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10 Irish Novelists on Writing

As it’s St Patrick’s Day this week, I’m putting the spotlight on Irish novelists, sharing their writing advice.

John Banville – Write by instinct

“When I began to write, a very long time ago, I thought that I should, and would, be in control of everything that appeared on the page. However, the older I got, the more I realised that I really knew very little about what was going on in my mind and, indeed, on the page. I write by instinct, trusting the sentence — the most beautifully formal invention humankind ever made — to guide me forward. I write a sentence, try to get it as close to right as I can, then move on to the next one . . . and so on, to the end.”


Anna Burns – Keep listening

“My creative process involves turning up at the desk and waiting. It’s a very active, receptive waiting for characters to turn up and to start telling me their stories. My book, Milkman, grew out of some notes I had about the reaction I used to get from others towards my teenage habit of reading while walking. This always surprised me – that I would be noticeable doing this, and that it was something worth commenting upon. I had only just begun to explore this in my writing when this teenager popped up. She was walking along what felt to me was an interface road. She was reading Ivanhoe but wasn’t paying attention really to her book because she was aggrieved at being wronged by her sister. This individual, whom I later found out was my narrator, simply started to tell me her story, using her own particular voice and language from the start. She came fully formed, as my characters do. I just had to keep listening and writing everything down as accurately as I could. This was the start of what eventually became Milkman.”


James Joyce – Write dangerously

“The important thing is not what we write but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words, we must write dangerously.”


Woman typing on a green typewriter with a cup of tea

Marian Keyes - A happy life is a boring read

“No one wants to read about somebody’s perfect life staying perfect. Something needs to cause a change and trigger some drama. Every novel is about some sort of change. Something happens and it can be small or it can be enormous…There can be no story without something bad happening. I’m sorry…there’s nothing more boring than hearing about somebody’s happy life. You’re delighted for them for a little while but then you think, arra now. There needs to be an unpleasant event of some sort at some stage in the book, earlier rather than later I would have said.”

Source: Irish Examiner

Tana French – It’s OK to screw up

For me, this was the big revelation when I was writing my first book, In the Woods: I could get it wrong as many times as I needed to. I was coming from theatre, where you need to get it right every night, because this audience will probably never see the show again; it took me a while to realise that, until the book goes into print, it’s still rehearsal, where you can try whatever you need to try. If you rewrite a paragraph fifty times and forty-nine of them are terrible, that’s fine; you only need to get it right once.”

Source: Publishers Weekly

Maeve Binchy - Discipline, and a plan.

“Time doesn’t appear from nowhere, you have to make it and that means giving up something else. Regularly. Like sleep for example, or drinking or playing poker, or watching television, or window shopping or just lounging about with your family. You don’t have to give these things up completely, but you do have to release five hours a week. So, think now where you are going to find them. In my case I gave up a bit of sleep. I had a full-time job in London, a lot of commuting, a heavy social life, a fair bit of travel so it seemed a good idea to get up at five am. three times a week. I hated it.”


Oscar Wilde – Develop your own writing style.

“They are always asking a writer why he does not write like somebody else, or a painter why he does not paint like somebody else, quite oblivious of the fact that if either of them did anything of the kind he would cease to be an artist.”


Emma Donaghue - Make a solid structure first

“When I do start to write I try not to worry too much about whether it is actually any good. The great thing is to get it on the page. In a first draft the prose is always very indecisive and messy, and I might put in four different adjectives with slashes between them because I’m not sure which one to use. If I’m writing on an aeroplane or a bus, I always tilt my screen away from the person beside me because I’d hate the idea that they would look at this pile of rubbish and ask if I really am an author. But a lot of writers become a bit inhibited by asking whether something is a beautiful sentence. I see it much more in craft terms, more like being a landscape gardener or a carpenter. The thing is to make a solid structure first knowing you can do the polishing later on.”

Source: The Guardian

Cecelia Ahern – Let the story grow

“I’ve realised that writer’s block hits me when I don’t know how to reach a point that I can envisage in the future of the book. I just don’t know how to get there. My cure—and I touch wood as I write this—has been to stop trying to fill the gap and get straight to writing the bit that I know. The story never intended to have a bridge to get there, what it means is that something extra has to happen on the other side. You have to leave room for the story to grow unexpectedly.”


John Boyne – Use your idea in an interesting way

“Ideas are all around us. If a person is reading and writing all the time, I believe that the brain is more open to ideas when they land. We find them in newspapers, in the stories our friends tell us, in conversations overheard on public transport. The trick is grabbing on to the right one and knowing how to use it in an original and interesting way.”




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I'm Karen, a best-selling novelist who left her corporate life to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Since then, I've written everything from travel articles to web copy before winning a novel writing competition which led to a 3-book deal. 


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