About Me

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I still feel like a teenager on the inside, unfortunately my children do remind me how old I am!! I have lived for 20+ years as an Irish expat in The Netherlands. My favourite city here has to be Amsterdam.

Writing, reading, authentic living. It's all here at The Writing Process

Welcome to my blog. Let me start by telling you that I love writing. I love the sense of vitality it gives me. I love that it helps me to make sense of the world and to the people in it. I love that it helps me become wiser, more intuitive, empathic, and most of all autonomous.

All aspects - reading, writing and observing - are what make the process complete. The essence is storytelling, and learning about
life and yourself.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


A while back I went to a lecture. Barbara Kingsolver of The Bean Trees fame was the guest speaker. Her opening remark was a general one, applicable to all her novels. She says that when she begins a new novel, she makes a promise, to herself and to the reader. The novel is successful in her eyes if she has, at its conclusion fulfilled that promise.
So, I thought that now would be a good time to ask that question and to discuss it further.
Now, as we prepare to re-read our first draft, and where necessary, edit it, I think it is of utmost importance to answer the question: Have I kept my promise in this novel? Have I come through, completed the task?
After the lecture I thought about The Cloths of Heaven, the basis for this topic, and asked that question and had to smile, because I had neatly packed the novel between a Prologue and an Epilogue, both incorporating some of the same sentences and scenes. In the Prologue I had asked the question: Was James’ Street secret to be buried forever? And in the Prologue I have uncovered the secrets, given an answer to the question, and tied up the loose ends. What was my promise then, in this novel? The promise was to give an answer to that question and I did. The circle is complete, no loose ends, and a feeling of satisfaction at the novel’s conclusion.
Making a promise when you set out, or asking that question that sparks off the novel, will give the novel its direction, will help you to filter the elements and utilise them fully. So that’s what you do first, when it comes to revising your novel. Ensure you have fulfilled your promise or answered that all-important question.
Once you have established that, you can begin reading and revising. Other elements can now be considered simultaneously with that first question. You will find that there are passages that do not add to the fulfilment of the promise or pivotal question, and at these points you need to ask yourself what they add to the novel, if anything. Maybe they are descriptive of character or place. They might add an extra dimension in perception or be useful in adding clarity to the setting. If they do none of these things, it might in fact be better for the novel as a whole to scrap them. And be ruthless. Pieces of banality will weaken a potentially strong story.
There may be passages where the pace lags, or where you seem to skim over issues. Here you can either trim down or expand. Sometimes the sequence of events needs to be reconsidered in order to maintain the suspense or to heighten the emotional power of a chapter. Sometimes even whole chapters ought to be switched around. Remember, before you decided to write fiction you were widely read, so trust your gut on these matters. When does foreshadowing (hinting at an incident in the future) add to the novel, and when does it spoil the suspense? This is an individual issue, and the answer will vary from novel to novel.
In some psychological thrillers, the victim and the murderer may be revealed in the first chapter, and the purpose of the novel will be to have the investigator discover what we already know. In other novels, the power of the novel lies in keeping the reader in the dark until the last moment, and laying clues that will have the reader constantly guessing ‘whodunnit’. Both forms are equally valid, but once the promise is made, the novel must adhere to that one route. To swap and change within the novel will in fact, break the promise to the reader, and weaken the novel. As a reader you know this, so as a writer, you will ‘feel’ it when you’ve got it right.
In The Cloths of Heaven, one of the characters dies. In my first draft I actually foreshadowed that event with a rogue sentence which simply stated ‘he died’ about two chapters before it in fact, happened. Instead of strengthening this event, I had weakened it, made it banal, and almost made the following chapters, redundant. I took out that one statement, and brought the power back into the prose.
I would recommend that when you are reading that first draft, every time you feel your energy sapping away, just put a mark in the margin, even if you don’t know what’s wrong with the paragraph or sentence or whatever. On a second or third reading, when you’ve trimmed and enhanced other, more obvious faux pas, take the time to examine these again. Chances are, it might just be a badly constructed sentence, or paragraph that is difficult to read. Simplify it. Is it too long? Then split it into two sentences. Does it add to the story or could you do without it? Then scrap it.
Sometimes it’s hard to erase a part of your creation. Sometimes there’s that one, beautiful sentence, the one you fear you may never write again. And yet, it doesn’t fit in. So you have to take it out.
In order to reduce the pain of this process, I have a reserve document, just for these sentences and paragraphs, a place where I put them out to pasture, instead of killing them off completely. I may never look at them again, but just knowing they are there, in case….., makes editing more bearable.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Strongest Life. Don't ask how, just ask why not.

I had a wonderful meeting with Manon, from UMAI centre in Alphen where I live. Inspired to create workshops for women to rediscover their strengths, desires and dare I say it, calling in life.

The key word is AWARENESS. Becoming aware, and choosing to face every day with an openness and willingness to truly absorb and experience each situation to its fullest is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.

AWARENESS implies having the courage to see your dark side, to integrate that, and thus allow it to become another bridge to your authentic, fulfilling life.

Being aware will help us tranform painful experiences into learning experiences. AWARENESS makes the pain endurable.

What follows is an article I wrote last year, but one I feel merits republishing in light of my meeting this morning.

In the spring, I heard I was being made redundant. My company was downsizing and I was superfluous to needs. At that time I did the Marcus Buckingham workshop on line, and filled in the questionnaire on Strengthsfinder.com. An eye opener, a turning point, a revelation. It led to my reading the articles on Work-life balance on Business Exchange and even to contributing my tuppence ha’penny’s worth of commentary.
Later, when I had thought more seriously about the subject, in particular in relation to the premise that women at mid life, though seemingly more successful are sadder and sicker than ever, I was prompted to write my own article on the subject, ‘Let’s Get Personal’. I published it on my blog, found Marcus Buckingham on twitter just to keep up.
All the while I’m thinking, there’s a book in here somewhere.
And of course, there was. Marcus Buckingham has just written it. Find Your Strongest Life is all about the choices women make and how and why we make them. His motivation for writing it stemmed from the Oprah workshop and the subsequent response on the discussion boards.
He is a great analyst, an intuitive observer, and intelligent enough to step aside and process all the information impartially. But he is not a woman.
In the last couple of months I have been working on these issues myself and getting excited about my life all over again. And excited about my friends’ lives too. Since learning to live to my strengths and being manifestly happier I am also a better friend.
The biggest wake up call for me was realising that I had always instinctively known what my strengths were and that using them would be to my and possibly everyone else’s advantage. Unfortunately my working environment was not conducive to employing these strengths. In fact, though it is hard to believe, what were in fact my strengths were the very traits that my bosses wanted me to minimise and hide. As a Creator and a Pioneer I was always coming up with new ideas, new ways of doing things. But when I voiced these in meetings, I was repeatedly overruled more or less told to get back into my box/ Frustration grew. I became resentful, recalcitrant and de-motivated. But before Marcus Buckingham and learning to live to your strengths I spent a lot of time feeling weakened and uninspired at work. Why not go for another job? You might ask. Because somewhere deep down, I almost believed the bosses were right. I believed they knew better than I. I believed that I was a difficult, dissatisfied employee, and that there was no point in moving on because I would antagonise the next boss just as much.
When the redundancy notice came, and I coincidentally came across the Oprah workshop, my life turned around. Learning to respect who I am, and learning to nurture my natural talents has given me a new lease of life. I have more energy than ever. My ability to learn new things, and my curiosity and determination to learn them, has returned in abundance. My mind is again filled with new ideas and despite still being ‘officially’ unemployed I am more contented than I have been in a decade. It is also much easier to be around me.
But, I want to get away from only discussing my own evolution because there is much more to this subject than that. In my previous strengths article ‘Let’s Get Personal’ I investigated the reasons why I turned out the way I did. I asked myself why it was so hard for me to find and live to my strengths, why I would I take on a bosses view of me above my own view of who I am.
Now, a couple of months later it is not just about me reading a book, and applying what I learn to myself. Everywhere I go, whomever I meet, friends, acquaintances, online contacts via social networks, I am walking the walk, and talking the talk. And that is what I want to go into here. I want to discuss what it is to share this with friends, to learn from them and more importantly to give back to them a little of what I am experiencing.
It is amazing.
I know a woman, a mother and career woman. She likes to achieve. Lately she and I have been talking a lot about character, and strengths and stumbling blocks. She is at a crossroads career wise and has been doing some self study and getting advice from others too. Yet she said something to me recently that made my jaw drop. Ok, she said. So I’ve been shown who I am, what my characteristics are. I am being given new insight into my personality. But, where are my strengths? Tell me more about my strengths. More importantly, what are my weaknesses, so that I can work on them?
And that’s the thing. Aren’t our strengths related to who we are? Marcus Buckingham tells us that our strengths are those talents that were always present and that they are inherent to who we are. Unfortunately we have been programmed to think that strengths and weaknesses lie outside of our core, and that we can learn new strengths and that we should focus on weaknesses, work on minimising them, or if we are lucky, turn them into strengths. That just isn’t true. Core strengths and weaknesses will always be just that.
We might say that our strength might be that we are quick to learn, but it will only be a strength if it is applied to learning things that fit us. If we put our energies into learning skills that we don’t like performing then our strength becomes a weakness. So, let’s define the strength more accurately and in Marcus’ own terms. I feel strong when I apply myself to learning new skills in areas that stimulate and please me. I know in my case, being a quick learner soon became a noose around my neck, and actually made it harder to find my real strengths, those activities that thrilled me, that made time stand still. Now, when I puzzle over new ways of designing a web page, or when I am writing an essay for my film studies, or thinking up the plot of my next book, then being a quick learner is a strength.
So during my talks with the mother and career woman, I said that her greatest gifts lie in those character traits that were defined in the test. The fact that she is searching and feeling weakened is because she may be utilising them wrongly, and so turning her strengths into weaknesses. Is the job she is doing the right one for her? Does the company ethic suit her own high standards? She has a need for excellence and always produces top quality work. She is good at taking on new projects, especially in areas where structure and clarity is needed. When she achieves that, she is happy. However, if others do not share her need for excellence, and she is drawn into dead end discussions, she feels weakened. In summary, she feels strong when she takes on a new project and brings structure and clarity. She feels weak when she is unable to convince others to do it her way. So, instead of thinking she can work on that weakness and be more accepting of less than top quality input from others, which in turn will eat away at her strength – producing excellence, maybe she needs to look for a company that operates to the same standards as she. I feel honoured that I can go through this process with her. I already see how great she is. I will be there to celebrate when she is ready to see it herself.
Other women in my circle of friends struggle with other issues. But the essence is the same for all of us. We have all been forcing ourselves to perform tasks that don’t build on our natural strengths. We think that all we have to do is put our minds to a task or activity and just get on with it.
One woman in my circle, a painter and wonderfully creative woman, spent twelve years as an administrative assistant. She told me time and again that she just didn’t understand why she was so tired all the time. She didn’t understand why her output was so below standard and why she was constantly being put under pressure to work harder, and make better results. The simple truth is that she was spending all day in her weak moments. There were weeks when she honestly couldn’t remember one moment when she felt strong, and energised. There were whole months when she was so drained she didn’t have the energy to paint. Now, she too is unemployed, and all she knows is what she doesn’t ever want to do again. She has spent many hours writing and painting, and rediscovering who she really is. We talk about authenticity; we are ready to talk about our darker sides. Our friendship allows us to be honest with each other. We trust each other.
That is the whole point of Marcus Buckingham’s Strongest Life book. To finally get us to wake up and see that we don’t have to do anything and everything. The successful amongst us, and by successful I also mean, happy and contented, are the women who at some stage listened to what the inner voice was telling them. These women, whether consciously or unconsciously, decided to build on those moments that made them feel good and fulfilled instead of ‘working on’ those areas that left them feeling bad.
I have a friend, someone I have always admired. Her mother and father raised her and her siblings to believe in their talents. All of them were gifted musicians, and no one was telling them that music was not the way to make a living. No one told them to learn a trade, or study engineering just because they were clever enough to do so. No, in their family you could be who you wanted to be, who you were born to be. Their mother in particular encouraged them to follow those strong moments. She knew all too well what could happen if you didn’t listen to your own inner voice. She had been an actor and was passionate about theatre and literature and the stage. But for reasons she never spoke about she abandoned her dreams and spends a lot of her life in clinical depression.
What was first, the chicken or the egg? Who knows? What I do know is that my friend never doubted for a moment that her life belonged to music and music belonged in her life. Money or lack of it never stopped her pursuing excellence in her chosen field, never drove her to a career or a job that would have taken away that passion. Initially her music earned her very little, money wise. But she continued to improve and refine her skills. Today she is a vocal director for musical societies for youth theatre groups. Her choirs have won international and national prizes. She has raised three boys through university. Her passion for music has carried her through many hard and difficult moments over the years. But the thread that has run through everything, for her and her siblings, is the truth and authenticity they have. Both her brothers are well known composers, arrangers and orchestra leaders. Her sister teaches at the Royal Academy. All are highly respected, as musicians and human beings. Money and status were never their motivators.
I count myself blessed that I know her. She is the proof I need that living to your strengths will enrich your life. She found it early, I didn’t. But I know I am not too late. You can never be too late. If I ever start to think I am too old, or that I’ve gone past the sell-by-date, then I remind myself of how it was, how I was, and I know I will never lie to myself again. I ask the question Robin Sharma asks of us “Who will cry when I die?” and I know for sure it won’t be me. I won’t cry for a wasted life or chances not taken.
According to the strong life test, my core characteristics are Creator and Pioneer. I always knew it, deep down. They popped up in so many ways. Over the years I have written several novels, even published one. For the last twenty years I have read a vast amount of literature on self realisation. Everything from The Artist’s Way to Now, Discover your strengths and numerous others in between. I have taken courses in Body Work, Transactional Analysis and others. I have been a member of several writing groups. Yet, when it came to earning a living, I locked all of that away in a box and hid it in some dark place.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More on Characterisation

In the article ‘Arms and Legs’ I talked about the importance of getting to know your characters, and there motivations within the plot of the novel. I mentioned the strength of House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III where the importance of impartiality when telling a story. In alternating he gives us descriptions of the two protagonists, as seen through the eyes of the opposite protagonist. This technique gave him the freedom to bring out negative and positive characteristics of the two main characters without having to take sides himself.
In my article on characterisation I was describing the process of getting inside the characters’ head and minds, and deciding what makes each of them tick. But, there is more to characterisation than that.
What about what a character does? How he does it? What are his interests? How does he dress? Does she wear makeup? Watch soap series?
The questions are endless. As are the answers. And for each question, the answer may be different for each character.
It all comes down to the old adage of ‘show don’t tell’, the application of which may be an important element in bringing a novel to life.
Do we want to have a high power character, successful or at least ambitious in business? How would such a character start his day. Probably by showering under his power shower, shaving with a high tech electric shaver and subsequently splashing a well known after shave on his face. He might have slightly long hair, which he ties into a designer ponytail. If he is balding he might just have a millimetre haircut.
He wears a suit or well tailored jeans, a shirt, not necessarily a tie, has an iphone, or at least a Nokia smartphone, and will drink a ready made high vitamin liquid breakfast.
On the way to work in his car he will most likely have his phone in a carset, and be on handsfree.
Incorporating any or all of these elements to describe the way your up and coming entrepreneur ‘does his thing’ and by including, if possible some suitable dialogue, will do a lot more for your writing than telling the reader that he is an ambitious young business man who hopes to make his first million before reaching the age of 25. Let the reader come to this conclusion by just walking your character through his usual routine.
Want the reader to know he is, or at least for now may appear to be, contented, then have him whistle a tune (for example).
In one of my later novels I wanted the reader to know of the ever growing confusion of my main character, an unhappily married woman, mother of two children. So I had her write lists every day, to remind herself to carry out certain tasks. The lists were stuck to her fridge door with magnets. So, this is a woman who is at home, a lot.
I could give endless examples. Try it out, and see how the writing comes to life.
Dialogue is a second tool that will bring a novel to life. Whether a character is intelligent, well-read, thinks things through, can be illustrated by the way he converses with others.
An untrustworthy character, may behave in one way when alone and in another way when with others.
The possibilities are endless.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Book Thief

This book is so good I don't even know if I can do it justice in a review. It is as good as perfect. The narrative is tight, not a word too much. The plot glides smoothly forward, encorporating a wide range of issues, including first and foremost WWII in Germany, the meaning of parental love, friendship and loyalty, and the impact of sudden, violent death. It talks of sacrifice and risk, and growing up. The narrator is a very down to earth 'Death' without the black cloak, bag of bones image. This is death with compassion and a sense of humour.
It is a 'can't put down' read, of the like I haven't had in years. As all encompassing as War and Peace, but a lot easier to read!

for all of us wannabe published writers, bow in humility to this one.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Strong Life Test for Women

As you all know by now I am a keen follower of Marcus Buckingham. I took his online workshop, and re-discovered my strengths and talents. Since then, before I take on a new project, or dive off the deep end I ask myself if the project can be undertaken using my strengths. If not, if I think it might involve me laying too much emphasis on aspects that drain me, or do not add to my well being, I will not do it. This is a promise I made to myself after enjoying how it feels to live in your strengths. So, the last test I took (I just love online questionnaires) was the Strong Life Test for Women. And lo and behold, I discovered I was Creative and a Pioneer!!!!
Try for yourself and see.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Guest Post from Ginger B Collins

Ginger B. Collins writes short fiction and creative non-fiction. Her work appears online and has been published in Freckles to Wrinkles, Silver Boomers, and the newly released Scratch Anthology of Short Fiction. She recently completed her first novel. Read excerpts at www.gingerbcollins.com.
In her blog, OFF THE TOP OF MY RED HEAD, Ginger applies a past career in sales, marketing, and PR to her new role as author, sharing links and writer resources while exploring subjects like social media, agent search, and writer platforms. All writers are invited to follow the blog and share experiences.

When "Just Enough" Isn't
My 27th birthday was spent under the covers, waiting for the threat of a cake or chorus of "Happy Birthday" to pass. I was the divorced mother of a first grader. Her seldom-seen father sent child support that was regularly irregular, which left me to look after the majority of our financial and emotional needs. So far I had accomplished that task. With tight budgeting, and maximum use of my limited job skills, I had pulled us onto the teetering edge of middle class.
In my West Virginia hometown there was just enough activity, just enough enrichment, and just enough excitement to lull a person into complacency. A candid look exposed the truth beyond the "just enough" of my secretarial desk at the local bank. My present life held a scant handful of options for the future, and none of them were very appealing.
Soon after that birthday, a friend called with free tickets to a motivational seminar. We walked into an auditorium laced with energy and were treated to an inspirational road show of speakers, each with their own prescription and healthy dose of encouragement.
One speaker described career evolution in this way: "In your twenties you are the golden one; in your thirties, you are the rising star; in your forties, you are the seasoned professional. Plan your work and work your plan. Stay focused and by the time you reach fifty, you'll be the resident expert in your field."I could not have been more "born again" at a tent revival. The words were seeds of change and as they took root I became an enthusiastic new believer. I had three years to complete an accelerated course in "golden one" and prepare for the coming out party on my 30th birthday-my transition into a "rising star."
A serious attitude about work and personal responsibility was built into my nature, and the young daughter who was a fact-of-my-life strengthened the desire to succeed. It was my duty to secure our future, and I could no longer just work a job. I needed to focus on a specific career, develop the skills needed to qualify for positions higher up the ladder, and then let my accomplishments showcase my status as a serious contender for bigger things.
I began with a closet upgrade. I visited the same thrift shops that outfitted my daughter for school and found the necessary pieces to create a career wardrobe. By the next season, my mix-and-match working girl separates had evolved into the coordinated outfits of a professional young woman.
I was also developing the inside-sharpening and polishing my presence and work skills. I listened to vocabulary building tapes in the car, paid close attention to current events, and volunteered for assignments that would detach me from the typewriter and expand my knowledge. I also signed up to help at company sponsored events. This allowed contact with both customers and members of management, and helped create a reputation beyond typing and filing. I became recognized as a quick study who could think on her feet in new situations, and above all, had the desire to succeed.
With a willing parent and supportive friends, I developed a network for my daughter to cover long work hours. Between play dates with friends, and sleepovers with her grandmother, I created pockets of time for movies and trips to the roller rink, her two favorite activities. My super-slim social life went on hold, and instead I made evening dates with reports and paperwork after my daughter went to sleep.
In eighteen months, my halfway point, I was reaping the benefits of my hard work. I was asked to fill in for the marketing manager whose untimely exit left things in a lurch. By the time they found the permanent replacement, I had functioned in the job long enough to legitimately use it as the "Current Position" on my first resume.
Turning thirty became a turning point. I came out of the 30th birthday gate at full speed, ready to be a rising star. In the future, I always took stock on the seven's, planning a location move and job upgrade at thirty-seven, and a mid-life career change at forty-seven. At the next "seven" I was headed toward my goal of being a published author. When "seven" rolls around again, I aim to add published novelist to my list of accomplishments.
A lot can happen when you decide "just enough" isn't.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Home Run

It has been a long distance race, this novel of yours. In the early stages you took well defined, planned out steps, steps that would warm up the muscles but that would at the same time conserve energy and prepare you for the long haul.
In the first section of the novel the characters deepened and became autonomous and to some degree less familiar than you had expected. It followed that the plot too would not follow exactly the lines laid out in the synopsis.
And so, taking a deep breath you moved into the middle section of the story, where, though referring to the chapter breakdown, you allow yourself to be drawn along by the characters.
In this section of the book, though never losing control, you must relinquish the notion that you are omniscient, (in the context of this novel) and that not just possible readers, but you too, are on a journey of discovery. Fiction comes to life when the writer succumbs to this fact, and lets his heart speak. This is not to say that the pen (or the word processor) takes over completely; you the writer will use your instincts and your intelligence to guide the novel along, but there must be some degree of surrender to this organic process.
And then two thirds of the way into the novel you pause for reflection. The characters have grown and deepened; the plot has at particular stages meandered, at others charged along exhaustingly. You find yourself with a lot of loose ends to be tied up. If you find yourself at a loss, the original synopsis and chapter breakdown can be an enormous help now. You see, you had already taught yourself how to complete and conclude a novel in this original scheme and even though the plot may have diverged from your basic idea, you still have enough material to adapt or re-write. And even if you need to re-write the chapter breakdown for the last section, you know you can do it, because you did it before!
In my opinion it doesn’t matter what type of novel you have written, whether it be a thriller, a romance, a psychological drama. It doesn’t matter whether the plot, or the characterisation has ultimately taken the upper hand. In every case, a rounding off of all the elements and a satisfactory last paragraph, or sentence, preceding the words ‘The End’ will make or break the novel. Think back to novels you have read, even ones captivatingly written, ones that have drawn you in and kept you reading till dawn. If that last section, or worse still that last paragraph or sentence has disappointed, then it would have coloured your memory of the entire novel. So, reach a satisfactory conclusion, one that leaves no unwanted loose ends. I say, unwanted, because a deliberate loose end, one that forces you to continue thinking about the story after you have closed the book, is not a ‘loose end’ in the sense of a badly finished novel.
And how exactly do you reach that satisfactory conclusion? By the same means you used to get this far in the first place. Trusting the process, writing from the heart, and finally, listening to your body, because a truly complete conclusion will allow you to take a deep breath, smile broadly and let your shoulders sag a little for a job well done.
In a fast paced novel, one of high suspense and a lot of tension, it is generally a good idea to slow things down, give the reader an opportunity to digest all he has consumed. Soothe the reader, and gently ease him into saying goodbye to the story. In a slower novel, one with possibly a lot of intricate side steps and character motivations, the pace may pick up, turning the conclusion into a real home run, a last sprint or spurt of energy, where the elements just clash together. This type of conclusion hits you in the face, so to speak. I liken it to an Agatha Christie, (Murder on the Orient Express springs to mind). There are numerous elements to be worked out, described; several characters to be developed in depth. Much of the novel is used to do this. The pace is slow enough to give the reader ample opportunity to guess and to assume and inevitably to be wrong footed time and again. But when Agatha Christie decides it is time to lift the veil and draw the reader into the home stretch, the pieces fall in rapid succession, causing the reader to turn the pages furiously. And when the answer is revealed and the story concluded, there is the total satisfaction of knowing that this was the perfect solution, and that all the pieces fit perfectly together. It is then ‘obvious’!
14. Home Run
Arundhati Roy, in The God of Small Things also uses a large part of her novel to lay the ground for her characters and her plot. If it hadn’t been for the sheer wonderment of her writing style and use of vocabulary I might not have stuck with this novel at all. But having waded through this first section, I was delighted to have stuck it out, because the second and third sections of this story are riveting. It is then obvious that every description and every event were necessary to the fulfilling of this novel. Not a word too much. But it is certainly a risk and takes a lot of courage on the part of the writer to pace a novel this way because you are in danger of losing the reader. It takes great skill, and a hypnotic use of language to hold a reader in what might otherwise be just a laborious book.
In contrast, I recently read Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. This initially clever book has us intrigued even before we read the first chapter, as Dave Eggers has slyly used the acknowledgements and foreword to illustrate his ability to break the rules and intrigue us. My respect for his daring lasted until about chapter 5, at which point I had the dreaded suspicion that, despite his clever entree, he really had no idea what he wanted to do with this novel. It was rapidly turning into a badly planned, not very profound, chronicle of his life immediately after the death of his parents, and his parenting of his younger brother. The promise he had shown by breaking a few rules initially, fell into superficiality. Dave Eggers was just not ready to dig deep enough to hold my interest. His characterisation (even though he wrote about real people) was marginal and two dimensional, and by the time he actually visits his parents graves and sheds a tear, I find myself saying ‘so what’. I cannot even remember exactly how he concluded this novel, and clearly any conclusion was not enough to save this novel, that was potentially a work of staggering genius, but turned out to be heartbreakingly disappointing.
Tracy Chevalier’s ‘Falling Angels’ on the other hand, is not particularly fast-paced, but it is set in a time of great social change in England, and this Chevalier uses to her full advantage. Her characters are well thought out, and fit perfectly into the situation of two royal deaths and the suffragette movement in England. I think the consistency of these different elements woven into a novel are underestimated. In Falling Angels we take it for granted because it is so well done. But if it were badly done, we would feel it immediately and come away from the novel feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Chevalier does what everyone wants to do: she makes it all seem easy. Her plot flows; the pace accelerating and decelerating exactly when it must. And the characters evolve and deepen without us even really noticing it. The conclusion is gentle, soothing, satisfying and completely in keeping with the calibre of the novel.
Our aim is to write just such a novel. One where the ending is like a deep, languorous breath. Now, as a final thought, and one I will ponder for the next article: how do you say goodbye, emotionally put it to bed, and distance yourself enough to critically examine the manuscript?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Now, Discover your strengths

How many of us, well into our careers, still live with the mistaken idea that the purpose of most of our activities is to work on those weaknesses and somehow turn them into strengths? I would venture to say, the majority of us, certainly those of us who grew up with post war parents who themselves believed that success in working life and achievement can be measured by the extent to which his has been accomplished.
In the meantime, strengths, natural aptitudes, and in most cases the activities that enhance our well being are almost ignored, simply because so much energy goes into working on those weaknesses.
When put this simply, none of us should be surprised at the level of unhappiness sustained by a lot of people in their jobs.
So, in the face of this general discontent, Marcus Buckingham comes along to shake us up and wake us up. With the help of his, dare I say it, easy to understand theory, we can turn our professional and personal lives around.
What you need to do, is rediscover the strengths that are an integral part of your own personality, and by strengths he means, not only the things you excel at but that also give a sense of satisfaction and contentment. Then to increase well being it is essential to take these discoveries seriously and ensure they can be put to use to either help you choose a new career path or to improve your situation in your current job.
Bosses, he says, must be aware of the natural strengths of employees and work on finding ways of utilising these instead of regularly planning training programmes to help them identify weaknesses that subsequently should be worked on to transform them into strengths because that just isn’t about to happen. It takes much more energy and investment to work on weaknesses than it does to enhance strengths.
Simple, yet it took Marcus Buckingham to point it out. A definite eye opener.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Let's get personal


Excavation begins at Forty. It may take a decade before you reap the benefits.

I entered my forties as a single mom of two children in primary school. I entered my forties before Marcus Buckingham had written his life changing books on strengths and weaknesses. I had grown up in a society where, as he so aptly explains, parents are geared to honing in on the lesser grades on a child’s report card, in order to encourage the child to work hard at these to bring them up to scratch. It was a society where strengths were taken for granted, even ignored. Natural talents, because they came naturally, faded to the background while parents and teachers patted themselves on the back every time a child managed, however unhappily or stressfully, to transform a four on a report card into a five.
But not only was this how society was when I was growing up. It was even more so within the family where I grew up. My father believed wholeheartedly in gearing yourself to be good in areas that would insure you had a decent career later. You can be good at almost anything, if you put your mind to it, was his motto, and in my case he was, to some extent, right. I had a natural aptitude for learning in general, and was capable of gaining reasonable grades for most subjects. Not that I was happy all the time. By the time I had reached my final years at secondary school, and having changed had to change my particular combination of subjects several times, as we moved from place to place to accommodate my father’s career (also a normal course of events back then), motivating myself to study at all was an enormous chore. At eleven, when I entered grammar school, I still had subjects like Music and Art and Cooking on my syllabus, as well as English and French and Maths. I played piano, violin and sang in the school choir. At fifteen and three schools later, I was unenthusiastically taking Latin and Gaelic to mention but a couple of subjects that I loathed.
From there to university to study Commerce (business studies). Without going into too much detail, let’s say I scraped together enough points to graduate, but with no idea what I was supposed to do next.
And for the next almost twenty years I see-sawed between working, motherhood and a writing career that though spiritually fulfilling did not exactly put food on the table. Well, it didn’t matter anyway, seeing as I was married to a high achiever, who didn’t seem all too bothered about my seeming lack of success.
But on the eve of my fortieth birthday the excavation was kick-started into gear when my marriage failed and reality hit. Here I was, a highly educated, intelligent woman, who, despite her college degree, had no idea how to merge all her skills and find a job that was worthy of her education but one that would allow her creativity and thirst for knowledge to shine through. And remember, I was brought up to believe that achievement was all down to willpower, not to natural aptitude. My willpower which is both a blessing and a curse, led me to dust the cobwebs off my business degree and get myself back out there seriously, to earn a living. Of course, with that in mind, I didn’t even consider my creative side. Not for a moment did I think I ought to integrate it into my working life. Somehow, what I did at the work place and what I did because I enjoyed it and because it gave me a sense of completeness, were two totally separate issues.
So, out came the business graduate, albeit one with far too little experience for her years. And so began a decade of catching up, and frustration, and at times a sense of despair that I was slowly losing myself. I was good at what I did, of course. But I could be good at so many tasks, and the actual learning curve was exciting, but short lived. I felt a very brief sense of achievement that I had mastered some task or other, but continuing to carry out that task, day after day, week after week, was soul destroying. Several of these peaks and valleys later, it became clear to me that switching companies was not the solution, since it would probably be a case of ‘same old same old’ and so I opted to stay where I was and convince myself that the pay-check and the stability I offered my children was enough.
I read book after book on spirituality and self realisation but somehow did not know how to apply it to myself. I spun round and round in ever decreasing circles, feeling more and more tired at work and becoming increasingly desperate to fulfil myself in the few hours between coming home and going to bed. Writing in such a fatigued state became almost impossible, so I took up painting which at least kept me sane.
Until at forty five the opportunity to start merging my two separate selves started to present itself. Slowly but surely I distanced myself from the financial, analytical side of business and started to use my creative talents too. My natural aptitude for texts and languages was put to use as my employer expanded world wide and needed a more international profile; my eye for design was utilised for a more modern website and both of these were exactly what was needed to become the company DTPer, web localiser and magazine editor.
Yet it would take another couple of years before I took these talents seriously. In fact, when I thought about taking them seriously, the cold hand of fear gripped me, probably because it would entail me going against how I had been raised.
It would take a downsizing of the company and my imminent redundancy for me to take the plunge and start my own business. Not as someone with expertise in finance, but as a creative DTPer and translator. My business skills and intelligence are not wasted, since they will help me structure the business effectively, but they are not the core of what I do. The activities at the centre of my company and the services on offer, are my love of language and the pleasure I get from giving new and existing companies, however small, the support they need in presenting themselves to an international market. I realise that effective communication is my strength and being able to share my own experiences to give someone else a leg up is who I am.
It only took me fifty years to get there. I got there with the help of Marcus Buckingham, Huub van Zwieten, and other motivation gurus. But there had been many other signs and oracles earlier in my excavation process that encompassed the entire decade of my forties; it just took me that long to listen and to shake off the deeply embedded preconceptions that I had internalised as a child and teenager. What was right for my father and his post war generation, is luckily being re-examined and revised for today’s society. We have made a shift in perspective, and we are at a much higher level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It isn’t just about adequate survival in the jungle, it is about self realisation and, dare I say it, spiritual fulfilment too.
I take comfort from the fact that I am obviously not the only one to be confronted in this way. If I were, then there would be no need for these books and revelations. And, to conclude, better late than never.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Journey

By now you’ve moved on from the struggle of those early chapters and bravely allowed yourself to be taken on the writing journey. Your synopsis, and your original novel idea, as well as your carefully constructed chapter summary and breakdown, though still generally relevant, have had to move over and take second place to something else. You, too, have had to realise that if this novel, this piece of fiction is going to have any relevance and significance, that you will have to open your mind and your heart to the voices of the characters that you initially created and named. To build on the metaphores of the earlier articles, the embryo, has grown into a living being, and even before it is born, is beginning to show signs of individuality. Any pregnant woman will tell you how unpredictable the baby she is carrying is. That baby kicks when it chooses, turns when it chooses, causes discomfort when it chooses. More than that, it will not be dictated to, or be forced into doing what it doesn’t want. How many times did I want my baby to kick for the benefit of an enthusiastic observer? How often did I, and my companion, stare in vain at my protruding stomach, waiting for a sign of life? Even prenatal, the baby had a mind of its own.
And so it is with this novel you are writing. Having decided that the characters have minds of their own, and motivations that are deeper than you initially expected, you cannot force them to act or speak in ways that just don’t suit. And the beauty of it all is, that once you truly accept this, and surrender to the characters you named and put onto paper, the deeper joy of writing fiction can really begin.
When I embark upon a new project, I do so because I am drawn by the subject matter and the effect I suppose it has on people or groups of people. But having written several novels, I am now conscious of my own need to learn, and to better understand the mechanisms of behaviour and society.
In the first section of the novel, we built the foundations; we used our structure to get our story off the ground. This, the journey, is the middle section of the novel; this is the place where the novel is a journey of discovery, not only for the reader, but for the writer too. This is where the plot unfolds, the characters, deepen, and where we, as writers are lifted into a higher level of consciousness, that at times is exciting, and at times, frightening. This is the place where writers talk about ‘the guidance of the muse’. This is about surrendering the ego, being humble enough to know you don’t know everything. This is about trusting the process.
At this point in the novel it might be a good idea to write in a stream of consciousness fashion. Allow yourself an overdose of free association, and ask yourself ‘what if’ and see what answers come to mind. Some writers will filter the answers, analyse them, and already have edited them before putting them into the story. You don’t have to do this. At this stage, and especially as a novice novelist, be as wordy as you like. Write it all, every syllable. You can always edit later.
Fay Weldon, of ‘She Devil’ fame, is a great believer in this type of writing. She says, (I paraphrase) that the first draft of her novel is full of ideas – right brain work. She only allows the left brain to take over after she has reached the end. To allow yourself to edit and censor as you go along, is to deny yourself a large part of your creativity. You can always trim a story, tighten it up, but when you’ve reached the end of a novel, it is much harder to pad it out, and deepen it in retrospect.
Perhaps when you’ve written more, you can become more discerning, but do not filter out or scrap ideas because you see them as having no value, or being silly. You know the kind of ideas I mean. They spring to mind, only to be followed by a ‘don’t be daft’ whisper from one of those internal voices.
When I wrote The Cloths of Heaven, I had my doubts about my priest, and his motivations, and several times I thought of NOT writing him the way I did. No one would believe it, I thought. What a scandal, to say such things about a priest. And so on, and so on. But I had to move beyond this, I had to continue trusting ‘the muse’. Now, after publication of my novel, with my less than palatable priest, a scandal has broken in Ireland - about priests and their unholy fondness for children. I know now, that ‘my muse’ knew what it was doing, and I am glad I listened, and somehow had the courage to write the priest in an unpleasant situation.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

This one from Joel Huan, food for thought

When I was younger, I listened to my head. For one who was about to enter university, the best courses are those that give me great job prospect, so said all my classmates. So I took commerce, with major in accounting, business administration, law. But when I graduated and worked as an accountant, an ACA, I found it boring, a distaste. In my spare time, I began writing a novel, a pretty experimental project for myself, simply because I have no formal training in writing or literature. Somehow at work, my heart took over, beating with my subconscious emotions, and soon I found myself started more writing, moonlighting. My accounting profession suffered (never proceed to CA), as I didn't go for my regular ongoing courses that is required by members of that profession. I enjoyed my research and writing. Novel writing doesn't pay, but my heart was pumping, loudly, clearly. Few years later, and in trying to get an established publisher, I got rejected by all agents. Looking back, it was good, because it enabled me to keep polishing my plot, characterization. I belonged to two large critique groups (plus a few smaller ones). And I kept ploughing away. While members of my accounting profession would be doing more socials and networking to further their careers, I was alone working on my writing. Now my novel is published. It took me ten years for this novel to be born, and I thoroughly enjoy this process. Although Barnes&Noble and Amazon are selling at their sites, I'm also offering it free online, suppressing the logic of my head lol.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Turning Point

The ‘writing’ habit has formed. We still the unwanted voices in our head with journalising; we have our synopsis, character sketches, chapter breakdown; we plan our writing day into our diary, just like any other appointments. On a therapeutic level, we are recognising our own driving emotions, and those that get in our way, and we are dealing with them. As writers our empathic capabilities are growing, and our characters are deepening, their motivations becoming more complex, and yet paradoxically more logical.
Before long we will have reached the middle of the novel, and BLANK, it all dries up. The next chapter just doesn’t make sense any more. It is at this point, (for me at around chapter 3 or 4) that many writers will, after struggling and failing to write that next chapter, just toss the unfinished manuscript aside. Others will by some feat of willpower, manage to write the next chapter, as laid out in their chapter breakdown, and continue writing this novel, but with an ever diminishing sense of achievement, only to finish the novel, knowing that it is only mediocre. It has turned out to be a much blander story than that original, brilliant vision. The characters, initially so full of potential have faded into two dimensional banality, carrying out their assigned tasks with little vitality or originality.
What has happened? Quite simply, at a point in the novel where the characters are on the verge of truly coming to life, the writer has imposed his will upon these unfolding individuals, and denied them their authenticity. The writer, afraid himself of taking the plunge, chooses to box his characters in and try to tame them. These futile attempts will either kill the story, or make it at the very least superficial. The characters will lose their credibility. Because we as writers hold on to the belief that we are in charge and that the characters, invented by us, brought to life by us, can do only that which we tell them to do, we rob ourselves of the greatest gift of all. We rob ourselves of an opportunity to truly create.
Despite journalising and owning our emotions we can still sabotage our writing. By not wholly believing in the organic growth process that our writing can go through we will never move on from the mediocre to the original and maybe even genial.
A truly wonderful writer, one that inspires and touches his reader, must first trust the power of creation. He must, figuratively, hold the pen in his hand and let the muse take over.
So there you are, at chapter three, your literary crossroads. Whether you are truly conscious of it or not, three choices await you. Do you give in to the despair and the frustration and just quit? Do you, ignoring all the previous steps, force your will upon the story and the characters, and mechanically ‘get this story over and done with’? Or do you take a huge leap of faith, and accept the greatest gift that writing can offer you and allow your characters to come to life?
When I was finally able to go for the last of these, it was as if all the lights went on. Being able to let go of my original notions of who my characters were, and how they would react in any given situation, was exhilarating. What had until then been an unnameable driver in my writing, now became clear. I too wanted and needed to learn more about human nature. I too wanted and needed to understand behaviour. My initial driver – my need to tell others what I had already discovered – was now strengthened by my desire to take the journey with my reader.
But as I discussed in detail in my other articles, I am not going to be able to ‘let go’ and enjoy the characters I have created unless I have owned the wide spectrum of emotions that make up my own personality, unless I am comfortable with these emotions. My fear will prevent me.
You might think that this is all far removed from what we think are the difficulties and challenges we will encounter when we choose to write, but I truly believe that great writing comes, not from knowing the grammatical constructions, and having the vocabulary to tell a story. For me, great writing comes from the heart, the soul even.
Fiction cannot exist without ‘characterisation’. Not true you might think, but have you ever read a book where there is no characterisation? Great writing dares to take the plunge into the depths of human nature. Or as in Watership Down or Animal Farm, into the depths of animal nature. And I am sure there are stories with inanimate objects as focal point. But they are still driven by characterisation. We either use people in our stories, or we assign human characteristics to whatever we choose as focal point in our fiction.
The only course of action, when you reach this ‘turning point’ in your story, is to be patient and courageous. Continue to dig deep into your own emotional makeup using the tools we mentioned in earlier articles. Now it is more important to wait for the truth of the character to emerge, rather than forcing it to fit into a preconceived mould.
It is not the plot that is in danger at this stage. It is not even the closing sentence or the concluding scene. It is how you get there. And the first hurdle (or opportunity for new vision) to getting there is whether or not you allow your characters to truly come to life.
Don’t now jump in and try to rewrite all the subsequent chapters in the light of your new discoveries. Choose now to ‘go with the flow’ for a couple of chapters. Use them as a ‘loose’ guideline, but enjoy the journey. Enjoy the discovery.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Just take the time to listen

Now and then you have to stop and listen to what the universe is trying to tell you. I was having quite a difficult time staying focussed, my writing suffered, and as a result my wellbeing. I was getting all sorts of signals from the universe, as one does, you know those little whispers that tell you to slow down, or change course, or come to a decision about something or other. I was choosing to ignore all these little whispers and as a result the universe started shouting at me, really loud, so I had to take note. I don't think I need to dwell on all the various ways I was shouted at, suffice it to say, the little book reviews below are the result of that shouting. Here goes:

So, okay uinverse, you don´t have to shout any more. I am listening. I will get on with getting over the break up and I will get back to writing and reconnecting with the world at large as my true self.
I bought two books - and don't laugh. Is he Mr Right? - Mira Kirshenbaum, and It's called a break up because it's broken - Greg Berhrendt.
And know what, they were both great. They were practical, honest, and oh so true. What it comes down to, in both books, is always self worth. Why do we fool ourselves into staying with anything, be it a relationship or a job or whatever, long after they don't fit us or fulfill us any more? We stay because we lack the confidence to do something different. Relationships that have become dead horses are flogged endlessly. But you know what? Dead is dead, and I haven't met a horse with a Lazarus complex yet. Most are just processed into dog food!
Mira Kirshenbaum talks about chemistry and how that is more important than finding someone who is compatible. Compatible does not equal good match. Chemistry equals good match. Chemistry will see you through hard times because chemistry creates the emotional bond that is the foundation in a lasting relationship. Then it doesn't matter so much if you both like the same movies or read the same books. BUT, Kirshenbaum warns, if you meet your partner when your life is being tested, say you have suffered a loss of some sort, or are still recovering from your previous separation, then the relief you feel, or the exhileration during the 'in love' stage may create what she calls counterfeit chemistry. In order to judge whether the chemistry is real or counterfeit, you need to give the relationship time to unfold. Do not move in with a new partner until the dust has settled. Wait until life returns to normal, and then see if you still feel the chemistry. Should the chemistry prove itself to be counterfeit, then you need to get out. And here is where the mistakes are made. Often, due to lack of confidence in ourselves or in the universe to provide, we will stay in the relationship long after the fire has dwindled, preventing ourselves from getting out there to find a more suitable partner, and a richer life.
In Greg Behrendt's book, which was so familiar it brought an embarassing colour to my cheeks, he emphasises the need to face reality and have the confidence to realise that just because a guy dumps you, does not mean there is anything wrong with you. The relationship is broken, but the people who were in it, aren't. Both are worthy people who have become stuck in a dead connection. He warns against rewriting the relationship after the breakup to only include the best of times. It's broken, and it's only the heartache that wants an excuse not to go through the process of separation. Only the heartache that would rather go back to a dissatisfying relationship instead of accepting the separation and healing itself. Like Krishenbaum, Behrendt says that it is the lack of self confidence that draws us back into the relationship. Fear of the unknown. Fear of ending up on the shelf. Behrendt says that most of us neglect our most important relationship, the one with ourselves. Self love is the best basis for a sound relationship with someone else. Learn your likes and dislikes, because then you know what a relationship needs to provide. And if you find yourself in a situation where these needs are not being met, you will at least have someone to fall back on - yourself. You will be less inclined to endure a situation that is not contributing to your happiness.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Doing the Work

By doing the work, I mean now physically getting on with putting the words onto paper, or into a document on your word processor.
We have discussed motivation, emotion (our own and the characters), we have recognised the voices in our head, criticising us, and hindering our progress. We have also looked at plot, chapter breakdown, opening sentences, characterization and a host of other aspects of the writing process.
Before I delve deeper into the less concrete aspects of writing, I feel the time is ripe to 'get mechanical'. And by that I mean, simply, the actual process of writing itself.
Take yourself seriously. Without this key commitment, very little in the way of novel progression is likely to happen. Having cleared the way emotionally, and having recognized your own talent, and inspiration, your next commitment is to your writing time.
Whether you feel connected to your higher inspiration or not, whether you feel you could look Dickens in the eye or not, whether you can envision yourself writing the magic words 'The End' or not, you will still have to WRITE.
Make a simple promise to yourself to sit at your desk, switch on the computer, or pick up a pen, and write. Word follows word, sentence follows sentence, and paragraph follows paragraph. And that's the truth. There is no other way.
It is not enough to live in the future and keep telling yourself and those around you that you have a brilliant idea, and that one day, when you have the time, you might write that novel. Today is yesterday's future, and tomorrow's past. So today is the day. Finding the time is your gift to yourself. Finding the time is proving to yourself that you know how to prioritize and categorize and choose. Today you will, instead of switching on your TV, write.
Write even when you don't feel inspired and take refuge in all the tricks and tools we have discussed in earlier articles.
At this stage of your process, the quality takes a back seat to consistency. And by consistency I mean, becoming the kind of writer you can rely on - one that writes!
Learning to be a writer is no different from learning to play the piano. It is no different from deciding to sport on a regular basis. It all takes practice and it takes the commitment to building new habits. Healthy habits.
You will find that as the days go by, and you become accustomed to you, the writer, that your skills will improve. You will find the sentences flowing more easily, paragraphs becoming more complete, and you will discover a hidden vocabulary, that has lived inside your head, waiting for you to tap into it.
But more than this, writing will become an integral part of your life, a solid part of your day.
You will become comfortable with you, the writer.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

More emotion

In the last article I brought up the subject of emotions, which led to a discussion on 'love', which I had not specifically mentioned in my list of basic emotions. That is because I see love as a verb rather than an emotion. 'Love' is something we do, and it is the result of needing to fulfill an emotion. It can be driven by fear, need for sex, joy, or a combination of any of the five emotions. I think when writing, this is a very important distinction to make. Also, love in any of its forms, will appear in a piece of writing - always if we consider that this is usually the underlying motivation of the characters. They will either be driven by their need to gain love and approval, or they will be motivated by the need to pamper themselves (self love).
The opposite of love, would be hate, you imagine. Well, consider this. The opposite of love, or absense of love is fear.
Those who seek love in order to banish fear, are responding to their need to eradicate the fear rather than their desire to give love (love as a verb or an action). The love so gained is transitory, and weak and not everlasting and pure.
And, in my own humble opinion, these themes can be traced to the fundament of any story. These are the most basic motivators. Here we find the internal conflicts within each individual. Here we find the reasons why characters act in a particular way. More importantly, here we find the way of emphathising with our characters.
Even if we choose to write about an axe murderer or a child abuser, or allow one to appear in our story, if we can find his fear, his absence of love, then we can stir up some compassion and give ourselves permission to write him or her without being blocked by prejudice or hate.
In The Cloths of Heaven, I have included characters whose behaviour is socially unacceptable, immoral, but I have moved beyond my own personal opinion of their behaviour and dug into their 'souls' and found their motivator. Then, though I do not condone their actions, I can continue to 'write' them and experience them as whole human beings, caught up in their own inner conflict.
I recognise their search for love. I recognise their need to diminish fear.
A wonderful example of this ability to empathise with a distasteful character can be found in Nabokov's 'Lolita'. Here, Nabokov creeps into the skin of a pedofile and manages to humanise him. Somehow, Nabokov has moved beyond the act of abuse and the abuser, and written, with wonderful skill I might add, this man's story of survival and need and loneliness. At times Humbert, the main character, can be pitied. It is not the abuse that is emphasised, but the loneliness and fear and insecurity that have caused it. I have emphasised here the need to move beyond personal prejudice or pre-conceived notions when dealing with fictional characters. I have deliberately used distasteful examples because I do believe that only when we can connect with the negative as well as the positive can we truly write brilliant fiction. When we ourselves allow fear to censor us (remember those voices in our own heads) then what we write will be weak, two dimensional, and unappealing to a reader.

Friday, May 29, 2009


This article will be more difficult for me to write than were the other articles. This article will consider the aspect that I myself have had the most difficulty in understanding. The mechanisms I will try to describe here are ones that require strength of spirit to come to terms with. Dealing with these mechanisms and digging even deeper in the search for your best creative self demands that you take on board all aspects of your emotional self. Also, when you have read this article and absorbed what I have attempted to say, then please do add your own opinions on this process. If I have left out anything significant or if I have said something that you do not agree with, then please say so. In this area, I don’t think we are ever done learning and improving and growing as creative beings.
Writing is a sensual activity. It engages the higher senses - the five basic emotions: joy, sorrow, anger, fear, and sexual feeling. In order to write the best we can, we must face ALL of these emotions. In our society, mistakenly, we have labelled some emotions ‘good’ and others ‘bad’. We are prepared to admit to the ‘good’ emotions but spend a lot of time and energy denying the 'bad’, resulting in poor writing, non-authentic writing, or worse still, in writer’s block.
The usually accepted ‘good’ emotions are joy, sexual feelings (sometimes) and sorrow (though this must be borne stoically). The bad feelings are anger, fear, and again sexual feelings (when judged to be inappropriate). But unless we own all of these we can hardly be expected to create three dimensional, believable characters or to empathise. We cannot put them into conflict situations that test their strengths and their weaknesses.
But more importantly, if we are in the business of denial, it will seep into our work, and have the same paralysing effect as those other, internalised voices that live in our head. Paradoxically, if we were not ‘emotional’ ‘sensual’ people, we would probably not even have the urge to write fiction. We would not be curious enough, or restless enough, or passionate enough. Living in denial would wear us out.
Consider this: it is the spirit fighting to break through the conscious denial that drives us to become writers. It is the need to peel away layer after protective layer of non-authentic behaviour and the hunger for the truth that motivates us to put pen to paper. It is the unwillingness to accept that ‘this is all there is’ that awakens our curiosity and passion.
Yet, if we are unaware of this process and imagine ourselves to be able to write meaningful fiction while living superficially, the anger, fear, and all the other ‘bad’ feelings will creep into the writing, making it heavy and laborious. And as long as we are unable to own those feelings, as long as we fail to recognise them as part of ourselves, then we cannot contain them. We will not be able to take a step back from them, dilute them if necessary, and reproduce them in an appropriate manner; one that enhances instead of diminishes the quality of the writing.
A friend of mine once said to me, after reading The Cloths of Heaven, that I failed to have Sheila say a ‘proper’ goodbye on any of the occasions when she had to leave her family, and that I had the tendency to have people die a lot. She also said that by not having proper ‘goodbyes’ – even those who died did so alone – I missed out on an opportunity to empathise with the sad and lonely. Yet because I was not empathising with the bereaved, I, almost obsessively, repeatedly gave myself an opportunity to do so. She also pointed out that I, in my own life, had been forced to say ‘goodbye’ more often than I would have liked. In her opinion, I tended to be hard on myself in those situations, and not allow myself to experience real grief and loneliness. Obviously I needed to recognise this aspect of my own life so that I could learn to say goodbye appropriately, and my spirit, through my writing, was telling me so. But, as I had not yet owned it, I was not able to deal with it adequately in my writing. She said it stuck out like a sore thumb because it lacked authenticity. It was hard to take this on board, but I did. Then I was able to return to The Cloths of Heaven, and recognise how hard it must have been for Sheila to constantly have to say ‘goodbye’ and how distraught she would have been when those she loved died. I was then able to write about these feelings in a way that engaged the reader and kept them bound to the story.
In my case I had trouble with grief, and my writing gave me the opportunity to come to terms with it.
More commonly, anger is seen as the least attractive emotion to own. I think that anger, when not owned and out of control, creates the type of fiction that slaps you in the face. When anger is owned it can be the driver for courage, and acts of bravery and valour. When denied and overly controlled it creates depressive, lethargic fiction.
But in order for anger to be used effectively in fiction it has to be an emotion that you are familiar with not one that engulfs you, and enslaves you. Anger needs to be worked out, outside of your fiction, so that when you need it in your stories, you are in charge of it, and not the other way around.
Anger can be worked out in journals, in letters written (not necessarily dispatched), and more physically through sport. You can also retreat to a private place and pummel a pillow, or bury your head in it and just yell! Just feel it! Go through it, overcome your trepidation and be angry. Experience its rise and its subsequent fall and in the process master it.
The last emotion we need to face is fear. The previous article about the voices in our head that need to be stilled is where our fear comes from. Fear comes in many forms, and all of them stem from what others have told us about the world, and about ourselves. We fear rejection, criticism, and ridicule. All of these things come from others. If we learn to accept ourselves (sometimes called self-love) then we have nothing to fear. Only when we do not accept ourselves and are dependent on the approval of others, is there room for fear to creep in.
As a supplement to this article I would recommend you read Debbie Ford – The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. This non fiction work talks about denied emotions, not-owned emotions and the various mechanisms the human psyche has created in order to bring these to the surface.

Monday, April 27, 2009

6. Mental Aerobics

Sportsmen and women will all tell you that when they are exercising, there comes a moment when a new level of consciousness kicks in. A moment when that voice inside their head stops telling them to give up, that they cannot go on a moment longer, or worse still, that they never should have started in the first place. When that moment comes the body and mind unite and they develop a rhythm, not too fast, not too slow. Their breathing settles, and there is no doubt in their mind that they will reach that finish line, or see the clock hit the top of the hour, or that they will keep pumping till the music stops.
With writing it’s the same process. As was mentioned in previous articles, the hardest part about writing is learning to override those voices in you head that tell you to stop. The voices of ridicule that make you feel like an impostor. The voices of criticism that belittle your efforts, laugh at your plots and characters, and in short suggest, not too gently that you ‘get real’ and leave the writing to those with talent.
What’s needed here is mental aerobics. And that’s where a journal comes in handy. Keeping a journal will help you still those voices. It will bring you to that moment of unity, when hand and mind and inspiration harmonise.
The moment before harmony is attained, you will, just like an athlete, have a moment of excruciating anguish, and that is the moment of truth. By journalising, you bring to the surface your insecurities, mistaken beliefs and prejudices about yourself, that you internalised and that have become your (de)motivators. Write them down; read them over and over again until they lose their power over you. Then write some new ones, ones that are in tune with your desire to write. These are all you need, for it is my belief that if you have a desire to write, then you will also find the talent to do it. Take your desire seriously – it is there for a reason. And remember, if you listen to the (de) motivators, then you will become one of those people who say ‘if only’ in the future and hang your head in disappointment. If you get beyond the voice of the (de) motivator and write that novel, or short story, or poem, then you will carry a sense of achievement with you for the rest of your life. You will be that marathon runner whose feet have crossed the finish line.
The only regrets in this life are for things NOT done.
Feel free to compare yourself to famous people, those you see fulfilling their dreams and daring to stand in the limelight. Catch a serious dose of hero worship and wallow in it. Take your favourite person (who doesn’t have to be a writer) and decide just what characteristics in them it is you admire so much. Then realise that you have those characteristics too. What you see in the other person, is often a reflection of what you have but have not yet owned or internalised. Remember that you have been filled with all those other ‘unproductive’ ideas and there has been no room for self-admiration. So, with the journal you have cleared the decks, so to speak. You have literally had a spring clean, and now you can start building some new ideas.
My favourite people are usually pop stars, and I have been laughed at or ridiculed for having the audacity or the stupidity to mention my own name in the same sentence as theirs (more of the voices that will paralyse when left to fester). My heroes were Sting, James Hetfield (of Metallica fame) and Freddie Mercury. And when I investigated my admiration, the common denominator was their courage. All three were prepared to break the mould in their chosen field and in their upbringing. Sting, initially associated with the Punk movement, dared to be intelligent. James Hetfield, a thrash metal guitarist and singer, displayed a tender, emotional side to his character, and wrote ‘meaningful’ lyrics. Freddie Mercury, of Persian descent, and brought up in a strict, religious environment, had the courage to be flamboyant, gay and utterly ‘over the top’. I wanted some of their audacity, their tenacity, and their courage.
But more than this, by identifying with these heroes, and by humanising them, my own ambitions to become a novelist did not seem so ridiculous any more. We are all born naked, and have to learn to make our way in the world. ALL of us, without exception eat and sleep and laugh and cry. So, my becoming a novelist is no more ridiculous than Sting becoming a performer. All I need is the same determination. All I must do is switch off those voices in my head.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Digging Deep

It’s all too easy to want to hasten the process and just get on with the actual novel, and I am sure there are plenty of novelists who are capable of doing so, but I would strongly recommend that a novice novelist take the time to do a chapter breakdown. The chapter breakdown will serve more than one purpose. Not only will it give more clarity to your initial inspiration, but it will also be a valuable aid in letting your characters evolve. And even more importantly, by going through the mechanics of a chapter breakdown, you will be able to see if there’s enough ‘meat on the bones’ of your plot. If at this stage the plot cannot be padded out into about fifteen chapters, then there’s not enough story to grow into a novel.
Given that you do have a fifteen-chapter story, then the breakdown will be an invaluable aid in your writing of the novel-in-progress. On those dull days when you feel overwhelmed by this project the chapter breakdown will do just that – break it down into manageable parts. It will also be your guide, and keep your mind clear and your thoughts directed. It will serve as a map and hold your focus. If you have chosen a less traditional novel form, one without the constraints of chronology, geography or historical context, then using the chapter breakdown will be your structure. I don’t know whether Michael Ondaatje used a chapter breakdown when writing "The English Patient," but I do know that were I to write such a complex novel, then I would definitely take the time to map out the story in this form.
There are novelists who shy away from a chapter breakdown, believing it will take the spontaneity out of their writing, and prevent the plot from developing and the characters to unfold naturally. And certainly I would agree with this opinion, if you choose to stick to the initial chapter breakdown as though it was written in blood. But if you give yourself the freedom to change and adapt, or swap chapters around, or re-write a whole section, then no, this need not be the case. Then the advantages then outweigh the disadvantages.
And now, with the chapter breakdown completed the first hurdle to your novel presents itself in the form of the OPENING SENTENCE. I have a rather simplistic solution to this – just write whatever comes into your head in order to get the story going. You can always change it at a later stage, even when the first draft is completed. At that stage the story will have grown into its own style and tone and chances are that even if you’d struggled for weeks on that elusive first sentence, you’d want to change it now, anyway! So spare yourself the headache.
I mentioned the word momentum earlier in the article. Now that you’ve written that first word, put that first, virgin idea onto paper (or your word processor), make an appointment with yourself in the same way you would with a colleague, friend or family member, that you will sit in your writing chair at a certain time every day or week. Inspired or not, you will write something. By making this appointment you are creating momentum.
Eventually writing will become as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth. The novel will inhabit your thoughts. The plot will unfold; the characters will talk to you. The novel will live, become real, tangible almost. And who cares if you fail to get it word perfect first time. Just go with the flow. Enjoy the ride. Remember that this is a first draft, and it can always be adapted and improved. A blank page is just a blank page!
When you reach a point where you miss the writing if you break that appointment, when you feel restless when not writing, when you don’t break that appointment because ‘something else’ comes up, you know you are a true writer. You know you have committed to this project.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Article 4. Beating Heart

The plot is the beating heart of a novel. And despite character outlines and being aware of the conflicts and motivations of those characters, it can be as complicated and as delicate as open heart surgery to get the heart beating. One beat is not enough. The heart has to find its rhythm, and its continuity. The plot must be steady, reliable, strong enough to guide you through the writing process until it is completed.
I think the element that comes to mind here is courage. Courage to follow the voices in your head that tell you what your characters need or want to do in order to resolve or work out the elements of conflict that drive the novel forward. Courage, too, to say whatever needs to be said. Is this confusing? If someone had said this to me before I had written a novel myself I might not have understood it. But, believe me, to write the novel you will need courage.
The moment you start to write the plot, many conflicting voices will start to sound in your head. There’s the voice telling you that your idea is unrealistic. There’s another telling you it’s silly, superficial, unnecessary, boring. There’s yet another telling you that you’re not the one to write this novel. And another one, maybe the most powerful, telling you to quit having delusions of grandeur and to go back to your mundane existence. These are the voices of your fear and your resistance. These are the voices that will prevent many from ever putting pen to paper. These are the voices of your imagined, external world, a critical, unfriendly world.
These are not reality. They are just your imagination. And, in order to overcome them, you must make the decision that you are writing this book for yourself, in the first instance, and for a wider public, maybe. This book is for you; this is your growth, your development. This book is your way of making sense of the experiences you have and the events you have seen, and the people who have crossed your path.
So, if fear and embarrassment and a feeling of inadequacy prevent your literary heart from beating, then a certain selfishness, and a need to make sense of your world, and moreover an acceptance that you are writing initially for yourself, should be the jolt it needs to start it up.
You will be surprised, but even at the plotting stage you will feel the momentum gather, and the story take shape, once you have overcome this initial, paralysing fear. You know your characters, and what you want them to overcome and achieve. You also know, have decided where these conflicts take place, in terms of geography, history, and society. And once you blend these elements into a story, secondary characters, events, new conflicts needing to be resolved, will present themselves.
At this stage the plot can be written into a synopsis. How long a synopsis is, is purely personal. I prefer to keep a synopsis short, letting the secondary characters present themselves. I then return to my character sketches and write a rough outline of those characters to add to my initial sketches.
In the case of The Cloths of Heaven, when I had written about one A4 for the plot, I had added mothers, fathers, friends, etc to my three main characters. What also came to light at this point was my need to literally draw a map of a fictitious street in Limerick City, which was to be the common setting for the entire book. This street was the base for everything that happened in the book. The characters might move on, but the link, the core, would be this one street. I called it James’ Street, and set about drawing the map. I needed it to incorporate a Church, a shop, a pub, and schools. I also wanted it to be close the banks of the River Shannon, and yet not too far away from the city centre. And more importantly, it had to cease to exist once my story was completed. So it had to be an area that would be included in any inner city development plans which were taking place in Limerick at that time. I wanted these people to come together, create something together, deal with issues together, and once they had moved on, I wanted even the evidence that they had ever been together, to be no more than a story. I wanted the entire novel to have a mythological quality, to emphasise the very Irishness of it.
I drew the map, placed Michael at the Church, Sheila in one of the terraced houses with her mother and father, and decided that Maud would live in a caravan with her mother, who, with her gypsy-like wildness, might just become a more important character than even I had planned. Maud’s mother, Kitty, might just be the electricity that would keep this novel alive.
Being methodical and needing clarity, the next stage for me has to be the chapter breakdown. Not all writers need this much preparation – D.H. Lawrence preferred to let the book take him on a journey of discovery so he did very little preparation. John Irving and Minette Walters do a lot of research and planning. I fall somewhere in the middle. But I need a chapter breakdown if only to see if there’s enough muscle to the plot

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Article 3. arms and legs

The process has just begun. Having gathered together the pieces that will form the backbone to the story, several things have to happen before these ideas can grow into a novel.
I have my main characters and I have established their motivations. I know the time and place in history in which I want the story to take place, and I am aware that I need conflict to drive my characters. But that is not a novel.
I will, at this stage, write a very brief outline. I wouldn’t even call it a synopsis, but rather a gathering of the elements I have established. It can be no more than a couple of sentences, something to kick start me into ‘living the novel’, of getting that mental film up and running.
At this point, almost at the very beginning of a novel, it is imperative to have patience. Let your mind dwell on the elements you have, without forcing their growth. It is not necessary at this stage to write CHAPTER 1 and to dive in. What is necessary is to think about the characters, know how old they are, what colour hair they have. Are they tall, short? Can you base them on anyone you know? And also, and this is more important than you might initially think – what are their names?
I like to write a character sketch for my main characters, at least an A4 per character. Knowing the character, finding his foibles and passions, will help fatten out the plot too. Also, and this is a pivotal point for me, each of the characters has to illustrate some particular trait, and that trait must be emphasised. Although in real life, a person may display many facets, if we were to have fictional characters incorporating too many traits, it will make the story confusing, and believe it or not, unbelievable. Readers need, to a certain extent, to rely on a character behaving consistently. More so than we see in real life.
I will state though it might sound cliché, that it is imperative to relate to the main characters. I might want to step into the shoes of the one I have chosen to be the narrator, and this is all too easy to do, but if the novel is to be credible, then I must feel the same rapport with the others. In the case of The Cloths of Heaven, I had to feel Maud and Michael (the priest) just as strongly as I felt Sheila (my narrator with CP). And this is where the advantage of limiting the character traits per character comes in. I could find aspects of my own character, and times in life when I had been in conflict either with myself, or my environment, remember how it felt to be in that place in time. I can remember sadness, I can remember anger, and I can remember frustration. I can also remember sheer joy, contentment, feeling a sense of achievement. And they all feel different. So even if one of my characters is less likeable than the others, or is farther removed from my own set of values, I can plug into the sensation by using my own life experiences. And for me, being able to plug in to ALL characters is a must. At no stage in a novel do I want the reader to detect that I might be TAKING SIDES in any issue that might arise. I am a chronicler; it is not my intention to become a didactic.
I recently read House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. A magnificent novel displaying great literary skill. But more than that, it is a perfect example of the point I am making above. Andre Dubus III makes it even more complicated by using not one, but two narrators, alternating chapter by chapter from an unstable female to a dogmatic, disagreeable Iranian husband and father. Dubus speaks through both characters with equal conviction. But what he also does, and this to me shows his craft, he illustrates each one’s flaws and weaknesses and less palatable traits, by what each says himself! This gives the reader complete freedom to form his own opinion about each character. Not once in the entire novel do we hear a whisper of Dubus himself. Never do we feel nudged in a particular direction. We never find out what Dubus himself thought of the actions of his characters. And that, to my mind, is a feat of genius, and characterisation.
In The Cloths of Heaven, I had only one narrator and two other main characters but the impartiality (or complete partiality) that Dubus illustrates was no less important. I had to like all the characters. I to find an empathy that would endure, whatever the plot had them do. That is why I choose to establish the characters, and acquaint myself with them BEFORE I know exactly where the plot is going.
It is possible however, to have a character with a particular trait grow and develop and become more than we would have initially expected. (And this is where plotting comes in). Through the conflicts he endures he might be changed, either for the better or the worse, but he cannot JUST change in order to fit the plot – then the plot has not been properly thought out. A good example of this type of development is Scrooge, from Dickens’ Christmas Carol. He is enticed into becoming more giving and generous by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, that he has seen. His changes, though a surprise to the other characters in the book, are not unexpected to the readers.
And if the characters are the arms and legs, then the plot is the beating heart of a novel.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Article 2. Embryo to Foetus

So there it was. My ideas were as good as anyone else’s, and it was OK for my inspiration to shoot out of everyday, dare I say, mundane events. And once that notion took root, it was as though the universe decided to work with me. Events came together; information reached me through gossip, television, chats over dinner, and an anthology of poetry.
I should count myself blessed to be Irish, even though I haven’t lived there for over sixteen years. Ireland is the land of storytellers. There is an atmosphere in Ireland that is found nowhere else I’ve been. The air trills with a suppressed passion. And because of the restraints of the church there is always the hint that one day people will stand up and scream that they are going to break free, and hang the consequences. I feel it immediately I step off the plane, and time and again I feel driven to write about it.
After a four-year absence, I decided to go home to Ireland and spend some time with my family, especially my brother, who has CP. Since his birth I have felt a special bond with him; at times I think I can feel what he feels. And on this occasion, I felt his frustration and his longing to be heard, to be understood and moreover, to be taken seriously. That was my motivation – to give him a voice. And I wanted that voice to be heard, and to capture the hearts’ of eventual readers, and the only way to do that was to wrap his existence into a page turning piece of fiction. That was the driving force behind this novel.
But knowing that I wanted to give my brother a voice, and knowing that the best way to do that was through fiction, was not a plot, was not a story. But it was a great motivator. It was the reason my mind ‘tuned in’ to my surroundings. All I had to do have faith and trust that the snippets of information I picked up would, if given the chance, fit together like a jig zaw puzzle. As it happens I didn’t have to wait long for the first thread of a plot to present itself.
We were sitting around the dinner table one evening chatting, and the topic that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue was the recent scandal involving the Catholic Church, in particular the less than honourable behaviour displayed by some priests. I was all ears. The butterflies in my stomach told me that this would be an important element in my plot development.
But there needed to be more. I needed a protagonist, someone to link the disabled and the able worlds. I wanted a totally contrasting figure to the narrator, someone to link all the characters, someone large and exciting enough to carry the desires and dreams of the disabled narrator. And at that moment, I was given a copy of Yeats’ poetry anthology, with a short bio, wherein Maud Gonne was introduced.
Maud Gonne - who was the inspiration for the exquisite love poem – He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. Immediately, I had a name for this protagonist, and a title for the book.
The Cloths of Heaven was taking shape. The sources of inspiration were normal and nothing spectacular of themselves. They did not come to me in a vision (though if this happens, great!). I did not have to visit an exotic location, or be exposed to extraordinary events. I was inspired, because I believed that EVERYTHING is potentially inspiring. My source of inspiration and the method I employ to use what happens around me, is unique to me, just as Anne Rice and Maeve Binchy each has her own source and method.
Okay, the inspiration was there. I had three characters, the pivot to the plot. I had the situation, and the environment, and I had the setting. Remembering what I had learned from reading How-to books on writing. I decided I wanted a character-based book, letting their psychological development steer the plot. I knew too, that for a book to come to life there is one element that cannot be omitted – the element of conflict. But there are several types of conflict. Inner conflict. Conflict between individuals. But, there is also the universal conflict of man against his surroundings. I was determined to incorporate all three.
And that would be the arms and legs, and the beating heart of this story.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Article 1. The Embryo

So often we hear aspiring writers complain that they simply don’t have an interesting enough life to be inspired to write a novel, theirs is a humdrum, middle of the road, perhaps even boring existence, they groan. Often they criticise their own talents, suggesting that their language usage is childish or at least lacking any multi-syllabic words, and that their sentences are short, simplistic, and unimaginative.
I too, went through this stage of self-castigation, and often started on a story, only to trash it very quickly, sinking into despair that this deep-seated desire to write was a pipe dream. Did I suffer from delusions of grandeur? Was I perhaps living in a fantasy world, where my will to write would by magic give me the words, sentences and ideas to match my grand notions?
I picked up a Maeve Binchy novel, then one by Anne Rice. I was fascinated by the difference in their approach. Maeve Binchy’s novel was firmly rooted in reality, in the mundane. Her work dealt with the everyday happenings in the lives of everyday people. Anne Rice on the other hand, describes the fantastic, the supernatural, and uses long, intricate sentences, and a flowery, romantic vocabulary to do so. Yet both are writers of merit, both are respected, and more than that, both earn a good living with their writing.
Why were both so successful, yet at the same time, so divergent? The answer was simple. They were true to their own personalities, and the source of their inspiration. I cannot imagine Maeve Binchy apologising for the subject matter, nor the style she chooses to give it form, and Anne Rice has us eating out of her hand, and believing completely in the existence of Lestat, her infamous vampire. She has us fall in love with him, desiring him as though he were a film star.
In short, no idea, no spark of inspiration is too trite to be used, as long as we use it well and stay true to our own personalities and our own styles. Had Maeve Binchy taken her idea and attempted to give it to us using Anne Rice’s style, then it would have jarred, and lost its power. By the same token, Anne Rice’s ideas would be lost if poured into Maeve Binchy’s mould.
So, using my discovery, I decided to take myself seriously, believe in myself, and have faith in the ideas that would come to me, however mundane they might seem initially.
And then the germ that was to grow and ferment into what became ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ came to me through the channels of my normal, middle of the road life, and through the experiences of those close to me. And when it came to me, I took it, and let it settle into the comfort of my mind, like an embryo bedding into the wall of the womb.
The process of division and multiplication had begun: the single idea separated and doubled and became two, then four then eight related ideas, and more, until the story unfolded and became the novel.
In the next article I will tell you about that first idea, and about the gathering of ideas that became the story, the backbone of ‘The Cloths of Heaven’