Make Them Feel It

In 500 words, how to make a story, essay or article compelling. This was originally commissioned, along with another, longer piece, for the Irish Independent. Both pieces were intended for students preparing for the Leaving Cert. This one didn’t get published due to a lack of room (though they still paid in full for it), so I’m posting it here.

You haven’t much time. You have a story to write, perhaps an essay or an article. Your reader will have many, many of these to read. They’ll be checking that you’ve ticked the right boxes and then they’ll just move on to the next one. This is a person you’ll never meet and as far as they’re concerned, your piece is probably going to be nothing special. You’ve got to convince them they’re wrong – make them remember you . . . and the clock is ticking.

10: First, don’t write. Stop and think. Easy Option-Book BlastWhere do you need to end up? What’s the last thing you’ll say? Your ending doesn’t have to be set in stone, but you need a direction to head off in.

9: Get their attention. What’s the situation you’re describing? Present a problem in need of a solution. Pose a question in the reader’s mind: How is this going to work out? It’s the key to suspense: Ask a question . . . make them wait for an answer.

8: You have a problem to be solved, but why should your reader care? What’s the strongest negative emotion it can provoke? Provoke it by describing how bad the situation could be. If this is a story, dump your main character right in the middle of the problem. If it’s an essay or article, make a strong statement, then tease the reader towards your justification for making it.

7: If there are no characters, if it’s an essay, remember that emotion is as strong a persuader as logic. Passion can be convincing. What do you feel strongly about? What can you argue passionately for? Why?

6: Write it as if you’re feeling it. Make your reader feel it too. Write in the present tense, or moment by moment in the past tense. You’re emotionally affected by this and your reader should be there with you. First person or third? Or maybe even the second person, throwing the emphasis back on the reader.

5: Characters need to be believable individuals, different from each other. Each has a distinctive job to do in the story. Sometimes the clash between the different characters is the whole story. Often, it’s how they fail that keeps us reading, how their personality is ill-suited to the task at hand. Maybe they caused the problem. We’ll cheer for them all the more if the cause seems hopeless, but they don’t give up.

4: Reinforce that question hanging in the reader’s mind. Start offering up solutions, but then knocking them down. Create suspense through failed attempts at success.

3: Things have to be at their worst right before the end; the tensest moment, the most threatening event, the worst element of the issue. All is about to be lost.

2: The punch-line, the pay-off, the climax. You deliver the goods.

1: Wrap it up and be quick about it. Drawn-out endings are boring and you haven’t got time.

Now let it go and move on. You’ve got other things to do.

Never Forget

This wasn’t the picture I was going to put up. To mark the publication day for ‘Rat Runners’, I was going to post the cover again, but I’ve done that a few times so I’m going to give it a rest for the moment.

Instead, I’m putting up this. When I finish the manuscript for a novel, I draw up a black and white cover for it. This was the one for ‘Rat Runners’. Like the others, this was not intended as a concept for the final cover, or even an internal illustration. I draw these for a few reasons, but mainly, they’re to remind me of something.

When I was a kid, I used to fill copybooks (that’s ‘exercise books’ for you folks in the UK) with stories and pictures. I fantasized about being a writer and illustrator. Sure, I wanted to be loads of other things, but it was always really this thing. I never really felt like I had a choice in the matter.

So here I am, twenty-five books later. This is the dream. But people who aren’t in the business must sometimes be surprised at how cynical full-time children’s writers can become, and I’m no exception. I can be quite the belligerent fecker at times. To people who are still waiting for their shot, this attitude must seem churlish and even ungrateful considering we’re doing what we dreamed of doing.

We don’t mean to be negative about it, and deep down, I think most of us feel really privileged. But making it in this job can be a REALLY hard slog, unless you’re exceptionally lucky – it can lead you to be frustrated, stressed and downright exhausted from constantly trying to break through, and then you start making a living from it, and you find there’s rarely any let up, unless you reach that tiny, TINY golden percentage at the very top.

But I do not consider myself a ‘struggling writer’. I am not a tortured soul, writing to fill a god-shaped hole, or to overcome my neuroses. I am not oppressed by the demands of my muse. I write and illustrate stories to make sense of the world, to connect to something greater than myself, but when you get right down to it, I’m still just the kid making stories with pencils and markers in his copybooks.

And that’s why I draw pictures on the the fronts of my manuscripts.

I hope you’ll check out ‘Rat Runners’, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Writing for Kids

Hi All,

Just to let you know that there are still some places left on my Writing for Children course at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin this weekend.

This two-day course will cover the basics of storytelling and the specific aspects of writing for children and young adults. Areas that will be examined include how to generate ideas, how to use observation, description of both character and setting, using dialogue and ensuring a good pace and plot. There will also be a focus on how to tailor your writing for different age groups and practical exercises, including a final writing task. I’ll also be giving tips on how to get published and how to market your books once you get published.

Get booking!

Cool for Cats – The Ideas Shop Comes to Kilkenny

The lovely Sarah Webb and I will be flying by the seats of our respective pants as we hold an ‘Ideas Shop’ event for the Kilkenny Arts Festival – without the calming presence of Judi Curtin. The event takes place at 3pm on the 12th of August at the Barnstorm Theatre.

In this show, we take a light-hearted approach to discussing how our childhoods influenced our approach to coming up with ideas, how we build our stories from nothing, and how we go about reaching our audience once we’ve completed those stories.

If you’re down that way, and your that way inclined, we’ll see you there.

Fine Young Cannibals

I’m just finishing up two separate residencies for Poetry Ireland, in primary schools in Drogheda and Balbriggan. These two particular courses are what are known as Development Education residencies – all of which have some kind of social justice theme. The theme this year has been ‘Starvation’. I run a project that produces a collection of illustrated stories at the end of it – one by me and the rest by the kids – all of which have to deal with starvation in some way.

The way I approach this is to encourage all the kids to write whatever type of story they want to write . . . on one condition: all the stories have to take place in the same setting. In this case, it’s an Irish city in an alternative world, where most of the population is starving. The story doesn’t have to be completely realistic, and it doesn’t have to be about finding food; there are lots of other problems the kids’ characters can be facing. Starvation makes people desperate, and desperate people do some mad things.

The classes were 5th and 6th – that’s ten, eleven and twelve-year olds for any of you folks outside of Ireland. Interestingly, it occurred to the kids in both classes that, in such dire circumstances, there might be people who would resort to cannibalism. A number of the kids actually had some of their main characters being devoured in their stories. One kid had all of his characters eaten at the end.

When the topic came up in one class, I jokingly asked how many of the kids would consider eating human flesh if they were dying of starvation. They all laughed . . . and then about half of them put up their hands.

We seriously need to get out of this bloody recession. If this is how our kids are thinking, we’ve got to be careful we don’t start running low on food . . .