How am I still standing? (More adventures-hashtag blessed)

Finally, September has come! And so I get a break. I know that’s not how it works for the rest of the world, but there you go. I rounded off August with lots of work – short story for Radio 4, article for Glamour magazine, edits of Paula Maguire 3, being on the radio for Radio Verulam – and a ten-day trip to Edinburgh, which almost broke me. (EDINBROKEN. It’s a thing). I got to hang out with lots of friends, see other friends in shows, and even perform stand-up twice myself. It was by far the most terrifying thing I have ever done and left me with this face:

Here are a selection of excellent things that happened in Edinburgh, off the top of my head. Massive thanks to my lovely friend Kate for letting me stay at hers.

1. My friend Gareth performing an impromptu burlesque dance while pretending to be in a children’s talent show

2. My friend Angela arriving and saying: ‘SHIT! I forgot to bring any aromatherapy.’

3. Watching a comedian demonstrate ‘a sexy hypotenuse’ in a wet yurt. Doesn’t sound fun, and yet….

4. Amazing shows from Thunderbards, Austentatious, Isla Dogs, Potted Sherlock, Clever Peter, Barry Ferns, the Nualas, Hannah Gadsby, my friend Ryan in ‘Sex with Animals’ and more that I’ve forgotten, plus the play ‘Lorraine and Alan’ by the very talented daughter of my friend Julia Crouch.

5. Crashing an industry party for comedy and getting home at 7am. While wearing a fleece.

6. Staging an escape from a hot attic where we were being held hostage at 2am by a ‘comedian’

7. Being rescued from the taxi queue of death and sailing home past all the other waiting people

8. Deep fried haggis. Deep fried Mars bars.

9. Being kept awake by a constant stream of ideas – I definitely believe that about the free-floating inspiration. This is nice but ow, insomnia.

10. Watching a play on a bus

11. Dancing to Proud Mary. My friend Angela shouting to my friend Sarah ‘Get ready! Get ready!’ in the slow bit. Sarah, dancing genteelly: ‘GET READY FOR WHAT???’

12. The fact I spent every day in either a pink fleece or pink anorak or both. Getting mistaken for a fifteen-year-old (unsurprising as dressed like on a Geography field trip).

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13. Hanging back-yurt at the book festival with Kerry H (here with my friend Alex) and chatting to Michael Rosen over the potatoes. Struggling to the end of the festival in a post-apocalyptic exhausted hungover state. The last show the survivors saw was ’50 Shades: the Musical’.

 

It was amazing and I’ll be back. September is looking exciting too with a turn at Romantic Misadventures under my belt, and getting ready to start back teaching. I’ll also be doing a Guardian Masterclass in November which I’m very excited about. I hope your summers were just as thrilling but that you maybe got a bit more sleep than me….

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Yet more of what I’ve been up to

Phew! It’s August. How did that happen? Soon it will be time for my annual wistful re-reading of Louis MacNiece’s Autumn Journal (September has come, etc). The past few weeks have been very busy – I went to Berlin to visit a writing friend, the inestimable Kerry Hudson, and we drank beer, ate sausages, stayed up too late, swam in a lake, got caught in the rain, and talked about writing (and boys). We also got snapped by Greenpeace activists in a full-on Berlin stereotype moment. 

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I then went the Theakston’s crime festival, in Harrogate – where I also drank, talked about writing, ate a lot, got caught in the rain, and sat on some giant astroturf chairs. It was as usual amazing to see all my writing pals and consume too much dessert wine. 

With Jake Kerridge, Will Carver, Tom Wood, and Sarah Pinborough. I'm standing on a bollard and still look short.

With Jake Kerridge, Will Carver, Tom Wood, and Sarah Pinborough. I’m standing on a bollard and still look short.

After a trip to Brighton with my writer friend Sarah (waltzers, ice cream, third degree sunburb, gin from a can), next it was off to Yorkshire again to teach an Arvon course. These are week-long residential writing courses with a long pedigree, and it’s a great honour to be asked to do one. I had 15 fantastic students and (during rain showers) we spent our days workshopping plot, tension, premise, character, and much more. I also had time to speak to all of them individually, and on the final day of the course we had readings from everyone. I was amazed by how much work everyone had done, and the massive improvements over just a few days. They were all very patient with my coffee-fuelled and insomnia-driven monologues on writing. It made me think about this motto on the wall outside: we have no idea what we can do until we do it. Writing is an kinetic art. Get that pen and move it. (or, you know, tap on your Mac, but to my mind it’s not the same). 

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Being a massive Sylvia Plath fangirl, I was very excited to be staying in Ted Hughes’ old house, and able to visit her grave in the churchyard in Heptonstall. It was hard to find, almost hidden in the undergrowth, adorned with sad notes from despairing literary women from round the world (often I am one of these). What I feel most about her now is the tragic waste – such talent before the age of 31, and she could easily still be alive now had she not been taken by the severe depression of a harsh, lonely London winter. She’s buried in a very peaceful spot now, and I hope that, in whatever sense you believe in such things, she’s at peace too. 

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The next stop on my summer is Edinburgh for ten days, to soak up the free-floating creative molecules that circulate (I totally believe this is true – go if you don’t believe me). I have a short story to write for radio and a book to edit, so you may see me perched somewhere squinting into the new netbook I paid £80 for – what could possibly go wrong? 

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What I’ve been up to

Greetings! Suddenly, the writing life got busy. My new book The Dead Ground (set during a snowy and blood-stained Irish December) came out in April, with launches in both Belfast and London. The Belfast one in No Alibis bookshop was very special as it was the last time I saw my granddad, who died a month later. I’m so glad he was able to be there as he always loved books and was proud of my writing. At his funeral he was described as ‘a lifelong teacher and student’, which I think is lovely.

I’ve done lots of events since. There was Stranger than Fiction, which involved reading a bit of a new thing I’m working on, a pub quiz, and winning a PacMan lamp which now has pride of place on my desk. There was good old Crimefest, and the resulting hangover/sunburn. I also did events in Halifax and Rubgy, and a packed bookshop event near where I live in Crystal Palace, and an event at the Belfast book festival (managed not to cause people actual physical distress with my reading, unlike last year). People sometimes ask if I get nervous doing events like this, and the truth is I don’t – but I do worry that no one will come! So I’d like to thank everyone who makes it out to a library or bookshop or festival, and listens to us spout about our books – we couldn’t do it without you. (But message to the Rugby book club ladies – Colin Farrell will play Aidan over my dead body, OK?? It’s all about Jim Burgess in my head!)

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Stranger than Fiction. 

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Launch in No Alibis, with lovely David the owner. 

Teaching it what takes up the rest of my time. I taught a workshop for Chalk the Sun on tension and suspense, which was lots of fun. I’m also doing an Arvon course at the end of July, in Ted Hughes’s old cottage – but before that there’s Harrogate (maybe I should move to Yorkshire?) I’ve also been very busy with admissions for my MA in Crime Thriller Novels at City University. We are almost full for next year, which is fantastic.

Below clockwise: Chalk the Sun workshop,  Halifax with Kate Rhodes and Ali Knight, at Bookseller Crow with Oli Harris, Rugby library with Julia Crouch and Colette McBeth. 

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When the summer comes, I have a restless urge for new projects and new shores. So I’ve set myself some ridiculous writing goals, as there’s nothing like being harried by yourself to get the words down. Tomorrow I’m off to Berlin to see my friend Kerry Hudson, whose brilliant new book Thirst comes out next week (you should read it….I got to read a proof copy on a train in Europe while the author was passed out across from me!)

Reading from The Dead Ground at the Belfast Book festival (truly harrowing parts redacted!) 

There’s been a lot of talk again this week about how little money there is in writing, but I refuse to be afraid or to let it chase me away. It’s such a privilege to live like this – even right now, wearing tracksuit bottoms and a holey jumper, looking out as the driving rain falls on my garden. This is exactly how I hoped it would be.

 

And of course there’s always time for this….if the rain stops….

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What’s wrong with your book??

So you’ve finished your book. Congratulations! This is a major achievement, and you should be really proud. Finishing a book is more than half the battle. But what if you feel something isn’t quite working? Maybe you’re getting interest from agents, but for some reason they aren’t totally sold on it, and they can’t quite tell you what you need to fix to make them say yes. This is really frustrating, I know – I’ve been there. It may be you need to have a think about the fundamentals of your work, and see if there’s something you could change that would turn your ‘maybes’ into instant ‘yes, please sign with me immediately!’ Having taught creative writing at City University London for two years now, I’ve made a list of key areas you may need to look at to transform your book.

-Is your premise as strong as it could be? A good trick I sometimes try is to write the blurb that might go on the back of the book. This is different from a synopsis, and should tell you where the key areas of tension and interest lie in your book. This will then let you know what needs to be cut and what you should focus on and develop. Also think about whether a more interesting setting or time period could help. If you find you have lots of similar scenes that blur into one, why not transpose the same action to a more interesting background, eg, on a cliff edge, on a train, in Bulgaria….

-if the book isn’t working, chances are you need to change something fundamental like viewpoint. Maybe you have too many viewpoints. Maybe you need another so you don’t get stuck in limited first or third. Also, make sure you stick quite closely to your character’s thoughts. Unless you specifically want to intrude into the narrative, and make it clear you the author is telling the story, don’t use language that your character wouldn’t, or have them ruminate over issues they are already well aware, eg ‘I saw John, my brother, in the kitchen’. This feels contrived and can lift the reader right out of the story

-Are your characters unsympathetic? You can get away with having your characters doing some pretty awful things as long as you’ve created sympathy for them beforehand. This can be done by showing us a thing or person they love, or having them do some small act of kindness, or even showing us their enemies are even worse than they are, or making them appealing in some way. It’s really important, because a common reader complaint is ‘I just hated all the characters, so I didn’t care what happened to them.’

-Is there any plot? Sure, you get plotless novels, but to work as a book something has to change for the characters throughout the narrative. This doesn’t have to involve explosions, murders, or taking the President hostage. It can be quiet and internal. But something has to change for the characters, otherwise we’re just reading page after page of formless musings.

-Is the pacing right? Does the story start at the right place? Usually in first novels it starts too early – it takes us too long to get to the inciting incident of the plot. However sometimes the writer will try to avoid this by starting quite far into the plot then dealing with the backstory by flashbacks. I think this can work well but check it’s not too confusing, and remember that any scenes in flashback are automatically less tense, because we know what’s going to happen after.

Pacing also applies to individual scenes – can you start and end on the most interesting line possible? Keeping them short will also keep the reader motoring through.

-have you checked through it for errors? It sounds small, but mistakes in grammar and spelling can put someone off reading any further. Look out especially for homonyms, which won’t get picked up by spellcheck, eg berth/birth, woe/wow, wry/rye and so on. Get someone else to read it if you’re not sure.

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Going Home

They say home is the place where, if you go there, they have to take you in. Home for me is a small village in Northern Ireland where the most exciting thing that ever happens is a herd of cows get loose on the road and cause a traffic jam. There’s three churches, two takeaways, and eight pubs. When I was eighteen I packed up all my cuddly toys, Spice Girls cassette tapes, and travel kettle, and moved to England for university. Having somewhat unexpectedly secured a place at Oxford, I felt I had to take it up, so I trooped off, aged eighteen, tears in my eyes and Tayto crisps in my suitcase.

After university I spent several years living round the world – France, China, travelling – before settling in London. And although I visited often, I felt a distance from home – that water between us, however narrow, made itself known. My life started to go a different way from everyone I’d been to school with, as they all stayed in Ireland.

After a few years, when I started writing seriously, I found myself setting a series of books in Northern Ireland, in a town that’s not dissimilar to the one I grew up near. And since then I’ve been spending a lot more time at home, as I’m freelance and often do book events in Ireland, where people have been hugely supportive of my writing.

I’ve now been away from home almost as long as I lived there. When you spend this long away, you get used to never quite feeling at home. So going back is a kind of reverse shock. As I get off the plane I can almost feel my brain re-calibrating into the language and speech patterns, everything is a ‘wee’ this and a ‘wee’ that, people are ‘dead on’ things are ‘grand’ not good. If I’ve spent a while at home, when I come back to England, I find people can’t understand me right away, as if I suddenly regressed fourteen years.

A lot of things are different to London. First there’s the silence. The kind of silence you get in a valley, nothing but the sheep above you, the only sounds birds and rain, and when you hear a shot fired it’s either farmers killing rats, or possibly a random terrorist incident. It’s also not just OK but polite to say hello to people you meet out and about, and perfectly reasonable to go round and knock on your neighbour’s door – pretty much a capital offence in London. This also means everyone knows your business – my dad, now retired, goes into town to the bank and post office just so he can catch up with the events of the village.

I’m lucky that my flexible work schedule (and portable laptop) means I can spend a lot of time with my family. Of course, there are down sides. I fall back into teenage hobbies like: sleeping. Sulking. Reading Jilly Cooper for the twentieth time. When you go home you age backwards. You end up in a row about the time you broke the water cooler when you were seven. Long suppressed trauma rears its head, like the reason your parents never bought you that Barbie Dream Home you asked for at Christmas 1988. You find yourself, an adult who pays taxes, running from the room shouting, ‘I never asked to be BORN!’

On the whole though it’s great to catch up with them, and see my brother, and go out with old school friends. It also helps me get into the right voice and setting for writing my series, which is all about the horrors and surprising joys of returning to your home town. My main character, Paula Maguire, has come home to Ireland after many years abroad, and finds herself unsure if she wants to leave again.

By going home I can see a different version of my life, one where I never moved to England or travelled the world. One where I followed the life my family had lived for generations, close to the soil, settling within miles of home, marrying someone from the village. Instead my life has been wide, and confusing, at times chaotic, and altogether different than I could have imagined. Sometimes, it’s nice to slow it down and go back to where they have to take me in.

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What I’ve learned by teaching writing

Can you teach someone to write?

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about whether there’s any value in creative writing courses, after author Hanif Kureishi described them as a ‘waste of time (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi)’. It’s a new take on the old question of whether you can teach someone to write. I’m a little biased on this one, as for the past two years I’ve been very fortunate to teach on the first-ever Crime Writing MA, at City University London.

(http://www.city.ac.uk/creative-writing)

On this unique course, our students write a novel over two years, while the writers who run the course provide mentoring and support to turn it into a market-ready book. We then help them send it out to agents and make sure they understand how the industry works. We have all kinds of books on the go in my class –historical, futuristic, noir, comic, psychological. I feel that, no, you can’t give someone talent or teach them to get ideas for fiction if they don’t naturally have them, but you can teach them how to read their own work critically, and most importantly, to tell the difference between writing that’s good and writing that’s rubbish. We also give our students the structure and support to actually finish something – they don’t pass the course otherwise. We like to say we help them to write their third novel, not their first.

As well as being very rewarding, I’ve learned a lot from my students, both in seeing how they tackle certain writing problems, and in clarifying what I actually think about various issues such as prologues, the present tense, intrusive narratorial voice, and other issues you should be mulling over if you’re writing a book. Here are a few things I’ve learned from teaching:

 

  1. It’s a very different thing to teach someone a lesson, and actually learn it yourself. Dissecting my students’ work for pace, plot holes, and prose style does make me more aware of what I need to change in my own work, but it doesn’t come naturally, and I have to remind myself every time to try and do better. Lessons don’t stay learned unless you put them into practice!
  2. Trusting the process is key. Again and again I see my students hit the same hurdles of self-doubt, plot complications, and word count woes. I remind them that a book doesn’t have to be perfect to be good, and it will go through many stages of editing once you think you’re done with it. What matters is that you keep working on it day after day.
  3. You can always cut something. In the first term of our course, we do an exercise where the students have to cut a piece of writing in half. They nearly always grumble, but usually they can see afterwards that nothing important is lost – because almost everyone over-writes, especially when they’re starting.
  4. It’s worth starting a book before you start it. By which I mean thinking about premise, character, viewpoint and set-up and working out ways you can make each as strong as possible.
  5. Just finish the book! I see a lot of people who have talent and a great idea and writing skill, but the thing that really sets apart those who get published is that they finish their books. It sounds obvious, but sometimes ploughing on and getting something on paper, then fixing it afterwards, is much better than crafting the same three chapters over and over.

 

So yes, I do think doing a creative writing course will teach you a lot and help you progress to your goal of being published and being a good writer. I also think it’s worth studying creative writing because you will meet so many great people there (I made some of my best friends this way when I did a course myself) and also to get over the pain of having someone read over your work as soon as possible. Good luck! 

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Writing from life

As crime writers, we have to take the worst events that ever happen to people – murder, bereavement, torture, pain – and make them into a story. That story has to be entertaining or people won’t read it, no matter how much we also want to make a point or debate social and moral issues. Sometimes, as a writer, you find yourself wondering if there are any boundaries, things you should not write about, either because you don’t have direct experience of them, or because they’re too close to real life.

I write a series of crime novels set in Northern Ireland, where I grew up, in a town that’s very similar to my own small hometown on the border. My main character, forensic psychologist Paula Maguire, is about the same age as me, and like me, left Ireland for university, only to return. So there are obvious parallels already. I was so concerned about reflecting real life that I changed the name of the place to a fictional town, which is roughly, but not exactly, in the same place.

I often have the experience of writing about an extreme, unusual, or brutal event in Irish history, and then finding out the same thing really happened, or even worse. I’ve covered the Magdalene Laundries, child abuse, the IRA Disappeared, foetal abduction, cults and faith healing, the Church selling babies for adoption, and more. All of these things have really happened. At times I’ve thought I’d made something up, only to discover afterwards that, unbeknownst to me, it was real.

 

At the moment I’m writing about the after-effects of a devastating bomb on the survivors and families of those killed. I’m doing my best to keep a distance from real life, when there were so many such tragedies in Ireland, such as the Enniskillen bombing and the Omagh bomb, which happened when I was 16. I ask myself all the time am I exploiting this real grief and pain for entertainment, or is it important to write about what actually happened to people? One thing I want to show is that a bomb like this could very easily happen again – there are around 300 bombs defused in Northern Ireland every year still. But there is definitely a worry about upsetting people. Often, I will deliberately change details to keep it as far away from life as possible. Being sued is also a real issue, and when I’m writing about real places, I have to be careful not to refer to say, local politicians, who could be real people and get annoyed. Especially as my books tend to be pretty full of scumbags – I’d hate for anyone to think I was writing about them!

In a wider sense, I’m very concerned about the way I write Ireland, making sure that, as someone who’s been away for 13 years, I get it right, but also that I don’t transpose from life to closely. I also worry about getting the facts wrong about policing, since I don’t live there anymore, and making sure the voice is authentic. It’s often a difficult balance to strike. I try to tell myself that above all it’s a story – and if the story is good it will hopefully allow me to make important points in a subtle way.

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