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Why Unpublished Writers Should Go To Book Launches.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.