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Tumbleweed, crickets and other launch day terrors

Back in the heady days of early 2017, when March 24th was months away, I had no nerves at all about my launch day. I was breezily looking forward to a nice relaxed evening, chatting to friends and family, in a place that I love.

Now that launch day is the day after tomorrow, all breeziness is gone and I am a bundle of fears and self-doubt. The following thoughts are on an ever-repeating reel in my head:

  • What if only a handful of people turn up? (Cue images of tumbleweed rolling through and the sound of crickets in the background.)
  • What if a reasonable number of people turn up but hardly anyone buys the book? (Cue image of stacks of unsold books on the floor of my bedroom forever more.)
  • What if lots of people buy the book but hate it and demand their money back? (Image: me crying while handing back bank notes to an angry mob.)
  • What if online trolls get wind of the book and flame me on Twitter to the degree that I have to quit social media and become a hermit?

I’ll stop there before the fantasies get even more ludicrous. I’m sure Twitter trolls have better things to be doing with their time than picking on a virtually unknown self-published author. Right?!

To switch back to positive mode, a window display for ‘Mental’ and a poster advertising the launch are currently in situ in the window of The Book Centre, Waterford, where the launch takes place on Friday evening.

To my surprise, I had to set up the display myself. My surprise was not that a self-published author would do their own window display (who else would do it?), but that The Book Centre were willing to let me loose on their window. I have zero experience of doing displays of any kind. Here is the result of my attempt:

mental book centre window display

‘Mental’ in the window of The Book Centre independent book store, Waterford, Ireland.

Lesson learned: window dressing is a lot more difficult than it looks. Kind friends have assured me that it looks ‘minimalist’ and fitting to the theme of the book (rather than ‘bare’ and ‘bland’ as I (still) suspect).

My next post will be a report on the launch itself. Fingers crossed for no tumbleweed or crickets.

Roald Dahl: one hundred years

Today, it is exactly one hundred years since the birth of Roald Dahl. I have written previously about how much Dahl has meant to me over many years, and why. This year, I was lucky enough to fulfil a childhood dream: to visit Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, and see for myself where the great man lived and worked.

Great Missenden is a place-name that had become mythical in my mind since the day in 1985 when I received this letter from Dahl, in response to one that I had sent him:


Letter I received from Roald Dahl, 1985

First stop on my visit to Great Missenden was the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. The exhibition there is a delight for the Dahl fan: hundreds of objects large and small have been carefully preserved and put on display in an easy-to-follow and engaging way: household objects, childhood items, books, book paraphernalia and, of course, handwritten letters (some of the nicest are those written by the young Dahl at boarding school to his mother). Murals, signs and multimedia installations greatly enhance the visitor experience.

A specific part of my childhood dream was to see the hut in the garden of his house where Dahl did his writing. This couldn’t be fulfilled to the letter (after all, Dahl’s wife still lives in their house), but I came as close as it is possible to get: the interior of the hut – chair and all – has been re-located to the museum and re-installed exactly as it was. I spent a long time staring through the protective glass (much to the annoyance of other visitors, I’m sure) at the treasures within.


The interior of Dahl’s writing hut in the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, Great Missenden

In the photo above, on the table on the left, you can see several artefacts from Dahl’s life, including his hip bone, which had been surgically removed in a hip replacement operation. This is a lovely hint at the macabre in Dahl’s imagination.

The museum shop is likewise a treasure trove. I bought a print from The Twits, to hang over my and my husband’s bed (it seems apt!).

My favourite Dahl book for many years was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was thrilled to see on display this first edition from 1964:


First edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Quentin Blake’s illustrations have become synonymous with Dahl’s work for children, so it was interesting to see how another artist (in this case, Joseph Schindelman) interpreted the story.

Lastly, I wandered up Main Street and visited Dahl’s final resting place. My daughter, also an avid fan, came with me. We were both very happy to spend a short time with him there and think about all the happiness he has given to children and adults the world over. I personally sent him thanks for the letter that made a young girl very happy.

As the old Irish saying goes, Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann (his like will never be seen again).


Dahl’s grave

How to write a short story, part 1

Back in 2011, I wrote a series of blog posts about how to write a short story. These posts are still some of the most popular on this blog. I’ve decided to revise and re-run them. Note that these posts describe how I went about writing one particular short story; they are not intended as a definitive guide or as the final word. As always, I’d love to hear your comments below.

Days 1 & 2

Physical environment – house sketch

After mulling over various possibilities for the story for a while, I develop a picture of the family at the centre of the story. The family – mother, father, and three or four children – lives in a big, chaotic house in a medium-sized town. The family’s life revolves around their shop. The small grocery shop is integrated into the house in the converted front downstairs room.

Part of the dynamics of the story is that the mother in the family runs several mini-businesses from within the home. The house is always being extended and modified to make room for each new business venture. So the house is always noisy and busy.

I realise that movement and the physical environment – all the family members moving around this big, chaotic, disorganised, confusing house – are key to the story. So I decide to sketch out a plan of the house. I want to be completely familiar with the layout of the house in my own mind, so that the characters’ movements around the house are consistent and flow smoothly.

This is my initial sketch:


At this stage, the characters are still in their infancy in terms of development. Later, I will create detailed character sketches. Before that, I need to create a timeline for the family in the story. This is to ensure that all aspects of time in the story are correct and consistent. For example, to specify the age of each character, I need to know when they were born, and all the family members’ dates of birth have to be consistent with each other.

This is the initial timeline that I drew up:

Practise paragraphs

By this stage (the end of day 2), I have also written a few disconnected paragraphs of the actual story. These are really sketches themselves, rough “practise” drafts to help me get an idea of how the story might look and sound.

What’s next?

The next steps are: fill out the timeline, create detailed character profiles, and identify key scenes. I’ll be moving forward with these tomorrow.

Hennessy Nominees Announced & New Home For New Irish Writing

The nominees for this year’s Hennessy Literary Awards have been announced: Hennessy Nominees Announced & New Home For New Irish Writing. Hearty congratulations to all nominees!

The winners will be announced on February 24th.

The article also reveals exciting news about New Irish Writing: the hugely influential and popular writing page has moved to The Irish Times.

My writer’s room, revealed (hint: it’s not like Seamus Heaney’s)

Have you come across any of the articles about the spaces in which writers do their writing? They were published as a series in The Guardian a few years ago. I must admit to drooling over some of them. Just look at the room where Seamus Heaney did his writing: with its shelves of books, framed photos, little sculptures and the sloped ceiling, it is every inch a writer’s haven. Or the writing room of Michael Morpurgo, unmistakably writerly in a different way, with its ascetic wooden bed and bare walls.
Now to go from the sublime to the ridiculous. This is the space in which I currently write:

The writer's, erm... "room", complete with fence

The writer’s, erm… “room”, complete with fence

A recent bedroom re-assignment in my house has meant that my “office” (half a room, fenced off from the other half, which is a play room) is no longer “mine” but “ours”. In addition, several years’ worth of hoarded items are now temporarily stored here, as there is no safe (i.e. child-proof) space anywhere else in the house.
The bits of wood that you can just about see on the left of the picture belong to the “fence” – complete with lockable gate – that my husband constructed across the middle of the room, to keep the children away from the computers. Yes, we really have a room with a fence running through it. (There is probably some The Field-like metaphor in there, if only I could think of it.)
I can only pass the buck on some of the hoarding; much of it is mine, years of memorabilia from travels, studies and life events. So the Herculean task awaits of sorting, culling, clearing and storing. Yet another task to take away from writing time.
On the plus side, I get great psychological benefit from de-cluttering. I find the process, once started, to be energising, and the results bring me a great sense of calm and order.
A friend has recommended Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, which my friend says is excellent for motivating oneself to have a life-altering de-clutter. I have the book on my Kindle and plan to get stuck into it tonight.

Have you got a work space in your house that is exclusively yours? How do you go about keeping it clutter-free?

The 33-minute productivity technique in practice

Ah, procrastination. The little devil on the shoulder of most writers.

There are as many techniques for enhancing productivity as there are ways to procrastinate. The most effective one that I’ve come across is Eugene Schwartz’s 33-minute rule. This is how you do it, as explained at the link above:

iphone-timer-200x300“Get a kitchen timer and put it on your desk.

Set it for 33 minutes. Now start writing.

Write anything.  Just fill the page.

If you can’t write, then sit there and stare until you start sweating blood.”

Yep, that’s right – blood. You are not allowed to move for the 33 minutes.

This may sound like a massive restriction. In fact, it’s liberating. You can do anything you like in those 33 minutes, as long as you don’t move from the chair. After staring out the window, examining your fingernails, and generally fidgeting for a bit, what else is there to do but write something?

The aim of the exercise is not to produce wonderful work. The aim is to get you writing – anything. Because writing is better than not-writing.

Here’s the product of my 33 minutes this morning. What do you think – of the piece of writing, or about the whole issue of productivity? Have you tried the 33-minute technique or any similar anti-procrastination methods? How did it work for you?

I’d love to hear from you in the Reply section below.

Coffee, break

The pressure built up slowly in her vascular system. The coffee she had drunk at breakfast delicately burned the backs of her eyeballs. Rachel felt that she was fizzing on the inside.

Three hours until she had to stand up from her desk and collect Josh from play-school. What to do with this free time? She stared at the blank computer screen and tried to breathe her circulation back to normal.

It had never been like this when Mark was here. She guessed she had never felt the need to take a deep breath. Back then, noticing how she was feeling would have seemed like a frivolity, something that people with time on their hands did.

She looked down at her hands, crouched like crabs over the keys. Last night she had picked up a magazine and read about how to do a DIY manicure. Oh, the rubbing, the filing, the buffing, the warming, the wearing gloves overnight – did people really do this?

The fizzing was reaching her fingertips now. Ridges of cracked skin framed her fingernails. She thought about cuticle oil. Did such a product really exist?

She had once read a story, back in college, by the American writer Annie Proulx. In it, a teenage married couple set up home together on the American frontier. Rachel had blanked out the mundane tragedy of the story, but the frontier spirit described in it stayed with her. The people fought to acquire a patch of land, built their home from the ground up, created a life for themselves with unquestioning determination. If they had been handed three hours, they would have built a fence round their acre or chopped and piled enough firewood for several weeks.

Rachel let her wrists slump to the edge of the keyboard. Life, as she knew it, was something that happened to you. You just had to play along and it happened.

Her coffee high was ebbing away. Rachel felt herself able to observe the process within her body. A familiar dullness was seeping through her. The expanse of time that lay open before her darkened in her mind’s eye. She could no longer see it. Her paralysis eased and her fingers came to life.

She opened Facebook.


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.

A real gold blend: Thomas Hardy, Jon Lord, Jeremy Irons

I completely love the internet. (I suppose I wouldn’t be much of a blogger if I didn’t.) Just this morning, it presented me with a little piece of joy: Thomas Hardy’s poem Afterwards read by the actor Jeremy Irons, with music and performance by Jon Lord, formerly of Deep Purple, and images by YouTube user AntPDC. The clip is here, and the full text of the poem is here.

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy

The recording is a real gem of blended media. At the risk of indulging in hyperbole, I’m not sure how the piece could be better. Irons’ sonorous, seductive voice, Hardy’s sensuous, nature-steeped word-picture, the deep beauty of the original photography by AntPDC and Lord’s soothing, flowing piano are simply a perfect combination.

Hardy’s poem is also a joy to experience on its own. I’ve always loved the dusky, musky, earthy world of Hardy’s poems. (During Wind and Rain is another lifelong favourite of mine, with its “creeping moss” and “rotten rose”.)

One of the things about Afterwards that tickles my fancy are the little insights it gives us into how the English language has changed, even in the relatively short time since the poem was first published (1917). A lovely example is Hardy’s use of the phrase “at last” in the first line of verse four:

“If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last…”

In Hardy’s day, “at last” was used simply to mean “at the end”. That usage is now all but obsolete and we now use it to mean “after a long wait”, with overtones of irritation and relief. Despite how this line sounds to our 2013 ears, we can safely assume that Hardy was not waiting impatiently for his own death. I love how the line shows the effects of time on language usage, with the resulting unintended humour.

My thanks go to Irish playwright and novelist John Mac Kenna, who alerted me to the recording.

Jon Lord, musician

Jon Lord, musician

In memory: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Hornby’s character Rob Fleming in the novel High Fidelity is famous for, among other things, categorising his music collection in autobiographical order. The same thing can happen with writings and books. For example, you always feel a twinge of pain when you see Catcher in the Rye on your bookshelf, because you were reading it when your teenage boyfriend / girlfriend dumped you; you will never throw out that copy of Generation X, because you were reading it when you first left home to go to college; and so on.

I think I had an autobiographical writing-related experience last week. I had a lovely Wednesday evening tucked up in bed with the latest issue of The New Yorker. In the Fiction section was a short story called The Judge’s Will by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

It seems odd, but I had never heard of her; that she was a prolific and highly-regarded writer of novels and screenplays as well as short stories, and the recipient of many awards, including two Oscars and the Booker Prize, I learned only afterwards.

The next day, I opened up my Twitter feed and read that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had died that morning.

By Cmacauley (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, New Delhi 1962

The news gave me pause for quite some time. The story I had read just the night before was still playing out in my mind. It was so different from what I had been reading recently – the stories of Ireland’s current crop of masterly short story writers – that I had to turn it over and over in my mind to try to get the measure of it. I had a feeling that its author was one I wanted to get to know much better.

The fact that the next time I heard about her, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had died, should make no difference to how I will read her from now on – but it will. Rightly or wrongly, I feel lucky that when I first got to know Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s work, she was a living author, if only for a few hours.

To honour her memory, The New Yorker has unlocked six of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s stories, so they are free for anyone to read. The Judge’s Will is here.

Good Friday, a 400-year-old poet, and a bit of heavy metal

I was reminded today of a poem I had not read in years (thank you, Twitter): Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward by John Donne. Today, Good Friday, is the 400th anniversary of the poem’s composition.

Now it’s not too often that 400-year-old poets crop up on Twitter, let alone one who has been a favourite of mine since secondary school, so to celebrate both that and the anniversary, I hunted out a gift from a long-time friend:

donne book 1

Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s No Man is an Island, a selection of Donne’s prose printed by The Folio Society of London. As the picture shows, it comes in its own lovely box, and the cover features those lines of Donne that have become part of the English language (and, curiously, Metallica songs):

donne book 2

Bizarrely (to me at any rate), when my friend gave me the book, and I thanked her for remembering that Donne was a favourite of mine, she replied, “I didn’t know that – I just thought it’d be your kind of thing”. Ever since then I have fantasised that Donne and I have some kind of connection across the centuries. (You have to be a bit deluded to be a writer.)

As favourite artists tend to do, Donne seems to have been there at other key stages throughout my life, too. I first discovered him thanks to the Leaving Certificate English syllabus in school. All the talk of “metaphysical poets” (a much-disputed label, incidentally) and “conceits” could have put anyone off Donne for life. Thankfully, the work shone through and made a lasting impression.

Later, it seemed to our teenage selves an epic meeting of minds when my boyfriend and I discovered a shared love of Donne’s The Good-Morrow:

If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.”

(You may be feeling faintly queasy now, but this is powerful stuff when you’re 17.)

In terms of popularity, Donne’s work seems to have come full circle. King James I was just one of Donne’s contemporaries who admired the writer’s work, describing his sermons as like “ye peace of God, they passed all understanding”. After falling out of favour for a while, Donne experienced a resurgence in the twentieth century, and has become an established presence in English Literature syllabi the world over.

John Donne was a highly capable, ambitious man who understood how to create and manage his own reputation. I wonder what he would have thought if he had known that 400 years later, people who had never heard of him (and angry, long-haired heavy metal types) would still be quoting his lines.


John Donne, 1572 – 1631

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