Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Round-Up: What I've Been At Lately

A post shared by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

Apart from revising a novel I've been working on some things lately that people can actually read! (Posting my novel here wouldn't work very well, and it's also mid-revision so it looks a bit like. . . well, like some twit has been cutting and pasting bits everywhere and writing stupid stream of consciousness notes to herself all over it).

But if you want to read some stuff, here is some stuff!

 - Me on IrishTimes.com (the website of Ireland's national paper of record - I'm a bit proud!), talking about Angie Thomas's world-beating novel, The Hate U Give.

 - More on Angie Thomas over at Children's Books Ireland.

 - I also covered for Paul Anthony Shortt on writing.ie recently - he's back at the helm, but here are some link round-ups I put together in his absence.

Along with revisions, and my usual ton of reading (and working full-time!), that's been keeping me pretty busy. Hope all of my blog people are doing well!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Writing Great YA - really useful links

Writing.ie is a fantastic resource for writers, and I'm very happy to be covering for their regular columnist Paul Anthony Shortt, who is familiar to a lot of you from his blog and six fantasy novels. This week I'm sharing resources for writing great YA - have a read here!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

What Mentorship and Guidance Has Looked Like For Me

This post is inspired by the Twitter feed of Sarah Maria Griffin, who you need to be following.

In the latest in my occasional series of What Things Look Like (OK, by latest I mean 'second'), and with all due hat tips to Sarah and her epic wisdom, here is what mentorship has been for me. The following list refers to actions of many, many people.

1. Liking a tweet.

2. Responding thoughtfully and in detail to my unsuccessful submissions. I am grateful.

3. Reminding me I can do this (this doesn't always have to be writer friends, although it frequently is. My most enthusiastic cheerleaders include a sociologist and a personal trainer/singer).

4. Nachos and tea.

5. An invitation to a book club.

6. An invitation to another book club.

7. Saying 'I really liked your piece' after I read it.

8. A burrito.

9. Several messages saying "You got this." There's something about those words, their blank confidence.

10. Clapping after I read at open mic events.

11. Going to open mic events I'm reading at!

12. A book dedication. (Cheers, Paul and Paula!)

13. Reading my entire manuscript and giving me feedback. I left this one for last, because it is so huge and so much appreciated, but also there are many, many steps towards it that are validating and important.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Sisters and Lies by Bernice Barrington: Review

I've been waiting for Bernice Barrington to have a novel published since we first took a writing class together and I fell in love with her writerly voice. Her debut thriller, Sisters and Lies, did not disappoint.

The novel opens with an event everyone dreads - a night time phone call with bad news. Rachel's sister Evie has been involved in a car crash in London. She is in a coma and may not survive. Can Rachel drop everything. . . ?

Rachel finds a series of mysteries waiting for her. Who is this guy who claims to be her sister's boyfriend? Why hasn't Rachel heard of him? Where are Evie's friends? And why was Evie driving without a licence? Was her accident really an accident?

These mysteries torment Rachel, but if she doesn't solve them, she and Evie are both in even more danger.

I loved a lot of things about this book, but the main one was the emotional lives of the characters and the skill with which they were drawn. Evie's life (and Rachel's, which Rachel cares about less) are as multi-faceted and real as any life. Alternating between Rachel's investigations and Evie's memories, we witness grief, loss, lust, betrayal, revenge (attempted and successful), denial, deception, jealousy and love. With so many seething feelings, there are two questions - will Rachel find the truth, and can the good stuff in life win out over so much bad?

The portrayal of Evie and Rachel's different experiences of grieving their mother is especially strong, as is Rachel's emotional state while her sister is in a coma. One of my pet hates in novels is when protagonists manage to be flawlessly clear-thinking and rational during a crisis - Rachel reacts like a human, and it makes her character all the more compelling.

I was sure I had guessed the ending. Then I thought I hadn't. Then I thought maybe I had. . . maybe I was still right. . . and then it turned out that I was all wrong. The final page of the novel has a serious sting in the tail, and I'm still thinking about it. . .

Bernice has pulled off a great, resonant read, a strong and pacey thriller, and a kick-ass study of a family in crisis. Sisters and Lies launches tonight in Dublin. For more about Bernice's journey to publication, check out this piece on writing.ie. Bernice tweets @beebarrington.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. This has not affected my review.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Mountains to Sea Festival: A YA-ish Recap

The Mountains to Sea festival in Dun Laoghaire takes place annually in March and usually rocks. This year I headed out there on Saturday to take in two events - a YA Masterclass panel, and a session on the business of children's books.

The YA Masterclass was moderated by Dave Rudden (author of the newly released Knights of the Borrowed Dark), featuring Sarah Crossan (who has just been nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for her amazing novel in verse, One), Sheena Wilkinson (author of Taking Flight, Still Falling and most recently, Name Upon Name, and a past winner of the CBI Book of the Year), and Deirdre Sullivan (author of the Prim Trilogy and Needlework, and the only YA author ever nominated for European Prize for Literature).  A distinguished group.

Masters' degrees in writing

Interestingly, all four authors at the event have worked as teachers and three have completed Masters' degrees in creative writing (Deirdre Sullivan holds a Masters' degree in drama). They assured us that neither was mandatory. On this subject, Sarah Crossan had a lot to say - that while doing a Masters' degree validates you as a writer, there is a sense of pressure to do a Masters and that most Masters' degrees in writing focus heavily on writing literary fiction for adults and can be at risk of genre snobbery. Sheena Wilkinson agreed that her Masters was not the most crucial step in her journey to becoming a professional writer and stressed the influence of the Arvon Foundation.

Deirdre Sullivan says that it is very possible to take your writing seriously while alone in your bedroom - and she wasn't accepted on to a Masters' degree in writing because "they knew what I was at. . ."

Issue-driven fiction

All three panelists agreed that writing books primarily to tackle an issue generally led to difficult writing and not necessarily good books. Sheena Wilkinson says that even when her books deal with issues, they are grounded in characters - one of her novels features a teenage pregnancy, but she says she didn't decide to "handle" teenage pregnancy as an issue; when she pictured her character two years on from the first book, she had a baby bump.

Sarah Crossan said that we don't care about issues as much as we care about people, and Deirdre Sullivan stressed the importance of empathising with your characters, even when you disagree with them or dislike their actions.

Writing process

Deirdre Sullivan was commissioned to write her first novel, so her experience wasn't typical. As she wrote, she sent her chapters to her editor and later they worked on the entire novel. She points out that for most writers, the fantasy of writing your novel in your friend's villa in Tuscany and high-fiving John Banville when you write a particularly great sentence is not what happens.

Sheena Wilkinson's process has changed over the years - her first published novel, Taking Flight, wasn't the first novel she finished but she calls it the first good novel that she finished, which gives me hope :) She wrote while working full-time, commuting, and dealing with an illness in her close family - she even wrote next to a hospital bed. It was an escape, she said, but also it illustrated how seriously she took her writing.

She also researched, wrote and edited Name Upon Name in three months by planning it carefully - one month each for research, writing and editing, and a retreat for a portion of the editing phase.

Sarah Crossan noted that you only know how to write the books that you've already written - the next one may be very different. She wrote The Weight of Water in bursts, Breathe and Resist involved heavy edits, and with Apple and Rain she perfected the first three chapters - defying a lot of conventional writing advice - and then the rest flowed.

She also talked about hitting the wall with a book (Dave, our genial host, said it happens to him at 41,000 words) and how it is like a marathon runner hitting the wall - you need to keep going.

Dave Rudden then shared that he once wrote 21,000 words in a single weekend and was hospitalised with a stress-related illness. None of the panel recommended this approach, thankfully.

Editing process

Deirdre Sullivan likened her editor's role in her first book to a doula - coaxing her gently through the book's birth. Sheena Wilkinson described various edits she has experienced, from the light to the harrowing, but the whole panel agreed that the ideal editor guides and steers the book without impacting upon the author's vision. Sarah Crossan said that it is possible to over-edit a book and lose something of the book's magic in the process.

Deirdre Sullivan said that as a writer, you can fight for things in your book that your editor doesn't like, and that if you're not willing to fight for something, it shouldn't be in your book.


Sarah Crossan hates research, which shocked me because her novel One seemed so meticulously researched. . .  turns out that she did hate research until One, when her research into the lives of conjoined twins was so compelling to her that she loved it.

Deirdre Sullivan's first trilogy, the Prim series, required light research, and her most recent novel Needlework required research into tattooing, her main character's passion. She raised an excellent point - she researched the topic using mostly sources to which her character would have had access. I hadn't thought of that before, but it's incredibly important when writing young characters especially.

Sheena Wilkinson loves research and her difficulty can be knowing when to stop. She raised the issue of tone versus details, saying that the protagonist of Name Upon Name (set in 1916) can't just be a modern teenager in a long dress - as a product of her time, she may have thoughts and ideas that seem alien to modern readers, but that this kind of authenticity is more important than details (although details are also important!).

The Business of Children's Books

This panel was moderated by Grainne Clear of Little Island and featured Hilary Delamere, a literary agent with The Agency in London, AJ Grainger, YA novelist and editor at Walker Books, David Maybury, Media Development Director at Scholastic, and Charlotte Eyre of The Bookseller. Another distinguished group.

Hilary Delamere discussed the role of an agent, which she feels is to build relationships, to support authors and to decode communications between all of the key players. She added that agents' opinions are subjective and can be affected by issues like their career stage - their openness to growing their list may change.

AJ Grainger advised that writers should do research and know the market, but not chase trends, as they're usually 'over' by the time they hit the shelves!

Use the warm and supportive children's books community - especially in Ireland, David Maybury noted, organisations like Children's Books Ireland run great events and access to authors and professionals is quite available.

Grainne Clear noted the difficulties of marketing books aimed at younger audiences (pre-YA) when the purchasing decisions are not being made by the readers themselves but by parents or other adults in their lives.

Charlotte Eyre said that the digital revolution hasn't had the impact on children's publishing that as feared in the past, as parents remain committed to reading as a pastime for their children, and to reducing screen time.

Hilary Delamere also mentioned the paradox of large advances - on the one hand, they're considered a marker of success but the hype can build expectations to levels that an author can't meet, and so they are almost a failure before they start. An interesting perspective on the classic author dream! She also talked about career longevity and how writers don't need to reinvent themselves, but to renew - to do new things but remain recognisably 'them'.

Social media as a tool for selling books was seen as a mixed blessing - while effective in many cases, it was pointed out by several panelists that social media hype does not equal book sales and that time spent on social media must be weighed up against the opportunity cost of writing time lost. David Maybury pointed out that many social networks are closed to younger people so authors can't connect directly with their readers.

Looking to the future, the panelists suspect that faith in domestic YA writing talent will overtake keenness to buy major American titles, and that books for Middle Grade readers will increase in popularity (possibly as YA plateaus). Hilary Delamere said that the 'next big thing' is very often a surprise.

As to advice for new authors, the usual advice surfaced - follow submission guidelines, research the market but don't slavishly follow it, a social media presence is a positive thing but it shouldn't detract from writing.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Three Things Writers Are Supposed To Hate, and Why I Love Them

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

 1. Decaffeinated drinks

There is a stereotype that writers are powered by caffeine, and given how many writers are trying to write while having a day job, raising kids, keeping their home from falling apart, caring for elderly relatives, or indeed all of the above, it's no surprise that a lot of creative folk are running on coffee.

I've discovered that I'm quite caffeine sensitive, so I drink as little of it as I can (hence the pink tea from my blog title - I drink a lot of herbal and fruit teas). Decaffeinated black tea is my new fuel of choice and I love that delicious builders' tea taste without the accompanying heart palpitations and jitters. It's difficult to type while measuring your pulse on a fitness tracker to see if you're dying or not, because of some tea. Ask me how I know this.

2. Querying

I admit I am part of the problem here - check out my pre-querying fingernails on my last post. Writers are supposed to hate querying, and I can understand why. It's scary to condense your work to a query letter, sample pages and a synopsis. The possibility of rejection looms large. "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams," said Yeats and lots of people who just hit 'send'.

But honestly, querying is brilliant.

Everyone who has queried a novel has a dream, to one extent or another. Some of us have been dreaming for a very long time. Some people's dreams have younger legs. But we send our work out into the world because we hope that the echo that comes back will be louder than any sound we could have made on our own. We send because we want something to happen.

While my queries are out in the world, something could happen literally at any time. I mean, because of time differences, I could wake up at 3am for a square of chocolate (everyone does that, right?) and find an email from an agent. Anything is possible but while you're querying, anything is possible now.

Totally worth sacrificing a few pretty fingernails for, I think.

3. Editing

One of my favourite quotes about writing is from Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo (I know, I like something Nano-related. Shocker!). It is
Run whooping through the valleys of your imagination.
Beautiful, isn't it? What a fabulous way to describe the joy of first drafts.

But editing - polishing prose, rearranging scenes, doing heavy lifting of material from one part of the book to another, killing darlings - is the karmic price we pay for all of the revelry in the imagination valleys, right?

Nope. I love editing. I may like the second draft more than the first draft.

  • The material is there, and all I have to do is fix it. The pressure to create magic from thin air has been relieved but I can still shape the work as I wish. Love it.
  • It's easier - although not easy - to quantify how long work will take and set goals. 'I will revise Chapter 3 at lunchtime today', or 'I will check the whole manuscript for references to a character I got rid of', or 'I will  re-read the whole thing this weekend and make notes on what to change.' I find those goals easier to stick to than 'I will get Petra and Kat to the party and the confrontation will happen.' A routine emerges much more readily.
  • I can make the book better. I can fiddle about with sentences, and then put them back the way they were. Editing is a creative act, as many metaphors about smelting and crucibles and fire will attest.

But I still complain about them. Because otherwise, what on earth would I tweet about?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Beginning To Query: Five Practical Steps To Get Started

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

Disclaimer: I am not an agent or an industry insider - this is a querying writer's perspective on creating a system for querying. 

I had nice fingernails once. They were nice enough that I gave a crap about painting them to match my outfit, sometimes. (Not often, like, but sometimes. I am famously bad at being a woman. I once tried to file my nail with the side of two euro coin. It mostly worked).
Then I began to query my novel and, well, you can see what happened. After not biting my nails for four years, I started again, and have now taken to painting the inelegant stubs you see pictured on the right, in the hope that seeing nail polish will make me stop biting them. Again. Guys, I'm nearly 32.

But I don't regret it for a second. Querying is an adventure, it's a necessary step for the vast majority of writers seeking a book deal, and I will genuinely miss it when it's over. But we can talk about my weird masochistic tendencies another time.

If you haven't queried before, here are some tips to get started:

1. Start a spreadsheet. 

I am not kidding - you will need it. I'm being very selective in which agents I query - I don't believe in the scattergun approach and I'm only querying agents I really want to work with, but that is still a *lot* of agents and I need some way to keep track of everything. My own spreadsheet has the following columns:

Status (have I queried yet? If so, what date?)
What to send (most UK agents ask for a query letter, a short synopsis and the first three chapters, or the first 30 pages, or the first 50. Some want page numbers or specific fonts. No way I'm going to keep this straight in my head for more than two or three agencies)
Why The reason why I've chosen to query this agent.

Some agents' websites will include a usual timeframe in which you can expect to hear back, or after which you can assume the response is a no. Some *very* nice agents give you permission to chase them by email if you haven't heard within 8 weeks, or 12 weeks, which is incredibly useful information to have (most agents don't allow this, which is fair, so it's great to have an easy way to check which ones do). I usually pop this info into the Status section, which is where the date I sent my query will go later.

2. Find some agents and populate the spreadsheet

This is probably the most fiddly and time-consuming part, but it's also quite a lot of fun - you are trying to hunt down awesome people who might like your book! Yay!

Methods I've used to find agents:
  • The acknowledgements section of books I've read that are similar to mine
  • Twitter profiles, websites and blogs of writers whose work is similar to mine
  • The hashtag #MSWL (ManuScript Wish List - where industry professionals share their wish lists)
  • Google (YA + literary agents + UK/Ireland or writer name + agent)
  • The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook
  • Asking agented friends the name of their agent - more on this later 
Once you've found some agents, start filling in your spreadsheet.

Agent: Kate McAgent
Agency: McAgent Associates
What to send: Query, 30 pages and synopsis
Why: Reps Author I Really Like/Love her blog/Looking for YA with small town setting

3. Write the query letter

There is a metric ton of resources out there about query letters. The format for UK and US agents seems slightly different (from what I've seen, US agents like more information in the book and less about the author, and UK agents the reverse) and lots of agents have their own preferences (which you will have noted in your handy spreadsheet during your research stage).

I particularly like the sample format given here by YA agent Gemma Cooper of the Bent Agency (who should be on your spreadsheet if you write YA, btw).

4. Get someone to read your query letter and give you feedback

Ideally, this should be someone who has written at least one successful query (by successful, I mean 'has garnered at least one request for the full manuscript', as this is what a query letter is for). If you don't know any such person (and can't afford to hire one - Big Smoke Writing Factory in Dublin, off the top of my head, offer a query evaluation service for writers of children's and YA fiction), find some queries online to compare with yours, and ask your nitpicky friend to look it over. Everyone has a nitpicky friend. If you don't, I'll be your nitpicky friend! Hello. We are friends now.

If anyone you know has read your novel, they may have great feedback on your query - especially about whether or not it's an accurate representation of your book. My query letter has one jokey bit in it, because my book has quite a few jokey bits, but my book is also a realistic contemporary YA novel set in a miserable, rainy small town, so if my query letter was actually out-and-out funny, it would misrepresent the book (aside: when I was writing this book, if anyone asked me what I was writing about, I would say, with a straight face, 'I'm writing about the mysterious death of a teenager in a small town. It's a comedy' and wait to see what their faces did) (Further aside: Do you still want me to be your nitpicky friend?).

Once you have your query, tailor it for each agent. This is when your 'why' column becomes very useful, as if you have a reason to want to work with an agent, it may well be that the reason will go both ways and the agent also needs to know it. Plus, it reminds you why you think these professionals are awesome and why you want to work with them, which you may need to counter the butterflies in your tummy as you prepare to query.

Or it may make it worse, and this is where your fingernails are in danger.

5. Create a lot of folders on your desktop/Google Drive/Dropbox

I get that this is incredibly unsexy. ('Spreadsheets and folders? And to think I chose being a writer instead of an accountant. . . '). But trust me.

Remember how we talked about agencies wanting slightly different things? Personally I do not want to send agents any files with long names and I don't want to mix up query letters. So I create a folder for each agent with their personal query letter, with their personal sample material tailored to their requirements. It means I can find what I've sent to whom at a glance, and I don't have to send anyone a file called Ripple_Effect_Sample_Chapters_1-3_With_Title_Page_And_Page_Numbers_Kate_McAgent, or risk sending a file with a title page and page numbers to an agent who says they don't want them. Instead I go to Kate McAgent's folder and attach the file that has a sensible name like 'The Ripple Effect_Sample_Chapters_Ellen Brickley.'

It's not a perfect system - I have made mistakes - but it works pretty well.

. . . and now? There's nothing else I can suggest that will allow you to put off sending it any longer. Make sure your novel is as good as it can be, finalise your synopsis, polish your query one last time and hit send!

Then update your spreadsheet. You'll be really glad when you've been hitting refresh on your inbox for two straight weeks and you check when you might be likely to hear something.

Agent: Kate McAgent
Agency: McAgent Associates
Status: Query sent 1st January - if no response by the 31st assume it's a no
What to send: Query, 30 pages and synopsis
Why: Reps Author I Really Like/Love her blog/Looking for YA with small town setting

I was telling fibs before. This is when your fingernails are really, properly in trouble.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Things I Would Not Have Without NaNoWriMo

1. The knowledge that I can write a full novel and edit it.

2. A rather nifty lapel pin marking the end of my third year as an ML. I am currently partway through Year 6.

3. An awesome community of fabulous fellow Wrimos!

4. Pulp's cover of the Peter Gunn Theme (they played it on the John Peel Sessions and trust me, you need it in your life. A wise Nano friend shared it with me).

5. Someone to give me a hug last Saturday when a difficult phone call happened during a meet-up.

6. Someone to email me to check I was OK afterwards and offer help and advice.

7. Many many cups of tea in Starbucks Dun Laoghaire over the last year.

8. A desire to leave my warm, cosy flat today, to go out into the rain and puddles, to hang out with other Wrimos.

9. Several lunches in Yamamori.

10. The wisdom and wit of my former co-MLs.

11. A photo of a plaque on the wall of a little-used laneway in Dublin.

12.The story behind the plaque.

13. Stories.

14.  Self-belief

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How To Have A Writing Group Where No One Kills Anyone Else

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on
Warning: this post will contain a terrible pun. 

I took a writing class a couple of weekends ago, and apart from the actual writing insights, one thing stuck out for me.

Most of the participants had travelled to Dublin from another part of the country for the class. One had stayed in the city the night before (I had taken a bus for twenty minutes).

 A community of other writers is so important. It's possible to find it online (I'm about to start beta reading a novel for a blogging friend who became a Facebook friend) but sometimes you just need another human physically present so you can feel connected. Living in a capital city, it's not difficult for me to find classes, launches and events to keep my bookish self nourished, but it's not so easy everywhere. Writing groups can be a great way to stay connected to your goals.

So if you've found some like-minded folk (don't ask me how to do that part!) and want to start a writing group, here are my tips:

1. Make sure everyone is on the same page (I am so sorry about that but I did warn you)

I once started a writing group with the explicit intention of meeting to write together for motivation. We all knew that's what we were there to do. If someone wanted feedback, that was absolutely dine - but we all recognised that this was a departure from what we usually did, and that our goal was Words On Page.

Your goal may be getting feedback, or writing new material (as ours was) or talking about writing in a safe, friendly and supportive space. Your goal may be anything you like, but make sure everyone knows what it is and agrees that it's what they want to get from the group.

2. Let the group change if that's what it needs

Our group gradually moved more towards sharing work for critique. This as a natural progression as we all got better at our initial objective of getting words on the page - we went from wanting words to wanting better words. This worked for us, as we were a small group at largely the same stage).

3. But be prepared to steer the group back to its roots if it deviates too much - provided that's what everyone wants

There are nice ways to make that happen. "It's been great catching up with everyone, but I am looking forward to making a dent in my word count tonight."

Or "We've been doing lots of writing lately. Is everyone happy to keep doing that or shall we try to do more critiquing again?"

4. Be very careful who you invite.

This a good rule for life in general, to be honest, but it goes double for writing groups. I've recently been meeting a friend to write. Last week she brought her fiance, a cartoonist, who got the memo about what were there to achieve and drew while we wrote (aside: he got engrossed in drawing. A lady at the next table got engrossed in watching him draw. I got engrossed in watching her watching him draw. Then I got back to work).

However, the temptation to invite other people into a group that's working well is strong. And sometimes it is smart, and you should invite them, if they are a good fit. But make sure they have the same goals as the existing group, and make sure they want a writing group and not a hanging-out-with-people-regularly group (also wonderful, but not what you're there to provide).

Also, resist the temptation to include friends you rarely get to see, as two sad things will happen. One, you will not get any writing done because you will be too busy catching up with your lovely friend, and two, you will feel sad about catching up with your lovely friend, and those two feelings go together like pickles and chocolate (not at all).

Basically, all of my tips boil down to two things, and they apply to all of writing:

1. Figure out what you (individually and collectively) want to do with your precious time.
2. Defend it wicked hard.

You can throw in random Boston slang too. That never made anything worse.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

What Following My Dreams Has Looked Like This Week

Blooming tea and a willow pattern teacup - my favourite place to work.

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

I've been thinking lately about what advice I would offer my younger self, if I could. Peter Sellers once said that if he could have his life to live over again, he would do everything exactly the same way except he wouldn't go to see The Magus. In that spirit, the most important pievce of advice I could actually give my younger self is
No matter how much you love a cafe, if they give you food poisoning once, don't give them a second chance.
I'd say 'ask me how I know this', but I'm pretty sure you can all figure it out.

The best serious advice I could come up with was the usual generic stuff about following your dreams.  But I don't think twenty-year-old me needed to be told that she should follow her dreams - she was twenty. She didn't know there was anything else she could do.

What she needed was for someone to tell her what that really looked like.

And in that spirit, here is what following my dreams has looked like for me this week:

1. Setting my alarm clock for 8.30 on a Sunday morning so I have time to wash my hair before I meet my friend to write for a couple of hours.

2. Gathering all my courage to send a query letter to another friend for her feedback.

3. Writing four versions of the same three-line part of my query letter.

4. Going to an Open Mic night, standing in front of a room full of people to read something I had written.

5. Arranging a lift to work two hours before I'm due to start, every day next week, so I can write. The lift is arranged now, so I can't back out.

6. Getting very slightly travel sick on a train because I was trying to fix a scene that's too just too damned long.

7. Alongside all of this, and my full-time job, and my home life, finding time to read books in the genre I'm writing in. This is difficult to make time for, but it's the funnest thing on this list. (YA writers! Your books = better than travel sickness! Put that on your book jackets if you want).

Twenty-year-old me needed that list a lot more than she needed a Thoreau quote in a swirly font against a photo of a tree. I yield to no one in my love of inspirational quote jpegs on Facebook, but eventually you need to log out, and what you do after clicking the log out button matters one whole hell of a lot.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Why Unpublished Writers Should Go To Book Launches. . . But Not Too Many.

Last week I went to the launch of Louise Phillips's fourth crime novel, The Game Changer, and then to the launch of Ruth Frances Long's A Hollow in the Hills. Both were lovely events and my week was full of book talk, free wine, cake and autographed copies, all of which are good things to have in your life. I was sad to miss Elizabeth Murray's launch, as her new book, The Book of Learning, is made of everything I love - Dublin and West Cork and Georgian houses and scary things and girls whose names begin with E (we're frankly underrated) but thankfully a friend of hers has written about the event here.

I'd recommend the occasional book launch to any unpublished writer. Here's why.

1. To be in a space where people really care about books, and about supporting writers.

Everyone at a book launch is there for one of two reasons: to support a writer that's important to them, or to celebrate the book. Some unpublished writers have day jobs that allow them to immerse themselves in books - for many of the rest of us, books are a vital component of our lives relegated to after hours and weekends.

A launch can serve as a timely reminder, for those of us typing away in our living rooms, our canteen or the local Starbucks, that there is an army out there supporting what we do and cheering us on.

2. For a great opportunity to see how it's done.

I went to my first book launch when I was fifteen or sixteen, for a relative's first novel, and have probably gone to a few each year since. I know how they work. I know that they get really, really freaking warm, so you need to dress lightly. I know that cake always goes down well. I know that drinks afterwards are usual.

All of which prevents me from envisioning anything too elaborate or impractical when its my turn. The aerial acrobats are probably a no-no.

I know that a certain amount of thank-yous are obligatory but that it's nice to keep it succinct - although if you've ever been to a wedding, you probably know that already.

3. To meet other writers.

Usually the lady or gentleman of the hour will have a few words to say about how they got to where they are (especially if it's their first book), which is so encouraging for those of us still waiting to get there.

However, I'd also recommend calling a halt to attending launches after a while, and here's why:

1. Comparison is the thief of joy

At a launch, you get to see a book that has been professionally edited and designed. If the writer reads an extract, it's a well-chosen extract. And the writer has gone through sometimes as much as two years of development since signing their deal (note: none of this is a reason to compare your book to a published one, decide it's not up to scratch and send it off anyway on the grounds that the editor and other publishing bods will Cinderella you. I am reliably informed that this is not what happens).

And if it's a wet wintery Tuesday and your manuscript is going terribly and you decide to spend the evening surrounded by smart lovely people celebrating the peak of writerly achievement - well, don't blame me if you need to order a pizza on the way home and eat it in your pyjamas with some whiskey.

Not that I would know. I drink schnapps.

2. The real work happens away from the spotlight

Dreaming of a launch is a lot like dreaming of a wedding. They're great, but to get one, you need to do a lot of work behind the scenes (can you tell I was at a wedding last weekend? It was fantastic).

Also, if you get a chance to go to either a wedding or a book launch, I'd suggest the wedding. Launches are great, but I've never seen any really good embarrassing dancing at one - although maybe I'm going to the wrong launches. . .

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What Killing Your Darlings Actually Means


A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

I like this whole starting-a-blog-post-with-an-Instagram-photo thing, and I think I'm going to keep doing it if no one minds. This means that I'll be shoehorning a lot of shots of the sky over Dublin into blog posts where the sky over Dublin is not referenced, just so you're all warned. Today's photo is of a shattered off-licence window. 

The writing advice to kill your darlings is so common and attributed to so many authors that The Slate ran an article about where it originated. It was Arthur Quiller-Couch, apparently. 

But what does killing your darlings mean in real life? 

For me, it has meant: 

1. Getting rid of an entire character even though she has some vital lines.

Someone else can say them. She adds nothing. She is an extra name for my poor readers to remember. Lady, get out.

2. Moving a scene from one place to another for pacing reasons, which then means. . .
  • Re-reading everything that used to be before the scene
  • Removing everything from the scene itself that doesn't make sense without the bits before the scene that are now after the scene
  • Figure out how many of the pre-scene bits I can get rid of
  • Find somewhere later in the book for all of the vital pre-scene bits to go
  • Go over everything that used to be pre-scene and make sure there is no reference to the upcoming scene in there
If moving the scene was killing my darling, then everything that followed was disposing of the body.

3. Removing a lovely paragraph I was proud of, full of themes I loved, because the character in that paragraph now needs to be in hospital while that scene is happening and no one else can take his place.

I could have had him recover miraculously, but that's not what I'm going for. 

Essentially, the crux of this whole post is that what I am going for is more important than any of the tools I used to get me there the first, second and third times around.

Killing your darlings means that the book as a whole takes precedence over every individual part of it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Things I Have Learned About Writing This Summer

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

Dublin smells of back-to-school today.

I hated school, but there was always something about August and September. Mostly it was the stationery shopping, and the new books, and the joy of reading the interesting bits of my new books without having to endure the boring parts.

I've been out of education for nine years, but still I celebrate two New Years. One is a night and a day when the calendar changes, and one is a season, when something else does.

We've had a wet, cold, miserable summer in Dublin this year, which I have enjoyed because I am a big freak who hates nice things. This week has had some bright and sunny days and that's my sunshine needs for the year largely met. I'm ready for autumn, for crisp air and crisp leaves, hot drinks and opaque tights, and for new things.

And this summer, I learned some things about writing.

1. Your tribe is vital.

I've spent a lot of time with writers this summer and I believe more than ever that the people you surround yourself with have a massive impact on your reality. Find other writers, in person if you can, online if you can't.

It doesn't feel like an impossible dream when there are lots of you working towards it, cheered on by people who've already gotten where you want to go.

I have been bowled over by the kindness of more experienced and successful writers, and by how supportive they are of those of us still working towards publication. I've been stunned by how much I've connected with people over nothing more than the fact we all take dictation from the voices in our heads. Writing isn't a perfect community but there are some great people out there, and finding them helps so much.

2. Every second counts.

Read this. And this. And this. Catherine is smart. Then go and write and edit things!

3. There will always be an obstacle.

If you want to avoid writing, if you're scared of failing or succeeding, there will always be a reason not to do it - and that's one of the things a tribe helps with. Writer friends can say 'Oh, of course you couldn't write last weekend - that thing you were doing was legitimately very important!' and they can also say 'Really, Ellen? Four loads of laundry in two days for two people? Baking Rolo treats? Experimenting with continental knitting? You needed to do all of that rather than fix Chapter Six?'

4. Rolo treats are tasty.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Language on the internet is becoming. . . kind of self-effacing? Could we maybe not?

I love slang. It's colourful, rich, vivid. It allows language to evolve. Without the evolution of language, I would be introducing myself by saying "My paternal grandmother's name being Ellen, and my father's family name Brickley. . ." instead of "Hi, I'm Ellen. I heard there was chai?"

I am pro-slang about 90% of the time. I did recently ask my friend to explain to me why the vowel in yes was deemed so inadequate that yas and yus became necessary, and I detest 'wut', but I will fight to the death to defend go figure, bae and H/T.

But one thing about internet slang is kind of . . . bothering me?

It's a large issue, but one element of the most obvious elements is a tendency to make statements into questions? And also to say "kind of" kind of a lot? Um, and to hesitate for stylistic purposes? And when someone says or does something troubling, to ask if they can maybe. . . not?

Sometimes these features of internet slang are used almost sarcastically ("I think you should have known without the warning that your coffee would maybe be hot?"). I also see a subtle shade of meaning in 'I kind of love this' that isn't present in the simpler 'I love this.' (I kind of love that my barista hates chai lattes because they taste like Christmas, which he also hates. I love chai lattes. They are two distinct feelings - I'd rather my barista didn't hate anything but I am amused by how he expressed it. I kind of love what he said).

I've also seen this type of self-effacing language used passive-aggressively - my pet hate is "can you maybe. . . not?" Is there something wrong with 'please stop that'?

But sometimes I think there is something more sinister behind it.

In her 1984 book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg quoted a study which noted the differences in how men and women express themselves. Men will say 'The war is awful' in conversation. Women will say 'The war is awful, isn't it?' (emphasis mine), as though seeking validation for their opinion that war . . . maybe kind of sucks? (Great, I'm doing it now).

As a woman, I try to use language that doesn't unconsciously or implicitly ask for validation that I don't need. I'm working on eliminating 'just' ("Can I just get some milk for my tea. . ?"). An old boss trained me out of unnecessary 'sorry's. ("Sorry, do you have a minute?" was a terrible habit of mine for years and I am so, so grateful to my former boss for flagging it to me).

Now I see fewer and fewer people on the internet who seem willing to make a statement without throwing a question mark in at the end to call for the approval of the reader (protip: the internet is full of readers whose approval we should actively avoid. I, for instance, spent the entire summer I was seventeen playing Fling The Cow, a sadly departed Flash game. You should never ask for my approval).

And am I bring paranoid to suggest that this overall move towards conciliatory slang might be linked to the fact the social media and the internet in general is becoming a more hostile place for so many people, especially women (if you don't agree with this, I have a portmanteau for you - GamerGate), and we're become afraid to take up any virtual or discursive space?

We're either trying so hard to be good and liked that we're not willing to love something, to hate something or to ask someone to stop unless we frame our words as though we're asking for permission to love, to hate or to ask someone to shut up.

Or maybe we are too afraid to stand over what we say, because that's become scarier and scarier.

This, I suppose, isn't a new complaint. Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert asks why young people "guess so much and shave so little."

I guess Nabokov would have had a choice comment for anyone asking him if he could "maybe not."

Monday, May 25, 2015

Update: We Did It

The marriage equality referendum passed. Legislation is being drafted to ensure that gay people can get married on a big island shaped like a teddy bear. What's not to love about that?

Friday, May 22, 2015

Yes: The Marriage Referendum and the importance of family

Today I went to the voting booth today with my mother, and we had our obligatory conversation about how my grandmother was born into a world which would have denied all three of us the vote because of our gender. We say this every time we vote. It's a tradition. Every family has those things - conversations and topics you return to, like the chorus of a song.

I was privileged today to vote with my family of origin. This is a privilege that not everyone enjoys. There are people voting with heavy hearts today, knowing that their family of origin has voted against their future and their right to equality.

And that's why I voted for the right of everyone to create their own family.

There is a perception that a family necessarily consists of mammy, daddy and suitably adorable little ones, that marriage and kids automatically makes a family. As someone without kids, but to whom family is enormously important, this bugs me.

Because family is not something that happens. It's something that is made. My family was made from long talks over cups of tea with friends, giggling fits, from hearing the urban legends of my family of origin, from connecting with my husband's family, from hard times and easy ones, and - yes - from standing in front of a smiling state registrar who said "I now pronounce you husband and wife."

My mother was there that day. So were my brothers and my sister, my nieces and nephew. So were my husband's family, and the friends we had chosen to be our family. How lucky were we, to enjoy that? Not everyone does.

I didn't just create a family by getting married, although that was certainly a big part of it - I created family with my friends too. Just think how much more important the right to create a family is for people who face hostility from the family where they started out.

And today, I voted with, and for, my chosen sisters and my chosen brothers. Today I voted with the family I chose, so they could all have the right to choose their own families too.

To say nothing of the legal equality that a Yes result will bring, everyone must have the right to create a life filled with acceptance and love.

I believe in family, and so there was only one way to vote. And I'm proud to be a part of the nationwide family who voted Yes.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Killing Your Own Perspective: Writing YA as a Not-So-Y A

The first and most vital step in my editing process for The Ripple Effect, my YA novel set in contemporary Ireland, has taken place: I have opened the feedback from my beta readers for the first time since I received it. I have re-read everything, closed it rapidly and retreated a safe distance from the computer to hyperventilate with a cup of tea (lemon and ginger at the moment, fyi - also to clarify, when I say 'with a cup of tea' I am hyperventilating while holding the tea; it is not a charming group activity the tea and I undertake together.) (This is my brain on edits).

Because The Ripple Effect handles some major issues and because I dislike teen books with absent parents (unless the absence is adequately explained and makes sense in the context of the world of the novel), the main character's parents play a role in what happens. Weirdly, that has proven the hardest thing for me to handle in writing the book and in planning the edits.

My own parents had me slightly later in life - not crazy late, but my dad was married twice, so although I was born in 1984, I grew up with parents who remembered the 1950s. My dad remembered the 1940s, although only from the perspective of a child. I have grandparents who were born before women had the vote. I enjoyed having slightly older parents who had done interesting things (including providing me with cool half-siblings) before I rocked up - I remember finding it strange as a child when I discovered that other kids in my class had parents who were still in their 20s, even though I was more the odd one out than they were.

My brain is wired to think of parenthood as a thirtysomething sort of endeavour - although I know lots of people who had kids sooner and I don't believe there is an 'ideal age' for parenthood, ever - but my default setting is that kids happen after everything else is done (if at all). This isn't appropriate for every character, though, and I'm working to unpick these ingrained ideas and adapt each family's timeline to suit the lives that they would realistically choose to live.

Discovering all of these biases has been interesting, but more interesting is the sheer amount of chronological leaps that it has forced me into. My main character, Nina, is less than half my age (I'm 31, she is 15). But Nina's parents aren't necessarily just 16 years younger than mine. For Nina, the 1950s aren't just one generation away - they're two. Her parents are closer to my age than she is. Her parents may have actually bought Bananarama records, although thankfully this has not yet proven plot-critical. And crap - I just realised they most likely bought Banamarama cassettes. The gap is bigger than 16 years. It's as big as the entire cultural framework that surrounds us, the events that were pivotal to our families and ourselves.

Nina can't ask her parents where they were when they heard that Kennedy had been shot.

I love YA. It may be my favourite genre to read - it's fast becoming my joint-favourite genre to write. I don't know if this is in spite of the thinking it's forcing me to unpick, or because of it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Creative Writing Graduates and Their Desires: Will They Kill Us All?

The Irish Times, my country's newspaper of record, has published a piece about how writers are increasingly turning to teaching on MFA (Master of Fine Arts) courses to supplement their dwindling income from publishing actual FA. The article itself is even-handed, which means it needs to engage with the voices who are anti-MFAs, anti-teaching-of-writing, and anti-writers-complaining-that-they-can't-make-a-living-writing.

Essentially, society expects writers not to behave, or hold expectations, like other workers. And I am deliberately saying workers and not professionals because the issue is not about whether a profession is treated with respect, it's about whether work is treated ethically.

What is actually wrong with someone trained in a profession choosing to teach it to others if they can't find sufficient paid work during a period of economic crisis in their industry? If an out-of-work computer programmer scored a teaching gig, would there be articles in the national press about whether 'truly innovative' computer programming could be taught, wondering how many of the students were going to found the new Twitter or write the new Java?

Writing is mystical and special, and because it is an Art, it should not be sullied with teaching. Writers should sit at home with a glass of whiskey or a pot of coffee (aside: I hate both) and take dictation from the muses. There are intangible and probably unteachable elements to writing (voice springs to mind - I didn't know I had one until an agent commented on it and I realised I knew exactly what she meant), but then no one taught Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates how to found their empires either. They taught the tools, and then let their students fly. Who is to say that creative writing graduates, who "(. . .so the complaint goes) will tend to churn out well-crafted, imitative fiction that plays impeccably by pre-existing rules"  according to some, won't similarly take flight?

The article goes on to say that the "more cynical reader may be tempted to break out the tiny violin at these tales of woe from unemployed creative-writing graduates. . . " I wonder about these cynical readers (and it's clear from the tone of the article that the author of the piece has little truck with them either). Why is it so wrong for a graduate to be sad that they cannot make a living doing the work of their choice? Because lots of people in less-exciting careers have the same issue? Indeed they do, and they are bitching about it just as much as writers are, as they have every right to. But no one is breaking out the tiny violins for them - only the big, proper violins, the front pages of the national press and half of the internet will do.

Creative writing graduates who can't find work in their field are entitled to be unhappy about this, just as all graduates and non-graduates are. They are entitled to look for other opportunities related to what they love (like teaching), just as all graduates and non-graduates are. And when they can't find those opportunities, like every person who has ever switched fields out of necessity, they can then spend the rest of their lives tackling questions in job interviews about when they're planning to leave to pursue the thing they really want to do. Welcome to the twenty-first century job market. It's tough out there.

Why the intolerance for writers who are unhappy that they can't make their living as writers? I have friends who have had to quit law because it wasn't bringing enough money to support them, and no one is saying that they ought to suck it up and quit moaning because the time and effort they invested in their career has come to nothing. And I am a helluva lot more likely (touch wood) to need a book this week than a barrister.

Perhaps because we enjoy rain and slightly gone-off biscuits, Ireland has no constitutional protection for the right to pursue happiness. The most culturally-dominant nation in the West does, though, and the concept is familiar to the entire English-speaking world and beyond. "The pursuit of happiness." We don't have a right to happiness (imagine how busy my lawyer friends would be if we had), but the right to give attaining it our best shot is certainly understood as a cultural ideal. We can go after what we want, provided it doesn't conflict with anyone else's more critical needs (my need to punch a certain member of parliament conflicts - unfortunately - with his right to not be punched in the face, for example).

Writers don't have a right to do work that they love any more than the rest of society does, but they have a right to pursue the shit out of it, and they have a right to be sad when it doesn't pan out - and a right to be sadder still when it doesn't pan out for large and systemic reasons. And they have the right to try and address that by seeking other work they like. This is a right they share with everyone else.

Why is there sympathy for builders, lawyers, accountants, engineers and architects who tried to do work they loved and found they couldn't, but not for writers?

Friday, January 9, 2015

2015 initialising. . . .

Every year since I started this blog, my goal for the year has been to get published. Some years, it was to get fucking published, depending on how unhappy I was in January and how much I felt I needed the endorsement of a kindly publisher to smile upon this thing I have done with my life on and off since I was five years old.

But that isn't entirely under my control, so I always tried to set some goals I could control - finish this novel, edit that one, query this or that. For several of the years I have been blogging, I couldn't possibly have achieved my goal because I didn't have anything that I felt was ready to query. 

So with the understanding that my semi-secret, heartfelt goal for 2015 is to get published, here's what I'm hoping to achieve:

  • Fully edit my contemporary YA novel, The Ripple Effect, identify agents and publishers who may like it, and query.
  • Write the first draft of my next novel, which will be women's fiction/comedy. Although I have a very dark sense of humour sometimes, so a foray into writing comedy novels might be nice for me but terrifying for the rest of the world.
  • Decide what to do with The Soldiers of Bruges. The Soldiers of Bruges is a very odd novel, and I say that as someone whose most serious and sensible novel so far was about a London Irish family who could curse their enemies. The premise is complex and I have literally no idea how to even begin writing a query letter for such a bizarre book. When I read an extract of it at Dalkey Creates, one of the writers present suggested it might make a good one-woman stage show. I've never written anything like that before, but the idea of it is exciting and I love trying new forms and genres, so that is worth exploring. We'll see how that goes, but I like some aspects of the novel a lot so I would like to do something with it.
It should be a challenging year, but hopefully also a fun one. 

What are you guys thinking of going in 2015?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Perfecting The Narrator's Voice: When Your Narrator is Telling Their Story

There are many unhealthy behaviours in which I confess I indulge. These include over-eating sugary food, drinking chai lattes to excess, refusing to exercise and writing YA novels with complicated narrative voices.

My current work-in-progress is a contemporary YA novel set in a tiny Irish seaside town which I envision entirely in shades of blue-ish grey. Our narrator is Nina Kelleher - tall, skinny, over-fond of the bass guitar, Patti Smith and Michael from Sixth Year.

At the time of the crucial events of the story, Nina is almost 16. But by the time she is telling us the story, she is a nineteen-year-old undergraduate student who has returned to her small town home for a summer. The first and last chapters are told by Nina at 19, the remainder by Nina at almost 16.

Sounds simple, right? But if the Nina of the opening chapter is 19, surely the Nina narrating the rest of the novel is also 19? In which case, she should have all of the knowledge and perspective of her older self. So is it OK that my narrative, allegedly from the perspective of Younger Nina, is peppered with occasional references to her life as Older Nina ("I know now that BLAH is the case. . .")?

That sound you can hear is me tearing my hair out my its very roots, which is silly of me as I'm getting married soon and will be half-bald in the photos if I let this continue.

Luckily, I have beta readers who save me from myself. One of them suggested delineating Older Nina and Younger Nina more clearly, perhaps by bringing Older Nina's voice into the main narrative more often, but in a clearly structured way. Rather than making the voice more homogenous throughout the book, I think my friendly beta reader was absolutely right - the way to fix this is by making my two conflicting Ninas more different, rather than more similar.

And funnily enough, I recently read a great example of how to do this well - the novel Missing Ellen, by Natasha Mac a'Bhaird. The novel doesn't span a timeline as lengthly as mine does (months rather than years) but the technique is simple and effective. When the narrator is in the present day (post-missing Ellen), her story is in the form of letters written to her friend in a notebook. The appear in a different font, which makes the reading experience more pleasant but isn't really necessary - the shift in voice from addressing her missing friend directly to telling a general story is clear enough.