Roisín O’Donnell: How to publish a debut (in 17 steps)
The author of Wild Quiet retraces her baby steps as a writer, from dictating stories to her mum before she could hold a pencil to learning to let go as her debut is published
Roisín O’Donnell: “Blissfully unaware that you are writing a collection, tell each story in the way it demands to be told. The result will be less a homogenous symphony and more a lovingly-compiled mixtape.” Photograph: Daithi Taylor
Be born in Sheffield to parents from Derry city. Long before you can negotiate your freckled fist around a pencil, dictate your first stories to your mum, who will post them to your granddad in Derry. Your granddad is a great storyteller known for his humour and his tales from World War Two, but the man who inspired the story, Ebenezer’s Memories, will pass away when you are six. In some ways, you will be writing to him for the rest of your life.
Aged seven, write a story called “my magnolia school” in which an entire school and all its pupils are slowly turning beige. Ignore any teacher who tells you can’t spell (you can’t) or that it matters (it doesn’t).
Be diagnosed with ME at age 11, which will be a bit like being told, “you know your teenage years? Well we’re just going to have to skip those.” Bed-bound, barely able to walk, develop a ferocious appetite for books. Read everything in sight. Books will transport you away from your present reality. Most of the books lining your parent’s shelves are novels, so you’ll presume this is what you need to write.
Start writing your first novel at the age of 15 and hide it under your bed. You know that your wonderful mum has stumbled across your novel whilst hoovering, but she’s intuitive enough not to mention it to you. Finish the novel. It will be an across-the-barricades romance set in the Troubles, which you know little about. It will have been little more than an exercise in writing stamina.
When you’re 18, your dad will get a job in Ireland and you’ll move to Dublin with your family. Apply for Trinity because you visited it whilst on holiday once and fell in love with the cobblestoned quadrangles and limestone edifices with their cloaks of Virginia creeper. College years are bleak in terms of writing. Lack of confidence will keep you away from your notebook for the best part of four years, but stories will sporadically break through.
Write your second novel aged 21, during a long, hot summer spent working at a Dublin department store. It will be a magical-realist coming-of-age story about a teenager moving from Sheffield to Dublin. Realise this book is so heavily autobiographical that you’ll never be able to show it to anyone.
On graduating, get a job as a customer service representative at a property website, where you spend most of your time making cups of tea for the entire company (they think you’re lovely), deleting customer voicemails without listening to them and typing Novel Number 3 – a commercial novel written in the desperate hope that it will rocket you to overnight writing success. This is cheating; with writing, there are no shortcuts. As soon as you finish this novel, realise it’s crap and decide to skip the country.
Get a job teaching English in a town called Vic, high in the mountains of Catalonia, above Barcelona. Having convinced yourself that you can’t write, spend much of your twenties making terrible life choices. Live in Malta. Live in Derry and train as a primary teacher. Travel in Brazil. Stop at the top of an escalator in a shopping centre outside Santos overcome by sudden emotion; a longing for something you can’t explain. For reasons you still can’t figure out, you are happier and emotionally healthier when you are writing.
Return to Ireland, hoping to get it right this time. Fear of rejection will keep you away from the writing community for years, but this will prove a blessing in disguise. Far removed from the world of journals, publishers and other writers, become your own worst critic and your own best editor.
Teach. Primary teaching will inspire you in ways you couldn’t have imagined. Teach a child suffering from Selective Mutism. Teach a child with learning difficulties and a larger-than-life personality. Feel as if you are learning far more from these children than they will ever learn from you.
Find a hidden reserve of bravery and sign up for a creative writing workshop. Aged 30, walk into the Irish Writer’s Centre one rain-blasted October night and meet a priestess of sci-fi, an unexpected angel, and your Merlin – Dave Lordan – the teacher, word-wizard, mentor and friend who will change your life by telling you that you can write. At first, Dave will terrify and challenge you with his energy and enthusiasm. He will coax you out of hiding and you’ll feel like a Mandarin duckling shoved from a tree nest in the hope of flight.
At Dave’s encouragement, start writing short stories. Find inspiration in your daily interactions with people; from the primary school where you used to teach, to your present job at a Dublin university. Certain voices just stay with you. Unfettered by the notion of publication or of an audience of any kind, write without restraint, trying to capture the worlds you have glimpsed.
Submit to your desire to be a writer. Shock when your first story is accepted for publication will quickly be replaced by a flush of satisfaction and the thought: “let’s do that again”. Publication is addictive, inducing both adrenaline-highs and cravings.
Realise that different types of stories demand a different type of story-telling. Modern Ireland is now a cacophony of voices that can no longer be adequately represented by a single type of Irish short story. Blissfully unaware that you are writing a collection, tell each story in the way it demands to be told. The result will be less a homogenous symphony and more a lovingly-compiled mixtape.
Life will get in the way of writing, and you have to let it. Teach. Travel. Fall in love. Your writing will always be waiting for you when you return to the page.
Integrity will keep you awake at night. In the two years since you started your collection of stories, your life has changed beyond recognition. Come to view short stories as a temporal magic, akin to the ephemeral art of Andy Goldsworthy. Reeds bend in the wind to form a perfect circle. For a second, the silhouette of twigs on water makes a geometric prism. The shutter closes. Grasses move. Blink and the moment is gone. The intricate colours of the sand mandala are swept back into dirt. This is how it is with stories. Each story in your collection is a snapshot in time. Realising this will bring you peace, and more importantly it will enable you to let the collection go. The moment you hold your book in your hands, it is no longer yours.
Keep writing. You’ll feel relieved when new characters step into your mind and new stories start to unfold. If there’s a calmness about you, it’s only because of this secret: you’re on book two, and it’s a whole new world.
Roisín O’Donnell’s debut short story collection Wild Quiet, published by New Island Books, will be launched by Sinéad Gleeson in Hodges Figgis bookshop on Dawson Street, Dublin, today, Wednesday, May 25th, at 6pm