How I Got Paid for Reading

Recently, I got paid to read. What a delight for a bookworm like me. After all, it was my love of reading that naturally lead to my love of writing. But being paid to read, while still fun, is a different ballgame. You have to put your critical hat on. The reading I was doing was for a developmental edit, which is also known as a reader’s report.

pperson reading book

 What’s In a Reader’s Report?

A reader’s report is a comprehensive report that evaluates how well a story works. In this case, it was a novel, but you can also get reader’s reports for memoirs, collections of short stories or single stories. You give people overall recommendations on different aspects of their story: their plot, characters, setting, viewpoint and dialogue.

In a reader’s report, you don’t correct spelling or grammar, but you can flag up errors that keep repeating themselves, or give general tips to help a author improve their language, such as cutting down on adjectives.

 The End Result

In the final report, you give overall recommendations, and then you give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of how to implement those recommendations. First, I read the story the whole way through. While I made notes, I aimed to read it as a general reader would, so I could immerse myself in it. These notes formed the basis for my overall recommendations. Then I read more analytically, going through each chapter to give chapter-by-chapter recommendations.

Reader’s reports are a really good idea if you’ve done a first draft of your story and you can’t figure out how to take it forward. That was the case for this author. They’re also a very good idea if you’re at a point where you can’t do any more with your story and you’re considering your options for publications. You may have shared the story with friends, family or a local writer’s group, but a professional opinion will help you take your story to the next level.

Have you ever had a reader’s report done? Have you ever compiled one?

Make Space for Writing in 2015

This is a time of year when we’re filled with hope that we’ll achieve great things. Writing a book is up there on that list of great ambitions, and for many people, making a start. It’s pretty daunting when you’re standing at the bottom of the mountain, looking up at the peaks you’ll need to scale.

A couple of years ago, I created a service to help these budding authors reach the top of that mountain. It’s called The Writing Space and it’s based on the idea that taking the time out to figure out what you want to write is the first vital step on that journey up the mountain. It offers a map that will guide them up the mountain, with easy steps to follow, so they can break the journey down into bitesize chunks.

Put in practical terms, The Writing Space is a coaching service that helps people crystallise the idea that’s been germinating at the back of their minds, and gives them a structure that will help them put a shape to their ideas and finish their book.

The Writing Space is aimed at people who want to write a novel, a collection of short stories or a memoir. There are two types of people that it particularly suits.

  • People who have always wanted to write a book, but find it hard to narrow themselves down to one idea.
  • People who have a very specific idea for a book and need help expanding that idea to fit it into book form.

These people may never have written in their lives, or may already have started the book, but find themselves stuck at an impasse and need help continuing.

The Coaching Session

I organise one-hour coaching sessions with these potential authors, where we discuss their ideas and how to bring them to fruition. We start with why they want to write. It is that why, that passion, that will help push them forward during the tough climb that lies ahead. We also discuss their potential audience, who the book is aimed at, and what category of writing it would fit into. If people don’t have a specific idea yet, we discuss topics that could be mined for book ideas – their passions, areas of expertise and important life events.

Outcomes of the Session

Based on what we discuss, I will then give recommendations on how they can move forward. I will give advice on structure and how to divide ideas into chapters. I will give feedback on the form their book will take, whether it should be a novel or a memoir. I will also point them towards resources which will be helpful to them in writing their book, such as websites, how-to guides and courses.

I will summarise the points discussed in our session in a report, which will also include the recommendations I have given. For non-fiction works, I will suggest a potential chapter structure, which will outline the topics that will be covered in each chapter. For fictional works, I will give suggestions regardingcharacterisation, plot, setting and point of view. If the person hasn’t written before, I will suggest topics for them to write about and exercises that will help them get started.

In many people’s minds, coaching and consultancy can seem beyond the reach of their budget. If people want to avail of expert advice but are constrained by budget, they can avail of the coaching session only, as it will still give them the tools they need to scale the mountain. Also, The Writing Space gives people the chance to get one to one attention from a professional writer, and I aim to ensure that they’ll feel the investment was worth it.

Would you find a service like this useful? Have you ever availed of such a service?

An Intense Writing Experience

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for ages. It’s about a creative writing workshop I gave in October. But I allowed the time fairies to steal my spare hours and it’s only now that I’m able to seize the opportunity to tell you about it. I’m telling you about it because it demonstrates what good feedback can achieve for a writer as their work develops.

As I give more and more creative writing classes, I’m starting to be more ambitious in the scope of those classes. I want to work more with students who are aiming seriously towards publication, or who at the very least want to produce full length pieces of writing. I’ve been fortunate to have students return for more classes, and I want to offer more to those students.

So I’ve started to offer intensive one-day workshops aimed specifically at students who are completing a novel, a non-fiction book or a book of short stories. The workshop I gave last October was one of those. The aim of the workshop was to help bring these writers closer to the finishing line, through in-depth exercises and feedback, three willing souls came to lay their work bare and have it critiqued.

Get Into Character

We jumped straight in at the deep end, with exercises designed to help the writers get to know their central characters better. They created a sketch of their character, filling in details about their lives, and the deep, dark secrets that made them who they are. The writers then walked around the room as their characters and imagined what the characters would eat for their last meal.

Interaction between characters forms the basis for many stories, so I got the writers to think about the impact of their character’s status on their interactions. I’ve discussed character status in a previous blog post, and it’s a useful way of determining how characters behave in potential conflict situations. The conflict situation I imagined for them involved their central characters giving another character a lift.

Point of View

Then we explored the impact of the point of view from which a story is told. Point of view has a strong impact on the atmosphere of a story, and on how much you learn about the characters. I related an incident involving an obstreperous old woman on a train, and got the writers to retell it, using a first person and third person viewpoint.

The Art of Giving Feedback

After lunch, it was time for the good stuff. Bearing in mind that people’s brains turn to mush after food, the afternoon activities were based more on discussion. But that discussion was certainly meaty. I’d asked the participants to send in five-page samples of their work and now it was time to dissect it.

Before the participants read their samples, I asked them to tell us what they wanted us to look out for in their work. Getting feedback is never easy, no matter how kindly it’s delivered. If you ask for the feedback you want, you’ll be more ready for it when it comes, and more receptive to the advice given. So the participants asked out to look out for things like character development and the flow of the story. Or else they just wanted to know if it was good enough, plain and simple.

After they had finished reading and they sat squirming, we softened the blow by first telling them what we liked about the pieces. Then we highlighted areas to work on, giving suggestions and asking questions. Feedback is easier to take if it comes in the form of a question, like What is the character supposed to be doing in that scene, or a suggestion, like I suggest you add in a few details to make it clear that the story is set in the present. This is more palatable than outright criticism like, Your characterisation is crap, or being prescriptive: You should set your story in the present.

Afterward

The students gained lots of new insights into their work, which they could then use to improve and develop the work. When a new pair of eyes come to a piece of writing, they see things that yours do not, because you’re too close to it. Their observations can set off a lightbulb flash in your head. At the very least, you won’t feel as if you’re quite mad for wanting to write a book, or that you’re alone while you’re doing so.

Have you ever been to a workshop like this? How did you feel your work benefited from it? Were there any ways it could have been improved upon?

The students gained lots of new insights into their work, that they could then use to improve and develop the work. When a new pair of eyes come to a piece of writing, they see things that yours do not, because you’re too close to it. Their observations can set off a lightbulb flash in your head. At the very least, you won’t feel as if you’er quite mad for wanting to write a book, or that you’re alone while you’re doing so.

Have you ever been to a workshop like this? How did you feel your work benefitted from it? Were there any ways it could have been improved upon?

What’s Wrong with Inconclusive Endings?

Last week, 700,000 television viewers in Ireland watched a series about a missing teenager called Amber. The series ended up being a big water-cooler topic, particularly the ending, which left more questions than answers. I hopped on the bandwagon and posted the following comment on Facebook.

A note to the producers of the TV series Amber. If you are asking your audience to commit to watching a drama for four nights in a row, have the decency to reward that audience with a solid conclusion.

Shock horror, not all my Facebook followers agreed with me! They raised valid points about how the ending reflected real life, which often offers no conclusion. Since the series was about a missing person case, it made sense to them that the case should be left unresolved. But I stand by my view that, to borrow the title of a Julian Barnes novel, these viewers deserved ‘the sense of an ending.’

Here’s why I think inconclusive endings are a bad idea. I’m referring to books, but these points could apply to all forms of storytelling.

1. They don’t reward readers

If someone has followed your through to the end, that’s a great privilege. It means they thought enough of your story to persevere, and they believed enough in the world you created to become immersed in it. I think it’s only fair then that those readers be rewarded for their effort with a sense of resolution. This doesn’t mean the ending has to be trite or happy. It’s just good to feel that a story is complete.

2. They’re Breaking the Rules

It’s true that some stories don’t follow the traditional form, and readers of those stories will probably be happy to be left with an ambiguous ending. It’s also true that once an author knows the rules, they’re free to break them. But if you are following the traditional beginning-middle-end format in a greater or lesser form, then you need to follow them through to the end. Otherwise you’re in danger of implying that rules are just for the little people.

 3. They Drop the Ball

When a story ends ambiguously, it can sometimes feel as if an author ran out of steam or didn’t quite know what to do to finish off the story, so they simply allow the story to putter to a halt. We have a lot of expectations of endings, so we like our build-ups to finish in a satisfying explosion. Authors need to stay with their own story to the end, not just 90% of the way.

Are you a fan of the inconclusive ending? Or do you prefer your stories wrapped up in a bow? What endings have thoroughly satisfied you and what endings have left you wanting?

Author Interview: Lorna Sixsmith, Would You Marry a Farmer

Lorna Sixsmith is known in Irish social media circles for being a blogger extraordinaire. Her blog posts regularly receive thousands of hits. What you mightn’t know is that Lorna’s roots lie in literature – she was an English teacher for many years. This year, she decided to return to those roots and write a book. She was inspired to write Would You Marry a Farmer when one of her blog posts went viral, and she’s hoping her blogging magic will work just as well for her book.

I’m delighted to be part of Lorna Sixsmith’s blog tour. Because I give advice to other writers about publishing, I thought I’d focus my interview on the interesting route Lorna took to publishing her book. I genuinely think it’s a viable option for other writers who want their book to see the light of day.

Lorna-Sixsmith

 

 

 

 

 

Lorna spared a few minutes to chat to me about her path to publication.

Lorna, let’s start at the beginning. Where did the germ of the idea for this book come from?

I had always planned on trying to write a book and wrote 40,000 words for a novel about two years ago but never had the time or the confidence to go back to it. The idea for this book came from a blog post I wrote in September 2012 entitled ‘Advice to those considering marrying a farmer’ – a tongue in cheek look at what farmers’ wives might expect.  It was always popular but when it went viral one week, I wondered if there would be similar interest in a book that covered that topic.

You’re used to writing blogs – how did you rise to the challenge of writing a full length book?

It was a challenge but having a deadline was wonderful. I can achieve almost anything if I have a deadline but could procrastinate for ages otherwise. I had a relatively short time to write it too – I wrote 10,000 words back in April but the rest was written and edited in three months. The book is divided into sections and subsections and I I faced writer’s block (partly from lack of inspiration or more so from feeling overwhelmed), I just told myself it was like a blog post and was then able to tap away at the keys until that section was completed. The blog posts I write can be anything from 400-2000 words on a normal day, so 2000 words for a section was then very achievable.

What made you choose to self publish that book rather than approach a traditional publisher?

Lack of patience I think.  Once I had decided to write a book, I wanted to get it out there. I knew the traditional route could take two years or even longer, , even if I managed to get an agent and a publisher this year.  More and more people are self publishing now too, some because they see it as the route to being discovered by a publisher, others because they have gone down the publishing route and have decided they would prefer to do it themselves.  Others prefer to keep control over their own project and I have to admit there was a little of that in my reasoning too.  Traditional publishing does add more kudos to a book but once I had made up my mind, I wanted to see it through and complete it by year end. I have another book in mind for 2014!

How did you hit on the idea of crowdfunding the book?

I had heard of crowdfunding but had never thought of it for my own project until I attended a social media conference in Wales in June. I heard a presentation about a successful crowd funding campaign for a film documentary and as I hadn’t progressed beyond 10,000 words at that stage, a little light bulb went off.

What methods did you use to reach your target?

I created rewards that centred on the book and the majority of the pledgers opted for the €15, €25 and €45 options for pre-ordering the book.  Some pledged for a social media course at We Teach Social (Lorna’s social-media training business) and some businesses were happy to increase their pledge to €100 for the 5 books and the banner advertisement on my website. These larger amounts were hugely significant in helping me reach my target.

Social media was crucial to the success too – I used blogging, Facebook and Twitter to spread the word.  Twitter was the most successful tool with over half of the pledges coming from twitter followers from all over the world. The social media activity also helped in getting press coverage in local and national newspapers too.

What obstacles did you encounter during your crowdfunding experience and how did you overcome them?

I didn’t encounter many obstacles as such. There was a lull in the middle which worried me but apparently that lull is perfectly normal. In hindsight, I should have told all my contacts about the campaign before it went live and then sent another email when it was live. I didn’t do that and was left wondering if people had seen it and were ignoring it or if they were putting the pledge on the long finger or perhaps they hadn’t seen it.

Would you recommend crowdfunding as an option to other self published authors?

Yes I would, but I would advise having a significant following on social media in advance.  Very few people will pledge from an ‘offline’ mention, they need to see the link online to follow it. Apart from the comfort of knowing that a significant portion of your printing and publishing costs have been covered, it is great publicity for the book before it hits the shelves.  I found that pledgers were naturally excited about the book too. They feel they have travelled the journey with me.  I recently received an email requesting my address for a book that I funded back in May – I’m looking forward to seeing that book and knowing I was a small part of it coming about.  If it doesn’t succeed, it doesn’t mean the book will fail but perhaps it might need tweaking before it is self published.

You hired a professional illustrator and editor for your book. What difference do you think investing in professional services makes to a self published book?

I really wanted to have illustrations throughout the book and knew I would need about twenty in total. I felt they would really add to the humour of the text as well as breaking up the black text.  It was a cost but I feel it really added to the production values of the book. I also decided to opt for a hard cover – I would like it to be a ‘fun coffee table book’ that people either read in its entirety or dip in and out of.

 

I think it must be very difficult for writers to edit their own book – you see what you think is there, not necessarily what is written. My husband was excellent at pointing out errors and while I had a few beta readers, nothing could equal the suggestions and subtle changes made by my editor (that’s me – coughs). Even before we got to the edit stage, it was comforting to be able to send the editor a good draft of three sections to receive her feedback and take that into consideration before I submitted it for the final edit.

How do you think your social media profile stood to you in your fundraising and promotion of the book?

It has been essential.  The crowdfunding would not have succeeded but for my social media profile and my membership of various online and business communities. Even being an organiser of the KLCK Bloggers Network and Blog Awards Ireland helped in terms of getting pledges. One journalist contacted me and wrote a piece in a national newspapers because she read about the crowdfunding campaign on my blog.

This virtual book tour will also help me to reach potential readers of my book who might not otherwise have heard of it. It’s about building brand awareness too before people will necessarily click the ‘buy now’ button.  I wrote a blog post a week ago entitled ‘Ten reasons to marry a farmer’. It received 50,000 views in the week with most of the traffic coming from shares on Facebook. Irish Central have reposted my post on their site and it has received significant shares and comments on Facebook too. The huge traffic hasn’t resulted in comparable sales but it all adds to brand awareness. People came to read a blog post, not to buy a book but a fraction may return.

Many of my purchasers in the last week have been via twitter too. However, it’s not just about social media. It is important to get coverage in traditional media too such as radio and print. Hopefully more of that will be happening over the coming weeks.

Overall, what advice would you give to people who are choosing to go down the self publishing route, to avoid pitfalls and maximise their chances of success?

Ensure it is a relatively popular topic if you are going to the expense of printing your book. Test the market with a Crowdfunding campaign or know that you have a substantial following on social media.

–        Write a blog, set up a Facebook page and a twitter account. These are essential tools now for self publishing authors.

–        Write the best book you possibly can so that your followers will act as your ambassadors and spread the word for you.

–        Invest in an editor and an illustrator for your front cover.

–        Foster relationships with key influencers and journalists.

Click here to buy Lorna’s book. http://irishfarmerette.com/?wpsc-product=marry-farmer

Tomorrow, the book tour stops at Thursday Muddy Matches by Heather, a blog full of ideas for rural-themed events for British singles

 

Book Review: TomAYto TomAHto by Adrian Millar

You know that age-old debate about what pronunciation to give to the humble tomato? Journalist and writer Adrian Millar has decided to take it to a whole new level and use it as a metaphor for marriage, in his witty, true to life novel.

And I’m not just saying it’s witty because he sent me a signed copy in the post, although I do love the smell of jiffy bags, It’s an honest portrayal of a marriage between two people who are at odds: one is the TomAYto, the other the TomAHto.

Eileen is an acerbic school vice principal who’s doing her best to keep the ship afloat. Mark, her husband, gave up the priesthood to marry her, and is now burning with resentment, feeling that his family are a noose around his neck. It’s a story that shows the extraordinary lives lived by ordinary people, and the possibility that redemption is around the corner.

Following a recent family tragedy, the cracks in their marriage are threatening to become permanent. One day, Eileen decides she has had enough and books into Sanctuary, a silent retreat where she will unravel the truths of her life with the help of Zen master Father Edward. And Mark will get a rude awakening of his own, as he’s left adrift in a sea of domestic chaos.

From the moment this novel starts, you’re smack bang inside the characters’ heads. You see the world, and their lives, the way they see it. Millar skillfully uses the characters’ actions and words to show you that all is not well. The dialogue is authentic, and riddled with one liners that will make you chuckle.

My criticism relates more to issues of layout than of content. Millar self-published this book using the Internet publishing platform Lulu. Unfortunately, the result is a giant wall of unbroken text, whcih is quite a strain on the eyes. Millar also edited the book himself and given how hard it is to edit your own work, he did a remarkably good job.

Millar’s own story weaves its way into the book. He was in the priesthood, as Mark was,  and worked in Japan, as Eileen did. His background as a psychoanalyst shows in his portrayal of his characters, which is full of empathy and emotional insight.

Adrian Millar is passionate about telling stories. He tells his own story in A Dad’s Life in The Irish Examiner’s Feelgood Supplement. He gives other people a chance to tell their stories on the site The Beauty of Every Day Life, where people celebrate the extraordinary moments in their ordinary lives. You can buy the book via Amazon – just click here. http://goo.gl/bwYLP3

 

 

 

Yes, the Film Can Be Better Than the Book

When I was younger and didn’t realise how short life is, I tried to plough through Charles Dickens’ books. I’d be drawn in by the fascinating characters and themes, but would soon be defeated by the denseness of the writing – it felt like wading through treacle. Bleak House was particularly frustrating, with tantalising hints of story drowned out by lengthy descriptions of English case laws.

But I did find a way to enjoy the best of Dickens and dispense with the obstacles, thanks to the BBC box set, first Oliver Twist as a teenager, then the stylish adaptation of Bleak House in 2005.

Bleak House Box Set

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book lovers often shudder when they see their favourite books on screen, with good reason. Some directors take a wrecking ball to the original book, as was the case with My Sister’s Keeper, when the brilliant ending was changed despite the novelist Jodi Picoult’s request. And while some films are faithful to the book, they fail to capture its spirit. This was particularly noticeable in the film adaptation of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

But sometimes films can do books a favour. They tie together the separate threads of a story, highlighting the best aspects of it, which you might have missed when you were reading the book. They get rid of all the flab and let the writing shine through. In my humble opinion, there are three book-to-film adaptations that are particularly successful in this regard.

  1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

When you’re writing a book by winking one eye, which was what Jean-Dominique Bauby did in his account of his life before and after developing locked-in syndrome (almost total paralysis), it’s hard to go into detail. This is a beautiful and moving collection of memories, but the film adaptation by Julian Schnabel turned those memories into a story and heightened their emotional intensity, creating a more complete portrait of the man. In other words, it improved on the original material.

  1. Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Cafe

This film is a heartwarming, life affirming tale packed to the rafters with spirited women who overcome all kinds of obstacles. When I bought the original novel by Fannie Flagg, I expected more of the same. What I got was a collection of Christian sermons, scattered anecdotes and recipes. I didn’t enjoy the sensation of being preached at and abandoned ship.

 3. Girl, Interrupted

I was dying to get hold of this memoir by Susanna Kayson. Any book that could produce a film as punchy and fiercely eloquent as Girl, Interrupted would have to be explosive stuff. What I got was a flat, one-dimensional tale, again a scattergun collection of memories. The film turned these into 3D, enabling viewers to get inside the heads of several characters at once. It also added layers of black humour and sexual tension.

Anyone want to buck the trend and mention a film adaptation which outstripped the original book?

Beating Writerly Isolation

As I said in last week’s post about writing and mental health, isolation is a big problem for writers. It’s easier to find support at the beginning of your career. Writers groups and creative writing classes are a natural home for emerging writers. But when you publish a book, you move on to the next phase of your career, and it becomes harder to find a community to support you.

A lot of writers are quite self contained and happy to work alone. But I find I need outside stimulus. It gives me huge inspiration. I’ve done my time in writing classes and groups, but I felt myself growing beyond them. Not because I had delusions of genius, but because my reasons for writing were different from a lot of my class and group mates.

I want to be a published writer, for the rest of my life. And I needed to connect with people who shared that goal. With the publication of my book, I can’t really say I’m an emerging writer, but I’m not quite an established writer either. I wanted to find writers who were also at that in-between stage.

I’ve met plenty of writers online over the last year and it’s been great, but I like being out in the real world, meeting real people. So once a month I have excellent coffee and really excellent conversation with two writers who are at a similar stage to me, with similar goals.

Orla Shanaghy has achieved the Holy Grail of getting to read on RTE Radio 1’s Sunday Miscellany and has been shortlisted in a couple of big-name competitions, like the William Trevor Competition and the Fish Competition.

Derek Flynn’s  first novel is on the point of being picked up by a publisher. He’s had several nibbles already. He’s also a musician, with two albums under his belt.

Orla Shanaghy, Derek Flynn and I with self publishing expert Catherine Ryan Howard at our social media panel during Waterford Writer's Weekend.
Orla Shanaghy, Derek Flynn and I with self publishing expert Catherine Ryan Howard at our social media panel during Waterford Writer’s Weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We share the trials and the triumphs of our writing lives: the rejections, the acceptances, the writers’ block. They allow me to indulge in epic whinges, for which I am eternally grateful. I really appreciate Orla’s sharp, insightful critique, and I’m being slowly converted to Twitter by Derek’s enthusiasm. Their perspectives have strengthened my work, and reassure me that I’m not mad to want to continue to be a writer in the face of what can seem like never-ending obstacles.

But it isn’t just a talking shop. We critique each other’s work, point each other to useful resources and concoct schemes to take over the world through social media. As a result of our collaboration, we’ve had the opportunity to take part in a social media panel during Waterford Writer’s Weekend, which is likely to lead to further social media workshops in the future. And most important of all, there’s the writing. We give each other rigorous but supportive critique. With all of this, we’re helping each other to reach the vaulted plains of established writerdom.

 

Why Serious Beats Funny in Writing

I’m reading The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend at the moment. It’s enjoyable. I give the odd chuckle here and there. The words ‘laugh out loud funny’ feature on the blurb. I appreciate that Sue Townsend is a great comic writer. But it’s not going to hit my top 10 any time soon. Comic writing just doesn’t engage my emotions.

People would probably use the words “depressing” or “heavy-going” to describe the books on my top 10 books that other people routinely describe as depressing or heavy. I prefer to use words like “profound” or “moving.” I understand that life is crap and that people read to escape that crap. But I like to see real life reflected back at me. That’s what serious books do. They help you to understand life better, to understand why people behave the way they do.

A Dose of Reality

Comedy acts as a buffer. Have you ever been in the company of a person who cracks a lot of jokes and you’re entertained for the evening, but then come away feeling that you don’t know them at all? That’s the effect a funny book has on me. The comedy sparkles, but it feels as if the story is concealing its heart.

Serious stories don’t shy away from life’s truths. They allow you to really know what’s going on in a character’s mind and heart. They give you an insight into what it’s like to live someone else’s life, to experience loss and upheaval. You can then imagine how you would react if these events happen to you, so that when difficult times come, you don’t get as much of a shock.

Emotional Workout

And if you’re in the middle of those difficult times, isn’t it great to know that there are others that have gone before you? It’s comforting to know that whatever you’re experiencing, there’s a silent army of support waiting for you in the pages of a book.

Reading a story with a sad or difficult theme, whether it’s a memoir or a novel, is a cleansing experience. It allows you to explore your own experience and to get in touch with your emotions. Above all, serious stories can be a beacon of hope, a testament to the enduring strength of the human spirit. Read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and you’ll see what I mean.

Do you have a similar response to serious stories? Or do you want to plead the case for comedy?

The Story Cottage

This coming Tuesday, I’m doing a talk and a reading for a local active retirement group. I’ll be telling them where the idea for my novel, The Pink Cage, came from. And I will tell them it all began in a cottage in Co. Clare, Ireland. A white stone cottage, with a hob by the fire.

Where Stories Begin

I arrived there fresh from a Masters in Journalism which hadn’t proved quite the golden career ticket I’d originally imagined. I’d dutifully sent out my CVs and Cormac McConnell, an old-school journalist, was one of the few to reply. He was Head of News at a local radio station and invited me down for a week’s trial. When I asked what accommodation was available, he told me I could stay with himself and his wife, at the aforementioned cottage.

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Cormac met me at the bus station, a glorious stereotype of a journalist: white beard, cigarette in hand, coffee at the ready. In true journalistic style, he shot straight from the hip. Within minutes, he told me he couldn’t give me a job, because he needed someone who could see well enough to chase ambulances around the back roads of Co. Clare. But during that week, he taught me how to tell my own story and I still think of that week as one of the greatest in my life.

As a seasoned journalist, Cormac had a keen eye for an angle. Over chats by the roaring fire and cups of ‘sleepy tea,’ we explored the angles my own life offered for stories. It turned out that my poor eyesight, the thing that had prevented me from getting the job, yielded a rich seam of ideas that I could mine. My family’s links with the countryside and country sports could also prove fruitful.

Hearing Stories

During the day, I went with Cormac to the radio station, which I helped the news team gather stories. Cormac’s style of journalism is folksy, rooted in the countryside and local stories. He had a programme where local people could ring and tell him whatever was in their heads. He was an empathic host, skilled at getting them to open up.

On my last day, a man rang in with some trifling complaint about traffic. In the course of his chat, he let slip that he was a cycling postman. Cormac seized on this gem and tapped into a story about a way of life that’s now almost extinct. The man’s father had been a cycling postman and his grandfather had been a walking postman. The man painted a vivid portrait of men braving all weathers to bring people a link to the outside world. That was when I felt the true power of story: simple, beautiful, eloquent.

The Story Goes On

In the coming years, I panned the mine of ideas Cormac had helped me tap into. I wrote about assistive technology for people with disabilities, skiing trips, the Countryside Alliance, Macra na Feirme and research into eye conditions. But I found that journalism didn’t quite give me the freedom I needed to say the things I wanted to say about what it’s like to be visually impaired.  As the bottom began to fall out of feature writing, the novel began to take shape. When it was published, I made sure to send Cormac a copy.