The Domino Effect

WARNING! This blog contains laboured analogies and may even be harbouring a conceit.

Aptly enough, this is what came up when I entered 'laboured conceit' into Google Images. Along with a lot of images of Hollywood actors.

Aptly enough, this is what came up when I entered ‘laboured conceit’ into Google Images. Along with a lot of images of Hollywood actors.


Around this time last year I finished what I had decided to be the definitive draft of my first novel. It has been through six extensive rewrites and polishes and it was functioning as I wanted it to: telling the story I wanted to tell, best words in the best order, laying the groundwork for its sequel (which I had already started to develop).

Or so I thought.

The world of the novel is a fascinating one and writing one is a journey of self-discovery. It’s like becoming embroiled in a new relationship: you meet someone new and they are very attractive. You’re intrigued. But instead of sitting them down and doing extensive research into your levels of compatibility, you get drunk and jump into bed with them straight away. No need to worry – the minor details will reveal themselves over the course of your long and fulfilling relationship. Writing a first draft is much like this – you’re in love with the big picture, with all of the possibilities inherent in your fascinating story and you can’t wait to uncover them. Of course it’s all a skewed reflection of your own narcissism projected onto someone else, but hey, isn’t love lovely?

Then the honeymoon period comes to an abrupt end.

You realise you don’t know important aspects of your story. This story could be an axe murderer for all you know – and the aspects that at first seemed so charming could quickly become dull or banal. You have to make the crucial decision – is there anything to salvage here? Should I stick with it? If you do, it’s a process of getting to really know your story, to try and smooth out its rough edges (this part of the analogy doesn’t apply to relationships – you can change books but not people). The drafting process is about trying to uncover the deeper kernel of truth at the heart of your work – the emergent story that needs to be liberated from the hysterically besotted mass of waffle that is your first draft.

I managed to do this, or so I thought, and sent the book to some agents. Then I began the second novel.

I quickly realised that I’d learned a huge amount about my story over the six drafts or so I’d written of my first novel. The lessons I’d learned were impacting on my second novel in an intriguing way, keeping the plot moving swiftly along, allowing me to draw my characters with conviction and ease. But it also dawned on me that very little of this knowledge had been reflected in the draft of the prior book I’d sent out to agents. I foostered about for a while, thinking about starting the rewriting process all over again until a few weeks ago, when an agent came back and listed the same reservations I had about the first book. She said a lot of positive things as well and has asked to read a re-write, and offered to read the second book as well. But I have a lot of work to do.

Strangely, I’m quite excited about this work. I think if I can manage it, I will feel a finally have a handle on my story. I’ll have a coherent and interesting vision for the world of the novel which people should hopefully respond to. And I’ll have a first novel that matches its sequel in terms of overall vision, thematic concerns and plot consistency (smooth rather than lumpy). I spent the weekend identifying the aspects of the plot which weren’t working, or had become irrelevant in the wake of plot developments in the second book. Now I have to resign myself to the Domino Effect; each aspect of the book that I fix will lead to a series of other minor issues which will in turn need attention. It’s like Chaos Theory. Or pulling a thread on a sweater. (I’ll leave these as nice simple similes rather than going the analogy route, because we all have something better to be doing).

But the good news is that in draft seven, I’ve realised I still have feelings for my book, even after all we’ve been through.


An Education in Silence

Heard Julie McClure speak on the radio last week about the experiences of the women in the Stanhope Street Laundry and wrote this poem in response to her story. She and her parents had been told that there were opportunities for young school leavers to gain an education by going to the Stanhope Street ‘training centre’. When she got there, at the age of 13, she was made to work in the laundry for the following three years.

The poem has been published today on Poetry 24. Please do leave a comment as while I’m completely unequal to the task of summing up her experience, I do think it’s an important national issue.

Who Likes Short Shorts?

Last night I was at the launch of a new collection of Irish short plays at the Peacock bar. We managed to catch Mark O’Rowe on his way to the gala opening of his new film Broken and he gave an insightful, encouraging and funny speech about the plays. It was lovely to see the plays published, as I’d worked on most of them when they were presented as public readings on the Peacock stage over the past few years. Each year the Abbey Theatre commissions a group of emerging playwrights to write twenty minute two-handers for us and we present them on the Peacock stage. It’s always a good night; you can’t beat the sense of excitement that accompanies the presentation of new work by new voices. The selection of plays published in Irish Shorts is taken from the 20 Love series of short play readings from 2008 and the Fairer Sex series in 2009. We’re hoping that if there’s a positive enough response to the book, Nick Hern Books will publish a follow up including plays from Something Borrowed in 2010 and Into the Woods in 2011.

Buy this book and make a young writer happy!

Sam Shepard’s Typewriter

My new header is a photo of a typewriter in the Abbey Theatre Literary Department. We got it for Sam Shepard during one of his trips to Dublin a couple of years ago so he could write in his hotel room (he doesn’t do computers!) I had the job of sourcing it, which proved near impossible – our props department have a beautiful array of bashed vintage types, but it’s almost impossible to find ribbons for them. In the end, I found this online and nabbed it. It’s still sitting in the Literary Department with a post-it reading ‘Sam Shepard’s typewriter – Jessica to collect’ in case Sam ever feels inspired on a future trip to Dublin.

New Poem for Nollaig na mBan

Just another quick post to say I’ve a new poem featured on Poetry 24 today here:

Poetry 24 is a great blog which features a new poem every day. The idea is to respond to a current news item, so it’s a wonderful marriage of on-the-spot creativity and relevant content. I’ve had a few poems featured here. I find the prompt of writing an immediate response to something topical very challenging – and most of what I come up with is a very personal response, i.e., an exploration of the topic through my own personal experience. This is fine, but I’d like to push myself a little further and try and achieve that elusive blend of the universal and the particular which Patrick Kavanagh spoke about. I think it’s a very important exercise for all aspiring writers to try and broaden their sphere of reference beyond the purely personal and Poetry 24 can really push you to do this. So have a look and get writing!

Pulling It All Together

I’m at the stage in my second novel where I need to be thinking of finishing up a first draft. In metaphorical terms, this feels like having to neatly catalogue the debris from a nuclear explosion; you allow your narrative to mushroom cloud until it reaches a certain point where everything needs to be gathered together and made purposeful. I need to impose order on the chaos.

This analogy may be slightly out of control…

There are certain challenges to this (she says, stating the obvious). The first and greatest is self-imposed and it’s due to the kind of narrative I’ve chosen to use to tell my story in this novel. Where my first novel clung close to the protagonist’s experience and every chapter was recounted from her point of view, the second novel introduces a lot of new characters and we experience many events from their perspective. This means that most chapters are roughly broken into three different parts which deal with three different journeys. There’s a lot going on. I’ve tried to be economical with language and description in order to maintain tension and clarity. This is a great device for building towards a climax; at any one time you have three or more characters in situations that the movie people would describe as ‘containing scenes of mild peril’ and you can switch between these three strands, leaving your readers dying to know what happens next. At least, in principle.

However, the challenge comes when you need to slow the pace slightly to explain important details which are necessary to bring the book to its climax; why has one character been avoiding another? Where did that guy go and how did he get back? How exactly are the characters going to overcome their obstacles? These are the moments when you have to try to be very clever with exposition. Too quickly delivered and it sounds contrived; too slowly delivered and your mushroom cloud collapses.

 Like most people, I find juggling a full time job and a writing career quite difficult. The style I’ve used for my second novel allows for shorter attacks, which I’ve just about been able to fit into my hectic schedule (in case this sounds like bragging about my fabulously busy life, it’s not – ‘hectic’ does not necessarily equal exciting, more a general, creeping disorganisation which means I never get anything finished.) However, now that I’ve reached the novel’s moment of crisis, I know I need to take a different approach. The blitzkrieg attacks will no longer work. I need to lock myself in a room – hey, does anyone know of any abandoned hotels out there? Possibly built on an Indian burial ground? – and not let myself out until I have tied the novel’s various plot strands together in a way that will support the narrative’s shaky superstructure. This doesn’t require elegance or finesse, but it does require a certain measure of ingenuity and I can’t be clever on a weeknight when Masterchef is on.

See how isolation can help you find a sense of clarity?

 Last time I reached this juncture, I had a week in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig to finish the novel. I had a brilliant time and got a huge amount of work done, with no distractions except for the smell of freshly baked scones wafting up from the kitchen below. There’s something strangely comforting in the fact that I’m yearning to go back there again to finish this first draft too. It’s not just the thought of the scones; rather the idea that I’m becoming acquainted with a process that works for me. These are the little milestones that remind you that writing is not all about prostrating yourself before the muse – it’s about graft too. And we’re all capable of a certain amount of graft if we can make the time.