Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What Killing Your Darlings Actually Means

Glass

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

I like this whole starting-a-blog-post-with-an-Instagram-photo thing, and I think I'm going to keep doing it if no one minds. This means that I'll be shoehorning a lot of shots of the sky over Dublin into blog posts where the sky over Dublin is not referenced, just so you're all warned. Today's photo is of a shattered off-licence window. 

The writing advice to kill your darlings is so common and attributed to so many authors that The Slate ran an article about where it originated. It was Arthur Quiller-Couch, apparently. 

But what does killing your darlings mean in real life? 

For me, it has meant: 

1. Getting rid of an entire character even though she has some vital lines.

Someone else can say them. She adds nothing. She is an extra name for my poor readers to remember. Lady, get out.

2. Moving a scene from one place to another for pacing reasons, which then means. . .
  • Re-reading everything that used to be before the scene
  • Removing everything from the scene itself that doesn't make sense without the bits before the scene that are now after the scene
  • Figure out how many of the pre-scene bits I can get rid of
  • Find somewhere later in the book for all of the vital pre-scene bits to go
  • Go over everything that used to be pre-scene and make sure there is no reference to the upcoming scene in there
If moving the scene was killing my darling, then everything that followed was disposing of the body.

3. Removing a lovely paragraph I was proud of, full of themes I loved, because the character in that paragraph now needs to be in hospital while that scene is happening and no one else can take his place.

I could have had him recover miraculously, but that's not what I'm going for. 

Essentially, the crux of this whole post is that what I am going for is more important than any of the tools I used to get me there the first, second and third times around.

Killing your darlings means that the book as a whole takes precedence over every individual part of it.







Monday, August 17, 2015

Things I Have Learned About Writing This Summer

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

Dublin smells of back-to-school today.

I hated school, but there was always something about August and September. Mostly it was the stationery shopping, and the new books, and the joy of reading the interesting bits of my new books without having to endure the boring parts.

I've been out of education for nine years, but still I celebrate two New Years. One is a night and a day when the calendar changes, and one is a season, when something else does.

We've had a wet, cold, miserable summer in Dublin this year, which I have enjoyed because I am a big freak who hates nice things. This week has had some bright and sunny days and that's my sunshine needs for the year largely met. I'm ready for autumn, for crisp air and crisp leaves, hot drinks and opaque tights, and for new things.

And this summer, I learned some things about writing.


1. Your tribe is vital.

I've spent a lot of time with writers this summer and I believe more than ever that the people you surround yourself with have a massive impact on your reality. Find other writers, in person if you can, online if you can't.

It doesn't feel like an impossible dream when there are lots of you working towards it, cheered on by people who've already gotten where you want to go.

I have been bowled over by the kindness of more experienced and successful writers, and by how supportive they are of those of us still working towards publication. I've been stunned by how much I've connected with people over nothing more than the fact we all take dictation from the voices in our heads. Writing isn't a perfect community but there are some great people out there, and finding them helps so much.


2. Every second counts.

Read this. And this. And this. Catherine is smart. Then go and write and edit things!


3. There will always be an obstacle.

If you want to avoid writing, if you're scared of failing or succeeding, there will always be a reason not to do it - and that's one of the things a tribe helps with. Writer friends can say 'Oh, of course you couldn't write last weekend - that thing you were doing was legitimately very important!' and they can also say 'Really, Ellen? Four loads of laundry in two days for two people? Baking Rolo treats? Experimenting with continental knitting? You needed to do all of that rather than fix Chapter Six?'

4. Rolo treats are tasty.
 






Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Language on the internet is becoming. . . kind of self-effacing? Could we maybe not?

I love slang. It's colourful, rich, vivid. It allows language to evolve. Without the evolution of language, I would be introducing myself by saying "My paternal grandmother's name being Ellen, and my father's family name Brickley. . ." instead of "Hi, I'm Ellen. I heard there was chai?"

I am pro-slang about 90% of the time. I did recently ask my friend to explain to me why the vowel in yes was deemed so inadequate that yas and yus became necessary, and I detest 'wut', but I will fight to the death to defend go figure, bae and H/T.

But one thing about internet slang is kind of . . . bothering me?

It's a large issue, but one element of the most obvious elements is a tendency to make statements into questions? And also to say "kind of" kind of a lot? Um, and to hesitate for stylistic purposes? And when someone says or does something troubling, to ask if they can maybe. . . not?

Sometimes these features of internet slang are used almost sarcastically ("I think you should have known without the warning that your coffee would maybe be hot?"). I also see a subtle shade of meaning in 'I kind of love this' that isn't present in the simpler 'I love this.' (I kind of love that my barista hates chai lattes because they taste like Christmas, which he also hates. I love chai lattes. They are two distinct feelings - I'd rather my barista didn't hate anything but I am amused by how he expressed it. I kind of love what he said).

I've also seen this type of self-effacing language used passive-aggressively - my pet hate is "can you maybe. . . not?" Is there something wrong with 'please stop that'?

But sometimes I think there is something more sinister behind it.

In her 1984 book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg quoted a study which noted the differences in how men and women express themselves. Men will say 'The war is awful' in conversation. Women will say 'The war is awful, isn't it?' (emphasis mine), as though seeking validation for their opinion that war . . . maybe kind of sucks? (Great, I'm doing it now).

As a woman, I try to use language that doesn't unconsciously or implicitly ask for validation that I don't need. I'm working on eliminating 'just' ("Can I just get some milk for my tea. . ?"). An old boss trained me out of unnecessary 'sorry's. ("Sorry, do you have a minute?" was a terrible habit of mine for years and I am so, so grateful to my former boss for flagging it to me).

Now I see fewer and fewer people on the internet who seem willing to make a statement without throwing a question mark in at the end to call for the approval of the reader (protip: the internet is full of readers whose approval we should actively avoid. I, for instance, spent the entire summer I was seventeen playing Fling The Cow, a sadly departed Flash game. You should never ask for my approval).

And am I bring paranoid to suggest that this overall move towards conciliatory slang might be linked to the fact the social media and the internet in general is becoming a more hostile place for so many people, especially women (if you don't agree with this, I have a portmanteau for you - GamerGate), and we're become afraid to take up any virtual or discursive space?

We're either trying so hard to be good and liked that we're not willing to love something, to hate something or to ask someone to stop unless we frame our words as though we're asking for permission to love, to hate or to ask someone to shut up.

Or maybe we are too afraid to stand over what we say, because that's become scarier and scarier.

This, I suppose, isn't a new complaint. Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert asks why young people "guess so much and shave so little."

I guess Nabokov would have had a choice comment for anyone asking him if he could "maybe not."


Monday, May 25, 2015

Update: We Did It

The marriage equality referendum passed. Legislation is being drafted to ensure that gay people can get married on a big island shaped like a teddy bear. What's not to love about that?



Friday, May 22, 2015

Yes: The Marriage Referendum and the importance of family

Today I went to the voting booth today with my mother, and we had our obligatory conversation about how my grandmother was born into a world which would have denied all three of us the vote because of our gender. We say this every time we vote. It's a tradition. Every family has those things - conversations and topics you return to, like the chorus of a song.

I was privileged today to vote with my family of origin. This is a privilege that not everyone enjoys. There are people voting with heavy hearts today, knowing that their family of origin has voted against their future and their right to equality.

And that's why I voted for the right of everyone to create their own family.

There is a perception that a family necessarily consists of mammy, daddy and suitably adorable little ones, that marriage and kids automatically makes a family. As someone without kids, but to whom family is enormously important, this bugs me.

Because family is not something that happens. It's something that is made. My family was made from long talks over cups of tea with friends, giggling fits, from hearing the urban legends of my family of origin, from connecting with my husband's family, from hard times and easy ones, and - yes - from standing in front of a smiling state registrar who said "I now pronounce you husband and wife."

My mother was there that day. So were my brothers and my sister, my nieces and nephew. So were my husband's family, and the friends we had chosen to be our family. How lucky were we, to enjoy that? Not everyone does.

I didn't just create a family by getting married, although that was certainly a big part of it - I created family with my friends too. Just think how much more important the right to create a family is for people who face hostility from the family where they started out.

And today, I voted with, and for, my chosen sisters and my chosen brothers. Today I voted with the family I chose, so they could all have the right to choose their own families too.

To say nothing of the legal equality that a Yes result will bring, everyone must have the right to create a life filled with acceptance and love.

I believe in family, and so there was only one way to vote. And I'm proud to be a part of the nationwide family who voted Yes.








Friday, February 6, 2015

Killing Your Own Perspective: Writing YA as a Not-So-Y A

The first and most vital step in my editing process for The Ripple Effect, my YA novel set in contemporary Ireland, has taken place: I have opened the feedback from my beta readers for the first time since I received it. I have re-read everything, closed it rapidly and retreated a safe distance from the computer to hyperventilate with a cup of tea (lemon and ginger at the moment, fyi - also to clarify, when I say 'with a cup of tea' I am hyperventilating while holding the tea; it is not a charming group activity the tea and I undertake together.) (This is my brain on edits).

Because The Ripple Effect handles some major issues and because I dislike teen books with absent parents (unless the absence is adequately explained and makes sense in the context of the world of the novel), the main character's parents play a role in what happens. Weirdly, that has proven the hardest thing for me to handle in writing the book and in planning the edits.

My own parents had me slightly later in life - not crazy late, but my dad was married twice, so although I was born in 1984, I grew up with parents who remembered the 1950s. My dad remembered the 1940s, although only from the perspective of a child. I have grandparents who were born before women had the vote. I enjoyed having slightly older parents who had done interesting things (including providing me with cool half-siblings) before I rocked up - I remember finding it strange as a child when I discovered that other kids in my class had parents who were still in their 20s, even though I was more the odd one out than they were.

My brain is wired to think of parenthood as a thirtysomething sort of endeavour - although I know lots of people who had kids sooner and I don't believe there is an 'ideal age' for parenthood, ever - but my default setting is that kids happen after everything else is done (if at all). This isn't appropriate for every character, though, and I'm working to unpick these ingrained ideas and adapt each family's timeline to suit the lives that they would realistically choose to live.

Discovering all of these biases has been interesting, but more interesting is the sheer amount of chronological leaps that it has forced me into. My main character, Nina, is less than half my age (I'm 31, she is 15). But Nina's parents aren't necessarily just 16 years younger than mine. For Nina, the 1950s aren't just one generation away - they're two. Her parents are closer to my age than she is. Her parents may have actually bought Bananarama records, although thankfully this has not yet proven plot-critical. And crap - I just realised they most likely bought Banamarama cassettes. The gap is bigger than 16 years. It's as big as the entire cultural framework that surrounds us, the events that were pivotal to our families and ourselves.

Nina can't ask her parents where they were when they heard that Kennedy had been shot.

I love YA. It may be my favourite genre to read - it's fast becoming my joint-favourite genre to write. I don't know if this is in spite of the thinking it's forcing me to unpick, or because of it.








Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Creative Writing Graduates and Their Desires: Will They Kill Us All?

The Irish Times, my country's newspaper of record, has published a piece about how writers are increasingly turning to teaching on MFA (Master of Fine Arts) courses to supplement their dwindling income from publishing actual FA. The article itself is even-handed, which means it needs to engage with the voices who are anti-MFAs, anti-teaching-of-writing, and anti-writers-complaining-that-they-can't-make-a-living-writing.

Essentially, society expects writers not to behave, or hold expectations, like other workers. And I am deliberately saying workers and not professionals because the issue is not about whether a profession is treated with respect, it's about whether work is treated ethically.

What is actually wrong with someone trained in a profession choosing to teach it to others if they can't find sufficient paid work during a period of economic crisis in their industry? If an out-of-work computer programmer scored a teaching gig, would there be articles in the national press about whether 'truly innovative' computer programming could be taught, wondering how many of the students were going to found the new Twitter or write the new Java?

Writing is mystical and special, and because it is an Art, it should not be sullied with teaching. Writers should sit at home with a glass of whiskey or a pot of coffee (aside: I hate both) and take dictation from the muses. There are intangible and probably unteachable elements to writing (voice springs to mind - I didn't know I had one until an agent commented on it and I realised I knew exactly what she meant), but then no one taught Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates how to found their empires either. They taught the tools, and then let their students fly. Who is to say that creative writing graduates, who "(. . .so the complaint goes) will tend to churn out well-crafted, imitative fiction that plays impeccably by pre-existing rules"  according to some, won't similarly take flight?

The article goes on to say that the "more cynical reader may be tempted to break out the tiny violin at these tales of woe from unemployed creative-writing graduates. . . " I wonder about these cynical readers (and it's clear from the tone of the article that the author of the piece has little truck with them either). Why is it so wrong for a graduate to be sad that they cannot make a living doing the work of their choice? Because lots of people in less-exciting careers have the same issue? Indeed they do, and they are bitching about it just as much as writers are, as they have every right to. But no one is breaking out the tiny violins for them - only the big, proper violins, the front pages of the national press and half of the internet will do.

Creative writing graduates who can't find work in their field are entitled to be unhappy about this, just as all graduates and non-graduates are. They are entitled to look for other opportunities related to what they love (like teaching), just as all graduates and non-graduates are. And when they can't find those opportunities, like every person who has ever switched fields out of necessity, they can then spend the rest of their lives tackling questions in job interviews about when they're planning to leave to pursue the thing they really want to do. Welcome to the twenty-first century job market. It's tough out there.

Why the intolerance for writers who are unhappy that they can't make their living as writers? I have friends who have had to quit law because it wasn't bringing enough money to support them, and no one is saying that they ought to suck it up and quit moaning because the time and effort they invested in their career has come to nothing. And I am a helluva lot more likely (touch wood) to need a book this week than a barrister.

Perhaps because we enjoy rain and slightly gone-off biscuits, Ireland has no constitutional protection for the right to pursue happiness. The most culturally-dominant nation in the West does, though, and the concept is familiar to the entire English-speaking world and beyond. "The pursuit of happiness." We don't have a right to happiness (imagine how busy my lawyer friends would be if we had), but the right to give attaining it our best shot is certainly understood as a cultural ideal. We can go after what we want, provided it doesn't conflict with anyone else's more critical needs (my need to punch a certain member of parliament conflicts - unfortunately - with his right to not be punched in the face, for example).

Writers don't have a right to do work that they love any more than the rest of society does, but they have a right to pursue the shit out of it, and they have a right to be sad when it doesn't pan out - and a right to be sadder still when it doesn't pan out for large and systemic reasons. And they have the right to try and address that by seeking other work they like. This is a right they share with everyone else.

Why is there sympathy for builders, lawyers, accountants, engineers and architects who tried to do work they loved and found they couldn't, but not for writers?

Friday, January 9, 2015

2015 initialising. . . .

Every year since I started this blog, my goal for the year has been to get published. Some years, it was to get fucking published, depending on how unhappy I was in January and how much I felt I needed the endorsement of a kindly publisher to smile upon this thing I have done with my life on and off since I was five years old.

But that isn't entirely under my control, so I always tried to set some goals I could control - finish this novel, edit that one, query this or that. For several of the years I have been blogging, I couldn't possibly have achieved my goal because I didn't have anything that I felt was ready to query. 

So with the understanding that my semi-secret, heartfelt goal for 2015 is to get published, here's what I'm hoping to achieve:

  • Fully edit my contemporary YA novel, The Ripple Effect, identify agents and publishers who may like it, and query.
  • Write the first draft of my next novel, which will be women's fiction/comedy. Although I have a very dark sense of humour sometimes, so a foray into writing comedy novels might be nice for me but terrifying for the rest of the world.
  • Decide what to do with The Soldiers of Bruges. The Soldiers of Bruges is a very odd novel, and I say that as someone whose most serious and sensible novel so far was about a London Irish family who could curse their enemies. The premise is complex and I have literally no idea how to even begin writing a query letter for such a bizarre book. When I read an extract of it at Dalkey Creates, one of the writers present suggested it might make a good one-woman stage show. I've never written anything like that before, but the idea of it is exciting and I love trying new forms and genres, so that is worth exploring. We'll see how that goes, but I like some aspects of the novel a lot so I would like to do something with it.
It should be a challenging year, but hopefully also a fun one. 

What are you guys thinking of going in 2015?






Thursday, January 8, 2015

Perfecting The Narrator's Voice: When Your Narrator is Telling Their Story

There are many unhealthy behaviours in which I confess I indulge. These include over-eating sugary food, drinking chai lattes to excess, refusing to exercise and writing YA novels with complicated narrative voices.

My current work-in-progress is a contemporary YA novel set in a tiny Irish seaside town which I envision entirely in shades of blue-ish grey. Our narrator is Nina Kelleher - tall, skinny, over-fond of the bass guitar, Patti Smith and Michael from Sixth Year.

At the time of the crucial events of the story, Nina is almost 16. But by the time she is telling us the story, she is a nineteen-year-old undergraduate student who has returned to her small town home for a summer. The first and last chapters are told by Nina at 19, the remainder by Nina at almost 16.

Sounds simple, right? But if the Nina of the opening chapter is 19, surely the Nina narrating the rest of the novel is also 19? In which case, she should have all of the knowledge and perspective of her older self. So is it OK that my narrative, allegedly from the perspective of Younger Nina, is peppered with occasional references to her life as Older Nina ("I know now that BLAH is the case. . .")?

That sound you can hear is me tearing my hair out my its very roots, which is silly of me as I'm getting married soon and will be half-bald in the photos if I let this continue.

Luckily, I have beta readers who save me from myself. One of them suggested delineating Older Nina and Younger Nina more clearly, perhaps by bringing Older Nina's voice into the main narrative more often, but in a clearly structured way. Rather than making the voice more homogenous throughout the book, I think my friendly beta reader was absolutely right - the way to fix this is by making my two conflicting Ninas more different, rather than more similar.

And funnily enough, I recently read a great example of how to do this well - the novel Missing Ellen, by Natasha Mac a'Bhaird. The novel doesn't span a timeline as lengthly as mine does (months rather than years) but the technique is simple and effective. When the narrator is in the present day (post-missing Ellen), her story is in the form of letters written to her friend in a notebook. The appear in a different font, which makes the reading experience more pleasant but isn't really necessary - the shift in voice from addressing her missing friend directly to telling a general story is clear enough.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Review: Missing Ellen by Natasha Mac a'Bhaird

Isn't it funny how much baggage we bring to a name? Even our own name? Growing up, the only Ellen I read about was in Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series. That Ellen resorted to cheating to keep her scholarship and had a permanent frown-line. This cemented my picture of Ellens in my head - dark, bookish, overworked, uninteresting. I was called Ellen before it was cool. Hipster face.

I was quite surprised, for no reason than because of my own associations with the name, to see Natasha Mac a'Bhaird turn my preconceptions upside down. In her novel, Missing Ellen, the title character is a rebellious beauty with flame-red hair, who likes short skirts, guys in bands, guys near bands, drinking, sneaking out of school and her best friend Maggie, the narrator.

The story is ostensibly Ellen's, but it's also Maggie's. The book opens with a letter, written from Maggie to Ellen. She tells her friend about school, how she misses her, how she has concealed the letter in a notebook she hopes her mother won't find. Then Maggie begins to tell the story of how Ellen came to be missing.

The narrative cuts back and forth between Maggie's letters to Ellen, written after the climactic events of the novel have taken place and dealing with Maggie's life post-friendship-with-Ellen, and the story leading up to the climax. It is skilfully done - each section is in a distinct voice, although both Maggie, and both first-person. Maggie speaks differently when she is addressing Ellen directly in her letters, which comes across as authentic and real.

Maggie is not a firecracker like Ellen - she's more staid, calmer, loves sewing, is less rebellious and more of a worrier. I was that kind of teen myself and I have never, ever known how to write an anxious teen whose scared of booze/parties/older guys with beat-up cars/drugs/going outdoors without making them dull. Mac a'Bhaird manages it well, and handles the friendship between the girls realistically, especially how Maggie handles her knowledge of Ellen's disintegrating home life, and how she is torn on how to express her loyalty - by hiding Ellen's secrets or revealing them.

I was initially drawn to this book for the obvious reason that the title contained my name, and when I learned more, I was keen to read it as my current drug of choice is hard-hitting realistic YA, especially in an Irish setting. Although this book handles big things, I wouldn't call it hard-hitting - I've read books about less emotive topics that have affected me more - but it also doesn't cushion or shy away from the very real feelings Maggie endures as she copes with missing her friend.

In the interests of full disclosure, I won my copy of Missing Ellen on Twitter in a contest run by O'Brien Press (Mac a'Bhaird's publisher) - it was a draw, and the copy was not given in expectation of a review. I just got lucky! 

Friday, December 26, 2014

East of Yang Pass, With Love


It is the day after Christmas. In Ireland, we call it St. Stephen's Day - but I shouldn't say 'we', because my family call it Boxing Day, and hating people who call it Boxing Day could be called one of the last acceptable prejudices in Irish society.

My mother bought me a copy of The True Secret of Writing, by Natalie Goldberg, in which Goldberg quotes the work of the poet Wang Wei.

Seeing Off Yuan The Second On A Mission To Anxi

At Weicheng morning rain has dampened light dust,
By the hostel, the willows are fresh and green,
I urge my friend to drink a last cup of wine;
West of Yang Pass, there will be no friends.

I am blessed to live my life east of Yang Pass. A belated merry Christmas to everyone celebrating, a happy 26th December to everyone not, and a wonderful 2015.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Guest Post: Careful With That Axe, Eugene! – Peter McCluskey on his new Murder Mystery Book.

It’s great to have a chance to do another guest post for Ellen on her Pink Tea and Paper blog. I’m delighted to appear again.

A couple of months back I had written 95% of my latest novel, “Careful With That Axe, Eugene!” but I was struggling to kill it off - a bit of a pun given that it’s a murder mystery book. I needed some space, some clear air and some alone time. I decided to head for a favourite place of mine.

I parked the car down at the south great wall in Dublin, just past the two ESB chimneys, and went for a walk out along the wall to the Poolbeg Lighthouse at the end. Half way along the walk out there's a little concrete hut and a bathing place - the half moon bathing club. There were three or four old-timers in the hut having a chat and a cup of tea - bit early in the year to be getting into the sea for a dip. I nodded into them as i was going past and they shouted out a hearty"Grand day, thank God" to me.

I continued on to the lighthouse, a couple of hundred yards further along. I hadn't been down there for a year or more. I noticed as I drew up close to the lighthouse that the authorities had done a great re-paint job on the lighthouse - a lovely vibrant postbox red. I also noticed a good patch of new concrete pathway on the right hand side of the lighthouse and also two nice marble type benches, both of them having dedications carved into them in memory of people who have long since passed.

Apart from the few auld lads in the bathing hut, I hadn't seen a sinner all the way down to the lighthouse. The wind was swirling around and i had my head down as I made my way.

As I got to the lighthouse I saw a man sitting on one of the benches. He was wrapped up in an over-sized overcoat that seemed to swamp him, his bulk hardly noticeable, lost in the folds of the coat. He had a mass of grey curly hair and a substantial beard that was blowing wildly from side to side in the sea breeze. I couldn't make out was he a down-and-out or what. He had a newspaper and a pen in his hands and he seemed to be deep in concentration. Just as I passed him by - and without him even looking up at me - he suddenly spoke. "Two down, six letters, hard work." I was taken aback a bit. I didn't know was he talking to himself or was he addressing me - I mean, the wall is the guts of a mile long, there was no one else along its length as far as I could see and I was the only other person there. I thought for a split second about his statement and I quickly figured he must be looking at the crossword in the paper. On the spur of the moment I decided to answer him. "Labour," I said. Without any movement from him to acknowledge my presence he replied, "That's it, alright. Thanks." He set to work with the pen and in another stride I had passed him. I walked the few extra yards to the other side of the lighthouse and spent a few minutes looking out to see as one of the car ferries approached over the horizon.

I cleared my head and tried to think how I was going to end my murder mystery book - I had been stuck for an ending for over nine months. Happily - and I'm paraphrasing here - a few reasonable ideas came into my mind and I figured out who the murderer was. His/her identity surprised me - I didn't think it was going to be him/her when I started the book.

I came back around the lighthouse and the man was still sitting on the bench, engrossed in his newspaper.

"She's gone a year now," he said into the paper. 
I stopped in my tracks in front of him.
"Is she?" I asked, unsure if he was talking to me or not.
"This day last year," he continued. "A whole year."
"It flies by alright," I said, not knowing what or who he was talking about.
"Time flies - you're right. There she was one minute and there she was gone the next. Hard thing losing your wife - d'you know what I mean."
"Well, I can't say I do. My wife is still with me, thank God."
"It's a terrible thing, sonny, a terrible thing."
"But you're thinking about her," I said. "Did she come down here with you?"
"During the good weather, yeah. We'd come down and have our bar of urney's chocolate and our flask of warm tea."
"Well, so long as you think about her, she'll always be with you, won't she," I offered. He seemed to mull this over, rubbing his forehead as he thought about it.
"Maybe so, maybe so." He gazed out to the ocean and followed the flight of a gliding seagull. I turned back towards the shore and moved to head back in.
"Labour, you say?," he enquired.
"Yeah," I said. "Six letters, hard work. I'd say it's labour."
He glanced down at the paper and without looking up and me he said, "Thanks, sonny." I took a stride away from him and he soon called after me.
"... and thanks for the chat, sonny."

Proceeds from the first 500 sales go to The Children’s Hospital Temple Street.
Copies available on line at www.petermccluskey.com

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How To Keep The Faith As A Writer/Artist/Singer/Creative Person

Warning: There will be a little bit of profanity in here.

I started this blog in 2009, back when God was a boy and Big Brother was a thing people cared about and before I fully accepted the healing power of chai lattes into my life. I was 24 years old, almost 25, and I didn't think I would still be here five years from now, blogging about my life as an unpublished writer. I blog infrequently now because I have very little to say about being an unpublished writer that I haven't already said.

But when (if!) you log into Feedly and think 'hmm, haven't heard from that Irish girl who likes Dorothy Parker in ages. Hope she didn't, like, die or something. Or quit writing,' don't worry. I haven't died and I haven't quit, and here is what I've been doing while not updating my blog:


  • I've won Nanowrimo five times (2010-2014 inclusive)
  • I have been an ML for Nanowrimo for five years (2010-2014 inclusive) and I ain't going anywhere. Nanowrimo participants in Dublin wrote 5.1 million words this year and I am beyond proud of every one of them.
  • I have written four complete novels
  • I have edited two of them to what I feel is query-able standard
  • I've queried one of them (The Curse of the Carberrys - my own favourite of my books so far, I think, but probably not the best one) and had positive feedback, but ultimately it hasn't found representation. I'm still looking but it's slightly on the back burner in favour of a newer project. I feel I can wring another edit out of the second edited one, The Ripple Effect, and improve it a lot, so I haven't queried that yet. That's slated for January/February 2015.
  • I have two more incompletely-edited novels that I feel have potential (whether it's the character, the voice, the setting - they each have something in them that I got right) but that need major edits. I plan to turn my attention to these after The Ripple Effect (April 2015-ish). It was from one of these novels, The Soldiers of Bruges, that I read at the Irish Writers' Centre and at Dalkey Creates to positive responses, so they are definitely still on my radar.
  • Speaking of which, I've read my fiction at two open mic events, once in the premier literary venue in the country, and one of them on a Sunday afternoon in Dalkey, when my friend Catherine turned out to support me and one of my favourite YA authors EVER was in the audience and I had to not fangirl at her because no one deserves a fangirl hepped up on cinnamon and steamed milk. I pretended I was telling the story only to Catherine because otherwise I would have fallen off the stage. After both events, writers I respect hugely were kind about what I read and how I'd read it
  • I have had done professional freelance content writing, which I loved more than any other paid work I've ever done (although travel writing was a close second)
  • I'm looking into self-publishing two non-fiction/travel titles


But the book deal I've dreamed of since I was a kid, and worked solidly towards since I was 25, eludes me.

Given that nice bulleted list of achievements, do I even care?

Of course I care. But every single thing on that list started as a baby step, that I thought would lead nowhere, but taken together, it's not a bad list.


  • I sent a Nano mail to a friendly lady who was already an ML for Dublin, asking if she wanted help. She said yes, and became a friend and a mentor.
  • I started every one of those four novels with a blank page, a churning stomach, a hot beverage and a flimsy idea. One of them started as (I kid you not) 'Torchwood with fairies and not everyone is necessarily bisexual.' One of my friends still asks me about that novel and that is what she calls it ('Have you ever gone back to Torchwood with fairies, Ellen?')
  • I sent every query for The Curse of the Carberrys with aforesaid churning stomach, and I never imagined I'd get a response, let alone a positive one with useful feedback.
  • I signed up for the open mics convinced I would be rejected.
  • The freelance content writing came my way through no action on my part, I must admit - a former employer needed a writer and thought of me. They still hired me based on a sample I was afraid they'd hate, though.
So what do you do when you've been chasing your dream for five years and it feels like it's no closer?

I don't know what you do, but here's what I do.

I sit down and I quantify what I have done - even if the list is short, even if it consists of no recognition, just your own efforts ('I sang for twenty minutes yesterday. I emailed someone about my painting. I followed four YouTube tutorials and photoshopped my pictures'). Even if the list makes you laugh. You've done stuff - own that. It's better than not doing stuff. Even if the stuff you've done isn't directly related to your dream, it proves you have it in you to do the things you need to.

I tell myself that there are new innovations exploding around me all the time, that I have some ideas unlikely to find a mainstream audience so self-publishing is something to consider, that we might be telling our novels on YouTube in five years, or YouTube might have dropped into the ether, like Bebo. But avenues we can't even dream of are opening every day.

I tell myself that it takes years to be an overnight success, that I didn't rock my first job out of college either, that my first college essay probably sucked (I don't remember but if it was good, I'd bloody well remember that), that it may be my fifth or sixth book that gets me to where I want to go. It may be my tenth. I can't control that.

But I can control this. If there's breath in my body and I can sit and type, there will be a fifth and a sixth book. There will be a tenth book. As artists, all we can do is do the work. No matter how many people are doing better than us, no matter how demoralising and crap it all looks. I can't promise that I will post here this time next year and tell you that I have a book deal (although I hope I do, maybe even sooner than that).

I can promise you that there is a blank page, and that I will fill the fucker.







Friday, October 31, 2014

Open Mic @ Dalkey Creates festival, Dublin

The lovely Sheena Lambert is being kind about my recent reading at Dalkey Creates, so it seemed like a good time to share a photo of me reading out loud as though I am someone who can read out loud without passing out.

Dalkey Creates is a new writing festival in the suburb of Dalkey, which is just south of Dublin, very picturesque and quite famous in Irish writing circles as the home of the late Maeve Binchy. I took part in the open mic session on the Sunday afternoon (in case you're wondering if I do anything other than go to open mics these days, then yes, yes I do. I still drink chai lattes and pink tea sometimes. Between open mics).

Once again, I read from my novel The Soldiers of Bruges (STATUS: first draft finished, second draft OH DEAR GOD MAKE IT STOP - there is a very short extract here), but I had a longer time allocation at this event so read slightly more of it. As the novel is written in the first person, I read the piece somewhat in-character, hence Sheena's very kind remarks. It was a lot of fun pretending to be a somewhat over-privileged Dublin nightmare for three-to-five minutes, and while I can't promise I'll ever take to a stage for longer than that, it's great to know that the character and her voice resonated so much. It is making the thought of the edit marginally less terrifying.

Terrifying. That's a good note to end on, given the day that's in it. While I contemplate scary things like edits, the dawn of Nanowrimo and writing a one-woman show (eek!), happy Halloween!



Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Culture Night @ The Irish Writers' Centre

Culture Night happens once a year in Dublin - museums and cultural attractions stay open late, run cool events and everything is free. It's one of my favourite nights of the year. The streets have a real carnival atmosphere, but unusually for Dublin, almost everyone is sober. Except for that guy who is yelling (in Dublin, there is almost always a guy who is yelling, especially if you're on O'Connell Street).

This year it rained, so I spent less time wandering the streets aimlessly thinking happy thoughts, and more time closeted away consuming sugar. I hit the city centre at 7.30, registered for the Open Mic at the Irish Writers' Centre, then grabbed dinner and squeezed in a visit to the Dublin Writers' Museum (next door to the IWC) and the Hugh Lane Gallery before heading back to listen to the other readers and sweat quietly until it was my turn.

The Dublin Writers' Museum

Poet Dave Lordan was MC for the night and there was an interesting range of material  - stand up comedy about materialistic fish, a Gothic short story about an abduction and murder in 1970s America, poetry and prose. One attendee read a piece from his friend's novel - his friend is an American Hibernophile who was apparently thrilled to think his work had been read in Ireland. Louise Phillips read from her newly released thriller, Last Kiss, which features a female serial killer with a . . . unique take on the world.

Then there was me. I read the following piece, which is the intro to a novel I'm working on called The Soldiers of Bruges (STATUS: first draft finished, second draft looking less fun than root canal).


Soldiers of Bruges

The best way to explain about my dad is to tell you a story that my brother Luke told me. 

I don’t remember this, but one Sunday in 1997 my Dad made pancakes. When Dad made breakfast, he insisted that he got to choose what everyone watched on TV, so he switched on one of the news channels. Luke didn't remember which one. 

Across the bottom of the screen it said 'Diana, Princess of Wales, dies in Paris car crash'. 

“You should have seen his face, Sasha,” Luke said to me. “He didn’t go white. He went grey.” 

Dad slowly put his knife and fork down and reached for the cordless phone. Luke remembers that he only had to punch one number before the muffled sound of another phone ringing came from the receiver. 

"Michael. . ." Dad said. "Was that us?" 

When he put down the phone, Mum's face had gone all frozen. She did that when she got annoyed – it's one of the things I remember about her. She looked at Dad and said “Well?” in this cold voice she had. 

Dad shook his head. “No,” he said. “It wasn't the Soldiers of Bruges. All signs point to a regular, run-of-the-mill car crash.” 

Luke said Mum's face didn't unfreeze for a little while. Even when she knew the Soldiers of Bruges weren't responsible, the moment of suspicion had been a lot for her to take. She was a big fan of Diana – maybe because she was another woman who married into an impossible dynasty.




Thursday, September 11, 2014

Guest Post: The Streets of New York, Paul Anthony Shortt: Memory War blog tour

Guys, I've been following my friend Paul Anthony Shortt's writing journey since Facebook was not yet a thing and dinosaurs roamed the Earth, so it's a real honour to feature him on the blog today as he promotes his latest novel and the final instalment of his debut trilogy, Memory War. Memory War is set in New York, Paul's favourite city, and it seems fitting for him to talk about the city, its role in the life of his protagonist and its unique soul, on the anniversary of the day when all the world's eyes turned to New York and its heroes. All yours, Paul - Ellen.

Paul at the launch of the first instalment of his debut trilogy

The Streets of New York 

Cities breathe. They have a pulse. People are their lifeblood and the streets rise and swell with the tide of life running through them. New York exemplifies this. I've been there twice, and each time it was all I could do to not get swept along in the wake of the city's rhythm.

New York is built for pedestrians. No New Yorker with any sense drives their own car. Certainly not in Manhattan, anyway. The ease with which Nathan gets his truck around the city is an artistic liberty I take, because you just can't have an action hero who has to get a cab everywhere. If you can get your pace in sync with everything else, you could walk from one end of Manhattan to the other, hardly stopping. You wouldn't want to, though, because that's a lot of walking! It's easy to forget, looking at a map, just how large New York is.

The streets of the city are important in The Memory Wars Trilogy. Nathan spends a lot of time patrolling, or simply wandering, and he keeps his perspective firmly on street-level. He's among the people he protects, seeing what they see, making sure they realise he's there to watch over them and fight for them. This contrasts to the Council of Chains, whose leaders rule from skyscrapers, sending out their agents to hunt the streets on their behalf. It's that direct connection that allows Nathan to feel his city breathe, and enables him to be guided by the city to where it needs him to go.
 
If you want to see how much of a melting pot New York is, the streets are where to do it. People of every walk of life, every belief and ethnic background, all walk the same streets. Stand in one spot (out of everyone's way, of course) and you'll see the world pass you by. There's hardly a piece of humanity not represented in New York, which is what makes it such a potent setting for Memory War. In this book, the odds are stacked against Nathan, and the stakes are higher than ever before. New York stands not just for Nathan's territory, but the world itself, and all of humanity. 

As Morrigan and Athamar bring their forces to bear, so too must Nathan rally his allies, and take the lead. Not just as the commander of the Conclave, but as a symbol for what the reborn can become, of the good they can do. New York, and the world, will look to him and Elena for salvation, but even with the strength of the city behind them, there are some battles no-one can help them with.

Even in the streets of New York, a hero must sometimes stand alone, and meet their fate.

Bio:

A child at heart who turned to writing and roleplaying games when there simply weren’t enough action figures to play out the stories he wanted, Paul Anthony Shortt has been writing all his life.

Growing up surrounded by music, film and theatre gave him a deep love of all forms of storytelling, each teaching him something new he could use. When not playing with the people in his head, he enjoys cooking and regular meet-ups with his gaming group.

He lives in Ireland with his wife Jen and their dogs, Pepper and Jasper. Their first child, Conor William Henry Shortt, was born on July 11th, 2011. He passed away three days later, but brought love and joy into their lives and those of their friends.

The following year, Jen gave birth to twins, Amy and Erica. Their fourth child, Olivia, was born in January, 2014.

About Memory War:
War is coming to New York. Nathan Shepherd's growing band of followers is dedicated to protecting the city, but they now face their greatest threat.

Athamar returns, plunging the city into chaos. Uniting the forces of darkness against Nathan and his allies, Athamar strives to discover a secret hidden for thousands of years. A secret lost to Nathan's memories. Something so dangerous, even the gods themselves fear it.

Nathan and Elena were once the greatest of heroes, champions against evil. Now, haunted by Nathan's past-life betrayal, they must work together and brave the pain of long-buried lifetimes. Somewhere, locked within their former incarnations, lies the key to stopping Athamar, an enemy who has hunted them from one incarnation to the next.

As the city burns and innocents suffer, as heroes fall and hope dies, Nathan and Elena face their final battle, a battle where legends will be reborn.


Paul Anthony Shortt
Website: http://paulanthonyshortt.blogspot.com/
Twitter: @PAShortt

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014: One Summer

“What I would really like said about me is that I dared to love. By love I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings." Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was a writer, among many other things. The summer before my second year of university, I sat in a cafe on the first floor of Hodges Figgis, a Dublin city bookshop mentioned in Joyce's Ulysses, and I read every volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography. I began with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and I read them out of order until I had finished them all. I don't know how long it took - I am a fast reader and her writing is fluent, so probably not as long as I think it did.

But I remember it as a whole summer. I hadn't been able to find a job, so I left the house every day and read books and did work for the college English Lit society, of which I was a committee member for the first and only time. I was in love with books, with writing, with the passion you get when a group of young writers come together and learn from each other how to be human beings as well as how to be better writers. Some of the writers in that group were giants - I dreamed of being the Dorothy Parker to their Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I dream of it still, sometimes.

It was a warm summer. I read Maya Angelou's memoirs and drank tea. I watched the green leaves of the giant tree that grows outside Hodges Figgis. I took photographs of Dublin. I compiled a guidebook for book-loving students moving to Dublin for the first time (I found an old copy of it recently. It wasn't as bad as I had come to remember). Sometimes when I got tired of the cafe in Hodges Figgis, I crossed the road to Waterstones and wrote in the cafe there. I wasn't working on novels then - I was writing about my life, such as it was. I was preoccupied by a schoolfriend who had died the previous March, by the lessons I could (or couldn't) take from her life and her passing. And into this strange, intemperate Irish summer stepped Maya Angelou, an African-American poet, memoirist, bus conductor, sex worker, waitress and nightclub singer. 

Walt Whitman, maybe the most American of all poets, wrote "I am large, I contain multitudes." One of the architects of the white male American canon, I don't think he could have imagined Angelou, but was ever anyone larger than she? Did anyone contain more?

The cafe in Hodges Figgis is long gone. Waterstones across the road is gone. I am no longer in college, no longer a young writer who thinks she can be successful if she buys the right sunglasses (God, I was a nightmare. The others were so kind to me). Maya Angelou is gone, too. Hodges Figgis is still there. I pass it on my way to work in the mornings, may it stand for ever, God bless it - and so is the tree I used to stare at. Its leaves still blow when the wind picks up, and this autumn they will fall, and the rest of us will walk underneath it, dare to love, and build bridges.

RIP. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Books That Are 'Bigger' Than You: Tell Me Yours

It was late February 2008. I was in the centre of Dublin, killing time until the next showing of Juno. I went into the Kylemore Cafe in the Stephen's Green Shopping centre - not somewhere I eat often, but it has a couple of huge advantages:
1. No one aggressively whips away your plate saying 'Can I get you anything else?' with a fake smile if you sit there for too long, and
2. It has a great view of Stephen's Green and the southern end of Grafton Street (I call this the bottom of Grafton Street. The entire rest of humanity calls it the top. I think I'm right).

I ordered a mug of vanilla rooibos tea and looked out the window. I remember that I had a headache. I can't remember if I'd bought aspirin to take with my tea. I know I considered it. I'm a hypchondriac - I remember these things.

I started a novel that day in the Kylemore. My first novel as an adult, a big novel. A novel bigger than I was then, probably bigger than I am now. I don't remember starting it, but the opening of the novel never changed, and I have it still.

After her father died, it took a while before Hannah and her mother managed to fully
sort through his belongings. The very day that he died, within an hour of leaving the
intensive care unit, Nora had started to dispose of anything that visibly reminded her
of Jack. His alarm clock, his work files, the watch he’d left on his bedside locker, his
shoes, his laptop were boxed up and stowed away or thrown out. His books took a few
weeks to disappear, mainly because no one knew which books were his and which
he’d borrowed. Hannah’s brother Tony sorted the books and Nora distributed them
between his friends at the golf club and in his local. His clothes took the longest,
because they still smelled of his aftershave and cigarette smoke.
No one dared touch his desk.

Inelegant and clunky, that is word for word what I wrote that day, looking down at Grafton Street. I think it was raining outside? But I live in Ireland, so all of my memories are rainy, like photos left in a damp attic for too long. Afterwards I went to see Juno, which I loved, and I sat there in the dark thinking, for the first time in years, that I could do that. I could make a whole world out of words.

That novel was never quite finished. I wrote most of it, including the ending, but never managed to complete some of the necessary filler chapters. It was a product from my father's death when I was 21, being directionless in my early 20s, not knowing what career I wanted. It was about grief and loss and parenthood, the latter of which I've never experienced. It was about Ireland's history and the church and homes for 'fallen women'. I read more Irish history while I was writing that book than I have before or since, and let me tell you, it was bloody depressing.

But I don't regret starting my life as a writer with a book that was too big for me. I hope to come back to it someday, and get it right.

Am I the only one with a book like this?






Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Link: Elizabeth O. Dulemba on Stories Bigger Than You

Every now and again I'm browsing the net and something hits me between the eyes. Today it was Elizabeth O. Dulemba on Janice Hardy's excellent blog, talking about tackling stories that are bigger than you are. She says:

Over a decade ago I found myself in a small wood-paneled room surrounded by a crowd of angry people I didn’t know. Well, I knew two of them. My husband, and the new friend I’d made when we moved to the small mountain community, who invited us to the meeting.
It was a meeting between former copper miners and the mining company who wanted to open a scenic railway going north from the town around an interesting and rare turn-around. They wanted to fund the railway by reopening the mine and shipping one load of sulfuric acid out each week. The miners wanted nothing of it. 

They stood like gnarled oak trees in their denim overalls and plaid flannel shirts and told heart-breaking stories of their family, friends and coworkers who had been lost to injury or illness—all because of the mine. Their emotions were raw as they made thinly veiled threats that if the company went forward with their plans, the tracks would be sabotaged. 

I sat with my mouth open wondering what I had stumbled into. I didn’t choose to write A BIRD ON WATER STREET that night. I was chosen to. 

That last line gave me shivers. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, March 24, 2014

5 Reasons To Finish Writing That Novel, Even If It's Really Hard


"I know I'm 40,000 words in, but there are so many problems that I think I should scrap the whole thing and start again."
One of my friends said this to me in a train station. It may sound familiar to a lot of writers. I've said it when I hit the 18,000 word mark in every book I've ever written.

I've always been wrong.

Here is why quitting is a bad idea:

1. The act of finishing a book is psychologically powerful and it's something you need to experience (also: it's fun!).

I still wonder every day if I have what it takes to be a professional novelist, but nothing has given me more confidence and more joy than finishing a whole book, even when I knew it was a terrible first draft and needed tons of work. Bringing a story from beginning to (flawed) end, looking at the entire thing, realising you created something you can hold in your hand, that you brought some fictional folk on a complete journey - it's a damned good feeling.

When I had a crisis of confidence about the novel I'm currently querying, one of the things that gave me comfort was the knowledge that I had taken Claire and Max, my main characters, on a journey and together we'd reached the end. Don't ask me to explain how the fact I'd done right by some people I made up had such an impact on my mental state - it just did. Finish your novel and we'll compare experiences over a chai latte.


2. Some problems only come to light when the book is complete and you can assess the entire plot arc.

I recently beta-read a friend's new novel. One character served no narrative purpose at all. We'll call him Billy-Bob Superfluous. I liked Billy-Bob, but he didn't do anything.

I'm willing to bet my friend didn't put the character in with the intention of having him do nothing. When he started, I'm sure there was something planned for Billy-Bob, even tentatively. If the book had been truncated halfway through, Billy-Bob would likely have made it into the second draft and been far more difficult to extract when his essential uselessness came to light. Now that my friend can see Billy-Bob's role against the completed plot arc, he can make a better decision on whether to get rid of him or to give him something to do.


3. Your ending may change the whole book.

I'm getting close to the end of my work-in-progress, The Ripple Effect. My ending is about to change, and as a result I will have to look back over the book and make changes - some minor, some major. I may even wind up getting rid of a few Billy-Bobs myself. But I won't know until the ending is done.


4. Endings aren't like the rest of the book.

The old showbiz mantra of 'always leave 'em wanting more' applies to novels too - especially if you intend to write a sequel. The skill of creating a good ending, which leaves your reader satisfied yet wanting more, is distinct from the skill of creating a compelling beginning or a strong middle. You need to learn how to do endings well.

Even if you come over all experimental on me and end your novel in mid-sentence, or with ten Becketty blank pages, it needs to be a good mid-sentence, and they need to be powerful and well-used blank pages. Endings are vital, and not finishing your novel is like learning how to drive a car but not knowing how to park (ask me how I know what that feels like). It may be fun and you may have learned many awesome things, but you can't undertake a full journey until you have that missing piece.


5. Published novels have many things in common - one of these things is an ending.

There are many things that elevate published writers from those of us who are still working and dreaming. One of the most fundamental is finishing the novel. If you wrote a list of the things published authors always have, the first item on the list would be A Finished Novel. You cannot publish something incomplete, and unless you fancy writing your book in super-quick time like Marian Keyes did the first time out, you can't query something incomplete either.

Oh, and my friend who was 40,000 words in and contemplating quitting? That was Paul Anthony Shortt and the book in question was his upcoming steampunk fantasy YA, Lady Raven, which is due for release in 2014 (click to sign up for Facebook updates). I think it's the best thing he's ever written.

Good luck with your endings, guys, and don't curse my name til you're done :p