Writing is about communicating, but what you wish to communicate, will determine how it’s written.
For example, if you’re a historian, writing a history of World War One, you won’t start with a blow by blow account of the violent death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo. No, you’re more likely to start with an account of the shifting complex of treaties and alliances that led the world to war and the decade of global political assassinations, leading up to that one event.
As a journalist, you’d lead with the assassination and address the questions of ‘who, why, what, where, when and how?’, in the first four paragraphs. The background to the story, and its aftermath, might fill the latter paragraphs as ‘background.’
As a writer, you’d go straight for the action, contrasting the pomp and ceremony of an Imperial Archduke’s visit with the sweaty, fear fuelled anxiety of a bunch of teenage anarchists, their bumbling intentions and the implications of their actions.
The historian’s purpose is driven by perspective, so by going right back to the root history of the event, he might explain why it happened. The journalist’s primary concern is ‘the news’, so the article must begin at, well, the end, or at least, at its most recent point. The novelist, however, must choose his/her point of entry, depending on their own perspective of the story and how it should be told and how it will engage their readers, if they have any.
Of course, they (the authors) start with a distinct advantage; they’re making it up. The characters, the events, the settings are all elements of the author’s imagination and they must be arranged in a fashion that will engage the reader, help suspend their disbelief and entertain them.
Shakespeare believed there were seven stages in a life but he, clearly, couldn’t reckon with the world of the 21st century, or, for that matter, the Industrial Revolution, from whence a person’s life could fragment into a dozen more stages and multi-tasking means more than scratching your arse while picking your nose.
My earliest, coherent memories, are of reading and listening to the printed word, spoken aloud. No, I was not a child prodigy poring through philosophical texts while sucking a teat. But I do remember curling up to my father, as he partook of a Saturday morning lie-in with a paperback, and asking him to read for me from whatever happened to be his chosen livre du jour. As it turns out, I have very fond memories of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Harold Robbins’ A Stone for Danny Fisher. Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, remains for me, to this day, my favourite book of all time. He read a lot of Dickens’ too as well as his beloved Shakespeare. And for lighthearted diversion, there was Mickey Spillane.
I did my student time, learned Latin, read the classics and even tinkered with philosophy and logic, briefly, in college. But what I loved most, but for a very particular reason, was history. At an earlier age, in primary school, I became fascinated with the so called ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China. So, I wrote to the nearest Chinese embassy, in London, asking for information. Three weeks later, a crate arrived, packed with images of Mao Tse Tong, 12 copies of his ‘little red book’ (in English) and several (English) editions of the Peking Daily News. It was followed, quite promptly, by a visit from two members of the ‘Special Branch’ of the Irish police force, anxious to know who was importing Communist propaganda to a small town in the west of Ireland. It was 1968 and I had just turned 12.
Having left primary school and put primary school things behind me, including my first newspaper for which I was publisher, editor and sole reporter; I went to secondary (High) school and made my first acquaintance with creative writing, in a very positive situation. My English teacher was an enlightened individual who, apparently, recognised something in me about which I was totally unaware; I could write.
Now, I had good primary school teachers and was well schooled in the parsing and analysis of English grammar and George Orwell’s 5 rules of effective writing were as relevant then, as they are today.
- Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech you are used to seeing in print
- Never use a long word, where a short one will do
- If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out
- Never use the passive, where you can use the active
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
He nurtured and encouraged my creative drive and suddenly, school essays were no longer chores but adventures. That didn’t last long. I left that school and went to the Big City where my English teacher was a grumpy fool and a member of a religious order. Of course, I fell foul of him, immediately. In my first week, we were assigned a choice of essay topics, drawn from the previous year’s state education exams. One of the topics was ‘Bus Queues’ and that was my downfall.
Imagining most of my contemporaries would take this topic as a ‘cue’ to recounting a series of amusing incidents and conversations ‘overheard or encountered’ at their nearest bus stop, I decided to take a completely different tack and write a pseudo-philosophical piece about how the orderly ‘bus queue’ was a micro analogy for an ordered society and how the bus shelter was a potential, even anarchic, threat to good order. The good father was not amused. Indeed, he held it at arm’s length, between thumb and forefinger, before flinging it at me. It was traumatic and I vowed to never let my genie out of its bottle, again.
Complete rubbish, you might argue, but this is now and that was then. I was 14 and already, the dream of a career I’d mapped for myself as a best selling author, was shattered. So, I turned to history, by way of refuge. Studying history teaches the discipline of research and ordered thought and you can never let your imagination get in the way of a thoroughly researched paper. And that got me thinking about journalism again, except that, after six years working in historical research, I had to re-learn how to write if I wanted to become a journalist.
It took a while to unlearn old habits but, hunger, as it’s said, is a good sauce and journalism became my bread, butter and livelihood for more than twenty years. during which I wrote about music, industry, crime, film, finance and just about anything else that put food on my family’s table.
Along the way, I wrote an unauthorised biography of Sinead O’Connor, called Sinead O’Connor: So Different, for Omnibus Press.To my surprise, it got translated into three languages (German, Italian and Slovak) and became a best seller in Ireland. Better still, the reviews, particularly by the international music press, were good and that alone, was gratifying. These days, the book is long out of print but copies are still traded on ebay and Amazon, for anything from $75 to $100, apiece.
It wasn’t until I withdrew from journalism that I began to explore the idea of creative writing again. Ironically, it was Sinead O’Connor who inspired me. Sinead and I were good friends, even if she’d opposed the publication of the biography I wrote about her. She encouraged me to try my hand at writing fiction, joking, it was what I’d been doing all along.
So I started writing short stories, just like I’d done thirty years earlier and because it was something I needed to do, I soon discovered. Writing, for a writer, I’ve always said, is akin to breathing. No writer can survive without it. Journalists are constantly on the lookout for stories. Writers are, too. Their perspective is different, however. So I began to look at the world around me through different eyes.
I also began to realise, embarking on a lifestyle of creative writing would involve a new discipline and an apprenticeship began; an apprenticeship, incidentally, without a master, at least, no tangible master apart from the inspiration one could derive from those who went before. So I began to look at other writers and all the books I’d ever read, from an entirely different perspective.
One of those writers whom I’d always admired, was Kurt Vonnegut Jr. He wrote his eight basic rules of writing in the preface to his collection of short stories, Bagombo Snuff Box,
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.’
I was glad he wrote the last line; rules, as far as I’m concerned, are guidelines, not mainstays. I began to read books about writing that told you to shut the doors, batten down the hatches and, if need be, tie yourself to a desk with a pen and an empty page for, at least, four hours a day or, alternatively, a minimum of 1,000 words. Of course, I soon realised many of these books are written by people who have written nothing but self help books.
The point is, you can’t dictate rules to a writer. They must find and adhere to their own rules; whatever gets the job done. It is a good idea to start with a blank page and to write down whatever comes in to your head, however nonsensical. Something will emerge, like the seed of an idea. The next job is to nurture it and help it grow. As for starting at 8am, well, I had to make a living, so I started working in a bar and those were late hours, so early morning starts were out of the question.
So I kept writing and slowly amassing a collection of short stories I was happy with but, unlike journalism, I feared to expose them to public scrutiny.
My old teacher always told me to write about what I know and my imagination would take care of the rest. That always puzzled me. How did people write historical novels or science fiction, for that matter? Franz Kafka wrote a book about New York without ever visiting the United States and it is, without doubt, the one he would’ve rather forgot. Writing about what you know is part of the learning curve; it helps hone your observational and descriptive skills.
Working in a bar, I found, exposed me to a whole new experience of people, where I could observe their behaviour, mannerisms and colloquialisms at close hand and without being noticed. It was a smorgasboard of potential stories. One of those became the title of my first, self published book, a collection of short stories called Postcard from a Pigeon and Other Stories.
Postcard from a Pigeon and Other Stories is a collection of 18 short stories about the changes transforming Ireland, from a very human perspective. There are stories about migrants, paedophiles and gay marriage; about Ireland in the 1960s and how the Cuban Missile crisis impacted on a tiny village in the west of Ireland; and about the so-called Celtic Tiger, an unprecedented period of wealth and growth when greed replaced care and hospitality. Essentially, it’s a collection of stories about change.
The short story was my route to writing, a format that is the most immediate form of fiction: it drops you right in the action, a cutaway from real life. I began writing these stories ten years ago. Many were transformed since then and even more discarded. Some of them are based on true stories but altered for artistic purposes. About half the stories were written in the last six months of 2011. It was only when I made a list of the first ten stories that I realized they followed a pattern of sorts; each story was about a human experience relevant to the past 50 years of Irish history. But just as these stories may have a geographical location, the experiences, I believe, are universal to everyone.
But I couldn’t stop there. I’d always loved reading crime mysteries and had worked my way through the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Charles Dickens, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben and many others.
I decided to take the story, Postcard from a Pigeon and develop it into a novel, a crime mystery novel involving international intrigue, organized crime and human trafficking. So, I locked myself away in a remote farmhouse for ten days and emerged with 28,000 words. There was no going back from there.
A story can assume a life of its own. That’s why I always loved reading the works of Flann O’Brien, many of whose books were populated by the fictional characters who were, in turn, his own creative inventions, as though they had a life outside the writer’s imagination. Kurt Vonnegut employed a similar tactic, although in a more restrained fashion to the more surreal writings of O’Brien. The point they made had no less an impact. Character can dictate a story and in the writing, it is the author who carries the burden, as well as the reins, of control.
And this is where my story steps beyond the physical act of writing into the first levels of public exposure, however limited, and all that that implies. I gave a couple of chapters to a journalist friend in London who got them into the hands of a well known literary agent. Within days of getting them, eh, the agent, turned up on my doorstep in Dublin. He was adamant about, his willingness and desire to represent me, his belief in my abilities to take my place among the top pantheon of crime mystery, NYT, best sellers.
There were, however, some catches. I would have to do some drastic rewrites and, having read the final manuscript , rewrite the ending. Ok, I thought, naively, he knows best but, as the days turned to weeks and weeks, to months, between rewrites and revisions, it dawned on me I was not the literary priority he had led me to believe I was for him. Ironically, one of the readers on his staff who read my manuscript told me he thought it was ‘quite good’, for a first draft.
The rot had set in, unfortunately. I broke off all contact with the agent and buried the manuscript in an old shoe box file on my hard disk and tried to forget it. Instead, I turned to short story writing, finished the ‘Postcard’ collection and went about publishing it, myself. And all these roads have lead to the publication, last month of my first novel, TITO’S DEAD.
I’ve learned a lot, like how to filter advice and criticism, how I like to write and most importantly, how to believe in myself. You should, too.