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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Writing in the Eye of the Storm — or Hurricane

One of the things great actors have in common is an ability to focus.  They are able to hold their character even when they have people adjusting their makeup or chatting about other things. While he was filming Death in Venice, Dirk Bogarde dined with director Visconti every day and had exactly the same fussy meal. The director understood. He wasn’t dining with the actor but with the character von Aschenbach. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson reported having lunch with Viggo Mortensen at the commissary one afternoon and calling him Aragorn, his character’s name, the whole time. Mortensen was so in character he didn’t notice.

Focus has been on my mind because this week Ireland was clobbered by Tropical Storm Ophelia. Not content with drowning herself, I suppose she thought she’d take some others with her. In hindsight, we got off fairly lightly, at least in comparison with places like Puerto Rico. Yes, there was a lot of damage, especially to the south and the west of the country, but in my little town we experienced nothing worse than you’d get at a Fianna Fail conference: power failures and a lot of wind.

For days we’d been warned of the approach of the Hurricane, later downgraded to a Tropical Storm, and I found myself repeatedly distracted. Not only did we get the doom-laden warnings from the Met office, but there were those wags on twitter who couldn’t be ignored. Like the lad who tweeted, “This is my first hurricane so I’m a bit of a novice. When do we start the looting?” Or the remark overheard at Dublin airport when a group of Americans arrived, “We’re expecting a hurricane, lads. Did you bring your guns?” Then there were the irksome tweets from the US (and more than a few UK sites) showing the approach of the storm with Ireland getting the brunt of the the damage. The caption? “UK faces onslaught by Hurricane Ophelia.”

In case you’re wondering, the small island to the west of the UK is Ireland. We are not England or the UK (other than the bit up north). Please try to remember this. Failure to do so could find you wearing a pint or ten of Guinness.

Ireland expecting Ophelia’s worst, as depicted in the purple bit. Ireland is NOT the UK.

But there I am getting distracted again. See how easy it is?

So in the middle of the madness, there’s me trying to write. With the trees in the garden swaying like possessed hula dancers and the gale howling down the road taking the neighbours’ bins with it, trying to keep my eyes on the task at hand was no easy feat.

Focus means a few different things in writing. It can mean mindfulness or keeping your theme on point. For the purpose of today’s blog, though, when I’m talking about avoiding distractions, I’m referring to concentration. It’s an essential tool for the writer. If you’re a flibbertigibbet you may find it difficult to knuckle down even without a downgraded hurricane demanding your attention. You may lose interest half-way through the project. You may end up with a stack of unfinished stories. All of these come down to lack of focus.

So how do you stay focused?

Select one project and finish it before you go on to the next one. This can be hard to do but you need to make it a habit. It will eventually get easier.

Set goals. Use daily goals to make sure you get work done, and long term goals to ensure you complete your projects.

Set a schedule and keep to it. Hurricanes notwithstanding, if you’re a writer, write.

As much as possible, avoid distractions. That means turning off the TV or radio, stop surfing the net. Save them as a reward for when the job is done. You might also want to put the cat in the other room or, horrors, outdoors, and get someone to mind any little people. (Children, you twit. Not leprechauns. Jeesh!)

When you’re on a roll, keep going, even if you’ve already met your quota. Golden days of writing don’t happen often, so make the most of them when they come along.

At the end of each writing session leave yourself some breadcrumbs for your next writing session.  By that I mean leave a few notes about what you want to accomplish next time you sit down with your project. This is particularly important if you are unable to return to the project for a few days. If you have to take a break for a short while, you’ll be glad you can pick the story back up without losing too much time trying to remember where you were and where you were going.

OK, there’s that job done at last. Play time!

I have a writer’s concentration: Intense but flickering.

~ Donald McCaig

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Truth and Fiction

anigif_enhanced-22012-1449348168-2.gifThere’s a woman who attends my local writers’ group from time to time. Let’s call her Alice. For several years she’s been trying to write her memoirs. Now and then she’ll finish a chapter and she’ll bring it to us, looking for feedback.

When Alice first started showing up, I offered her suggestions. “Why don’t you reverse the order of events so you have a stronger climax?” Or “If you eliminated Ted from that scene it would be tighter,” and so forth.

Her answer was always the same, “But this is the way it happened.”

I don’t write memoirs. If I ever get around to writing my life story it will probably be categorized as science fiction. But it seems to me if you want to write anything, whether it’s based on real events or not, you must make the narrative interesting to the reader.

Writing is two-way communication. Without a reader it’s no more than one hand clapping. The writer has to keep the reader in mind. It’s all right to be self-indulgent during the early stages of writing; in fact, you should just get it out of your system, but at some point you’re going to have to make that prose palatable for other people. You can be as ‘la-la-la, I’m the writer and it’s my story’ as you want, but you’ll discover readers don’t care for self-indulgent writing. If you want people to actually read what you’ve written, you need to learn the lesson that every two year old gets eventually: It’s not all about you.

As you’re telling your tale, you need to think about the impact it’s having on the reader.

Image result for joe friday

Joe Friday

While I applaud Alice’s determination to stick to the facts as she relates her story, as a fiction writer I feel she needs to imbue her scenes with some colour in order to bring them to life. The Joe Friday approach is too black and white.

For instance, if you are writing about an argument you had with your sister, then you need all the usual ingredients of a scene — the build up, the climax, and the aftermath — even if the argument really happened.

Who cares if the argument happened on Monday or Wednesday? Was your brother Michael home from university, or was it before he moved out? Or perhaps he wasn’t there at all… Does any of that really matter? It seems to me that getting bogged down in the details is one of the reasons Alice has spent a couple of decades writing this tale and is no closer to the end. What counts more than the picayune details is the emotional truth. Two characters  have an argument. What was the build up? What factors led to this argument? How did the argument make them feel? What impact did it have on the relationship afterwards?

By the way, if you and your sister argue all the time, you really don’t want to describe every single event. Give us one example and move on, otherwise you’re going to come across as having a grudge, being a lousy writer, and, oh yes, being a lousy writer. The rest of the quarrels can be summed up with a, “That led to the usual argument, tears, and recriminations…”

Now, you can argue — if you’re constantly getting into it with your sister, I assume you are good at it — that a fact is the truth and vice verse, but that’s not the case.

A fact is something indisputable. The sun rises in the east. London is the capital of England. Snow is cold.

Truth is a much trickier concept. It is subjective. You can say, “John Lennon was a good man,” and many people will agree with you. However, a lot of other people will dispute it. Still more will challenge what you mean by ‘good’. Truth is subjective. (This is a subject that has been extensively covered by philosophers. If you are interested in learning more, you might enjoy this article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

For the purpose of writing, truth can be described as the essence of the story. Again, it’s subjective, so you’ll find different writers have their own interpretation of what it means. I think we can agree that it’s more than the avoidance of lies. And for the record, my suggestions to Alice were not intended to encourage her to be dishonest, but rather to help her get to the core of the scene, to be true to that, rather than fussing over irrelevancies.

Even if you’re writing genre fiction, you owe it to yourself and to your reader to produce the most truthful work you can.

In Dorothy L Sayers’ novel Gaudy Night, Lord Peter Wimsey discusses the matter of intellectual integrity with a group of Oxford dons. He poses the question, “How about the artist of genius who has to choose between letting his family starve and painting pot-boilers to keep them?”

On of the dons replies, “He could stop painting. That, if he really is a genius, would be a loss to the world. But he mustn’t paint bad pictures — that would be really immoral.”

Another don, Miss Shaw, agrees and adds, “A bad picture by a good painter is a betrayal of truth — his own truth.” (p. 411-412)

I’m with Miss Shaw. In terms of writing, a bad book by a good writer is a betrayal of truth. Assuming, that is, the writer is actually capable of doing better but chooses not to because he believes a bad book will sell better.

Surely the first rule of truth in writing is to produce the best work of which the author is capable.

“Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ 

Stephen King in On Writing

The second rule of truth is to own your beliefs and values. If you and your argumentative sister write about the exact same event, do you think your accounts will be identical? Isn’t it more likely that she’ll make herself the injured party and you the villain, while you’ll probably do the reverse?

We all want to be honest in our writing. Any story, be it truth or fiction, needs to touch the reader, needs to resonate with an air of authenticity. From that point of view, obviously you want to be as honest as possible in what you write. BUT… If you allow an OCD obsession with getting every single detail right, you may not ever finish your manuscript. This insistence on recreating every detail is another form of procrastination. The heart of the narrative, the emotional core, is what really counts. It’s irrelevant whether you and your sister were fighting over a red dress or a blue one. How did you feel? And, really, you must know by now you weren’t ever really fighting over a dress. It’s never the dress. Or the boy. Or whose turn it is to do the dishes. It’s about your relationship and how you feel about one another.

If the devil is in the details, then maybe the details need to get over themselves.

Which brings us to imagination.

Just because CS Lewis created Narnia doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It may not be real any more than Hobbiton or Earthsea, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Lewis — and Tolkien and Le Guin — brought these fictional places to life and filled them with believable beings.

Imagination brings the colours. It takes a flat recitation of the facts and splashes reds, and yellows, and blues all over them, not to disguise those facts, but to make them resonate.

Consider the difference here. First my flat reworking of the scene in Jane Austen’s Emma in which Mr Knightley chastises the heroine for her behaviour on Box Hill:

Mr Knightley scolded Emma and she felt humbled by him. She resolved to do better in the future.

Now see Jane Austen adding the colour and shade:

(Mr Knightley): This is not pleasant to you, Emma-and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will — I tell you the truths while I can…

She continued to look back, but in vain…She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed-almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it in her heart… And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!

Jane Austen Emma

Even if you aren’t a fan of Jane Austen’s, (gasp!) you have to see the way the layers of Emma’s reactions reveal the character, suggest her relationship with Mr Knightley, and bring a sense of truth to the scene.

Imagination can mean making things up. JRR Tolkien and Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman have invented worlds and good for them. But imagination isn’t limited to creating the bizarre or the vivid, it also means creating scenes that hum, that vibrate, that resonate in the mind of the reader.

How do you do that? Well, the scene has to resonate with the writer before it can resonate with the reader. You need the scene to become as completely alive for you as possible, and that means using your imagination. Not sure how to do that? Well, here are some exercises that may help:

Start with the Facts

If you are a writer who has to start with facts, then explore what happens when you change a few of them. If the scene in real life takes place in the morning in a city, try to set it at night in the country. If possible, find a very specific place and time to  make the changes. Turn the boy into a girl. Turn the car into a boat. Once you’ve made one change, others should follow logically.

What If…?

Again, starting with the facts, ask yourself what the story would look like if the events had turned out differently. The argument with your sister ended with a big fight and you going your separate ways for a year, but what if someone had intervened? What if your sister had suffered a heart attack in the middle of the quarrel? What if the love of your life had suddenly shown up and seen you fighting? What if one of you had picked up a weapon?

Start an Idea File

If you get stuck with ideas, then keep a journal. As you hear news items that resonate, make a note of them. Listen to conversations and write them down. Having an idea file can give you options for changing a scene when you’re feeling stuck. Snatches of stories force you to fill in the gaps on your own. That’s a good thing if you have a tendency to insist on fact-only prose.


If you find it difficult to let your imagination soar, take time to  meditate, even if it’s just for 10-15 minutes a day. Clearing out your thoughts, calming them down, will give your mind space to create. Meditate and then write for a few minutes. It may take some time, but you should eventually see  your work loosen up.


Read widely. Read everything. Newspapers, novels, science, manga, history, graphic novels, science… Read genres you’ve never read before. Read books you think may be too difficult for you. Read rubbish. Read, and learn from what you’ve read. See how the various writers tackle themes and scenes and, yes, truth. Take your favourite stories and imagine how you would change them. Would Gatsby run away with Daisy and end up in Vegas? Would Frodo decide to hide the One Ring under the mattress and hope for the best? Imagination needs lots of exercise.

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll — Alice in Wonderland.

Be like the queen and try to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Or at least supper.


Make each scene as real to you as possible. See each detail. Smell the environment. Taste it. Touch it. Hear how people talk, watch how they move. The more real a character is to you, the more real they will be to your reader.

If you are stimulated by the visual, use pictures to inspire you. Make a folder of images you like and find intriguing. Thumb through them when you need an imagination nudge.

Design your own book jacket and put it over your writing desk. Cut pictures of people out of magazines or find them on the internet so you have a real face to go with your fictional character. Draw maps of the towns where your characters live; draw floor plans of their homes.

Embrace the Surreal and the Absurd

You’ll find it everywhere. In the art of Magritte or Dali or Frida Kahlo, for instance; in the writings of Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Italo Calvino, or Spike Milligan. In the comedy of Steven Wright, the Monty Python gang. The surreal and the absurd can trigger all sorts of ideas and images. Start with a surreal picture or joke and write a story based on it.

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ―Muriel Rukeyser


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What to Leave Out

a pen 3I thought I’d pulled a fast one at the writers’ group last week. For their assignment I challenged the gang to write a story no longer than 100 words. The people who sometimes claim they didn’t have time to finish their stories were particularly pleased.

“Oh, that’s easy!” Ana-Marie said. Then she counted how those words looked on a page.

“Hang about,” she said, “That’s only a couple of paragraphs.”


We spent the next twenty minutes discussing flash fiction. What it is, how it works. The gang are going to try my bonkers exercise and see how they get on. I’m curious to see the results.

The reason I wanted them to try this is because writers need to understand the importance of selecting the right details. With only 100 words at their disposal, the gang will have to weigh each one carefully. I suspect most of them will start with a story much longer than 100 words, and then start to whittle it down. All of those “He saids,” will be the first to go, followed by adjectives and adverbs.

Of course, the point isn’t simply what you leave out; what you decide to keep is what makes the story. The writer must be careful not to strip all the colour from the prose. The reader must still be able to enter the world of the story.

I remember reading an exercise for writers many years ago that suggested the writer imagine they have to pay for every single word they spend. Uh, use. Imagine it’s a telegram, was the suggestion. It obviously resonated with me since I remember it all these years later. Of course, I eventually learned that even a novel of 500 pages should still contain only essential words. Here are some suggestions for trimming the dross:

Be specific

Instead of writing generalities, keep to specific examples. For instance, don’t write ‘small car,’ try ‘Fiat’, or some other exact model. Write ‘cobra’ instead of deadly snake, or cottage instead of small country house. Not only are you saving your word count, but you’re planting a more exact picture in your reader’s mind.

Waffle No More

These are the passages that go on at length about the hero waking in the morning, showering in his cold, white bathroom, shaving his chiseled chin — he’s a hero; of course he has a chiseled chin — and selecting one of three crisp white shirts, the one with the mother-of-pearl buttons, and the blue tie that perfectly matched his eyes… Seriously?

Every word needs to add to the story. It should reveal the character in specific, vivid detail. Generic scenes such as your man shaving really add nothing of value. Well, maybe if he were a haemophiliac and accidentally cut himself, but even in that case, it’s the detail, the disease, that sets your hero apart from all the other fine-boned heroes.

Dead-Weight Descriptions

This brings us to those long passages of descriptions. I swear, there is a circle of literary hell for those people who have a heroine gaze at her reflection in the mirror and tell us what she sees. The raven tresses, snub nose, stubborn chin, etc. There are so many things wrong with this. For instance:

  1. No one cares.
  2. Perfection is boring.
  3. These details tell you zero, zip, zilch about the character.
  4. Real people don’t gaze at themselves in the mirror and see raven tresses, etc. They see the weak chin, the grey roots, the bloodshot eyes.
  5. The gazing in the mirror thing is SO cliched.

If you really must describe a character, pick those details that sums him up. The way he walks, the way he behaves, the impact he has on the people around him. Here’s Dickens, the master of description (if a bit windy at times) describing Mr Bounderby in Hard Times:

He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him… A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

As you can see, there’s nothing here about the character’s features or his hair, and yet we can see him clearly.  Dickens often waffles, but every word in this description tells us who Mr Bounderby is.

The Cecil B de Mille Approach

Cecil B de Mille was a film director in the early days of Hollywood. He was famous  for making pictures that had hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the cast. I have to be honest, this is something I struggle with. I love creating characters and I often have a lot in my novels. However, a story really shouldn’t have any more characters than are absolutely essential. If the character has no more than one scene, either replace them with a more weighty character, or give them something more to do. This is particularly true of short stories or flash fiction. In fact, if you try to squeeze more than two characters into a story that runs less than a thousand words, you’re probably not going to do justice to any of them. Less really is more.

You Won’t Get There All At Once

Precision in language takes time, repeated editing, and a lot of work. You’ll have to keep whittling it down to make it work. It’s worth it, though. Give it a try and see.

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Writing Down the Rabbit Hole

Like most writers, I love learning new things and I’m not picky about either the subject matter or the source of information. If something is new to me, I’ll read everything I can about it, delighting in the way new information fills some planet-sized holes in my education. What I love about discovering something new is that it will inevitably lead to something else. Jump down a rabbit hole and who knows where you may end up. Starting to read a book about William Blake and the Industrial Revolution can lead to discovering how carbon paper was invented, which in turn can help you discover why the roads in Victorian London were covered with a variety of different materials and the impact that had on horses.

One curious by-product of this quest for knowledge is it can leave peculiar gaps. This is what happens when an amateur tackles a broad intellectual concept. Several years ago I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time in which her detective becomes fascinated by the story of Richard the Third, and is convinced that the last Plantagenet was treated shabbily by history. Then, after he’s completed his research and reached his conclusion, he discovers that this ‘Richard was Innocent!’ notion was already well-established and fairly popular. Oh well, at least he had fun. I had fun reading the book and became equally fascinated with Richard.

Because I loved the TV series, and because I’m likely to learn something new about film-making, grammar, or politics, I’m addict to The West Wing Weekly podcast. Last week on it I heard my hero Aaron Sorkin confess that he, too, has planet-sized gaps in his knowledge. He talks about telling his daughter about a great new singer he’d just discovered. Daughter replies, “That’s Beyonce, dad.” He went on to describe ‘discovering’ Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and being astounded to learn the song was already hugely famous.

I can relate. I trip over information in the oddest ways. Very often it’s not obscure stuff, it’s just that I haven’t happened upon it yet. Like Sorkin (ha! That’s probably the only time I’ll be able to claim any sort of similarity with him), I find ‘gems’ and tell my daughter, giddy with my discoveries. She rolls her eyes and says, “Yes, mother, that’s Adele. How can you not know Adele?”

I don’t know, but I manage it somehow.

A few months ago I discovered Malcolm Gladwell. I’d read some articles about him and then, because of a link someone posted on The West Wing Weekly podcast site, I found Gladwell’s own podcast, which I’m now working my way through. Understand, we’re not talking about some obscure historian or economist. We’re talking Malcolm Gladwell, author of five New York Times bestsellers — The Tipping Point, Blink,Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath.  The same Malcolm Gladwell who was named one of the 100 most influential people by TIME magazine and one of the Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers.

When I said planet-sized holes in my knowledge, I wasn’t kidding.

Anyway, I’ve just started listening to his podcasts and in the one that waxes lyrical about Hallelujah, he mentions David Galenson and his unified theory of creativity. Galenson, an economist, has discovered that there are two broad types of creative genius. There are the child wonders like Picasso and Andy Warhol who burst on the world early and whose most esteemed pieces are those produced at the beginning of their careers. Then there are the Mark Twains and the Cézannes whose genius took time to ferment and who didn’t start to achieve excellence until they were well into middle age.

Now I have new books to read, new rabbit holes to explore, new ideas to formulate. I expect / hope Galenson will make reference to some other great mind and I will find another rabbit hole to explore. As you can see, diving down one rabbit hole often leads to many others.

As rabbit  holes go, these ones are particularly exciting because they explore the nature of ideas and creativity. Things I am fascinated by.

I love chasing down various bits of information. It doesn’t matter too much what the topic is, art, literature, psychology, physics, history or anything at all really, bring it on.

Some people approach learning in a much more organised manner. They focus on one topic and can discuss it with huge understanding and insight. I love talking to such people, I enjoy learning from them, but I could never be like them. My range of interests is wide, but once I’ve grasped the basics I’m on to the next thing.

What does all this have to do with writing?

Well, it’s not a coincidence that great minds all link together. As one great mind suggests a theory, that theory connects with another great mind who takes the theory in another direction. In the middle of all of this is the writer, taking what she needs from each and forming her own ideas. If she is lucky, one or more of those ideas will culminate in a story.

While burrowing in one of my rabbit holes one day I happened upon the story of the Necropolis Railway. This was a dedicated line that was built to transport the dead on special trains from London to the city’s outskirts for burial. What writer could fail to be fascinated by the possibilities. I got a story out of that called, not surprisingly, The Necropolis Railway (which appears in Before Baker Street). Reading an article about a musician who was disowned by his family for following his dreams led to a new story (not yet published) called And Righteousness Shall Look Down.

Sometimes the discoveries you make in your reading connect with events in your life. A documentary about Ireland’s fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Uprising led to memories of being bullied in school. Those two topics merged and became a story, too.

Writers need to keep their minds and their eyes open. Stories are everywhere but you have to watch out for them. If you aren’t paying enough mind they’ll slink away and wait for someone else to write them. Or worse, they may never be written at all.

I love that there is so much for me to learn. It ensures I’ll never be bored — even if it does mean I’ll always have some planet-sized holes in my knowledge. That’s OK, though. The act of discovery is worth as much as the information. I have so many more rabbit holes to explore. Who knows, maybe one of them will explain what a Kardashian is.


The West Wing Weekly podcast: The West Wing Weekly (episode 3:22 Posse Comitatus includes Sorkin discussing Beyonce, Hallelujah, and much more.)

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast: Revisionist History

David Galenson on the unified theory of creativity is summed up in this Wired article: What Kind of Genius are You? but you should consider checking out Galenson’s books, too, if the subject interests you.

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Learning Editing from Brian Langan

Last Saturday I took the bus to Cavan and spent the day with other writers taking a class in editing from Brian Langan. Brian is an editor at Transworld/Doubleday Ireland, an imprint of Penguin Random House. He is also a published author and is currently writing his second novel.

Offering classes in venues around the country is a new enterprise for the Irish Writers’ Centre and from the comments of various participants, it’s a welcome one.  Almost half the class came from Donegal. They said it only took them two hours to get to Cavan, but would have taken four to get to Dublin.

As I’d never been to Cavan before and had half-an-hour before the class began, I took a little ramble. It’s a charming town whose medieval origins are still evident, and whose people are kind and hospitable. The general atmosphere of bonhomie put me in the perfect frame of mind to spend the day learning more about my craft.

A number of things can make or break an educational session: poor environment, disinterested or pushy fellow students, ineffective facilitator, or the session fails to meet expectations.

Image result for johnston library cavanIn this instance, the venue was the lovely Johnston Central Library in Cavan. A mere four minute walk from the bus station, the modern building is airy, light, and quiet. The only negative was the heating failed half-way through the morning, but the staff brought in space heaters so we didn’t freeze. They also kept us well supplied with tea, coffee, and a variety of munchies.

Ten students attended the class, which seemed exactly the right number. Too many and people tend to form splinter groups and you have to deal with side conversations that distract the others. Too few and the class can feel flat. In this case, not only were the numbers right, but everyone seemed committed and focused. Having taught and facilitated many classes myself over the years, I know how difficult it can be to keep everyone engaged. It is particularly difficult when the class lasts all-day. Much of the credit for keeping everyone attentive must go to Brian’s delivery and pacing.

You can tell a lot about students by the sort of questions they ask. At another session I attended recently, one woman dominated the class by interrupting with a question every thirty seconds. None of her queries were broad enough to apply to anyone but her and the facilitator’s inability to handle the disruption completely spoiled the session for everyone else. Thankfully, that didn’t happen on Saturday. Everyone seemed engaged and asked questions that were of interest to everyone. In addition, the whole class seemed eager to participate.

The course was an intensive look at the process of editing your own novel, how to prepare your work for submission and how to get the pitch right. Originally planned as a 2-day course, this condensed version meant we had to stay focused and skip some of the original exercises. In addition to covering all the essential topics, such as plot, character, setting, narrative, language, and so much more.

I’ve been attending writing classes for many years, and I can honestly say this was one of the best. Sometimes it’s difficult for those of us with some publishing credits to find a course that meets our needs. The majority of educational sessions for writers tend to be geared towards the beginner. Although Brian’s class was perfectly suitable for people just starting out as novelists, it offered a lot of advice and encouragement for the more advanced writer, too.

Brian Langan Irish Writers Centre

Brian Langan

If I have one quibble, it’s that the time allotted to the course was far too brief. However, Brian is planning to offer a longer, more intensive version at the Irish Writers’ Centre. Yes, I know it means schlepping to Dublin, but trust me, it will be worth it. If you are writing / have written a novel and are serious about making it the very best you can, this class will give you all the tools you’ll need, including a few you never realised you were missing.

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A Wizard Day at the Irish Writers’ Centre

When Una and Ana-Marie and Simon and I decided to go to the Open Day at the Irish Writers’ Centre, we knew we’d have a wizard time. Simon said we were just a dog called Timmy short of an Enid Blyton-style adventure. Not that we had a mystery to solve or a secret passage to discover, but, oh! the lure of the open road and the exciting things that were sure to follow. We knew there’d be lashings of tea and coffee (if not so much ginger beer) awaiting us.

We stopped at the charming cafe in the Hugh Lane art gallery next door and Ana-Marie, naughty girl that she is, put salt in her coffee. Not deliberately, you understand. Ana-Marie is certainly old enough to know the difference between sugar and salt, but perhaps mummy forgot to teach her that lesson. So, with a mouth full of salt and no ginger beer to wash it away, we went next door to the Writers’ Centre.

The staff were very happy to see us. “You’re the Kells Writers’ Group!” they cried. “Hurrah!” We pointed out we were just a small number of the members, but agreed that we were represented enough to allow the Hurrah! to stand.

After more tea and coffee (Ana-Marie decided to pass this time), we went upstairs to the very top floor without the aid of lifts, oxygen masks, or flasks of brandy — sorry, ginger beer — to attend a class on poetry writing given by the charming and talented Yvonne Cullen. We had a wizard time learning to take our pulse and write a verse with the same rhythm. My pulse beat in iambic pentameter which means, obviously, I am a poet at heart.

Simon was particularly pleased with the class and decided he’d stop writing his stories in which people are murdered in quite non-Blytonesque horrible fashion, and instead write poems… in which people are murdered in horrible fashion.

Una and I celebrated the class by quoting Leonard Cohen to one another. Gosh, did we laugh to share Lenny’s cheery and upbeat verses!

Next up came the novel fair information session with Anthony Glavin, a former judge of the competition. Way back when the novel fair was inaugurated, I was one of the winners. How splendid to see so many other people hoping for their own chance to be discovered.

The last session was a Presentation on Professional Development offering information on the services and resources that the Irish Writers’ Centre can offer professional writers. This was a very grown up session covering topics like mentorship and facilitation and taxes. We all listened carefully and asked lots of good questions as befits well-behaved students.

At last, our lovely day at the Centre came to an end and we agreed we’d learned lots, met some splendid people, and had a wizard time, though Simon needed a stiff whisky (and ginger beer) to help him recover from the drive through Dublin. Ana-Marie promised him a special treat in his tuck box for being such a good chap. Simon said he hoped it wasn’t another dead mouse. Oh, how we laughed.

We managed to untangle our route out of Dublin. The streets are properly mangled, what with the new tram lines being laid and bus routes being disrupted. Una said it will all look jolly pretty when it’s done and Ana-Marie said, “I don’t give a shit, I want to go home.”

“Language!” exclaimed Simon.

“Piss off!” said Ana-Marie, and she tossed his tuck box right out the window.

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How to Write a Sherlock Holmes Pastiche

A pastiche is the ultimate method of honouring the fictional character of your choice. It is also a great way of learning the craft of writing. You already have a template of sorts to guide you, some familiarity with the characters, and a ready-made readership.

When I was in my early teens, I read a number of Star Trek pastiches. They ran from the inventive and faithful to the series, to the what-were-they-thinking. There are pastiches based on The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and James Bond and many others. For me, though, it’s all about Sherlock Holmes.

I’ve been a Holmes fan for more than fifty years. I love the characters, even the villains. I love the Victorian London setting. I love the quirkiness of the plots. I love the wit and the humanity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. All of which leads me to my first pastiche-writing rule:

You have to love it

Seriously, there’s no faking here. You can toss your head back and squeal and bang on the table a la Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, but a real fan will know if you’re faking it. In recent years, we’ve seen a spate of ‘affectionate’ films or TV shows based on Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, The Man from UNCLE and, of course, Star Trek. Having grown up with all of these shows, I have to admit I’ve been underwhelmed by these 2.0 versions. If you really are a fan, then why would you destroy all that made the story work in the first place? I don’t want to see the characters completely altered. Don’t blow up Vulcan. Don’t make Spock a romantic hero. Eww! Give him his dignity, man. These changes smack of commercialism, not affection. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Know your source material

If you have holes in your knowledge, prepare to fill them because, I promise you, your readers will know this stuff. If you call Mrs Hudson Mrs Huston you’ll earn some wrath. If you love Sherlock Holmes, then for pity sake read Conan Doyle. Don’t watch Sherlock and think you’re an expert in the canon. You may be an expert on Sherlock, but that’s not the same thing.

Assuming you’re writing Sherlock Holmes stories there’s another, more fundamental reason why you need to go to the source. Spelling. Someone once sent me a Holmes story they’d written in which Holmes’s name was misspelled all the way through. Oops.

Finally, the original tales allow you to delve into the mind and character of Holmes and Watson in a way that even the best films and TV series cannot. You need to have a sense of the cadence of narration, and the way language is used. These are things the telly can’t tell you.

Do your research

We don’t live in Victorian England so there are things we don’t even know we don’t know. What did those streets smell like? How hard was it to get from one end of the city to another? How long did the journey take? It’s hard enough for those of us who have spent years of our lives living in London to imagine, but how much more difficult must it be for Holmes pastiche writers when they’ve never set foot in the UK? Despite the obvious difficulties, some of them do so remarkably well. They reflect the society, replicate the mode of discourse (sorry, I mention Victorian England and, poof! I’m there), and share fascinating insights into how people lived in that world.

The careful pastiche writer will know that the Victorian age lasted more than 60 years, and the London in which Holmes lived was significantly different from the age of Dickens. If you don’t know the difference, then you need to learn.

You need to avoid making really dopey mistakes. While they are very entertaining to some readers, they also destroy your credibility. One pastiche writer spoke of Holmes pulling a £100 bill from his wallet. If you don’t know why that’s laughable, you need to hit the books. Mind you, that was still preferable to the Victorian lady who dabbed her eyes with a paper tissue…

Even if you’re lucky enough to live in London, or able to visit with some frequency, you must know that the modern city has changed a lot since Conan Doyle’s day, what with that little contretemps called World War II flattening big chunks of the city. You can find photographs and paintings of the period, though, and you can read accounts of what Camden Town or Whitechapel looked like. The idea is to immerse yourself in that world. The more real it is to you, the greater your chances of making it real for your reader.

Take it seriously

Last weekend I watched an interview with one of my favourite actors, the late Dirk Bogarde. The interviewer asked if he felt slightly embarrassed about his early, fluffy films. Certainly not, Bogarde replied. “I’m an entertainer, and if people were entertained by those films, I’ve done my job.” He explained that his ‘Doctor’ films (Doctor in the House, Doctor at Sea, etc.) had helped many people overcome their phobias about hospitals. Children and the elderly felt a hospital was safe because his character, Simon Sparrow, was a kind and intelligent doctor. Furthermore, people had met their future spouses at Bogarde’s early films. “I’m responsible for four generations of families,” he said, “I’m very proud of that.”

The point is, while many people won’t understand why you feel drawn to pastiche writing, all that really matters is that you enjoy it and approach it with a determination to do your best. If you take it seriously, others will, too.

Don’t go too far off-piste

If you want to move Holmes to New York, fine. If you want to make him gay, also fine. Just try to limit how many changes you make from the canon otherwise you’re liable to ruin everything that people love about the original stories.

In my novels, I had the temerity to give my Holmes a wife. I also tell my stories in the form of the detective’s diaries. My reasoning was I wanted to get inside Holmes’s head and heart and both of these changes furthered that end. However, everything else– Baker Street, Mrs Hudson, the violin, etc.–remain sacrosanct. You can get away with a few changes, but the rest of that fictional world must be recognisable.

Think twice, even three or four times, before you decide to kill off a major character. Remember, you are expecting other fans to read your story. They won’t take it kindly if you kill off Doctor Watson, for instance, especially if Watson is their favourite.

Avoid the Hackneyed

For some reason, a lot of new pastiche writers seize on a ‘novel’ idea, assume they are the only one who ever thought of it, and end up writing the 45th version of Sherlock Holmes meets / kills / IS Jack the Ripper. To coin a phrase: Boring.

If you have an idea that makes you tingle, then at least do a little research before you get started. Google ‘Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper.’ My Google search brought up 384,000 results. It’s a fair bet this is a story that’s been told. Repeatedly.

If you really have got a variation on this theme–Mrs Hudson is the Ripper, or the story is told from the Ripper’s point of view–at least continue to search and see if this approach is unusual enough to warrant your time writing and my time reading.

Read the Best

Go to the source. Read every book and story in the original collection. If you’re a fan, that shouldn’t be a hardship. Don’t forget to read other pastiche writers. I have lots of favourites, Nicholas Meyer, David Marcum, Molly Carr, Dick Gillman, Kim Krisco, Richard T Ryan, and many more besides. See how they handle things like dialogue, plotting, and characterisation.

You might want to start with an anthology. MX  Publishing has several volumes that include tales by some of the best in the business. A new 2-part collection is due to be released by MX Publishing next month.

Pastiche-writing can teach you so much about fiction as well as give you an insight into how your favourite writers crafted their tales. If at some point you decide you want to try writing a novel or a short story that’s completely your own, you’ll find the lessons you learned from this sort of writing will stand you in very good stead.


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