Write now: Nine writers share advice on how to get started

Tips for budding authors and poets, from beating writer’s block to finding an agent

Man hand with pen writing on notebook on a wooden table. Man working at coffee shop

Man hand with pen writing on notebook on a wooden table. Man working at coffee shop

 

Writing must be one of the easiest, and hardest of projects. It doesn’t create mess, it’s more or less silent (a boon in a busy shared space), and all you need is pen and paper, or a keyboard. You can even pick a form to suit you: from making rhymes about vegetables with the kids to a haunting haiku, short stories to crafting an epic novel.

When writing goes well, it’s like you’ve finally bridged that gap between your mind and the outside world, and yet, as every writer will tell you, writer’s block is not a thing to be trifled with. Nine writers share their thoughts to get you started.

FICTION AND NON-FICTION 

Alannah Hopkin: First steps

Decide why you want to take up writing – to be a full -time author making money from fiction? To write one special book, family history, travel adventure? To pass on some special knowledge that you have, or to find out who you are, with writing as a form of therapy? Do the writing, and the reading, first. Worry about getting an agent, who is going to publish or where you’re going to have the launch, way down the line.

Alannah Hopkin has published eight books, including two novels. Her memoir of Aidan Higgins is due from New Island Books in 2021.

Denyse Woods: Writing in the time of pandemic

The world is in turmoil, families are separated, and getting the groceries is like playing Russian roulette. With all that has come anxiety and a loss of concentration. So, yes – by all means, sit down and get writing, but I urge those new to the game to leave that Lockdown Pressure outside the door. Rather than seeing this as a chance to finally write “that book”’ see it instead as a window in which to get started.

Writing is good for the heart and excellent for the mind. It lifts our spirits. Write for the sake of writing – not because you want to make gazillions. Write because you are a writer and because language, and what it can do, excites you

You don’t have to start your story at the beginning: that can come later. Instead, begin with the section that has been going around in your head – maybe for years. Trust your instincts. The passage might not come out as well as you’d hoped, but the act of committing it to the page will give you confidence and help you to push on. Ideas will expand as you write.

The imagination is like a muscle: it responds well to exercise. Characters will develop, with your encouragement; the plot will twist when you least expect it; the language will improve with your dedication.

Denyse Woods teaches fiction online with Cork County Council Library & Arts Service. Her recently published collection, Indian Pacific and Other Travels, is available as an ebook from Kobo Books, kobo.com.

Brian Dillon: Describing memories

Why memoir? Because, hopefully, you have something to say that is yours and only yours. In my first book, In the Dark Room, I wrote about losing my parents when I was quite young. But grief of course is universal; as a writer you have to find your own shard or sliver of the broken whole. I tried to describe my memories of my parents, and my attachment to the few snapshots and mementoes I had left.

There’s no better way to order your thoughts than to pay attention to how your heroes have done it. Remember that a memoir is not an autobiography – no need to tell it all.

Brian Dillon’s new book, Suppose a Sentence, is published in September by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Arnold Thomas Fanning: Being a writer

I always maintain there are just three things you need to be a writer. A time (pick a time every day that is just for you to write, even if it is only 45 minutes); a place (find a nook, a corner, a dedicated somewhere you can return to even if you can’t go anywhere); and a thing to write with (notebook and pen or computer. I always like to get my first drafts down on paper, liking the feel of longhand writing). After that: just start.

But where to begin? I always tell the participants in my workshops on Memoir and Life Writing to begin with diary-writing or journaling; sit down and write an account of your day, letting in space for reflections, hopes, memories, as well as the activities completed. Try this for a week: then you have begun.

A final tip: a walk as part of a writing practice makes all the difference, the boost in creativity making up for time away from the page or screen, helping to order your ideas in your mind, and enable your writing.

Arnold Thomas Fanning is the author of Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, and is Arts Council Writer in Residence, NUI Galway 2020.

Eleanor Flegg: Make a road map

I work best when I let the narrative unfold. I love not knowing what will happen. This has resulted in narratives with a fractal form that is not very satisfying to read.

For The Spinning Master, I was determined to put a shape on it. I began with a roll of wallpaper lining and a pack of coloured pens. I drew out a generic narrative structure – there are many templates online – and within this structure I positioned my characters and the things that I thought might happen to them along the way. Eventually, I abandoned the map but it was very helpful, in the early stages, to know where to put the exciting bits.

After the creative rush of finishing, the journey to publication can be tediously slow. I was preparing myself for a long wait, when Luke Clancy of Soundsdoable, who makes Culture File (RTÉ Lyric FM), suggested we produce it as episodic audio fiction.

I’m a massive fan of Dickens, whose stories were originally published in magazines week-by-week, and, having spent the past two years writing a story that begins with a potential pandemic, it seemed time to get The Spinning Master out there.

Find Eleanor Flegg’s The Spinning Master on Spotify now.

Claire Hennessy: Finding a theme and (much later) an agent

For something to work as YA [Young Adult fiction] it needs to be of concern to teenagers and a general audience. This might be a topic that draws in teens (like first love) in a general way, or one that appeals to a specific interest (for example, local politics).

When you feel as though you’ve tried your best to improve something and can’t do any more, then is the time to seek out a literary agent, who will find the right home for your book. Scour the acknowledgements pages of recent books, as well as Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for help. 

Claire Hennessy has published 12 books for older children and young adults, and teaches creative writing as co-director of Big Smoke bigsmokewritingfactory.com

POETRY

Clodagh Beresford Dunne: Refining your work

Forget about elaborate notebooks and journals. All you need is a pen or pencil and some paper. To begin, try to forget you’re writing a poem. Write long lines. Pour your heart out onto the page – every sad or joyful thought. Afterwards, excavate what you’ve written for the strongest images, the sharpest language, the best sounds. Refine, refine, refine. Read your work aloud. Listen for phrases that jar, what sounds are off-kilter. In poetry, every word must earn its place within a line. In an excellent poem, every line is a poem of its own. It’s very rare that a finished poem will come through in a first draft.

Clodagh Beresford Dunne was chosen by Edna O’Brien for the Clarissa Luard Award for an Emerging Writer in 2019.

Stephen Sexton: Puzzling out poetry

Often there’s a perspective, because of how poetry has been taught, that poems are puzzles to be worked out; that they’re involved with “hidden meanings”. On the contrary, it’s much more impressive to describe something with clarity. It’s practically a magical act to use language to cause an image to occur in someone else’s imagination.

Naturally when emotions are involved, you might derive satisfaction from exorcising those emotions. This shouldn’t be the primary reason to write a poem. The poem must exist beyond you. To put it another way: by the time I’m sitting in the chair, I’m not concerned what mood the carpenter was in when he was making the chair.

Stephen Sexton’s book If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin) was the winner of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Shine/Strong Award. 

Catherine Ann Cullen: The pleasures of poetry

Writing even one line you are happy with is pleasing. Finding your voice, one that you are comfortable in, one with which you can express your feelings and emotions, is exhilarating. Trying out different forms for your work – haiku, sonnets, ballads, free verse, rap – may have surprising results.

Listen to feedback and weigh it up. No one is so good that another pair of eyes/ears won’t help sometimes, but not all advice is useful. Go with your instinct. Above all, enjoy writing. Try to keep a notebook to jot down themes and ideas that strike you. Be prepared to find poems forming in your mind when you are walking, cycling or otherwise travelling. For some reason, motion gets the creative juices running.

Catherine Ann Cullen is currently Poetry Ireland’s Poet in Residence. Find her daily #PoetryPrompts on Twitter.

See poetryireland.ie, and find poets reading their Leaving Cert poems on YouTube with Poetry Ireland’s Behind the Lines.

Resources

  • Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, published annually by Bloomsbury, including listings of agents and publishers.
  • How NOT to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman, Penguin. A witty account of common mistakes.
  • On Writing, by Stephen King, Hodder, part memoir, part master class, it’s brilliant.
  • Ireland is awash with literary festivals, and you’ll find a list of most of them at wordsireland.ie. Then check out irishwriterscentre.ie, munsterlit.ie, and get inspired by the greats at the Museum of Literature Ireland, where Radio Moli has podcasts aplenty, moli.ie/radio.
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