Writing tips: how to be a writer

Kate at a recent signing for her latest novel, It Was Only Ever You.

Part of this article was adapted from an interview with Kate on www.writing.ie

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As someone who earned my living as a journalist for many years I believe that no word written, be it published or unpublished, is wasted.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 I wrote two unpublished novels while working as a journalist, entered countless short-story competitions and more recently took a time out to write a memoir which has yet to be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

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

​Changes in Contemporary Publishing

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

Plot and Character

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

The Secret of Success

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

TOP TIPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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INVISIBLE WOMAN: GRANNY’S KNIFE

In recent years I have found myself storing half-onions under saucers and saving bits of leftover bacon to throw into a quiche and began to suspect that supermarket sell-by dates were a con designed to make me buy more yogurt. I knew that my newfound thriftiness wasn’t just a reaction to the economy then one day, reaching for the bone handled knife I always use to peel apples, a picture flashed into my mind. My grandmother was seated at the table in her simple kitchen tearing the leaves off rhubarb stalks, in her hands that very same bone handled knife.
My Mayo grandmother lived with us in London and she died when I was in my early twenties. I have always missed her humour and her presence but lately I have missed her in a different way. Recently I have come to feel her legacy in the domestic details of my life and I miss having her to there to share them with.

I want to show her my own wonderful rhubarb patch, ask her advice on keeping the crows away from my gooseberries, have her to show me how to darn the elbow on my expensive Lainey Keogh cardigan. Mostly I want to stand at her side in my mother’s kitchen and have her teach me to make her wonderful soda bread again. This time I would take real note as she throws the flour and bread soda into the bowl, measuring by eye alone, gradually adding in the soured milk then gently kneaded the dough into a delicate round, gathering in every last crumb leaving the red Formica tabletop spotless. I’m ready to learn from her now. I am ready to listen. I want my time back with her not as a girl in my twenties, my head full of new clothes and boyfriends but as a mature woman with children whose domestic situation reflects so much of her own.
When my mother refurbished the kitchen in her family home, she passed me on a number of Granny’s things. Her cookery books, the mixing bowl she had made her bread in for forty years, and crucially – the bone handled knife that she carried about in the pocket of her apron, always. The small, flat instrument with the rounded blade had started its life as a dinner knife, but, for some eccentric reason, Granny had sharpened the centre of it until the blade was concave. To this day it is extraordinarily effective in cutting everything from vegetables to bread.  “Granny’s Knife” sits in my cutlery drawer and I use it everyday. My husband is mystified and slightly nervous of the thing and never touches it. With it’s ancient yellowed handle, and strange shaped blade it looks like a hybrid butter knife – but it still works, and using it is a way of keeping her with me. Often, when I am chopping an onion, or peeling an apple she comes into my mind – stout and stern working at our kitchen table, then throwing her head back into a loud burst of laughter so suddenly you’d nearly jump out of your skin! Material possessions are not as important as people, but they often outlive them and for what they represent, for they way they remind you of a person, they are important. My grandmother’s knife had no significance for me until she died, but now I can remember her using it from when I was a child. My own children are unaware of these things now, but as they reach adulthood, the legacy of my grandmother’s generation will live on through him in the comfort of the home I have created for them. I let them know “this is my grandmother’s recipe” when I serve them up a traditional dinner. They aren’t listening, they don’t care that I ate the same foods as a child but just as I by some mysterious process absorbed my grandmother’s ways I know that my children will come to appreciate, perhaps even cherish the history of their home lives. Despite their eye rolling, the meals I cooked and the knife that I used, which once belonged to their great grandmother, will all log in their memories. Perhaps one day they will come to cherish the way history can enrich our everyday lives as I have.

Here I am making boxty to my grandmother, Anne Nolan’s  recipe.

 

 

 

 

INVISIBLE WOMAN: Little bursts of happiness

My brother Tom loved life. Not ‘life’ in the sense of ‘having a life’, which is how I have always defined it. I was always focused on moving forward, my eyes pinned on the future. Life to me meant having a career, learning to drive, buying a house, finding a husband, having children; responsibility – paying bills, working. Life has always been something of a slog – a means to an end.
Tom simply loved the feeling of being alive in the moment. He loved laughing and talking, being creative and reveling in what others had created. He loved dancing, and making music and getting high. Tom found the world a difficult, unjust and cruel place so he created what he called “bursts of happiness” as he called them, to get him through each day. That was why he drank, because it made him feel more alive. I drank too. But then the drink stopped working and made me feel dead, so I stopped. Tom kept going back to try to recreate the magical feeling of excitement he once had – but in the end, it failed him.
Tom and I were Irish twins, 9 months apart. When we were together our spirits melded and often we created the natural high we had experienced through love and laughter as children.
I took Tom to see the pop group Bow Wow Wow at the Camden Palace when I was sixteen, and he was fifteen. Small and baby faced, I knew there was no way he could have got in without me. Already working as an apprentice hairdresser, I carried myself like an adult and with the heavy New Romantic eighties make-up I easily passed for mid-twenties.
I put some of my signature black kohl on Tom’s big blue eyes, and dressed him in a torn punk T-shirt and skin-tight jeans and gave him instructions on how to act as we travelled on the tube together to cool Camden Town.
“Don’t smile – let me go in first, just stand close behind me and DON’T mess about and make me laugh.”
It was a Saturday night and the queue to get into the Palais shuffled briskly with bewilderingly fashionable New Romantics. Tom was into punk: driving us mad with it’s tuneless pounding; worrying my mother buying frightening-looking singles and T-shirts with names like The Slits and Discharge emblazoned on them. He wasn’t a pop music fan and was disgusted with my love of bands like ABC and Heaven 17, punk seemed to reach his very soul. Punk became big at the same time as Tom was reaching puberty. He was angry, but unable to express it in the same way as many of his peers, on the football pitch or by scrapping in the schoolyard.  Punk gave voice to Tom’s pent-up masculine anger in a way that nothing else could. Plus it was all about safety pins and vomit and snot – so his sisters found it disgusting and our horror always amused him.
We blended easily in the crowd. I was wearing a voluminous white frilly blouse – and my maroon-dyed hair had been streaked with white blonde that day in a hairdressing experiment at work. I had scooped it up and sprayed it into an enormous, fluffy quiff. Tom had gelled his hair into spikes and had safety pins stuffed into the side of his mouth, hoping that nobody had noticed he hadn’t pierced them through. He did an impression of a depressed zombie and I had to restrain myself from laughing. He was determined to get in – to prove himself to me.
We passed by the enormous security men unnoticed, and when we got inside, it was all I could do to stop him running up and down the stairs of the enormous, gilded amphitheatre with childish excitement.
“Calm down,” I kept telling him, “we could still get chucked out!”
We didn’t even go the bar. Drinking wasn’t the point then. It was the music and just being there.
From the top balcony we watched the band. Tom said they were crap. A Malcolm McLaren invention. Then we went down to the floor and danced wildly, mimicking the ludicrous sway of the fake New Romantic pirates in the audience, laughing out heads off. Neither of us felt truly a part of that scene, we were too young, and too suburban. We were safe and happy in our little twosome, throwing our arms around under the strobe lights – drunk on life.
Tom died six years ago. My heart broke. For a long time I mourned his wasted talent, his drinking, the hopelessness of a life half-lived.
Since then, bit by bit, in my baby sons smile, a rainbow stretched across Killala bay, a shared old joke with my husband, I have come to realise that life is, perhaps, best lived from one little burst of happiness to the next – exactly the way Tom lived it.
He burned bright and that night in Camden we exploded into life together.
That’s more happiness than some people experience in a lifetime.

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New Year – New Website

At last, I am delighted to have my new website up and running, courtesy of my long-suffering and talented husband, Niall. One of the main reasons for the change was that I am FINALLY finding a home for all the writing I have never quite found a place for. Now, by signing up to  my mailing list Kate Kerrigan readers can now get my blog posts direct to their in-box . I am looking forward to sharing my life and my writing with you. Thanks for dropping by.
Kate. x