready to send it out to a publisher or agent. Well, don't. At least not yet. Many writers send incomplete work off in a flush of enthusiasm, and then find themselves having to stick with a project that has already been rejected by one or more publishers or agents. As Brendan Nolan says: "Many beginner writers send off the first draft and get discouraged when they get rejected. But publishers don't have the time to be rewriting work from new writers. And writers get disappointed."
Patricia Deevy, Editorial Director at Penguin Ireland, agrees. "With some writers, things might be a little bit raw, and you can get past that with them, but in general, don't send something in that's a draft. Most publishers don't have time to workshop material any more," she says. Take Brendan Nolan's advice and hang on to your script: "I'd advise writers to put it aside for about a month and come back to it with fresh eyes. Read it all the way through from beginning to end, as if you were a reader and then you'll start to see where I could have given it a bit more."
But if you do stick with it for a year or two -- yes, that's how long it takes to write a novel -- with the early starts and the bleary-eyed sentences written at 5am, and you've honed the book over and over again until you feel it's just right, what then? Well, you will have to send your precious baby out to someone. As Maeve Binchy says, "you have to send it to someone. Publishers are not going to break into your house in the dead of night. You have to endure the humiliating business of sending it in and having it rejected and sending it out again ... '"
As one of a shrinking number of publishers accepting unsolicited work (ie work that does not come from a literary agent) Patricia Deevy has some words of advice for those approaching publishers. "You are applying to the publisher for a job as an author, so present it nicely and neatly to give a good impression. It is wise to put your best foot forward." Your letter, she feels, should state crisply and clearly what you are doing and your synopsis, crucially, should summarise the plot of your novel, from beginning to end -- it is not a marketing tool. The other thing she advises is that editors have no need of fancy gimmickry, "a nice, businesslike presentation is all that we want, rather than wrapping the manuscript up in ribbons or binding. The most effective thing to do to make a positive impression is carefully to put your material together."
And what are publishers looking for? Is there a magic formula? Deevy candidly admits that, "I'm a sucker for really nice writing," but goes on to say: "when looking at fiction, we are anxious to see if the writer has a good story-telling instinct: do they have the ability to get the reader hooked? Is there something original in their approach or their voice?" She agrees that "there is that magic 'it' factor. Particularly with popular fiction. People can read a lot of it and think there is a formula -- but the really good people who get published and are successful have a unique voice. It is the one thing you can't contrive." But by way of encouragement, she adds, "one person might hear a voice and another person might not". Editors' tastes vary hugely.
What about rejection? When the fat envelopes begin to plop on to the doormat, containing your precious work, and another polite letter, if that, saying that your "work is not suitable for our list". After you have wished some dreadful fate on the publisher and ranted and raved for a while, it is important to remember that the rejection isn't personal. The publisher doesn't hate you, Mary O'Brien, with every fibre of his/her being and think that you'll never make it as a writer. Publishers receive hundreds, if not thousands of ms every year, and it may simply not be suitable for their needs, and they don't have the time to get into the whys.
If it's any consolation to you, many, if not all, of the authors dominating the bestseller lists, have experienced rejection. Maeve Binchy's first novel, Light a Penny Candle, was rejected by the first four publishers to whom it was sent, which seems unimaginable now -- and she had an agent. Her agent counselled, "We'll keep going, this is your apprenticeship; you don't have courses or exams, so how you cope with rejection is your training. If you are going to give up, you'll give up on the first one or the second." In Maeve's case, her fifth publisher took the book and the rest is history, which should offer encouragement to all.
And when you do get accepted, sign a contract and set a publication date for your precious baby, celebrate like crazy. A whole new world awaits you, a roller-coaster of emotions as you negotiate your first set of comments from your editor, and the loss of innocence as you engage with the real business of publishing. An innocence that you will never be able to recapture -- so as Brendan Nolan says, "enjoy yourself. Writing is difficult, but it shouldn't be a chore."
The Maeve Binchy Writers' Club, Orion, €17.99