Would you like to write a book?
Over the next 12 weeks we’ll be getting the help of successful authors to explain everything would-be writers need to know. This is the first step to your debut novel
Illustration: Clare Brennan
When he wasn’t writing very short stories or novels about war, Ernest Hemingway also came up with pithy remarks about being an author. “There is nothing to writing,” he once said. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
The idea of simply opening a vein as a fast track to completing a 90,000-word manuscript might sound almost tempting to anyone who has harboured an urge to write. Beginning on Monday, in our new series How to Write a Book, we’ll explain how to get writing, by asking authors for their thoughts on what’s required.
Perhaps you’ve never written a word but have been telling friends and family for years that there’s a story you want to write for posterity. You may have completed a first draft that’s a behemoth you can’t seem to shape into anything. Or maybe half a short story on a dusty hard drive is begging to be finished.
This series is about the scaffolding of writing, about the structural elements that every would-be writer should learn to master. Anyone who has written something – anything – has already overcome the terror-inducing fear of sitting down with a notebook or of listening to the computer’s whirring fan as they stare at a blank Word document.
The writer June Caldwell, formerly of the Irish Writers’ Centre, saw many aspiring writers come through the door. She says that, from the off, you need to think yourself into the mindset of a writer.
“Make it real, and not just the writing bit – which involves sitting down regularly to do it – but identify yourself as a writer. It is such a lonely, obscure, strange thing to do, so meeting other writers and peer-grouping work in the early stages instills self-belief and gets a writer used to criticism, rewriting and thinking about their story more deeply.”
If fear or indiscipline adds to your procrastination, there is safety in numbers. Join a course, which brings not only deadlines for getting down to writing but also a supportive hub of people to share your work with and gain feedback from.
Dave Lordan, author, writing teacher and editor of the New Planet Cabaret anthology, says creative-writing courses are excellent for personal development as well as facilitating an urge to write.
“No one can inject you with the talent, intelligence and determination to become a writer – these must come from within – but a good teacher, who must also be a good writer, can help to improve your writing and expression skills,” he says. “They can motivate you enough to get up and running at that crucial starting stage. They can also instruct you on the practicalities of writing and clarify the structure and aims of your writing project.”
Over the coming weeks, established and award-winning authors will share their thoughts on everything from language and setting to point of view and editing. Who have we asked? The Goldsmiths Prize winner Eimear McBride talks language; Ron Rash, 2010 winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and the Man Booker nominee Deborah Levy will discuss form. Ross Raisin, one of Granta’s “20 Under 40” Best of Young British Novelists, will delve into character, while Paul Murray, the writer of Skippy Dies, will give his insight into dialogue.
In week 1 we won’t ask you to craft Joycean sentences or a drum-tight plot. We’ll start with how to ease into the concept of writing and how to find ideas and inspiration. At a recent Dublin talk the American author Anita Shreve said that the best way to write is to “do it as soon as any kind of idea grabs you, right there and then”.
Not every fiction writer wants to tackle a novel, so we’ll also look at the short story. When we think of our favourite writers it’s often inextricably linked to fully realised characters: authors who have brought to life memorable creations will reveal their approach to characterisation.
How any character communicates, whether they are effusively chatty or almost nonverbal, is essential to a story, and we’ll explore dialogue and how to make it authentic. There are talky books and there are novels where characters say more by speaking little. We’ll discuss the pitfalls of dialogue and when it might be best for characters to keep shtum. The engine of many novels is plot, and although some authors minimise it, others award it centre stage in their work. How do they do it?
Alongside the structural backbone (characters, dialogue, plot) we’ll talk to writers about themes – should you work them in or allow the story to hint at them? Deciding point of view or who tells a story is crucial. Whether it’s Roddy Doyle’s child narrator in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha or the first-person-plural voice of Japanese war brides in Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, a story can stand or fall on a convincing voice.
When Patrick deWitt was asked at Listowel Writers’ Week in 2012 how much research he did for his Booker-shortlisted novel The Sisters Brothers, he replied that he preferred (and that it was easier) to just make things up. Historical novelists may disagree, but research can be central to work set in the past, or based on real events. We’ll examine the balance of proper research versus using your imagination.
Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, won huge acclaim, particularly for its linguistic risks. McBride’s work has been lauded as experimental and unique. She’ll discuss the role of language and her own style for this series.
Completing an initial draft is the hard part, followed closely by sitting down to purge and tighten your work. Editors, writers and publishers will advise on how best to redraft – don’t be afraid to lose thousands of words if a story is not working.
Getting work out in the world is important, as are honing and crafting a manuscript. “Creative-writing courses or joining a good writers’ group are a great kick-start,” June Caldwell says. “New eyes on your work will not only help uncover ‘technical’ problems but highlight nuggets of beauty that your conscious self is blind to. Also, it acts as a further education to read and think about other people’s writing.
“Go to literary readings and events, drop by Facebook groups and festivals – there are oodles, with some great workshops on offer. Meeting like minds and demystifying the process will help hugely.”
This series can’t promise six-figure book deals or even publication, but we will ask editors and literary agents what they’re looking for and how to submit a manuscript. Each column will go through the technical aspects with the help of some of the world’s best writers, but it’s up to you to put the work in and watch the word count add up.
Still afraid? Don’t be. “Go after what excites you and what you fear,” says Dave Lordan. “The one thing that excites us all, and that we all fear, is the truth. Also, if you want your writing to have power, if you want to be set alight, tell the truth.”
June Caldwell says that putting aside fear is the first thing a writer should do. “This is about spilling your guts in a dignified way, but don’t be frightened if a speckle of madness rears its head, too. Let it bring you where it will; don’t look back. Be excited. This compulsion is a courtesy, not a curse. Don’t compare your writing to others’. Instead get totally obsessed with what you want to write and start chewing the cud of the storyline or idea every day. Feel the words, develop a voice, put manners on your demons, write regularly.”