Entertainment Books

Sunday 17 November 2019

The best-selling author's 10 rules for budding young writers

1. We're lucky, we're Irish

We don't like pauses and silences, we prefer talk and information and conversations that go on and on. So that means we're half-way there. We never went through this whole Victorian thing they had in England about not speaking until you have something to say. Nobody ever told us that children should be seen but not heard.

We have an advantage before we even start. We are USED to people talking, having opinions and imagination. It's really not considered fancy or luvvie or far out.

2. We have our own style

It's not in our nature to follow others slavishly and think there is a certain way to write and that we should copy it. It would be very depressing to think all the time that you SHOULD have the clever way with language that James Joyce does, or be able to lay bare the feelings and attitudes of a community like Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien, or do those gentle, menacing scenes like William Trevor, seemingly effortlessly.

Instead, we must learn to trust our own insights, imitate nobody and speak in our own voice.

3. Being young is no excuse

This is a young country. Readers are much more likely to be near your age than near mine. You will be very sound and interesting when you write what you know about. You don't really KNOW all that much about space travel, boardroom feuds, heists in Chicago.

You'd be more authoritative, really, writing about a world you do know, setting it in a background which is familiar to you. I have never set a book in the fashion industry, amongst the racing set or at an orgy since these are not places I would be able to write about with ease.

Jane Austen said that she rarely had gentlemen talking to each other without ladies being present, since one never knew what gentlemen spoke about on their own. If you feel secure in the setting, then you can concentrate on the writing and get on with it.

4. Don't put on an accent.

Writing is meant to be all about communicating, telling someone a story, sharing an experience, describing something so well that the reader can see it, feel it. It has NOTHING to do with showing off. You know how idiotic it is when someone puts on a different accent or a posh voice. It's the same with writing. It's pathetic to see young people who can talk perfectly well amongst themselves go into some kind of mad affected speak when they write because they think it's expected. It's not.

Those kind of over-written pieces to show off how many words you know are the very opposite of communication; they destroy the whole thing.

5. Don't put off starting it.

Whatever you are writing -- a school essay, a poem, a short story as practice for the composition part of Leaving Cert English -- stop sighing about it and just begin the thing. It doesn't get any easier with the passing years, you know. We will do almost anything rather than begin it.

Maybe it's the empty screen or the pad of empty paper beside the laptop waiting for notes. Maybe it's because we think we have no more to say.

But we don't feel that way about talking, do we? Of course we don't. If someone asks us out for a coffee or a meal, we don't put it off forever because our minds are empty.

Our minds are never empty for chat and we must force ourselves to believe that it's the same for writing. The ideas are there, the imagination is there. The trick is to begin.

It doesn't matter if it's an exam question, a piece for a school magazine, a novel, a play. It can't exist unless you start.

So get over yourself and start. You can always go back and change the beginning if you don't like it.

6. Don't be too much in awe of other writers

Although you should read as much as possible, don't read in a spirit of competition. It's going to do nothing for your self-esteem if you start to think you could never write like this person or that. You're not MEANT to write like them, you are meant to write like you.

But as a consolation, you should know that no writer, however famous or successful, was confident from the word go. They had to to face rejection too, they had to look at what they had just written and wonder was it rubbish or was it good. Nobody is born with the words 'Good Writer' tattooed on their heads. We all have to try it out for ourselves.

7. You don't write worse when you write quickly

If you are at all fearful about writing, I suggest that you go at it like mad, rather than sitting there thinking about it too deeply. This way you will be able to express your enthusiasms, let your imagination soar, speak in your own voice without resorting to other people's language, which can often end up as a whole line of clichés flying in formation.

Make out some sort of shape or plan, so that you don't find yourself lost and babbling all over the shop, but don't let your brow darken into furrows over the style and the presentation. What comes naturally is usually better and more real than something too rehearsed.

8. Those who read you don't hate you

They are not the enemy, you know, those who correct exam papers, teach English in schools or university, or buy the books of published authors. They are dying to enjoy what they read.

They actually WANT it to be entertaining, full of insight, the voice of a new generation, something they could recognise and empathise with.

So why do we persist in thinking that these are dragon people waiting for us all to fall on our faces? They're actually on our side.

Ludicrous as it sounds, we are all on the same team.

9. Other writers are not our enemies

It's not a vicious struggle to get a bigger slice of the cake for yourself. It's not a matter of trying for more readers, more sales, more fame than anyone else in the field. Success is not like a cake which, if somebody gets a piece, there's less left for us. That's just not so.

The more success Irish writers get, the bigger and more important our Irish tradition of writing becomes. Think of that. It's true and it will help to take away the fear that we might come last in some race.

10. When you are a successful writer, remember me with affection.

After all I stopped you being afraid! You will STILL be unsure and anxious and will put off the start. You will still wonder if it's any good , you will still be rushing to finish it as the date comes when it has to be handed in. But it's a very satisfying life. To tell stories and share views and hopes and dreams with others in a country that admires and supports its writers . . . is there a better way of living than that?

Irish Independent

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