Disneyland with Books

Welcome to Kells

WELCOME TO KELLS. (Picture courtesy of the Hay Festival, Kells.)

Last year I volunteered at the Hay Festival in Kells and was lucky enough to be assigned to St Columba’s Church for the weekend.  How do I describe the church to you? Think old country churchyard. Now age it a couple more centuries. Add the remnants of four eleventh century Celtic crosses and a round tower from the same period. Now, you’ve got it.

It’s Ireland in less than an acre.

Kells, County Meath

Kells, County Meath

Into this serene scene streamed our guests: the speakers and the listeners.

Some of the visitors hadn’t planned to attend whatever event happened to be on at the time, but the location drew them in. Come for the tower, stay for the books. Could you blame them? The discussions on offer were fabulous. This is a small place, peaceful, so we didn’t have the rock star writers like Joe O’Connor. They were at the bigger venues, like the Headfort Arms. Instead, we had the poets and the historians, as befits so ancient and elegiac a site.

Being a volunteer, I sat at the back, keeping an ear out for people wanting information or looking to buy tickets, and all the while I listened to the experts talking about the difficulties of writing poetry in a minority language, or Ireland’s part in the First World War, or researching the historical background to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Each was a revelation and a joy.

There was a family from Kent who were on holiday in Dublin and drove up to Kells for the day. They enjoyed themselves so much they stayed for the whole weekend. Oh the scenery is spectacular, and the books are magnificent, but it’s the people. You know?

I do.

Everywhere you went there were happy volunteers in bright blue tee-shirts giving directions, suggesting events or places to eat, or just sharing the joy of the occasion. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing laughter or a book being quoted. (That’s my definition of Paradise, right there.)

A man wandered around the worn old tombstones in the churchyard and stopped to ask what event was up next. A discussion about the JFK assassination? Sounds interesting. So he stayed for that and for the lecture that followed too. Later, as a soft evening fell, he shook my hand and thanked me. Like I’d done it all myself: the tower and the sunshine and the books. “It’s been a day,” he said. He had that peaceful look of a man who’s just enjoyed a long massage. “This is some event. I’ll be back next year.” Then as he stepped down the path he turned and said, “It’s like Disneyland with books.”

The Hay Festival returns to Kells on June 25th to 28th.  You can get the full programme and tickets from www.hayfestival.com/kells . Tickets are also available in Kells from the Kells Chamber Office (Carrick Street) – 046 924 0055 – open from 9.30am to 5pm from Monday to Friday, and from Antonia’s Bookstore in Trim, County Meath on 046 943 7532.

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How Not to Join a Writers’ Group

So the gang is sitting in the library last Thursday, catching up on news and missing our pal Kim who’s had to rush back to Australia to deal with a family emergency, when this bloke shows up.

“You can read that,” he says, slapping a poem on the table.

Do you ever feel your spidey senses start to tingle and you know, you just know you’ve got a live one here?

Our pal, we’ll call him Shmasshole (he couldn’t be arsed to give us his name — or ask ours), acts like he’s about to move off when Una, always a lady, stops him and says, “People usually read their own work.”

The rest of us are exchanging a look, but Shmasshole sits down, makes no eye contact, and proceeds to read a poorly-rhyming diatribe about the evils of women who dare to make their own decisions regarding their own bodies. The nerve. Of the women. Not of Shmasshole. He’s perfect, what with being male and all. Then, without another word, he gets up and leaves.

After Shmasshole leaves, the rest of us resume our conversation, have a giggle about the vagaries of holding our meetings in a public place, and settle down to doing some writing. It ends up being a fun session, though we miss Kim, but since then I’ve been dithering about whether or not we should have called Shmasshole on his rude behaviour.

It was obvious he didn’t care about us as writers, or even as human beings (the odds are he doesn’t think women qualify as human beings anyway), and it was apparent that we served as nothing more than an audience for his agenda.

We do get some curious — in every sense — people who happen by the library on a Thursday evening to listen, to participate, or, on occasion, merely to tut.

Joining a writers’ group is a wonderful idea if words are part of your life. However, they should serve a specific function, ie, to nurture the writer. The group is not, or should not be:

  • A social club where everyone just chats about the books they might write one day if they could be bothered
  • A platform for someone’s political, religious, or zombie apocalypse agenda
  • An opportunity to exercise your sarcasm and savage wit
  • An excuse to be rude / bigoted / misogynistic / racist / anti-Semitic or otherwise obnoxious
  • A cult where the word of one individual carries more weight than anyone else

If you feel passionately about something, run for office, write an article for a newspaper, stand in the town square and deliver a speech, if you must, just, please, leave writers’ groups alone. We’re having enough problems dealing with misplaced modifiers and abused apostrophes.



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Keep the Kells Hinterland Festival Afloat

Reposted from the Hinterland site, see link below.

Hinterland needs your help!

For five years a group of enthusiasts and dedicated bookworms has brought some of the best writers, artists and thinkers on the planet to rural Meath. We’re not quite sure how we managed to do it, but we want to keep it going!

 We have experienced two recent setbacks potentially putting the 2018 Festival in jeopardy… promised Leader finance for 2017 has not materialised, and we have been turned down again for Festival funding by the Arts Council. But the Hinterland team refuses to bow down in the face of adversity and our Festival will go ahead – with your help!

 To this end we are launching our Fund it Campaign to raise €10,000 from you, our supporters. In return, we are offering a range of fantastic rewards that will allow you to enjoy some of the many Festival events.

Our 2018 programme is shaping up very nicely, with literary luminaries such as Colm Tóibín, John Banville, Maggie O’Farrell, Michael Harding and Lisa McInerney lined up. Also taking part will be Frank McGuinness, Mary O’Rourke (she never quite finished last year!), Caitriona Perry (former RTE Washington Correspondent) and Guardian investigative journalist Nick Davies – the man who exposed the British ‘phone-hacking’ scandal, and lots more besides. We’ll also be celebrating Harry Potter’s twenty-first birthday, and continuing our association with San Francisco’s Lit Quake Festival by hosting Lit Crawl, an eclectic mix of participants in an equally varied assortment of venues.

 We believe we have a track record of hosting a top-class festival, having enticed the likes of Germaine Greer, Brian Eno, Jeannette Winterson, Sebastian Barry, Jung Chang, Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, Ben Okri, John Banville, Louis de Bernières, Patricia Scanlan, Deirdre Purcell, and a host of others to disport and discourse. That’s five Man Booker prizewinners and David Bowie’s favourite producer!

 We pay our speakers & writers a reasonable fee and we also need to cover all ancillary costs (venue hire, sound and vision, advertising, printing, etc.). Nurturing new talent is a key part of our vision and over the years, despite the cost, we’ve been happy to host a number of emergent, lesser known, talented Irish writers of literary fiction.

 We also believe that the festival is an excellent ‘fit’ with our ancient monastic town, contributing to a cultural and artistic renaissance, drawing in art & literature loving pilgrims to the town most associated with one of the world’s most beautiful and treasured manuscripts.

 Offering your financial help and support will inspire confidence in what Hinterland has to offer and bolster the enthusiasm of a hard-working voluntary committee who want to continue to bring this high quality event to Kells. Many thanks in advance for your support and pledges.

 Thanks for taking time to read about our project…..Share the love and spread the word!!!

For further information visit:                                                        

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Return to Reichenbach Translated into Italian

There’s an indescribable joy in the privilege of being translated into another language. For me, that may be even more the case when the language is Italian. I don’t speak it, alas. My linguistic skill is as proficient as Kevin Kline’s in A Fish Called Wanda, which is to say I can just about manage a rousing chorus of Volare. Still, I love the sound of the language, and I’ve picked up a few phrases. I swear I started listening to opera because I loved the sound of the words. I’m a writer. The sound of words is a big deal. Anyway, back to the point. My third Sherlock Holmes novel, Return to Reichenbach has been translated into Italian, which makes the entire trilogy, now.

Return to Reichenbach was released in 2016 by MX Books to good reviews and sales.  The synopsis reads as follows:

When a half-naked man is found gibbering on the moor, Sherlock Holmes uncovers a series of bizarre murders. At their heart lies a shadowy figure known only as The Sorcerer. He can talk to the dead, they say. He can bend any will to his own. Even a will as formidable as the detective’s. The investigation leads from Dartmoor to Ireland and, ultimately, back to one of the most terrifying scenes of his career. Can Holmes survive the Reichenbach Falls a second time? From the author of A Biased Judgement: The Sherlock Holmes Diaries 1897, Return to Reichenbach is the third in the Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice series.

Now, with its release in Italian,  L’Enigma Reichenbach is the 43rd volume in Mondadori’s Yellow Sherlock series. I am indebted to Sherlock Magazine for the write up.

per maggiori informazioni


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Solar Pons Returns

The following is courtesy of MX Publishing’s editor / author David Marcum:

The original Solar Pons stories return. Easily available for the first time in over a generation!

In the late 1920’s, college student August Derleth wrote to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, asking if there would be any more Sherlock Holmes stories. When told “No”, Derleth set about creating his own detective, Solar Pons, often referred to as “The Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street”.

Very much like Holmes and Watson, Solar Pons and Dr. Parker solve mysteries using old-fashioned deduction and ratiocination in 1920’s and 1930’s England. Much is the same – Pons wears a deerstalker and Inverness, plays the violin, and conducts chemical experiments in a corner of the sitting room. In many ways he emulates Holmes, whom he calls his “illustrious predecessor” and “the Master.” Pons exists in the same world as Holmes, who is now living as a retired beekeeper in Sussex. Pons and Parker live at 7B Praed Street, remarkably like 221b Baker Street. Their landlady is Mrs. Johnson, and they work with Inspector Jamison of Scotland Yard. Pons has the assistance of some lads known as “The Praed Street Irregulars”, and his Professor Moriarty is Baron Ennesfred Kroll.

Before his death, Derleth wrote more than 70 Pons stories and novels. He originally published them through his own small company in very limited runs from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. They were known then only to a small group of loyal Sherlockians, but they were republished as paperbacks to a wider audience in the 1970’s, along with some new Pons tales by Basil Copper. However, even those 1970’s paperback editions are now very hard to find and quite expensive too, which discourages people as they hear about Pons and want to find his adventures.

(Those 1970s paperbacks were the ones I read — GS)

Over the years, there have also been a couple of expensive Pons omnibus editions published, one of which was edited quite heavily, changing or eliminating wording, locations, and even dates, to the dismay of true Pons fans. These new books, authorized by the Derleth Estate, were scanned and converted to text from the original volumes published by Derleth’s own company, and not taken from the paperback versions or the heavily edited and altered omnibus edition.

This Kickstarter features the first four volumes in a handsome matching set, with the other books to follow later this year. In addition to hardcover and paperback editions, this will also be the first time that the Pons books will be available as e-books.

Solar Pons is a treasure to those who know him. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will enjoy these just as much as the Holmes stories. Join the party and help spread the word that Solar Pons is back!

For the first time in the 21st Century! The Original Derleth Solar Pons, The Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street, returns in New Editions
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Writing in Public Places

The past couple of weeks has seen me sitting in various hospitals and doctor’s waiting rooms. The average wait time runs around 30 minutes, though it has run as long as 90 minutes, on occasion. It’s at times like these that I take out my notebook and pen and try to write.

Medical places are not ideal environments in which to be creative, but they’re not the worst either. Generally, you don’t get a lot of interruptions the way you would in an auditorium as you’re waiting for a play to begin, for instance. People squeezing by, making you stand up, drop your popcorn, giving you curious looks as you clutch your notebook to your breast like a Victorian lady and her pearls. The light is better in medical places, too. Usually you have windows and fluorescent lighting, so you can see what you’re doing. On the downside, clinics have hideously uncomfortable chairs, those metal and plastic things that are as welcoming to the backside as Donald Trump would be at James Comey’s retirement party. At least in the theatre you can be assured of a nice soft cushion on which to rest your posterior. While you are dropping your popcorn.

Changing where you write can be inspiring, educational, or frustrating, depending on your personality and the venue you pick. If you’re shy, or if the writing-in-public concept is new to you, you might want to start in a public place where you won’t draw a lot of attention. You’ll still have the stimulation of other people around you, but at a little distance. You don’t want them on top of you, peering over your shoulder, asking dopey questions like, Oh, are you writing? No, sir, I am flying an airplane. Wheeee! I am not a fan of writing as performance art. Entering the inner world of the imagination is tricky enough without bringing spectators along.

You need to select a spot that is not in itself too distracting. The grating outdoors can present a host of annoyances, great and small: weather, insects, sun-glare. Too much stimulation can play havoc with your concentration.

At a push, I can write in cafes. My success here is largely dependent upon the table I get. Near a window so I have the light (important), and people to watch (essential), or, failing that, sitting in a corner where I can face out and watch the world. The advantage here, of course, is you have a table as well as a fairly decent seat (depending on the establishment in question). Also, other than waitresses coming to refill your coffee (it still happens in some places), you don’t get bothered too much.  Well, unless you want to be. Some people love writing in public places because they feel it plants a WRITER! sign on their foreheads. Getting any work done is irrelevant. The real goal is attracting attention and admiration. Good luck with that, sunshine.

For me, working away from home tends to be more a matter of necessity than choice. I don’t want to lose 90 minutes of writing time because I have a hospital appointment, so I bring my notebook with me and try to do as much as I can in the waiting room. Also, over the past few weeks, my neighbours have been either reconstructing their house or building a nuclear reactor in their living room, so it has not been — what’s the word? — Quiet. Sometimes running to the library or the local coffee shop is the only means of escape.

That’s not to say I don’t like to change my venue from time to time. If I’m stuck on a piece of writing, or if the creative flow needs an enema, a change of scene can sometimes get things going again. Some people really love being outdoors, so I’m told, and they see no reason why writing has to be an indoor activity. They may have a point. I like indoors, myself, because that’s where all my books are. And the bathroom. And the teapot. But, hey-ho, to each his own, as the fella said when he kissed the cow.

Different settings offer different rewards and challenges. I have, over the years, written in parks, in gardens, and at bus stop benches. Outdoor writing, of course, means weather. Being something of an indoor pet, I am not a fan of writing in the rain or the cold. I’ve done it, but not happily. So long as you are appropriately dressed and there is some sort of shelter so you don’t get your notebook soggy, you can manage, but I doubt it’s something you’ll embrace.

My favourite establishment for not-at-home writing is the library. It’s climate controlled, quiet (mostly), and there are tables and chairs. There are also reference books and helpful librarians.  There is also the fact that people don’t look askance at anyone who is writing in a library. This is particularly true of university libraries. If you opt to work in your local public library, my one suggestion is make sure there are no events going on during the time you want to write. The book club or the children’s group will do their thing, no matter how important your next great novel may be, and that’s as it should be.

One of my foibles is ambient noise. I really prefer to work in silence, but, failing that, a blur of sounds and voices also works. I can’t work in a complete din so headbanger concerts are out (like that would be an option. Seriously.) But nor do I care for whispers. I get that people are trying to be considerate, but I’d rather just normal-volume talking. With whispers, the human brain will immediately focus on that chatter and stop focusing on the page. Then again, you can get some great story ideas from overheard conversations. Swings and roundabouts.

I also have a fondness for anything watery. The sea, for preference, or lakes, swimming pools (beside, not in), all work for me, though not if there are too many people around. I like babbling brooks and waves crashing on the shore. This is all the right sort of stimulation. Not so much the kids screaming in glee or the teens blocking my light while they stand and snog. Give me a cool, grey day with frothy water any time.

If you do decide to work away from home, you will need supplies. These days, lots of public places have Wi-Fi, so you can bring your laptop and continue working on your novel or short story. I prefer to use a notebook and pen. They’re portable and less showy, but go with whatever works for you. If you’re working in a cafe, you don’t need to worry about snacks and drinks, but you will have to bring your own if you’re planning on a day under a friendly tree somewhere. Of course, libraries won’t be too pleased if you bring in a mug of coffee or a fish sandwich. Make your snacks discreet and ask permission before you turn the study hall into a restaurant. Comfortable clothing is essential, and don’t sniff at wearing a hat. If it keeps the sun out of your eyes and bird poop off your head, you’ll be very glad of it. Good walking shoes, sunglasses, and a few different pens or pencils  will also serve you well.

Try a few different environments before you decide if this is something for you or not. Not every excursion will be a success, but you may happen upon a perfect spot that inspires you. After all, where would Wordsworth be if he hadn’t gone wandering around that field of daffodils?

Hopper Chuck Palahniuk

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Remember the Reader

Lately I’ve been editing, not only my own work in progress, but the stories and poems produced by the members of my writers’ group. One thing has struck me about both projects: the importance of remembering the reader.

With the stories I’m editing I have identified two main problems: One is giving the reader too much information, and the second is giving her too little.

In terms of my own current work-in-progress, the challenge is conveying the chaotic thinking of the mentally-unstable narrator, while presenting the reader with a coherent narrative. I know what the story is about, but how do I convey it to others?

Writing is a mysterious process. The writer enters a world entirely of her own making. She inhabits it. If she is talented, she will take the essence of that world and distill it onto the page so the reader can come and drink and be filled with that world. If she’s exceptional, that world will wrap itself around the reader’s DNA, becoming a part of them. If you don’t write, or if you are just starting out, all of that sounds like so much apple pie in the heavens.

Here’s a secret: Even writers don’t know how they do it. Not really. We sit at our desks and, on good days, the words stream out. The next time we look up, it’s hours later, the tea has gone cold, and we’ve added a few thousand words to the work in progress. But what happened in the between-time? How did those words appear? I do it every day, have done since I was in single digits, but I haven’t a clue how.  This is what they call being “in the zone,” or a “flow state.” (For the psychology of this phenomenon, see by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.)  E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” He had a point.

Most of the time when we’re writing, we’re locked inside our own minds, hearing the voices of our characters, seeing the world they inhabit. We strive to find the exactly write words to communicate these things. I say that’s what it’s like, and I think it’s true, but the truth is the degree of immersion is such that it cannot be analysed from the inside, any more than a dream can.

During this early stage the writer is too locked inside her own mind to be able to pay much heed to her own physical existence. Right now, she is writing for herself, not for the reader. Getting it down is what matters. Dump it all out. Tidy it up later.

This is one of the many, many reasons why the rewrite is so important. This is when it stops being all about you and becomes about the person or persons you’re writing for. It is the difference between the whistle on the deserted midnight street and the full scale orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall.

Books are two-way communication. They are, in a sense, a form of telepathy. Think about it. You sit and read a novel by Dickens, for instance. Your eyes burn as you read how Sydney Carton gave his life to save someone else. “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…” You close the book and drown the cover with tears. You’ve just had your heart ripped out by an author who has been dead for almost 150  years. He created a character, a scene, and it was so powerful that you could see what he saw, hear what he heard.

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they have done it.

~ Annie Lamott 

Writers with experience know how to select the details that make a character or a scene come to life. The better the writer, the sharper the detail, the more profound the impact on the reader. Inexperienced writers, though, often lack that finesse. They tend to overwrite the scene:

John said he could change the tyre himself. He tried to put the jack in place but it tilted at a dangerous angle. He tried again and it still didn’t work. Finally, on the third try, he managed to get the car off the ground. Now came the battle with the lug nuts…

It’s not elegant prose, is it? More, it’s boring. It lacks pith and wit, and it treats the reader as an idiot. Let’s try it again, this time respecting the reader is intelligent enough to connect the dots for herself:

John insisted he could change the tyre himself. Mary never guessed John knew so many swear words.

Remembering the reader is important. They are the other half of your two-way communication, after all. I mean, if you were, say, making porridge for a little girl, you wouldn’t want it too hot, or too cold. It has to be, well, just right.

Different people read for different reasons. Some want to be ‘hip’, so they will read whatever happens to be on the bestsellers’ lists. Others have specific interests, a period in history, say, and they are drawn to books that will give them more insight into those interests. Some are drawn to genres, others to whatever catches their eye in the airport, and far too many read under duress, usually something assigned for a class.

It’s our job as writers to write prose that will draw in the reader, no matter why he or she first picked up your book. That means not writing as if they were too stupid to understand what you’re trying to say. You don’t have to fill in every detail. Readers are smart enough to draw their own conclusions, and they like being treated as intelligent. In my second example above, didn’t you feel a little smug at figuring out on your own why John was swearing?

On the other hand, readers do need enough information to be able figure out what you’re trying to convey. They can connect the dots, but all the dots have to be there. One of the writers in my group presented a story which came to a sudden, abrupt ending. A woman leaves a room and a spark lands on the carpet. There was no sense of what this was supposed to signify. When I asked her about it, she admitted she had cut a big chunk of the story to fit the word count, but had kept the ending that the missing part led to. Don’t do that. Story always trumps word count.

There are some writers, even quite well-known ones, who see fiction as their opportunity to show off how much cleverer they are than their readers. The only thing they love more than ambiguity is the obscure word or phrase.  Such prose might win accolades from the sort of university professor who sees education as the bastion of the elite, but it will repel most of the rest of us.

The first function of fiction (say that fast three times) is to tell a story. If your wordplay and fragmented narrative take centre stage and the story has been forgotten, in my opinion you’ve failed.

Get thee a beta reader who is smart, honest, and patient. (Hi, Jane!) That is the only real way to be sure your story fits the Goldilocks formula: It’s not so bloated that the reader feels you’re treating him as an idiot; not so sparse he can’t figure out what’s going on. The ideal story has to be j-u-s-t-r-i-g-h-t…

Writing is meant to be read, which means it needs readers. Treat them with respect and tell them a story. That’s not really too much to ask, is it?

Image result for stephen king quotes about readers

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The Fiction Grandmaster

When I was a teenager my friend Joe taught me how to play chess. We’d sit in the back room of his parent’s house until all hours playing and analysing Leonard Cohen songs. For all my practice, I never achieved grandmaster status. In fact, I think the technical term for my skill level is… mediocre. Still, I enjoy it and I know enough to be able to appreciate an excellent, elegant game.

You can learn a lot from chess: Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not last long. And at the end of the game, the king and the pawn go in the same box.

Chess, as Bobby Fischer once said, is life.

One thing I have learned from chess is how to be a better writer. Don’t look at me like that. There’s a lot that chess can teach us about writing, for instance, the importance of planning ahead, being willing to make sacrifices, and why the well-conceived endgame is so essential.

I’m not qualified to teach anyone about chess, other than the basic moves and the most rudimentary of techniques. However, I think I can tell you something about writing.

Planning ahead

Right from the opening, a good chess player can plan several moves ahead. On a good day, I can manage about three. I mean, if I’ve slept 8 hours and had my early morning cuppa. A grandmaster, though, can manage a dozen. In fact, Gary Kasparov can handle 15. Think of it, all the variables that are possible. The chess player can see all those possibilities and know what the board will look like at  every stage along the way. Doesn’t that make you tingle? Just me then.

The writer doesn’t need that degree of genius, though it helps, of course. But she should definitely have some idea of where she is going with her story. At least she should know what the next big scene will be and how the board, sorry, plot, will look afterwards. The writer has a big advantage over the chess player because she can write a first draft and have a reasonable map of each move along the way. Then, during the rewrite, she can structure the story and the prose in a way that leads inexorably towards the ending.

Openings matter

In fiction as much as in chess openings are important. The first moves of the game can solidify the player’s position… or lose it. Likewise, the writer has to make sure the opening lines of a story are as compelling and as harmonious with the rest of the story as possible.

Making Sacrifices

A good chess player knows that some pieces have to be sacrificed in order to win the game. In Byrne vs Fischer (1956), a 13 year old Bobby Fischer sacrificed his queen, the most powerful piece on the board, and won what many call The Game of the Century. A good writer makes sacrifices, too. The beautifully-crafted scene that just doesn’t belong in that particular tale, the great opening that suggests a completely different type of story is following, the character you love who just slows down the plot… I have chopped tens of thousands of words from a story in order to craft a better tale. Yes, it hurts, but sometimes you have to grit your teeth and get on with it. Be like Bobby. Learn the importance of the well-considered sacrifice.

Find a fork

In chess terms, if one piece can attack two or more opposing pieces at a time, that’s called a fork. It works well in chess because it forces the opponent to sacrifice a piece. Likewise, in writing, you want your characters to do more than one thing, too. In To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee presents the character of Aunt Alexandra. She not only serves as an antagonist to Scout, scolding the tomboy for her unladylike ways, but in her rigidity and adherence to old southern ways, she also serves as a direct contrast to the easy, free-spirited narrator. Events in the plot, too, should have repercussions for more than one character. If Pete hurts his ankle falling down the stairs, then his wife Beth will be impacted and so will his children and his colleagues at work. The bigger the event, the wider the impact.

Sticking a pin

Pinning a piece in chess means that piece cannot move without putting the king into check (which is forbidden), or forcing the loss of an important piece. Likewise, in fiction, by giving the characters some serious difficulty, be it a character flaw or some trying circumstances, there is a challenge for them to overcome. Fiction thrives on characters being challenged. In chess, a piece can pin from a distance and the danger may only be revealed when another piece is moved. The same applies to good fiction. For example, for the first several chapters of The Lord of the Rings (1954), it seems that Saruman is the wise head of the order of wizards. Later, when his treachery is revealed, it is a major blow to the heroes. Keep some secrets from your reader and only reveal them when they can carry the most weight.

Getting skewered

In chess, a skewer means a piece has to move or be captured. Likewise, characters must move too. They must carry the momentum. Compelling action is important in fiction. Flaccid, passive characters are not engaging. Make them move!


A good game of chess needs a good outcome. There are whole tomes written about how to achieve such a thing in chess. Stories, too, need endings that resonate. No loose ends, all the threads neatly tied up. That doesn’t mean it has to be a happy ending, or one in which the bad guys suffer and the hero gets the girl. It just means the ending fits the story. The reader closes the book with a sense of satisfaction.

Thinking Like a Grandmaster

One reason why I never became a very good chess player is because my mind doesn’t work the right way. I can’t see the moves far enough ahead, and I tend to react to my opponent rather than driving the game. When I was playing a lot — five or six hours a day at my peak — I had difficulty turning my mind off. I went to bed seeing chessboards and watching moves unfold.

If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to think like one. You have to see the entire plot the way a good chess player sees the entire board and not just one part of it. Your writing needs to be a major force in your life. The more time and energy you spend developing your talent, the better a writer you will be.




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