Saturday, November 14, 2015

Things I Would Not Have Without NaNoWriMo

1. The knowledge that I can write a full novel and edit it.

2. A rather nifty lapel pin marking the end of my third year as an ML. I am currently partway through Year 6.

3. An awesome community of fabulous fellow Wrimos!

4. Pulp's cover of the Peter Gunn Theme (they played it on the John Peel Sessions and trust me, you need it in your life. A wise Nano friend shared it with me).

5. Someone to give me a hug last Saturday when a difficult phone call happened during a meet-up.

6. Someone to email me to check I was OK afterwards and offer help and advice.

7. Many many cups of tea in Starbucks Dun Laoghaire over the last year.

8. A desire to leave my warm, cosy flat today, to go out into the rain and puddles, to hang out with other Wrimos.

9. Several lunches in Yamamori.

10. The wisdom and wit of my former co-MLs.

11. A photo of a plaque on the wall of a little-used laneway in Dublin.

12.The story behind the plaque.

13. Stories.

14.  Self-belief

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How To Have A Writing Group Where No One Kills Anyone Else

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on
Warning: this post will contain a terrible pun. 

I took a writing class a couple of weekends ago, and apart from the actual writing insights, one thing stuck out for me.

Most of the participants had travelled to Dublin from another part of the country for the class. One had stayed in the city the night before (I had taken a bus for twenty minutes).

 A community of other writers is so important. It's possible to find it online (I'm about to start beta reading a novel for a blogging friend who became a Facebook friend) but sometimes you just need another human physically present so you can feel connected. Living in a capital city, it's not difficult for me to find classes, launches and events to keep my bookish self nourished, but it's not so easy everywhere. Writing groups can be a great way to stay connected to your goals.

So if you've found some like-minded folk (don't ask me how to do that part!) and want to start a writing group, here are my tips:

1. Make sure everyone is on the same page (I am so sorry about that but I did warn you)

I once started a writing group with the explicit intention of meeting to write together for motivation. We all knew that's what we were there to do. If someone wanted feedback, that was absolutely dine - but we all recognised that this was a departure from what we usually did, and that our goal was Words On Page.

Your goal may be getting feedback, or writing new material (as ours was) or talking about writing in a safe, friendly and supportive space. Your goal may be anything you like, but make sure everyone knows what it is and agrees that it's what they want to get from the group.

2. Let the group change if that's what it needs

Our group gradually moved more towards sharing work for critique. This as a natural progression as we all got better at our initial objective of getting words on the page - we went from wanting words to wanting better words. This worked for us, as we were a small group at largely the same stage).

3. But be prepared to steer the group back to its roots if it deviates too much - provided that's what everyone wants

There are nice ways to make that happen. "It's been great catching up with everyone, but I am looking forward to making a dent in my word count tonight."

Or "We've been doing lots of writing lately. Is everyone happy to keep doing that or shall we try to do more critiquing again?"

4. Be very careful who you invite.

This a good rule for life in general, to be honest, but it goes double for writing groups. I've recently been meeting a friend to write. Last week she brought her fiance, a cartoonist, who got the memo about what were there to achieve and drew while we wrote (aside: he got engrossed in drawing. A lady at the next table got engrossed in watching him draw. I got engrossed in watching her watching him draw. Then I got back to work).

However, the temptation to invite other people into a group that's working well is strong. And sometimes it is smart, and you should invite them, if they are a good fit. But make sure they have the same goals as the existing group, and make sure they want a writing group and not a hanging-out-with-people-regularly group (also wonderful, but not what you're there to provide).

Also, resist the temptation to include friends you rarely get to see, as two sad things will happen. One, you will not get any writing done because you will be too busy catching up with your lovely friend, and two, you will feel sad about catching up with your lovely friend, and those two feelings go together like pickles and chocolate (not at all).

Basically, all of my tips boil down to two things, and they apply to all of writing:

1. Figure out what you (individually and collectively) want to do with your precious time.
2. Defend it wicked hard.

You can throw in random Boston slang too. That never made anything worse.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

What Following My Dreams Has Looked Like This Week

Blooming tea and a willow pattern teacup - my favourite place to work.

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

I've been thinking lately about what advice I would offer my younger self, if I could. Peter Sellers once said that if he could have his life to live over again, he would do everything exactly the same way except he wouldn't go to see The Magus. In that spirit, the most important pievce of advice I could actually give my younger self is
No matter how much you love a cafe, if they give you food poisoning once, don't give them a second chance.
I'd say 'ask me how I know this', but I'm pretty sure you can all figure it out.

The best serious advice I could come up with was the usual generic stuff about following your dreams.  But I don't think twenty-year-old me needed to be told that she should follow her dreams - she was twenty. She didn't know there was anything else she could do.

What she needed was for someone to tell her what that really looked like.

And in that spirit, here is what following my dreams has looked like for me this week:

1. Setting my alarm clock for 8.30 on a Sunday morning so I have time to wash my hair before I meet my friend to write for a couple of hours.

2. Gathering all my courage to send a query letter to another friend for her feedback.

3. Writing four versions of the same three-line part of my query letter.

4. Going to an Open Mic night, standing in front of a room full of people to read something I had written.

5. Arranging a lift to work two hours before I'm due to start, every day next week, so I can write. The lift is arranged now, so I can't back out.

6. Getting very slightly travel sick on a train because I was trying to fix a scene that's too just too damned long.

7. Alongside all of this, and my full-time job, and my home life, finding time to read books in the genre I'm writing in. This is difficult to make time for, but it's the funnest thing on this list. (YA writers! Your books = better than travel sickness! Put that on your book jackets if you want).

Twenty-year-old me needed that list a lot more than she needed a Thoreau quote in a swirly font against a photo of a tree. I yield to no one in my love of inspirational quote jpegs on Facebook, but eventually you need to log out, and what you do after clicking the log out button matters one whole hell of a lot.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Why Unpublished Writers Should Go To Book Launches. . . But Not Too Many.

Last week I went to the launch of Louise Phillips's fourth crime novel, The Game Changer, and then to the launch of Ruth Frances Long's A Hollow in the Hills. Both were lovely events and my week was full of book talk, free wine, cake and autographed copies, all of which are good things to have in your life. I was sad to miss Elizabeth Murray's launch, as her new book, The Book of Learning, is made of everything I love - Dublin and West Cork and Georgian houses and scary things and girls whose names begin with E (we're frankly underrated) but thankfully a friend of hers has written about the event here.

I'd recommend the occasional book launch to any unpublished writer. Here's why.

1. To be in a space where people really care about books, and about supporting writers.

Everyone at a book launch is there for one of two reasons: to support a writer that's important to them, or to celebrate the book. Some unpublished writers have day jobs that allow them to immerse themselves in books - for many of the rest of us, books are a vital component of our lives relegated to after hours and weekends.

A launch can serve as a timely reminder, for those of us typing away in our living rooms, our canteen or the local Starbucks, that there is an army out there supporting what we do and cheering us on.

2. For a great opportunity to see how it's done.

I went to my first book launch when I was fifteen or sixteen, for a relative's first novel, and have probably gone to a few each year since. I know how they work. I know that they get really, really freaking warm, so you need to dress lightly. I know that cake always goes down well. I know that drinks afterwards are usual.

All of which prevents me from envisioning anything too elaborate or impractical when its my turn. The aerial acrobats are probably a no-no.

I know that a certain amount of thank-yous are obligatory but that it's nice to keep it succinct - although if you've ever been to a wedding, you probably know that already.

3. To meet other writers.

Usually the lady or gentleman of the hour will have a few words to say about how they got to where they are (especially if it's their first book), which is so encouraging for those of us still waiting to get there.

However, I'd also recommend calling a halt to attending launches after a while, and here's why:

1. Comparison is the thief of joy

At a launch, you get to see a book that has been professionally edited and designed. If the writer reads an extract, it's a well-chosen extract. And the writer has gone through sometimes as much as two years of development since signing their deal (note: none of this is a reason to compare your book to a published one, decide it's not up to scratch and send it off anyway on the grounds that the editor and other publishing bods will Cinderella you. I am reliably informed that this is not what happens).

And if it's a wet wintery Tuesday and your manuscript is going terribly and you decide to spend the evening surrounded by smart lovely people celebrating the peak of writerly achievement - well, don't blame me if you need to order a pizza on the way home and eat it in your pyjamas with some whiskey.

Not that I would know. I drink schnapps.

2. The real work happens away from the spotlight

Dreaming of a launch is a lot like dreaming of a wedding. They're great, but to get one, you need to do a lot of work behind the scenes (can you tell I was at a wedding last weekend? It was fantastic).

Also, if you get a chance to go to either a wedding or a book launch, I'd suggest the wedding. Launches are great, but I've never seen any really good embarrassing dancing at one - although maybe I'm going to the wrong launches. . .

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What Killing Your Darlings Actually Means


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!