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?

Three Food-Themed Creative Writing Exercises

I’m giving a food-themed creative writing workshop at the Harvest Food Festival in Waterford in September. I came up with the idea for the workshop not just because of my love affair with food but because I genuinely believe that food is a rich source of inspiration for stories.

 Vivid descriptions of food will make your readers salivate and yearn for more. You can explore the powerful link between food, emotions and memory. Writing about food can also help you develop your characters, as you explore what their attitude to food is and what role food plays in their relationships with others (dinner parties that go wrong etc).

Here are three food-themed creative writing exercises you can try to get your taste buds tingling. Some of these will feature in this food-themed workshop.

A Taste of Oranges

I have actually blogged about this exercise before, because it’s one of my favourites. Essentially, it encourages you to tune into all your senses at the same time by eating an orange and describing how it tastes, looks, feels, smells and sounds. You can then expand the exercise by writing about a food themed memory, of eating oranges or of meals that stuck out in your mind, for the right or wrong reasons.

Oranges work all of a writer's senses.
Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

A Recipe for Happiness

This is a bit of fun, but it encourages people to explore the link between food and emotions. You write a recipe in the usual way, with the ingredients and the method, but instead of giving measures of flour and sugar, your ingredients will consist of the things that make you happy (30 minutes of sunshine, 3kg of laughter), and instructions for mixing the ingredients together. You could propose ingredients for a perfect day, or for a happy life in general. 

Guest vs Host

As I’ve said, food can shape your characters and how they relate to each other. Being invited to dinner is supposed to be a pleasurable experience, but the dynamics between guest and host can create friction. Write a story in which one of your characters invites another central character for dinner and describe a conflict that occurs during the dinner. Perhaps the host is overbearing or the guest is ungrateful. Use dialogue to capture the tension between them. Use descriptions of the food and how it is eaten to build an atmosphere. Perhaps the host has a perfect dinner table which is gradually destroyed throughout the evening.

 

Does food feature in your writing? Do you enjoy reading books with a food theme? Have you ever done food themed exercises and if so, what were they?

Inside the Mind of a Writing Competition Judge

I received a notice recently, letting me know about a local short story competition that was taking place. Around the same time last year, the organisers of that competition rang me to ask if I would judge it. A chance to read stories? I certainly wasn’t going to turn that down.

It was my second time judging a competition; the first one was in association with a local radio programme. When judges announce the winners of competitions, they always start by saying what a close run thing it was. From my experiences, this isn’t strictly true. In both cases, I knew who the winner was straight away.

Here are the ingredients that I believe winning stories have, and they also apply to other writing forms.

  • Know Your Form

Most competitions cater to a specific form of writing: poems, short stories, plays. If you want to reach the final stages, your entry must show an understanding of the conventions of the form you have chosen. For example, a short story must be a complete story in itself, based on a central event. I disqualified stories which read like the start of a novel, or an extended character sketch, even though they were very promising.

  • Don’t reveal too much

You do need to get on with telling a story, but the most rewarding stories I judged were the ones that didn’t spell everything out, the ones that made you work a little bit to grasp their message. Stories like this have a greater emotional impact, and linger in the mind for longer. They also show great writing skill, as the author uses images and dialogue to make their point.

  • Knowledge of Techniques

Winning pieces of writing demonstrate a knowledge of the techniques of good writing. For example, a winning short story will demonstrate the writer’s knowledge of characterisation, plot and setting. What’s more, the techniques don’t dominate the story; they’re woven into it with a lightness of touch which means the reader is barely aware they’re being used.

  • And above all … passion

You can use all the fancy techniques you like, but it’s the passion you feel for your story or poem that will help it rise to the top. Telling a story with passion makes it memorable, and that’s to your advantage when a judge is wading through dozens of entries. And when it comes down to the wire, passion will give your story the edge. When I was deciding between two stories, I eventually chose the ones which haunted me, which made me think long after I’d put them down. A passionate story or poem resonates with readers, so don’t be afraid to take emotional risks with your writing – it will reap rewards.

These are my two cents worth. What do you think makes a winning piece of writing? Did you ever judge a writing competition and what did you look for? And if you entered a competition and got feedback, what insight did that feedback give you about what the judges were looking for?

The Hang-Ups of Women Writers

Writing is probably the most equal of all professions. Women can rise all the way to the top; there is no glass ceiling. The pay is equally bad for men and women writers, and women writers who get publishing deals are paid the same for their deals as men. Yet a persecution complex persists among male writers. These writers create enclaves for themselves, with all-female magazines, blogs and prizes.

There are three things that particularly rouse their ire, but as a woman write myself, I believe their ire is groundless and I will tell you why.

  • Women Writers Don’t Win Prizes

Women writers tend to feel a bit hard done by when it comes to winning the heavy-hitting literary prizes. So much so that a prize has been specially created for women writers. It’s given a different girly name depending on who’s sponsoring it, and at the moment, it’s Bailey’s. The awarding of this prize has been known to raise eyebrows, with some questioning the necessity of it.

A quick look at the prizewinners of three of the world’s biggest literary prizes, the Booker, the Impac and the Nobel, justifies their view. In the past seven years, three women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Six out of the past 10 Booker Prizes have been awarded to women and Hilary Mantel was awarded it twice! Women don’t fare so well with the Impac, the world’s richest literary prize. Only two women have won it in 18 years. Still, women writers can take a crumb of comfort from the fact that last year’s winner, was translated by a woman.

  • The pink book syndrome

Many women writers of commercial fiction express annoyance in interviews at the trend towards packaging their books in pink covers, often with sparkles at the side, or a high heeled shoe on the front. They view that, and the accompanying chicklit tag, as an affront to their writer. ‘It’s not chicklit,’ they protest. ‘We write about issues, you know.’ They may indeed write about issues, often very skilfully, but that’s not why people read them. They read them to be swept along by a thumping good yarn, which takes them away from the daily grind for a while. And you have to be an accomplished writer to achieve that.

As for the chicklit tag, it is fair to say that these books remain within female territory, with themes like relationships, raising children, the struggle to lose weight and breast cancer. There is also a fair amount of talk about clothes and beauty products, and the characters have a great love of drinks with umbrellas in them. And women lap these books up. They enjoy seeing their lives reflected on the pages. So instead of chafing at the chicklit tag, why don’t these writers take pride in the fact that they write books that people want to read, that represent real women in real ways, and that sell by the truckload.

  • Women Write Aga Sagas

On a similar vein, there is also a feeling that when men write on family and domestic themes, they are hailed as literary heroes, while their female counterparts are dismissed with that derisory term, the aga saga. But Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn was nominated for the Booker because of its subtle characterisation and atmospheric writing, not because he’s a man.

Brooklyn

When women do write these nuanced, intimate portraits of family life, they are lauded for their efforts just as men are. Marilynne Robinson, author of Home and Gilead, has won the Pulitzer Prize, and Anne Tyler is regarded as a great American dame of letters.

Underlying these hang-ups is a fear of not being taken seriously. Some writers are so affected by this that they remove all trade of gender from their author name, going by their initials instead. JK Rowling makes quite a habit of it. They feel that readers will not buy their books if they know that a woman wrote them. But readers judge books by genre, style and quality more than they do by gender. If they choose to read more writers from a particular gender, it’s more a question of taste than whether a man or a woman wrote it.

Do you agree? Do you feel that women writers have these hang ups, or other ones that I haven’t covered? Are they justified in their fear of not being taken seriously? Or am I talking a load of rubbish? let the debate begin.

Oh, to Be a Writer in the Old Days

Last Thursday was Dorothy Parker Day, a day to celebrate the American poet famous for her wisecracks and her gin habit. Ian O’Doherty, the professional ranter who writes for the Irish Independent, quipped that if you were to spend a day as Dorothy Parker did, you’d drink your body weight in gin at the Algonquin Hotel in Cork, make cleverly cutting remarks about your fellow human beings.

Dorothy Parker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The piece triggered off that wistfulness I sometimes get when I think about writers in earlier eras: the lost generation of American writers, rabble rousing in Parisian cafes, the long liquid lunches enjoyed by Irish journalists in the 1960s, the torrid affairs of the great 20th century writers like WB Yeats, Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir.

Portrait of the Writer in the Old Days

If I were a writer at any time up to the dawn of the World Wide Web. I’d have been given one to one personal attention from my editor, with decadent lunches along the way. My publisher would bear the burden of producing and publicising the book, leaving me free to get on with producing my masterpieces.

If I were scheduled to talk to newspapers or radio stations, I’d turn up hours late, slightly drunk. I would be obtuse in my answers, or say outrageous, potentially libellous things. The interviewer would be in no doubt as to my views on the state of the world, even if they were not entirely PC. Later on, I’d go to a writing cafe and fillet my fellow writers, my publishers and the interviewer. My views would be extremely uncharitable, but they would be couched in the most elegant language.

Portrait of the Writer Now

These days, writing is more and more of a business. When the story is written, writers are expected to be entrepreneurs, with a product to sell. When my first book, The Pink Cage, came out, I didn’t meet anyone from the publishing company until the launch. My book was given a proofread rather than an in-depth edit.

The book launch was a hooley, but most of my contact with readers and the media has been online. Technology has been my ally in selling the books, but it has made the publishing and sales process cold and clinical.

I’m more media savvy than writers of the past have been, and I know that what I say will have an impact on how readers view me and my book. I’ve allowed the odd naughty remark to sneak through, but mostly, I’ve behaved professionally. That’s because these days, writers are expected to be entrepreneurs, with a product to sell. This is no bad thing; it makes us less precious about ourselves. But it means that interviews with writers have become sanitised. For me, that’s exemplified in a picture I saw a few years ago of a gathering of writers, all of whom were holding cups of tea.

Is it Better to Be a Writer Now?

I know it’s not desirable to burn out in your prime as a result of a pickled liver, black demons or foul play. I would hate to be rude to interviewers, keep them waiting or let them down. Nor would I give out about my felllow writers; I share their struggles.

I wouldn’t have the stamina for the wild bohemian lifestyles writers enjoyed. I’m aware that my view of the literary past is highly idealised. After all, writers now have more power than ever before over their books: how they are produced and how they are sold.

I love the fact that the Internet has democratised writing, allowing writers to find publishing outlets more easily and make personal connections with their readers. readers. I think it’s healthy that writers are climbing down from their ivory towers and removing the mystique from the craft.

Yet a part of me yearns for an earlier time, when writers were allowed to be artists, and they were allowed to be crazy.

The Story of My Life

So here’s the story. I skied down a mountain. I turned one way. At the same time, another skier turned another way. We crashed into each other. And I broke my leg. So far, so commonplace. Similar injuries happen to 80 people each day in the area where I was skiing.

Skiing Trip 2009 041

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, being a writer, the first thing my family and friends said was, “That’ll make a great story.” But let’s face it, a lot of the things that happen to us are only of interest to us. It’s the big challenge of writing if you’re the sort of writer who draws inspiration from their own life. How do you make that life interesting to other people?

High Drama

I could go for the full on ER treatment, creating a story pulsing with the tension and drama of a medical emergency. I even have a narrative arc: the crash, the break, the ambulance ride, the x-rays, the operation, the rush to get home. I could lay on the heavy drama, with lots of twists and turns. Will the operation be as drastic as they claim? Will I be allowed to go home? If I took that approach, I’d go the fictional route, maybe thrown in a heart throb doctor to get the pulses racing.

Creating an Atmosphere

I could also take the atmospheric approach, drawing heavily on the five senses. The taste of an orange two days after an operation. The slithering sensation of the drain being removed. The dots that appeared in front of my eyes as the anaesthetic took hold. The sound of Anne of Green Gables soothing me to sleep. The sight of one of my old ski guides, appearing as a white vision above my bed as I was wheeled to x-ray.

Make Em Laugh

Humour is also a good route to take. Yes, I know what I said last week about humour in stories, but it does work really well in a personal essay. So I could talk about my Oompa Loompa leg, so called because of the orange surgical fluid they swabbed it with. Or my efforts to do rock and roll dances on my crutches. Or quips about how my hair would be grey by the time I reached the table to order my dinner. Though humour’s subjective, so I’d have to be careful.

Looks like I’ve plenty of options before me. That’s the privilege of the writer’s life. That ability to find the extraordinary within the ordinary and bring the world to life for readers.

I Write Because…

I’m nuts.

I’d have to be, wouldn’t I? Writing does not save lives. It doesn’t save your soul. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon a truth and manage to express it in a way that resonates. Even then, you have to gamble on the fact that readers will be listening. And that’s a big gamble.

Writing harms your bank balance. If your writing’s going badly, you’re a bear to your friends and family. Writing won’t get your house clean. And to clumsily paraphrase Gil Scott Heron, it won’t give your mouth sex appeal.

Why write?

Because I can’t not. And because I love it. I simply wouldn’t feel human if I didn’t. Writing helps me to live with myself.

Writing is a compulsion

I write to make sense of the world. I write to savour the delight of words bouncing around my  head, on my tongue and onto the page. When I write, I get to play God, creating characters and worlds. I write because I have things I want to say.

And I can’t lie to you. I write to be read. If I’m going to put so much labour into my pieces, I’m not going to let them moulder on a hard drive. And even if only about five people read them, I’ll remain deeply satisfied that I produced the best work I could.

A highly unscientific study on social media yielded similar findings among my fellow writers on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only nut out there. Thanks to all who contributed for the opinions.

When’s Your Next Book Coming Out

When’s your next book coming out? That’s the question on everyone’s lips. Well, a few people anyway. It’s in the pipeline I tell them. What’s it about, is the next question. I tell them it’s about them. Keeps the reader happy. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Keeping the reader happy.

The truth is, I wish I knew the answer to that question myself? You see, I used up all my material in the first book. Few people have a life that’s eventful enough for a few books. I was lucky to have material for one. My second book will require me to look beyond myself. Which is a pity, because that’s our favourite subject, isn’t it? Whether we admit it or not.

What to Say

I read a blog post which said that writing a second novel was like learning a new language. You start from scratch. You feel your way. And you have to gather new material, outside your own experience. You have to ask yourself the question: What is it like to live someone else’s life?

I wrote my first book because I had something I wanted to say. I spent quite a long time saying it and I finally ran out of things to say. I’d exhausted the mine. Now it’s time for me to find a new mine, to dig for new gold. In other words, to find something new to say.

There are outside factors holding me back too. I’ve seen how challenging and daunting the publishing world is. I’ve realised how hard it is to make any real impact on readers. It’s tempting at this stage to try and create a story that readers will like. After all, what’s the point in slaving over work that no-one ultimately wants to read.

Great Expectations

And I expect more from my own writing. I feel the weight of that expectation on me. To create more sizzling conflict, to create settings that add a real 3D effect  to my writing, to be more meticulous in the language that I choose and to pace my work in a way that will engage readers, without alienating them.

In spite of all that, I’m longing to get stuck in. This is a chance for me to start creating a whole new world, with new characters to meet and new themes to explore. I can’t say when this epic tale will emerge, but I’m confident that it will. And while you do write for yourself, my goal this time is to create a story with more universal appeal, that will create wider ripples.

If anyone does have a cure for the second novel blues, be sure to drop me a line.

Can a Creative Writing Class Help You Get Published

I’ve just finished a series of eight creative writing classes for beginners. And naturally, I hope that they will continue to write. Who knows, maybe even one day, be published. After all, isn’t that what a creative writing class supposed to be for?

Well, no it isn’t.

Creative writing classes have been mushrooming all over the country in recent years. And every so often, people speculate as to whether they’re really necessary. After all, a lot of today’s best-selling and award-winning authors never darkened the door of a classroom.

But looking at creative writing classes in terms of whether they produce published writers is too narrow a viewpoint. After all, no one expects children playing underage hurling to turn into DJ Carey, or people taking an evening art class to eventually become Vincent Van Gogh.

Creative writing classes are really about the two Es, escape and expression.

Escape: Creative writing classes give you a chance to step outside the humdrum of everyday life and recapture the magic of being alive. One of the great skills of a writer is to find the extraordinary within the ordinary and creative writing classes show students how to do this. It’s like a holiday from life.

Expression: Students have a chance to share their innermost thoughts in a safe environment and to let their imaginations run free. This can have a powerful effect, as they often don’t have these opportunities for expression elsewhere.

If you help your students achieve those goals as a creative writing tutor, you can safely say you’ve done your job. Anything further than that is a bonus.

A lot of students are avid readers and will be interested in getting a behind-the-scenes look at how their favourite authors create their stories. And particularly in more advanced classes, they’ll be interested in honing their craft as much as they possibly can.

Creative writing classes can help you get published – but only if you want to. A good creative writing tutor will give you the tools and the confidence to develop your stories and point you in the direction of places where you can send your work.

But if you want to be published, you’ve got to carry on by yourself. It’s a bit like Frodo in Lord of the Rings when he realised only he could bring the ring to the Cracks of Doom. You’ve got to put your bum on that seat.

And if being published is what you want, then a creative writing class could just give you the prod you need.

Four Ingredients of Story: Theme

Now, we come to the last in our Four Ingredients series – theme. In the shaping of a story, theme is more of a background ingredient. You don’t need a strong theme to create a successful story. Yet it is often the theme that inspires the writer to write the story in the first place – and the reader to pick it up.

All great stories cover universal themes, themes that speak to all of us. There isn’t a single story in humankind that doesn’t deal with love or death, or both. Within those two broad categories, popular themes include marriage, the effects of ageing and the quest for happiness. When a story is really powerful, it holds a mirror up to the human condition and we see ourselves reflected in it.

As a writer, it’s hard to feel that it hasn’t all been said before. Well, it has. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find new ways to say it. You can bring your own unique voice to add a fresh slant to the theme. Since everyone is unique, nobody is ever going to tackle a theme in quite the same way. So there is still room for you to add your imprint.

What you’ve got to be careful of is that the theme doesn’t drown out your characters or story. It’s through your characters and plot that your theme comes alive and resonates with readers. If the theme dominates, the book becomes too heavy and readers will end up feeling that they’re being preached to. An example of that is Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, where the characters stood for different attitudes to the land and being at one with nature and the underlying expectation was that the reader would agree that there was no alternative to being at one with the land.

The reason why To Kill a Mockingbird has endured is because its theme of injustice, particularly racial injustice, is still something we experience today. Lionel Shriver won the Orange Prize for her courage in in tackling the theme of what happens when a mother doesn’t bond with her child in We Need to Talk About Kevin. When theme-based novels work, they stand tall.

What themes draw you as a reader, or as a writer? What theme-based novels have worked for you?