I’m jealous of Rachel English. I wish I had thought of the idea for her novel Going Back, based on a gang of people who went to Boston on a J1 Visa in the 1980s. The J1 Student Visa trip to the States was the coming-of-age rite for my generation. I can’t imagine a better way to tell people what it was like to be young, Irish and foolish back then. I must buy her book.
It was my pleasure to meet Rachel on RTE’s Today Show. She has a rare honesty and curiosity that have served her well on Morning Ireland. We were on Today to look at the challenges facing a first-time writer. Given that the biggest challenge is to get publicity, it was fantastic that Daithi and Maura took time to talk about my new book, Keep Away from Those Ferraris. It’s available on-line today, click here to see where you can get it at an internet near you.
Here are some of the debut novel challenges we talked about.
- Focus, will ya? I’m easily distracted when there is writing to be done. The living room can end up very, very tidy. Mainly though, I’m distracted by the internet. Twitter, Facebook or my old fashioned browser will all get a workout when there is a difficult chapter to be written. Some people recommended a piece of software called Freedom, which cuts off the internet for a user-defined period every day. I downloaded it and the installation process just hung my PC for a while. I suppose it kept me off twitter for a couple of minutes, so that’s something. It looks like I’m going to have to rely on willpower. That could be tricky.
- Prologue or Chapter One. We revisited an old chestnut when Maura Derrane asked how come my first chapter was only a page long. I said it was all her fault. A few weeks ago on the show Maura mentioned that she very often skips the prologue. I had a prologue in Keep Away from Those Ferraris back then, so I changed it to Chapter One to make sure that nobody skipped by in haste. Rachel has in prologue in Going Back which starts the reader off in the present day, which I think is the proper way use for the prologue. My thinking is wait until you do a final read through and see what works best for your own narrative. The one thing we all agreed on was that if you are going to use a prologue, make sure to keep it short and sweet.
- Too Much Too Soon. Talk about wishful thinking. That’s what we did when we discussed hugely successful first novels. In particular we talked about The Secret History by Donna Tartt. It’s one of my favourite books ever. I’m not alone in that. It turned Tartt into a global superstar as her fans waited for the follow-up. We waited 10 years and were a bit under-whelmed when The Little Friend arrived. Daithi asked me if I’d prefer a massive hit first time out or slow and steady progress. I told the truth. Give me a massive hit any time. Please.
You mightn’t have been laughing at us on the RTE Today show. Colm O’Regan of Irish Mammies fame (http://irishmammies.ie/) and myself were brought on and asked how to write comedy. Is there anything funnier than two guys talking about being funny? Yes. Everything.
It’s a tricky business, but here’s what we reckoned.
- Get Real. Nobody laughs at nice people. What’s really funny is the gap between the nice people we think we are and the human beings we actually are. Paint real human characters in your work rather than some kind of ideal and you’re half way to raising a laugh from the reader. If you doubt this, just look at any episode of Seinfeld.
- Get It? They mightn’t. There’s no point in trying to tell a joke about Bosco to a group of Americans. Know your audience, know what they know, and then tell them a joke about it.
- Shove it to the Man. Colm made the point that a lot of comedy is about the little guy puncturing the big guy’s balloon. Charlie Chaplin, PG Wodehouse and Flann O’Brien are just some of the people who made us laugh at the pomposity of people in authority.
- That’s Mad Ted. Build up a good comic character and you can squeeze laughs out of them forever. Fr Dougal McGuire in Father Ted wasn’t full of brilliant one-liners. He was just a full-time idiot. Likewise Joey in Friends didn’t need to crank out the crackers – he just needed to say ‘how you doin’?’ when we expected him to. There’s a laugh in repetition when you get the characters right. Here endeth the lesson about how to be funny. I hope it is some help to you when writing whatever it is you write. Or maybe you are more like Fr Dougal, when after another catastrophic episode his mentor asked: ‘Well, Dougal, did you learn anything?’ ‘No Ted.’
Below is latest excerpt from the novel I am writing for next year. Don’t forget to keep an eye out here for details on where you can buy my latest novel. It will be available on Amazon from next Wednesday, the 4th of December. It’s been a long haul, so here’s what I will be doing once the book is good and launched.
The excerpt from the the first draft of the new novel is set near Zurriola Beach in San Sebastian, Spain. Here’s a photo to set the scene before the action starts below.
Surfing is tricky. It’s even trickier when you have no balance after a night of plonk, there are seven year olds flying around your head like pros and your girlfriend has been kidnapped by a super confident Spanish dwarf. Forget about standing up on the board, I can hardly lie on it to paddle out and catch a wave. The waves aren’t massive until one of them breaks on you and smashes the board into your head. I hate this. If I’m not good at something, I just hate it. Just when I think it can’t get any worse, I hear Maria shrieking as she catches her first wave and stands up like she’s been doing it all her life. Her face is alive with possibilities as she flies past me with ‘Hey Noel look, look!’ I can actually feel myself falling more in love with her. I can also feel myself feeling better about this day and the rest of my life. I paddle over to smug Xavi and tell him now it’s my turn. Ten minutes later I’m the one shouting ‘I’m on top of the world Ma’ as I ride a medium size wave in towards the beach. My hangover is completely gone. I’m high on this shit.
We’re all hugs and high-fives with Xavi when we hand back our boards. He says ‘so now you are hooked.’ We say we are. And we mean it. Half an hour later Maria and I are like kids outside a small café two blocks back from the beach.
‘That was shagging amazing. I can’t believe I never did that back home, I always thought it was for wankers’ she says lighting up her first cheap Spanish fag of the day.’
I can feel the good times on my cheeks. The buzz is so good that I want to stay out and enjoy it rather than head back the hotel and pick up where we left off on the sex front. My earlier hangover has history. ‘Ya, me too. One day out of Dublin and I’ve already dropped a stupid prejudice. This place could be the making of me. Seriously, I think I’ll surf my way out of trouble from now on.’ A dumpy little waitress brings patatas bravas, calamari and octopus salad with two small beers. I could cry it’s so good. We take in the small plaza across the road. Young couples are making eyes at their kids in a well-kept playground. I just don’t think I want to do the kids thing straight away. It will interfere with my surfing. Maria is on the same wavelength.
‘You know the way I said back in Dublin that I’m ready to have kids’ she says. ‘Let’s wait a bit. Just a short bit, so we can live a little out here before we take the plunge.’
‘How long do you reckon we have?’ She grins over at me, in on the conspiracy. We can stay young here for a while. Or at least until the money runs out. I have 850k in my bag back at the hotel. Robbie gave me the name of some guy in a local bank who will put that in a current account for me here, no questions asked. I better lodge that soon if I can find the time in between the surfing and shagging and drinking small beers. The rest of the money from my share heist is in a Jersey Bank. That’s 4 million euro which will need to be invested or else I might have to go back to earning a living again. Shag that.
I did a back of the envelope calculation on the flight from Izmir two nights ago. The 850k is for six years. I’m not ready for austerity yet. After that, I don’t mind living on 50k a year. I should be able to squeeze that kind of annual return out of my 4 million. Jesus, life is good. I turn to Maria with only thing in mind. ‘Let’s get a bottle of cava.’
It was one of our leading crime writers, Alex Barclay, on the couch for RTE Today’s latest look at all things novel writing. You’ll find out more about Alex and her work at http://www.alexbarclay.co.uk/.
Today we took a look at character development. It turns out Alex and I do things differently. You can watch our chat at http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10225328/ – look for the show aired on 22nd Nov, about 55 minutes in.
Here’s a summary of what we said.
- Can’t get Roxy out of my head. I have a particular person in my mind’s eye for every character. They tend to pop in uninvited. In Keep Away from Those Ferraris, a minor character suddenly started to look like Roxy in Eastenders. (It’s a BBC soap opera in case you live under a rock. Or in the U.S.) This character doesn’t act like Roxy, she just looks like her in my head. It’s annoying. But it makes things easier if I can draw up the image every time she appears on the page.
- Disclaimer. Obviously I will deny basing my characters on actual people if you sue me for libel, and claim instead that I was forced to write the paragraph above by Big Tobacco.
- A proper writer. Alex doesn’t base her characters’ looks or behaviour on anyone in particular. She makes them up from scratch. I think Alex is what you call a proper writer. I don’t know how she does it. It was fascinating to hear her describe the process though.
- In-Character=Dull. Don’t get caught up with the notion that someone should act ‘in character.’ We all act out of character all the time. It makes for great drama. It made for Breaking Bad. Use your plot to make one of your people act out of character – it makes them human.
- Show Don’t Tell. Like most clichés, it’s true. Don’t tell your readers that John is an angry kind of guy. Lob in an anecdote showing how he destroyed three cars with a sledgehammer. Or give him some angry bits of dialogue. That doesn’t mean writing some flat prose followed by ‘said John angrily.’ It means writing some angry dialogue followed by ‘said John.’ That’s tricky. But it works.
- Begbie and the Brother. These are two of my favourite characters. Begbie is the hilarious psychopath from Trainspotting and other masterpieces by Irvine Welsh. For obvious reasons he will always look like the actor Robert Carlyle. He certainly doesn’t look like Roxy. The Brother is the work of Myles na gCopaleen. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get your hands on a copy of The Best of Myles by Flann O’Brien. I nearly had to get off a train in Frankfurt once because I was giggling so hard at the goings on with The Brother. The Germans don’t take to a scruffy looking Irish guy laughing to himself in public. I can’t say I blame them.