Writing or Cage Fighting?

Check out this fantastic article from the author of Dublin Seven, Frankie Gaffney, about what it takes to be a writer. Definitely worth a read whether you’re looking to become a writer yourself, or just interested in how an author does it.

View the original article on writing.ie here.


Writing or Cage Fighting? Break the Rules; Frankie Gaffney on Dublin Seven

9781910742112Whenever I’m asked to offer advice for budding authors I think of two things. First, I wonder why being a writer always seems to prompt this question. Conor McGregor isn’t incessantly asked for advice for wannabe cage fighters, Enda Keny isn’t ever asked to give pointers to potential politicians. There seems to be an assumption that those who’ve achieved success in other fields did so through inherent talent, or the stars aligning in their favour, but being an author is something anyone could do if they tried. The old adage that ‘there’s a book in everyone’ is a slander that belittles our profession. There might be a book in everyone, but not one I’d pay to read.

Recently I interviewed Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin. He asserted that being a successful author requires three things – ‘desire, stamina and perseverance’. He compared getting published to being a successful athlete. This is a comparison I like – sporting prowess is usually thought of in terms of innate, superhuman brilliance, when really it’s often about being born into the right circumstances . . . and ‘desire, stamina and perseverance’. Conversely, being an author is thought of as something anyone could do if only they had the time, although really it requires the same characteristics (and the same amount of talent and luck) as success on the pitch or in the ring. These two poles of perception need to be reconciled.

I’m not saying all this to discourage anyone from chasing their dream – just to encourage them to go forward with the mindset of absolute determination necessary to the task. I suspect that because creative writing is something most of us enjoyed as a child, and writing of some description is an activity we all engage in daily, there is an idea that being an author is more ‘achievable’ than other aspirations. But just because you can walk, doesn’t mean you can run like Usain Bolt. You have to really work hard to get a book written and to get published – and be prepared to make serious sacrifices for it.

frankie__gaffney__smallBeing an Irish writer, the first sacrifice that springs to mind is ‘the drink’. Give up the gargle for a few weeks (or months) and your productivity will skyrocket. Set yourself realistic goals to begin with, but stick to them ruthlessly. The smaller the goal the more likely you are to achieve it. I’ve taken a few walks on the wrong side of the tracks, and suffered from a serious lack of self-discipline when I was younger.Dublin Seven is informed by a lot of these experiences, but I’d hesitate to pass off my wild partying or my misspent youth as literary research. While I managed to turn a few negatives into positives, things definitely could have turned out another way, so don’t underestimate the seductive power of anything that distracts you from your goals. One of the turning points in my own life was reading a fantastic book by John Bird (founder of The Big Issue), called How to Change Your Life in Seven Steps. I liked it cause it wasn’t touchy feely like other self-help books, it was a stern, realistic, straight-talking wakeup-call. The paperback equivalent of a ‘good kick up the hole’ – as me Da might have said.

Like my Da, John Bird spent time in jail as a youth. One of his prison parables struck a particular chord with me. As punishment he was once ordered to dig up a massive yard. It seemed like an impossible task, but that was the point – to set him up for failure, and more punishment. The first thing Bird did though, was to use the blade of his shovel to divide the field into small squares. The warder asked what he was doing, but ignoring the screw, Bird set about digging the first square. Dividing this massive, insurmountable task into tiny units helped him to see that he was making progress. He ploughed on, square by square until he had the whole yard dug up. This is how to get a book finished. Set yourself a task so small it’s ridiculous – like clearing your desk, or buying a notepad. ‘Tomorrow I will clear my desk, nothing else’. You won’t procrastinate or be intimidated by a job this small, you’ll just do it. Every little task like this is one step closer to getting there. The tasks in writing a novel look something like this – and these should be subdivided into tiny impossible-not-to-do tasks:

  1. A) Writing
  2. Rough planning: fill a notebook with ideas, characters, good lines, words – just one or two little sentences or ideas a day are all that’s needed to begin with. I put loads of little overheard comments, jokes and phrases from everyday life into Dublin Seven. I use an artists pad, without lines, so I can connect ideas, separate segments into boxes, draw, scrawl notes, etc. When you start writing things down, you’ll be surprised how much daily life has to offer in the way of inspiration.
  3. Formal Planning: plan out the overall plot, then divide into chapters and write a plan for each chapter. Allow a page in your notebook to plan out each chapter (you might need more depending on how detailed your plan is). Again, aim to plan maximum one chapter per day – if you end up doing more than this, great.
  4. Write! Give yourself a very small word count for each writing session (200 words maybe), and stick to it NO MATTER WHAT. You’ll have decided on a rough overall word count, so you’ll know how long it will take you to finish the first draft of your book. Don’t worry if what you’ve written is shite, just keep writing and fix it later. It’s okay to deviate from the plan if the story takes you in a different direction, but stick to your time frame, and keep working, charting your progress chapter by chapter until you have a complete book. Dublin Seven was originally meant to be 70,000 words. As long as you make chipping away at that word count a habit, you’ll be amazed how it adds up. I ended up with 100,000 words. Being able to trim off the fat means what you’re left with is higher quality.
  5. Revise and edit – I’d spend much longer on this than the actual writing. Go through each chapter with an extremely fine-tooth comb and revise, revise, revise, changing words, word order, etc. Change characters and the plot if necessary, but the majority of work in revision is making your book as clear and easy to read as possible, and this means focussing on the fine detail of your sentences. You need to go through the book at least three or four times, preferably a lot more. Leaving some time (like a month) between drafts works well for me. It’s amazing what you’ll pick up on a second run through a draft that you missed first time around. I went through Dublin Seven around ten times, I probably could have rewritten it from memory by the time I was finished.
  1. B) Getting Published

This is an enormous task in itself, and will require a lot of research first time round. That said, it consists mainly of two things:

  1. Send your book to agents. If this doesn’t succeed, proceed to step 2 . . .
  2. Send your book to publishers.

You’ll need a really good cover letter, but it should be very short (no more than one page). There are some other avenues to getting published (such as book fairs, establishing an online presence for yourself and getting your own publicity first, university creative writing courses, etc) that you can also explore if these fail. Getting published will almost certainly require serious persistence, and the ability to take rejection after rejection without losing confidence in your project.

So that’s how to do it: collect ideas, words, phrases, plan a plot, write, revise, send it out – but just make sure to subdivide the tasks as much as possible. Feel free to complete more than the task you’ve allotted for a given day, but always plan to do less than it’s possible to achieve in one sitting – this way you’re setting yourself up for success, not failure, and writing won’t be a stressful experience full of the shame of procrastination.

The second thing I always think of when asked for advice, is that all advice on this subject should come with a very serious health warning. I cannot stress strongly enough that writing is an intensely personal experience – and publishing is an intensely subjective and haphazard industry. Far too often advice on the subject is dispensed in a very definitive authorative tone, as if there were some definite prescription for success. But there is no golden ticket, so advice should be qualified – including this advice I’m dispensing. Very often success lies in deviations away from the ‘rules’, whether these be the rules of ‘grammar’ or the rules of publishing. For example, all the dialogue in Dublin Seven is written in a Dublin dialect communicated through ‘wrong’ spellings. Also, I didn’t take the advice of the first publisher I met (to remove certain scenes from the book), and I’m very glad I didn’t.

So break the rules. Feel free to disregard any advice – including all the above – that holds you back or is inappropriate for your work. There are only guidelines, rules of thumb, not universal ‘laws’ of writing. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider your choices carefully – it’s probably always wise, in writing as in life, to know the rules before you break them.

(c) Frankie Gaffney

9781910742112Shane gets a grant to go to college, but drops out and uses the money to buy some cocaine, which he breaks up and sells off. He finds he has a knack for the trade, and is soon enjoying boom-time Dublin’s nightlife with rolls of cash in his pockets. He meets Elizabeth and they fall in love. But soon rival dealers become a threat, the police start nosing around, and Elizabeth turns out to have a dangerous ex-boyfriend. The pressure on Shane builds, and the good times end for him, giving way to paranoia, fear and a violent, climactic ending.

You can order this title from our website here. Dublin Seven is also available from all major booksellers.


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