What the Hell is Wrong with Hellfire

This week, the Irish Book Awards shortlist was announced. I love lists. I particularly love book-award lists. But in the last couple of years, I’ve been finding them slightly depressing, because of a glaring omission. Earlier this year, I read Hellfire by Mia Gallagher and I consider it to be one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read, raw, gritty, powerful and original in its narrative structure. It’s also that rare thing in this day and age – a rattling good yarn that continues an ancient Irish storytelling tradition.  But even though the cover is plastered with plaudits from critics, it has escaped the attention of awards panels. And it has appeared on no lists for Irish Book of the Decade.

Earlier this year, critics were railing against the fact that none of the heavy-hitting Irish authors were dealing with contemporary Ireland. If they were doing their jobs, they would have known that Hellfire does just that. It’s about Lucy Dolan, who grows up in the Dublin badlands and becomes sucked into an underworld of crime and drugs. The action centres on a night at the Hellfire Club in the Dublin mountains, which ends in tragedy. Haunted by this tragedy, Lucy spends most of the novel attempting to redeem herself.

This is a character growing up in 80s, 90s and noughties Ireland, at the coalface of all that is wrong withour society and she is not getting the recognition she deserves.

So what the hell is wrong with Hellfire

  • It’s a gangland novel that isn’t a crime novel. It doesn’t fit neatly into any genre, in a world where eveyr book has to have a label. That makes it harder to market to the audience who read crime novels and who read literary fiction.
  • Spiky language. It’s written in Dublin-speak. To me, this rings true and authentic; Lucy grew up in Dublin’s inner city and never left. But some people may find this a barrier to engaging with the story.
  • It pulls no punches. This book gets down and dirty. It doesn’t shy away from the depravity and evil that the rest of us would prefer to ignore. The descriptions of drug use are pretty hairy. But this is part of the book’s raw power.

I believe the overlooking of Hellfire symbolises the failings within the book publishing and critiquing world, a world that ignores books that don’t fit into the neat boxes assigned by marketing departments and advertisers.  It’s about time the book world embraced books that don’t fit the mould.

Asking the Write Questions

People ask me how I gather the content that I create for my clients. The answer is simple. I ask the right questions. I have developed a question template which helps me pinpoint what is unique about my clients’ business. Most of the time, the unique angle isn’t immediately obvious, but careful questions winkle it out. People love nothing more than to discuss their passions and I give them the opportunity to do that.

This week, I was approached by the bookings coordinator of a wedding band to write their website content. She wanted the content to be punchy and to reflect the unique attributes of a wedding band. The trouble is that wedding music, by its very nature, is formulaic. If a wedding band wants to succeed, it has to adhere to that formula. We both admitted that this was a problem, but I pointed out that it wasn’t what they did that was unique, but how they did it. I could hear a lightbulb switching on in her head as I spoke.

I then came up with a list of questions designed to help her and the band members figure out what made them stand out from the crowd. The questions fell into four rough categories. Goals, Trends, Passions and Experience.

Goals: Why does the band even exist in the first place and what does tha band want to achieve.

Trends: What has the band noticed about the types of music people ask for and what criteria do they use to compile their sets.

Passions: What attracted the band to a career in music and what sort of music do they like to play?

Experience: What experience do they hope to create for their customers? How do they go the extra mile to deliver that experience?

To speed up the process of creating content for yourself, learn to ask yourself questions about your business. Ask yourself  about your passions, about the trends that affect your business, about the reasons for your existence. And ask yourself what experience you hope to deliver to your customers. The answers are at your fingertips. You are the magic ingredient. You are what makes your business unique. And if you recognise that, your content will be unique.


Cystic Fibrosis Campaigners, Reluctant Media Heroes

Yesterday, the new cystic fibrosis unit at St Vincent’s Hospital was given the green light after more than a decade of delays and bureaucratic bungling. Thanks to the tireless media campaigning of people with cystic fibrosis, we are all aware of the fallout of these delays. Of course, there is the fallout on their health. But what about the fallout on the campaigners themselves?

In order to achieve their goal of a dedicated unit, people with cystic fibrosis have had to perform an uneasy dance with the media. Their dignity and eloquence touches the heart and gives them a compelling media presence. Yet when they speak, you can hear an undercurrent of unease that they have to speak in the first place. In order to achieve their goals, they have to sacrifice some of that dignity and pride and expose parts of their lives that ought to remain hidden. And they have had to allow themselves to be defined by their illness.

No doubt, they feel that the end justifies the means. But they shouldn’t have had to do this. They shouldn’t have to be describing the colour of their mucus to Joe Duffy on Liveline. This is another way that they have been let down by the Government and the Health system. Where are the HSE spokespeople? As usual, they are hiding behind a wall of paper. No fear that they’ll put themselves on the line the way people with cystic fibrosis have.

The media has done great work in highlighting the issue. But it also bears a responsibility to these campaigners. The media can’t resist heroising people (see my previous blog post, http://bit.ly/9gsod9), because it’s more newsworthy. Even the language they use ‘cystic fibrosis sufferers,’ is problematic. Cystic fibrosis does cause a lot of suffering, but people who have it have learned to adapt and live full, ordinary lives.

It’s about time media coverage reflected the reality of life with cystic fibrosis. Hopefully with the announcement of the new unit, the media will let people with cystic fibrosis get on with the business of breathing, If they do have to give the Government the nudge, that the media will give a more rounded portrait of the cystic fibrosis campaigners.

There’s No Such Thing As Can’t

Recently, a well-known motivational speaker was asked in The Irish Examiner newspaper what his pet hate was.

His answer was. ‘People who say they can’t. There’s no such thing as can’t.’ I’m sure many people admired his upbeat attitude. I felt alienated by it.

As a writer, I know that human beings are far too rich and complex to be labelled in terms of can and can’t. It seems to me that many motivational speakers on the circuit are missing one vital point. In order to motivate people, you need to figure out where they’re coming from. You need to find out why they feel they can’t and convince them that they can.

Why do people feel they can’t?

There are many powerful reasons, including:

  • A discouraging family environment. Parents, family and friends may have made people feel that they can’t, whether intentional or otherwise.
  • Illness or disabilities. People with disabilities are often made to feel that they can’t. People may also have latent depression, which saps confidence.
  • Disappointments and setbacks. If people often encounter obstacles to success despite their best efforts, they may not have the heart to try again.

If you’re a confident, chest-thumping leadership type, you may have little impatience for excuses. And that’s as it should be. Figuring out why people can’t doesn’t mean condoning bad behaviour. But if you have responsibility for a group of people, whether you’re an employer, a teacher or President of a voluntary organisation, it’s worth investing time to figure out why people feel they can’t. It’ll pay dividends for you, for them and for the organisation.

Instead, you can try a few simple tactics for turning can’t into can.

  • Find out why people feel they can’t. If people know that you understand where they’re coming from and that you have compassion for them, they’ll open up and it will be easier for you to help them.
  • Show them that they can. Share with them what you think their strengths are. Nobody is immune to a bit of flattery and it gives people confidence.
  • Give them strategies to move forward. If they’re having difficulty completing tasks, give them the resources they need, whether that’s mentoring, help from another staff member or literature to read up on.

It may seem like a lot of hassle, but if you take the time to turn can’t into can, you’ll build better relationships with the people around you.

A version of this post was originally published on http://www.bloggertone.com


Unique – The Ultimate Buzzword

Unique. It’s a word used to describe something or someone that’s one of a kind. And it has now become the ultimate buzzword. Every marketing brief, every press release, describes a company’s unique offering, its unique selling point.

But the reality is, not every business can be unique all the time. For example, if you are a tax consultant, there are set rules for you to follow, regardless of your business. This means you are delivering the exact same service as your competitors. Because of this, business owners often feel that they’re not newsworthy enough to attract the attention of the media.

The good news is that there is a unique ingredient in your business – you. You may deliver the exact same service as your competitors, but the way you deliver it is subtly different. You bring your own personality into the mix. And if you care about your business at all, you’ll have a strong handle on the trends that impact on it and on the issues that your customers have to deal with.

These strong opinions could form the basis of a strong press release. Most newspaper articles and radio slots are comment-based. Journalists are seeking the opinions of ordinary people in business to lend weight to the top business stories and give them a human face.

If you send journalists press releases that demonstrate your expertise, they’ll see you as an articulate person with a valuable contribution to make. You’ll take your business beyond the buzzwords and ensure it truly stands out from the crowd.