Dissecting Danielle McLaughlin: the inside story of her writers’ group

Marie Gethins has been in a writers’ group with Danielle McLaughlin for four years. She reveals its methods and secrets: ‘a stellar combination of brutal honesty and kindness’

The write stuff: Barbara Leahy, Marie Gethins, Marie Murphy and Danielle McLaughlin – “trust and respect enable us to share very rough drafts or discuss ideas at an embryonic stage”

The write stuff: Barbara Leahy, Marie Gethins, Marie Murphy and Danielle McLaughlin – “trust and respect enable us to share very rough drafts or discuss ideas at an embryonic stage”

 

It began with worms.

In the spring of 2011 I joined Lory Manrique-Hyland’s writing workshop held at the Munster Literature Centre. Over the following weeks I was impressed by the standard and diversity of pieces we workshopped, but one stood out. It featured worms. Yes, dead ones, but live ones as well. Their lifecycle skilfully underscored the dynamics between human characters, made a betrayal story fresh. The author was Danielle McLaughlin.

The following September Danielle asked if I’d like to join a writing group she was forming. She didn’t have to ask twice. The four of us began to meet (Barbara Leahy and Marie Murphy round out the group) every fortnight in the tapas bar Boqueria for a meal and work critique. We agreed to distribute material via email three days in advance and bring printed copies with our notes scribbled in the margins. Each of us offers a different skill – whether spotting hackneyed language; syntax/grammar errors; plotting confusion; point-of-view problems; or pacing issues – the sum of our input improves everyone’s pieces.

Our location has shifted a few times. When Boqueria closed we moved to a city-centre hotel lobby. There, writers’ group meetings occasionally were disrupted by unusual characters. One man seemed intent on acquiring a service we definitely do not offer. Various protest groups flowed by on their way to meeting rooms. A British fellow attempted a poor American Southern accent and asked if any of us were famous. While a stimulating venue, we decided our group required better food choices and fewer disruptions. For the past year or more we have met in a quiet restaurant where the staff affectionately call us their “book ladies”, adjusting music volume and lighting when we begin to critique material.

As well as providing deadlines to work towards, we keep each other informed of upcoming submission opportunities, suggesting which stories might suit particular competitions or literary magazines. A fellow author once told me that writers’ groups “always fall apart because eventually everyone sounds the same”. However, four years on, our voices have developed, but remain distinct. Perhaps even more important, feedback continues to be, as Danielle puts it, “a stellar combination of brutal honesty and kindness”. Trust and respect enable us to share very rough drafts or discuss ideas at an embryonic stage. Danielle deservedly is our writing group star, but we celebrate every member’s achievements with enthusiasm and have an impressive combined record. I know their support has been fundamental in my publication success and in keeping me from wallowing in rejection hell.

Danielle estimates that for each short story she works through 50 to 60 drafts before she sends it out. The group may see two or three versions submitted for critique. I believe her maximum has been five with one story that proved particularly troublesome. However, she is a great hoarder and wastes nothing. Scenes or snippets of dialogue that aren’t working in a particular piece shine in a completely different context. On a couple of occasions, stories with several tracks have morphed into separate, stronger tales and appeared months apart.

We joke about Danielle’s literary collection of dead animals. While worms were the first of her victims I encountered, flies (All About Alice) and moths (The Smell of Dead Flowers), evolved to higher life forms: fish (Night of the Silver Fox, Along the Heron Studded River), crab (A Different Country), mice (All the Dead Birds), puppies (Along the Heron Studded River), mink (Night of the Silver Fox), seals (A Different Country), sheep (Dinosaurs on Other Planets) and birds (The Bone Woman, All the Dead Birds, In the Act of Falling). Perhaps even more evocative is her use of body parts: offal (To the Tea Rooms) and, in the recent Winter Pages anthology, a silent heart pounded into animation by giggling teenage girls (The Heart in Winter). I await the reappearance of my personal favourite – the pig’s head. Although the group may tease her about this death list, we recognise that there is no one better at using a startling image to great emotional effect. Her stories are subtle, carefully crafted with volumes of subtext that expose universal dark truths.

Outside of our meetings, we go to workshops and literary events together: Cork International Short Story Festival, West Cork Literary Festival, Cork Book Week Fest, Dromineer Literary Festival, Listowel Writers’ Week, Dublin Book Festival, Big Smoke Flash Fiction Day and the London Short Story Festival have been group events.

Edna O’Brien said in an interview that a true writer friend is the one that shows up. I deeply appreciate seeing my writerly comrades’ faces in the audience and much more frequently to be the one whooping for them. As Danielle’s literary dance card continues to fill, I look forward to a busy 2016 of being her noisiest supporter. It is rare that great talent is combined with genuine good in a person. While her animals may be silent, it is with pure delight that I cheer her on. There is no one more worthy of success.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets is published by Stinging Fly.

Next up in the Irish Times Book Club series on Friday: Danielle McLaughlin cracks her whip by fellow author Ethel Rohan

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