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Memoir: my first snowman

Our back garden in the snow. Let’s build a snowman, says my father. The winter light is milky, shot through with a tentative sun.

I am wearing a brown pinafore. Its fabric is thick and scratchy. Do I have gloves? I don’t know. I don’t feel the cold.

The snowman is made before I know it. He is a fine creature, as tall as me. Dad fetches pieces of coal from the coal bunker for his eyes.

We have a grooved metal rubbish bin at our back door. The snowman needs a hat. The bin lid will do the job. It clangs as we lift it.

Years later, my daughters sing songs from the hit Disney film ‘Frozen’. The character of the little snowman who longs for summer brings me back to my own first snowman, his stick arms pointing skywards, his wide-brimmed metal hat shielding his eyes from the sun.

Put up your arms like the snowman, says Dad. Click.

Do I really remember the day itself, or have I retrofitted a memory from the photograph? I am sure I can still hear the metallic ring of the bin lid.

It is 1977. I am just gone three.

orla in snow 1977

Penguin USA and Penguin Canada to publish Nuala ní Chonchúir’s new novel, Miss Emily

I’ve been trying most of my life to become an overnight sensation.

It started when I was about seven. I had read a series of books by an irritating twelve-year-old prodigy whose name I no longer remember. (One of her characters was Penelope Pomegranate – ring a bell with anyone?). Her photo was on the back of each book. She was a serious-looking girl with long, straight hair and a sensible woolly jumper. My seven-year-old self, who had previously entertained airy notions of writing books one day, was stung into action.

I began writing like a thing possessed. I had to outdo Miss Sensible Jumper before I hit twelve.

You can guess the rest. I slowly came to learn that overnight success can take a very long time.

I was prompted to reflect on all this last week by a brilliant piece of literary news. Irish writer Nuala ní Chonchúir has just signed a book deal with Penguin USA and Penguin Canada for her third novel, Miss Emily. Nuala got to write on her blog last week the words that every writer longs to type: “I am living my fantasy just now – Penguin USA and Penguin Canada are going to publish my third novel, Miss Emily…”

Nuala ní Chonchúir

Nuala ní Chonchúir

Nuala has certainly earned the joy of writing those lines. She is one of those talented, hard-working writers who puts in the hours, day after day, year after year. She is a familiar and much-loved name to anyone involved in the Irish literary scene, but up to now, she has not been a household name. Now, readers all over the US and Canada are soon to enjoy the work of a new overnight literary sensation.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about the cultural phenomenon of overnight success. Let’s look at Nuala’s case a little more closely. Her first work was published in 2003. Factor in a very conservative estimate of at least five years of serious, committed daily writing graft before that, and you’ve got a minimum sixteen-year lead-in to the Penguin deal.

I remember attending a workshop with Nuala three or four years ago. The topic was self-promotion for writers. Nuala told us that her income as a writer was small; I think the phrase she used was “laughably small”. This, from a working writer with several published works under her belt, as well as a steady stream of workshop gigs and appearances at literary festivals in Ireland and abroad.

I, for one, greatly appreciated Nuala’s disarming honesty about her income. It helped me to realise the magnitude of the mountain that writers have to climb.

So what can aspiring published writers learn from all this?

Before the gravy, comes the graft. The bad news is that in most cases, the graft takes a painfully long time. The good news is, when the gravy starts pouring, it tastes so, so sweet. And you get to write sentences like: “I am living my fantasy just now.”

Miss Emily, which is about Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, sounds like a great read. Enjoy the gravy, Nuala.

Tapping into creativity for writers (you will need: Lego)

Who would have thought that tidying up some Lego would help with structuring a story?

I constantly have to keep in mind that writing time is for writing only and not other tasks, no matter how strong the temptation. Mostly, I am fairly successful at walking airily past household messes and sitting down at my desk to write.

One concession I sometimes allow myself is to do a quick tidy of the room I work in – after all, it is part writing den, part children’s play room. (The two parts are separated by room dividers from Woody’s – highly recommended if you share a writing space.)

So this morning I was in the play room / writing room, on my hands and knees (what a way to start the writing day), picking up Lego and mulling over the short story that I had started yesterday. I had most of the components of the story in my head: main character, secondary character, a strong visual image, and setting.

Some elements in the story are a little out of the ordinary, and I was stuck for “something” that would tie together all the pieces in a plausible way. I was beginning to get quite grumpy about being stuck and was wondering if I should just park the whole story.

As I tidied, an idea struck me and I began playing with a few of the pieces of Lego.

I selected a single yellow piece and put it on the kids’ play table. This was my main character – the component around which everything else in the story is built.

Then I took a bigger, blue piece. This is the story’s central visual image. It is strong in both size and appearance, like the image I have in mind. I placed this piece beside the yellow one, but not attached to it, just as the components of my story were disjointed at that point.

Next, I added a purple piece to the ensemble. This was the secondary character. I was really getting into the Lego-as-symbol thing at this stage, so I stuck this piece on top of the original yellow piece, but only partially, to show that the secondary character is only loosely connected to the main character at this point.

By now my Lego creation was looking like a bit of a mess, just like the story. (If I were someone like Tracey Emin, at this point I would probably throw something sticky at it before placing it in an exhibition and charging people money to look at it.) Something was definitely missing.

Then it hit me. My story needed another narrative layer to tie it all together. In other words, another character who would narrate the story as told to him or her. I remembered Wuthering Heights and how Charlotte Brontë famously used multiple narrators to make the book’s wildly romantic, sometimes fantastical characters and events plausible and believable to the reader.

I chose two long red Lego piece as my supporting, super-narrative layer and attached the existing structure to the top of it. The red pieces now supported everything else and connected it all together.

I have now started translating my Lego “creation” into words  – that is, creating my additional narrative layer. This does raise questions about having too many characters, which can weigh down a short story. However, I am inspired (again) by Raymond Carver’s story “Fat”. This story’s main character tells her story to a friend over coffee, which is a variation of the technique; the reader hears the story as told to a third party.

The creativity that I was able to tap into by playing with the Lego led me to this solution. Techniques for tapping into creativity are something I have toyed with in the past but never devoted much attention to. I may re-visit them now.

Author interview: Derbhile Dromey, author of The Pink Cage

Derbhile Dromey‘s first novel, The Pink Cage, was published in June 2011 by Book Republic. Derbhile is a full-time writer with many strings to her writing bow: fiction, journalism, editing, and creative writing teaching. She is also keen to help other people achieve their writing dreams and is launching a Prepare to Publish Service, offering manuscript evaluations and lists of places to send manuscripts. Orla chatted to Derbhile  about getting published as a new writer, the pros and cons of working with a “non-traditional” publisher, and the best ways for new writers to promote themselves and their work.

OS: Derbhile, congratulations on the publication of The Pink Cage. The book is published by Book Republic, a small, new, non-traditional publisher. How did you establish contact with this publisher? Can you describe the steps leading to publication of your book?

DD: I finished the book in May of last year and immediately started sending it out. I began with Irish publishers and agents, then moved to British agents and publishers who took email submissions. I then hit a wall because most of the publishers and agents required SAEs and Irish post offices don’t supply International Reply Coupons that the publishers and agents could use as stamps. But most were happy to reply when I explained this.

I had a total of 27 rejections before I found Book Republic. I had fully expected to get at least 30. After a ‘positive rejection’ from a British agent who had taken the time to write an encouraging note with her form slip, I had a spurt of energy and went onto the site, a new resource for Irish writers, which had a list of current publishers. I had been thinking that a small, independent publisher would be a good way to go. They would bear the cost of bringing out the book and I was willing to promote it. Book Republic were listed on I submitted to them and three days later got an email to say they were interested.

OS: There can be a negative perception around the financial rewards for writers, especially new writers, who work with the more established print publishers. Book Republic describes itself as a “boutique publishing press” that “was set up to combat the traditional model of publishing”. How have you as a writer found working with this kind of publisher? Do you think the financial rewards for the writer can be greater with a non-traditional publisher like Book Republic?

DD: The advantage of going with a publisher like Book Republic is that you get to keep more of your money. Royalties are better than with traditional publishers. And you get more autonomy over your book. You can decide on your cover and you get a strong say in the editing process. They also distribute books on a Print on Demand basis, which means that a book is only printed when someone orders it. This means no returns and less likelihood of ending up on the bargain pile. They also automatically produce an ebook version of the book at the same time, which gives me a chance to avail of the growing ebook market.

But the disadvantage of that is that it’s proved impossible to get it into the bookshops. People can order it in bookshops, but most bookshops won’t stock it because they use the more traditional distribution channels. And despite all the talk about high figures for buying over the Internet, a lot of people still expect to stroll into a bookshop and pick up a book. So this has meant that the book isn’t as visible as I’d like.

OS: The Pink Cage was released in print and electronic format simultaneously. How do you feel about having a published e-book? Is it something you would encourage other authors to do? Do you think having a book out in electronic format as well as print is a positive thing in terms of sales?

DD: I was interested in Book Republic because I felt that they would help me tap into the growing trend for people to buy ebooks. I think Book Republic are ahead of the curve. They publicise and sell largely over the Internet, but a lot of people still live in the world of paper books, including myself. I’m looking forward to seeing how the ebook phenomenon develops over the next few years and hope that I’ll benefit from it.

OS: You marked the release of The Pink Cage with book signings and launches. Can you tell us a little about the “real-world” publicity side of a new book: How important are launches and signings for new authors? Did you organise the events yourself? How much of that kind of in-person publicity do you think a newly-published writer needs to do? Do launches and signings have a noticeable effect on book sales, or is their effect more general in terms of profile raising?

DD: The launch and signings were hugely beneficial. Book Republic do a small print run of 250 copies to mark a launch. They decided to print mine in hardback and all the copies were sold out at the launch and two signings. It’s hugely beneficial to do real-world publicity. And traditional media proved to be extremely effective in publicising the launch in particular. Book Republic organised the launch and I organised the signings. So in all, I would say they’re extremely important. The Internet is great, but it’s too easy for your book to get lost in cyberspace. Nothing beats that real-world connection with readers.

OS: You are active in the online and social networking worlds. Social networking can be hugely useful for creating a buzz around a newly-published work. How have you leveraged social networking for the publicity around The Pink Cage?

DD: Twitter has helped me to find people to blog about the book and Facebook has helped me to communicate with potential customers. I have a page for the book on Facebook, and a profile on Twitter @ThePinkCage.

OS:You also have your own blog and you do guest blogging on other sites. In your experience, how can blogging be used to publicise a published work?

DD: Blogging is more about giving useful information and creating a profile for yourself as an expert. It’s a complement to other social media activities.

In the end, you need to adopt a multi-pronged marketing approach, with traditional media, social media and word of mouth working in combination.

OS: In your experience, is there a specific period of time post-publication after which publicity efforts are no longer effective in terms of sales of that particular book – e.g. six months, a year?

DD: I’ll know more after Christmas!

OS: I know that you are also an active networker in the offline world. How important is real-world networking for writers? Do you have any recommendations for fledgling writers in terms of what they can do in the real world to promote themselves and increase their profile?

DD: Networking can be tricky for writers, since they tend to be quite reserved. But going to festivals and short courses are a good idea, because you meet like minded souls and you’re brought together by your work. Your priority has to be your work, but it’s important to step out of your cocoon and freshen your mind through contact with other writers.

OS: Derbhile, thanks for stopping by Wait til I tell you and enjoy the rest of your blog tour!

The next stop on Derbhile’s blog tour with The Pink Cage is tomorrow with Sian Phillips at

The Pink Cage is available from the following outlets,
Ebook:  (paperback book can also be found here)
The Book Depository,
Book Republic website,

Douze points for Denise

Things may not have gone quite as hoped for Jedward in the Eurovision, but Denise Quinn’s performance in Garter Lane theatre in Waterford on the same night, May 14th, won a standing ovation and a resounding douze points from the packed audience.

Denise Quinn, author and sole performer of "Bardot Bites" and "Lucy Bastible"

Local woman Denise is the writer and sole performer of two one-act, one-woman plays, Bardot Bites and Lucy Bastible, which ran for two sold-out nights in Waterford last week as part of a nationwide tour.

The plays are beautifully observed glimpses into the lives of two very different women. Denise’s scripts cleverly use humour to draw in the audience and make them feel an instant connection to two women at crisis points in their lives. “Bids” in Bardot Bites is a single, middle-aged, put-upon woman determined to get her life back on track after her elderly mother’s death, while Lucy Bastible is refined, well-off wife of a solicitor who unleashes her wild side after her husband’s infidelity.

While the script is sharp, witty and insightful, it is Denise Quinn’s acting skills and stage presence that made this performance truly wonderful. We, the audience, genuinely forgot that there was only one person on stage. The stage seemed to teem with characters – Leonie and Leandra, Bids’ two young, man-mad colleagues at the cheese counter in the local deli, were particularly brilliant. Denise’s depictions of the ridiculous situations in which people find themselves in daily life were a joy to behold (one scene involving a balcony bra and a roving hand in the cinema will stay in my mind forever).

The script is also a great example of that great maxim of creative writing: “Write what you know”. Not content with being an accomplished playwright and actress, Denise is also a qualified solicitor and sales assistant at a well-known cheese counter in Waterford. Both cheese and the legal world featured strongly in the scripts and the playwright’s background in both greatly added to the credibility of the plays.

Accolades are also due to the show’s director Mary Curtin, a high-profile name in Irish theatre with a long list of theatre and film credits.

Bardot Bites and Lucy Bastible went down so well on the Cork leg of the tour in April that Denise has been asked to give repeat performances there later in the summer. Let’s hope she can be convinced to do the same in her native city at the earliest opportunity.

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