Here you will find stories, facts, folklore, and a sneak peek at the writing tips you may expect to encounter on Ireland Writer Tours . . .
It doesn’t take much—right?
Many writers want to share their insights, their approach, their thoughts on everything from the hero’s journey to their opinion on dialogue tags, character development, or how best to use the latest newfangled story-tracking software.
I have attended workshops given by master-level writers with 50 million books in print. I have attended workshops led by writers who have published a handful of avant-garde short stories in underground zines. And I might have gleaned some worthy nuggets—of equal value—from both classes.
We writers are curious about the work habits of others. We want to know how others developed their own special sauce. We want to know how others edit, rewrite, and promote.
In short, most of us love talking about writing as much as we love writing itself.
Two of my favorite topics about writing are these:
1. Why do we write?
2. Why do we read?
I believe that your answers to those questions might carry lots of valuable information about the writing process itself.
Both questions are connected to a big over-arching question I learned from my friend Murph. Murph is the fictional hero of nine books in The Asphalt Warrior series by the late Gary Reilly. Murph is a Denver taxi driver. He has two goals in life. One goal is to earn as little money as possible—only enough money to keep his simple, bohemian life afloat. The second goal is to never get involved in the lives of his passengers.
Murph is pretty good at the first goal—though he does slip up every now and then. But he’s terrible at the second; he is constantly getting involved.
The novels are hilarious and, full disclosure, I have played a role in the posthumous publication of Gary Reilly’s works. (More about the nine books in that series here.)
Don’t just take it for granted. Why do you get out of bed in the morning? (Or not?) Why do you go to work? (Or not?) Why do you have a family? (Or not?) Why do you jump off a cliff with a flying suit on your back? (Or not?)
Why do your characters do what they do? What is their essence? Are they aware of their place in the world, how they got there? Or not? Do they feel in control of their lives? Or not?
Writing takes time. Why do you do it?
Reading takes time. Why do you do it?
Again, seriously—why? What’s in it for you? Why do you feel so strangely compelled to seek out so much time to read and write?
I mean, you could be practicing with those flying suits. It’s an option! Or setting the world record for free-diving (702 feet) or upping your skills at chess.
Why would you spend a week in beautiful western Ireland—with me—thinking about reading, and writing in such a concentrated fashion?
Because you believe in yourself. And you believe, like me, that we all have lots to learn.
The Cliffs of Moher are, without a doubt, the most popular sight in Ireland. These dramatic 700 foot cliffs are at the edge of the Burren in the far west of Ireland, and are one of the places Ireland Writer Tours participants will visit this summer.
Imagine Ireland as a giant chocolate cake with green icing on top and floating on a large body of water. It’s as if someone cut off a large slice of that cake, leaving these cliffs at the edge of the plate.
When you stand on the cliffs, the Atlantic crashes dramatically far below and seagulls scream as they soar beneath you. The cliffs consist mainly of beds of Namurian shale and sandstone. It is possible to see 300 million year-old river channels cutting through, forming unconformities at the base of the cliffs. Approximately 30,000 birds from 20 different species live on the cliffs.
In the old Irish language, the word Mothar meant ‘ruined fort.’ There was a fort on these cliffs a couple thousand years ago, but even though there is no trace of the thing now, its name still lingers. The Cliffs of Moher, or cliffs of the ruined fort, include an indoor exhibition, a long walkway, and a viewing tower.
There are loads of stories connected to this place—legends about a mermaid, an eel that ate corpses, and a lost city beneath the waves. Part of the Spanish Armada hid in one of the caves at the bottom of the cliffs, Napoleon Bonaparte built a signal tower here, and back in 1835 Cornelius O’Brien built an even bigger tower. The cliffs were renamed ‘The Cliffs of Insanity’ for their role in The Princess Bride, and in 2009 Dumbledore brought Harry Potter here in the Half-Blood Prince.
Register for an Ireland Writers Tour and you will be here too.
Seventeen months ago, I stopped in the middle of writing a new mystery-thriller.
(I never stop in the middle of a project. I always finish.)
But a friend had suggested an idea.
(I rarely take ideas from friends, but overnight an additional key element popped into my head, out of nowhere.)
I started writing immediately. Like, within days. Sketches, ideas. Possible ways to begin the story.
(It usually takes me months of research and thinking before plunging in.)
I sent a few first chapters to my agent.
(I was lucky to have one—a good one. I had never received feedback on an opening few chapters.)
He told me “no.” To try something else. I did. I sent another version. He said “better.” I tried again. He said “go.”
So I started writing. On a laptop.
(I had always been a “write by hand” guy.)
I started writing 1,000 words or so a day.
(I had always been thrilled with 500.)
I started meeting with the friend, the one who suggested the original idea, every few weeks. He’d shake his head and tell me what wasn’t working. Occasionally, he’d say “good.”
(I had always finished a whole book before getting feedback. This feedback-in-progress thing was intense… and reassuring.)
I re-wrote what needed fixing and then wrote a few more chapters.
Every few weeks, we would meet. More head-shaking, more re-writes. But, progress.
Eleven months ago, I sent the first half of the book to my agent.
(I had never been in such a position—a lucky position—to get such meaningful feedback mid-story. I happened to be in New York. We met for a good face-to-face session, along with my agent’s assistant, who had also read the first half. They had some excellent course-corrections but, in general, said “keep going.”)
I kept going. I suddenly realized something else: I wasn’t writing crime fiction.
(I had never written anything other than crime fiction. It sounds crazy, but it had not really occurred to me until about this point. I was writing a straight-up ‘novel.’ Gulp.)
Six months ago, I finished.
(I had never written anything so fast. Writing 104,000 words in a year is the equivalent, to me of NaNoWriMo. I’d always been a three-year or four-year guy.)
Around the same time, several friends chimed in. A few had read the draft of the novel in a day. Or two. Or three. The reaction was positive.
Six weeks ago, my agent gave me another page of final notes.
Last week, that novel went out on submission to a very (to me) impressive list of editors.
Now, of course, it’s wait-and-see.
Whether or not we get a bite, it’s been a ride. I believe everything I’ve learned was there in my subconscious. Writing felt as natural as walking.
The bottom line? A powerful idea is high-octane fuel.
Another? Always be open to trying new things.
I know I am.
[This piece originally appeared on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog.]
CRAZY CELTIC CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS
However, when the Celtic Tiger was roaring, a new custom took effect. In the spirit of conspicuous consumption, farmhouses everywhere put large displays of lights in EVERY window. This custom is still followed, with strange 7-candle Celtic menorahs blazing from multiple windows of nearly every house.
CAKE OR CANNON BALL?
While you might find this concoction inedible, but it is very handy for lobbing at unwelcomed guests.
Traditionally, in Ireland, this is the day the women party and the men stay home and handle the chores. Enjoy a day off, hang out with friends and/or and write some startlingly brilliant prose!
Also on Epiphany or the 12th day of Christmas, 6th January, all Christmas decorations are removed. You want to make sure this happens because if your Christmas decorations are not down by the 7th, bad luck may come visit.
Of course, if you join an Ireland Writer Tour next summer, all this will be long over. However, you might still be able to try a leftover piece of Christmas Cake.
The ancient Celts had totem animals, much like Native Americans. It was believed that the Horse Goddess could help humans transcend the limitations of mortality. The horse, and the white horse in particular, was a powerful totem, symbolising the land and journeying (both physical and spiritual). Encountering the horse, or horse spirit, is a call to travel, and also to connect with the spirit of the earth beneath us.
If the spirit of the horse is calling you to travel, click on the tabs above to find out more and to make a reservation for a magical summer retreat.
Well, I was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in ….
Oh, you don’t want the whole history?
Where should I begin?
It’s not a picture of success (to date) but I am very upbeat about where things stand today, being represented by Josh Getzler of HG Literary.
And I will tell that story.
We’ve been together for nearly three years.
And Josh is my fourth literary agent.
Agent number one: In 1989, back in the day of snail mail submissions and self-addressed stamped envelopes, my first standalone crime fiction effort was offered representation by a big New York literary agency that still exists to this day. They tried to sell that novel for about a year and then called it quits.
Agent number two: In 1992, my second standalone crime fiction effort was offered representation by a big New York literary agency that still exists to this day. At that time, they also represented John Grisham. I really thought I was “in.” The agency tried to sell that novel for a year or so and then called it quits.
Agent number three: In 1998, my third standalone crime fiction effort was offered representation by a big New York literary agency that still exists to this day. (Do you hear an echo?) This particular agency claims to be one of the oldest in the country.
Once I signed on, I spent about six months making changes to the novel before we went out on submission. Four different editors offered approximately the same feedback on how to improve this book. I spent another six months making changes. My agent was happy with the changes and said he would take it with him on vacation for one more read-through before going back out on submission. After four weeks of utter silence, I called to ask what was happening. No return call. I wrote the owner of the agency to explain the situation and ask why I hadn’t heard from W____ F____.
(I’ll not mention specific names to protect the innocent—and guilty.)
I got a form rejection in the mail. “I’m sorry, but your submission is not right for us at this time….”
After all that work!?!
In 2007, a small independent publisher in Metro Denver published that third novel. This book, in hardback no less, sold 2,000 copies. Local best-seller list—twice!
But, surprise, it wasn’t a standalone. There was interest (from readers) in more of my main character.
IN 2011, a small independent publisher in Aspen published the second book in the Allison Coil Mystery Series. They brought it out as a trade paperback and published book one as a trade paperback, too. Pretty cool. Did well; good reviews.
But two books are not exactly a series. So in 2013 I left book number three in the series with a friend. This friend, Linda Joffe Hull, was conveniently playing host to an editor with Midnight Ink, Terri Bischoff. Terri (one of the best people you’ll ever meet and now with Crooked Lane) was in town for the big annual Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference. Linda left my manuscript on the kitchen counter where Terri couldn’t miss it.
It took about a year, but Terri offered me a two-book deal. And Midnight Ink, a medium-size house with about 80 or so mystery writers, did not require that I have an agent.
Book three came out in 2014.
Book four in 2015.
Me? I was feeling good. I had a publishing house behind my works. I felt like I belonged.
So I wrote book five in the series. I knew I wasn’t setting the world on fire, but I thought I was doing okay. Book three had won the Colorado Book Award for best mystery. I had some dynamite reviews.
But Midnight Ink let me go. (Um, it’s a tough business.) Terri said nice things but my sales numbers weren’t there. Soon, Midnight Ink started foundering, too.
Okay, at long last, we’re coming into the modern age.
Danielle kindly read book five but didn’t know how she’d find a publisher so deep into a series. So I showed her a standalone novel I’d written—a novel I had written after Agent Number Three left me hanging by thumbs in 1999.
Danielle liked the standalone.
But there was one issue—she was switching her focus away from the mystery genre and she was leaving HSG. (Danielle is here today.)
However, she could recommend that her boss (Josh Getzler) consider reading it. Danielle couldn’t guarantee that Josh would be as enthusiastic, but she passed it along.
Josh liked it, offered me representation, and started trying to sell that book in early 2018. In the meantime, I went ahead and self-published book number five in the Allison Coil series.
Six months later, I came across an idea for a novel (a baseball novel, not crime fiction) and ran it by Josh. He liked it. A lot. It helped that Josh had spent 11 years owning and managing a minor league team for The New York Yankees.
Josh coached me through several false starts before green-lighting an approach that would work. The idea was so good that we decided to hold off on trying to sell the standalone—it might be better to lead with the baseball novel.
Then, pandemic. Then, publishing chaos.
If you’re keeping score:
Five published books (all published with no agent involved).
Four literary agents (and no sales through any of them so far).
So how did I land my agent?
Network, conferences, drinks, coffees, rolling with the punches, hanging in there.
Even more importantly, how did I land my agent?
I started writing.
And kept writing.
Book two: Buried by the Roan
Book three: Trapline
Book four: Lake of Fire
Book five: The Melancholy Howl
The standalone crime fiction novel with Josh Getzler: No Lie Lasts Forever
The baseball novel with Josh Getzler: The One
It was a dark and stormy night… — No, that’s not quite right.
I woke up and discovered I’d been turned into a giant cockroach! — No, that’s not right either… and perhaps a little too Kafka-esque.
It all had been a dream!
Nah, definitely not. Besides, we all know how that turned out for Dallas. (Oops. Spoiler alert for… 1986?)
Opening lines and first pages are, perhaps, one of the hardest things in all of publishing. There’s a lot of pressure on that first page: trying to catch the reader (or agent’s) attention, trying to set the tone, introducing us to the main character, etc. Most often than not, I find that what people think is their first page… really isn’t the first page at all.
Just because when you opened up your word (or scrivener, pages, moleskine notebook…) document and started tapping away — that first paragraph you wrote doesn’t have to remain the first paragraph in your final draft. So often those first paragraphs (or even pages) are the backstory that you the author need to know about your characters / world — but it does nothing for your actual pacing of the novel.
The Top Story Openings to Avoid:
- Waking up: I don’t think we really need to discuss this one, do we? One of the biggest no-nos in all of publishing: starting with the character waking up. Or being woken up by someone and our intrepid main character doesn’t want to get out of bed. Hey, if it worked in Frozen (yes, we all saw you Anna) it should work for me, right? Wrong. It’s an easy place to start your book from because it’s an action and pushes your character into motion. But the problem with this is, it’s an every day action. What happens if the book opens with something happening to your character that’s out of the ordinary?
- Landscape / Weather: Yes, yes, it was a dark and stormy night. Or it was a regular, ordinary day until the sky caught on fire. The long, overwrought descriptions of weather and setting — while they’re great for you the author to know what your setting is, it doesn’t hold the reader’s attention. Again, we want to be dropped into action and page upon page of describing the weather or the landscape isn’t an action at all. This also tends to be used a lot in Sci-Fi / Fantasy manuscripts because you want to introduce the reader to your amazing world…. don’t. We will discover your world along with your reader!
- Prologue: I said it — and I’m someone who loves prologues. The problem with these is that, so often they aren’t doing authors any favors. They feel like film prologues, that bit of information that seems like it creates mystery and makes you want to turn the page to find out more. Just remember that, at the end of the day, a book is not a film. (Even if we all want to see every book turned into a film!) Conventions you can use in filmmaking don’t come across the same way in print. If you’re going to use a prologue, make sure it absolutely must be there. But to that end, don’t disguise a prologue by calling it chapter one — we’ll know.
Those first pages are the hardest so know you’re not alone when you struggle with them. Read widely — see how others start their books and analyze what works… and, perhaps, what doesn’t.
Good luck and happy writing!
The renaissance period in Ireland was fraught with peril, and overrun by a bunch of angry white dudes greedy for land. The Normans swept across the country to the west, defeating the High Kings of Ireland; the War of the Roses created a wave of trouble beyond British shores; rebelling Anglo-Irish and Gaelic families wacked off heads and asked questions later; the Battle of Kinsale was a total nightmare; and then there was that whole Cromwellian load of crap. All this fighting meant that castles were a necessary practicality.
This coming summer, Ireland Writer Tours, will include multiple castles in the August tour. In addition to countless drive-byes, where ruins will be visible, and stories told, we’ll also be spending private time inside specific famous castles.
THE POWER OF NOW
It’s a cocky thing to say, but I’ll say it:
I rarely get stuck when I’m writing.
(Notice I didn’t say ‘never.’)
If I feel slightly stuck, here’s what I do:
I start writing down everything my character is feeling in the moment, in the “now” of that character’s situation.
If the character isn’t feeling anything, I’ve got problems.
If that’s the case, I probably don’t have a story. At least, a very good one.
If I can identify what my character is feeling, then I know what they are going to do based on those attitudes and emotions.
If the moment is neutral, la-dee-dah, it’s probably not a scene or a moment that belongs in the book.
If the characters on the page aren’t feeling something, readers will snooze—right?
We want to be with our characters as they grapple with tricky choices, high-stakes situations.
It never hurts to make sure your character either has a lot to lose or a lot to gain by clear, sharp choices. The reader’s brain automatically engages. That’s investment. That’s pages turning.
A story is a succession of motivations and reactions.
That’s a Dwight Swain line from Techniques of the Selling Writer.
The whole chapter “Plain Facts About Feelings” is gold.
“If your reader doesn’t judge, count on it that the focal character is too bland and innocuous and uncommitted to be worth writing about,” writes Swain. “Without some character of whom he can approve or disapprove, in varying degree, your reader will have no stimulus to feeling. Without feeling, he won’t care what happens in your story. If he doesn’t care, he stops reading. And you’re dead.”
Give your character opinions, attitudes, a sharp and clear orientation to the world. Swain calls it a compass.
Why does anyone do anything? In the regular course of life—there is a reason we do everything. Why we go to work (or not). Why we read blogs by writers who think they know what they are talking about (or not). Why we hike across Colorado (or not). Why we go base jumping off a cliff in a flying body suit (or in my case, not).
There’s motivation behind every action.
Of course, we don’t want regular life in a novel. Readers want the irregular days. I’d go out on a limb and say that if the Titanic made the crossing safely, that the Titanic goes down in history as just another boat. (Note: not a story.) We want our protagonists outside their comfort zones—or in extreme situations.
Think of it this way—the days in your story are days the character is going to remember forever.
If your character isn’t feeling much of anything in the moment of ‘now’ on the page, you might need to back up a bit and find the juice.
Motivation—reaction. Over and over.
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”
― G.K. Chesterton
Two centuries ago, Celtic tribes dominated Europe from the Black Sea to the British Isles, from Galicia in northwest Spain to Galatia in modern-day Turkey.
Eventually, three main Celtic groups were dominant: The Gauls lived in what is now France, Britons lived in Great Britain, and Gaels lived in Ireland.
Naturally, these different groups of Celts had different dialects and practices, which probably made for some pretty confusing conversations.
One thing that united all these different tribes of Celts was their belief in life after death. In ancient Ireland, you were born, you lived, you died, and you came back. Then you repeated the whole process over and over and over again. So strong was this belief that you could take out a loan and promise to pay it back in your next lifetime. People spoke to the dead just as they did to the living. And if you died in the middle of an argument, well . . . It wasn’t over ‘til it was over.
Even more fun than the road signs will be the people you meet. At least some of them will have names that either frustrate you or make you laugh. Lee Mack explains it far better than I can:
Be sure and check back again. Our next post will be about writing!