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Writing tips

You have to work at being a writer, but when you love what you do - that's its own reward.

Part of this article was adapted from an interview with Kate on

Getting Published I am a compulsive, obsessive writer and a zealot about what can be achieved, personally as well as professionally, through the process of writing. Writing is not a ‘job’ it is a way of life. You earn money – you don’t earn money – you still write. As someone who earned my living as a journalist for many years I believe that no word written, be it published or unpublished, is wasted. Each thing we write should contribute, in some way, to the Can-Do-Better-Masterpiece that every writer still believes lies ahead of them. There are good novels and bad novels: in amongst volumes of inane social media are beautifully crafted Tweets. Whatever you write – make it the best it can be. I have learned as much from my ‘failures’ as by my ‘achievements’ – although I believe that such labels can damage a writer. I always write from a place of passion. I wrote two unpublished novels while working as a journalist, entered countless short-story competitions and more recently took a time out to write a memoir which has yet to be published. For me, writing continues to prove it has no boundaries. I recently self-published a collection book of my journalism and its success is measured entirely by the reaction of a small local audience of family and friends. While it is available online, Motherhood & Manolos mostly sells through Eason in Ballina and gives me a sense of being grounded very much as a ‘local writer’ both in my family and my local community – a position which I value greatly. Thanks to its success I made a ‘dream come true’ for my aunt, Sheila Smyth, by editing and publishing a collection of work she has written over the years for Sunday Miscellany and Ireland’s Own. Between us we made a great book that has delighted us as a family and resulted in Sheila connecting with a local audience in her hometown of Fermoy. The self-publishing experience made me remember that what is still important to me as a writer is sharing the work and bringing pleasure to an audience – however small or large that audience may be.

Setbacks & Disappointments The career path of a writer is not an easy one. I have received rejections as well as plaudits and understand, on a deeply personal level, what both of those things mean to both one’s confidence and ability to continue writing. Lionel Shriver once said that writing novel is rather like acquiring a criminal record in that the more books you publish, the more likely you are to ‘fail’.  Getting a good agent, being identified as a ‘literary genius’ and getting signed to a huge deal with a major publisher is not a career path that happens to many although it seems that way because those rare stories hit the headlines.  I have been around enough to know what happens to many of those bright-stars when their initial Opus fails to sell or when they find they cannot repeat the success of Number One. Writing careers can be born and die with one book so I am a great proponent of taking it easy, biding your time – the old dog for the long road.  Success and failure are dangerous words in the world of writing. The author Grace Paley was asked what was the single most important thing you needed to become a great writer and she said; “Low overheads.” That’s my mantra – because I have been at both ends of the spectrum. If the money does come – it can go away just as fast.  One healthy advance might have to last you a whole career. There is no pension. Having said that, I do believe that there had never been a more exciting time to write, which leads me to…..

Changes in Contemporary Publishing

Self-publishing and Amazon are transforming the world of publishing and giving writers the potential for complete control over their work. People in the world of books are divided: some think it is empowering for young writers – others believe self-publishing is devaluing the written word by selling books for 99c.  Whatever the case – it is generally agreed that self-publishing is now an important part of the overall writing scene and cannot be ignored. My own view is that technology had opened up a world of possibilities for writers. Lets look at how we can take control of our careers and maintain integrity and quality in our writing and utilize the ‘gatekeeper-ship’ of great publishers and agents. There is room for everyone – I have a huge interest in this area not least because I think is important for every writer who wants to move forward creatively and professionally. The days of a writer being lauded in a gilded cage are well and truly gone. Even (especially) the exceptional young poets and literary writers have to learn how to package and promote themselves and their work – whether that is directly to the wider world, or to the increasingly fickle world of conventional publishing. While the publishing world is in flux I do believe that writing and literature will come out of this period stronger than ever. Commercial pressures are causing a new dynamism and energetic atmosphere in both young writers ‘giving it a go’ and publishers are under pressure to find interesting new material to engage their audiences. Everyone has an e-reader: more people are reading than ever before.  Change is scary – but if we embrace it I believe the new generation can use new media to bring literature and poetry back into the forefront of mainstream culture again.

Plot and Character

Some authors sit down and let the story flow out of their minds as quickly as it enters and some prefer to plan and know where their characters are going and what adventures they will encounter. I am a planner: a slave to structure. In order for the story to flow I need to create a structure. Though I do not necessarily put plot over character (or vice versa) I generally choose a broad theme and allow/encourage characters and plot to intertwine as they emerge from this theme.  Within a structure the writing flows for me – down a stream – into a river with banks and direction. Without structure and plans I am in a whirlpool of creative madness. What makes a character believable is not their name but their emotional authenticity and setting. At the end of the day I try to take my characters on an outer journey as well as an inner journey to keep the story readable and exciting. Research is essential in my writing and it is this work that gives life to my characters and infuses their world with sights and smells. The internet, interviewing, reading and watching old movies are all great sources of research. It’s nerve wracking setting something in a period you can’t smell, or see, or touch and have to largely imagine – but it is so rewarding when you get it right and there is little the imagination can’t drum up if you find something you can hold on to from the past.

The Secret of Success

There is no hidden solution to turning your imagination into a published masterpiece. Ultimately you have to just keeping doing it. Hard work and passionate dedication will help you on your way and remember – you don’t need to be published to be a writer; you just need to write every day.  The best piece of advice I have is to take positive advice and criticism from editors and agents and not allow rejection to dishearten you. Thinking you are rubbish, and will never finish the book, feeling unappreciated and misunderstood are all par for the course, as is believing that you are better – and worse than you actually are as a writer – these are all emotions that are just a part of the writing process and life gets easier as a writer if you embrace rather than fight them.


Write every day. Even if it just to ‘visit’ your work for ten minutes first thing in the morning, don’t let it slide or its harder to get back to.

Never read back more than a page – fiddling with yesterdays work is a curse.

Keep moving forward. Edits are what second drafts are for.

Set yourself targets: Try writing 1,000 words in 60 minutes – no boundaries – no expectations. It opens the mind to the possibility of the Alan Sillitoe’s quote “quantity produces quality”. When the piece is finished – spend another hour editing it into shape. You’ll be amazed!

The Starter Novel: Just do it. The first novel is always a torture. Try simply outlining and précis a full novel under a time restriction of a couple of hours. Might not be the great work of literature you imagine you can write but then again – it might turn out to be just that!

Editing workshops: Ouch! Listen and learn because this is a collaborative process the better. Any writer who says they don’t need an editor is lying or deluded. Find one – or two. The tougher the better.

Writing from the heart: the courage to tell it. You can edit words, but you can’t inject heart into something if it’s just-not-there. What makes a piece of writing affecting or ‘important’ is identification with the human experience – whether it’s a newspaper column, novel, or poem. Writing takes emotional intelligence and the courage to speak out:  identify what your message is and go with it.

Writing vs Life: develop a routine. I used to think finishing a book was the biggest commitment I would ever make and the hardest thing I would ever have to do. Then I got married. In order to write – you have to live. However a true writer cannot live fully unless they are writing. While writing rarely gets in the way of living – life often gets in the way of writing. It’s hard but you have to make writing work as part of your life.

Start or join a writing group – keep it small and supportive and help motivate each other – don’t be afraid to trust other people’s opinions

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