The last time I was at a writing workshop, the year was 2004. It was a two day affair at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Parnell Square in Dublin’s city centre, I was the youngest person there by a couple of decades and everyone called me Cecilia. (Long story.) The idea, as far as I can recall, was to get your novel started, but I was more interested in the luxury apartment my hotel upgraded me to for the night and the notebooks I slipped into Muji to buy before I came back home. The woman running the workshop was apparently a bestselling author (I’d never heard of) and our time was spent doing what I felt were completely pointless exercises such as interviewing our characters, and sneaking smoke breaks on the steps outside the building.
(On a slightly humorous and very ironic note: at that workshop in 2004, I was told that it was a shame I was only coming to write my novel now as I had “just missed” the explosion in women’s fiction written in an Irish voice. Um – okay, then…)
I wasn’t impressed, and I didn’t start the novel. I haven’t been to a workshop since. But last weekend, out of sheer curiosity and a bid for freedom to anywhere that wasn’t Cork, I headed to the Dublin suburbs for an Inkwell Writers’ Women’s Fiction Workshop.
As it started at nine o’clock on Saturday morning, it was necessary for me to travel up the day before. My brother tagged along, hoping to stalk the various members of U2 who live in the Killiney/Dalkey area while I attended the workshop. We stayed in the picturesque Druid Lodge – only a few minutes from Fitzpatrick’s Castle Hotel, the venue for the workshop, and thanks to a cloud of volcanic ash, empty except for us – which was literally sandwiched between Bono’s not very humble abode and the residence of The and Mrs Edge. Neither of us had ever been to this part of Dublin before and with unseasonably warm and sunny weather, stunning sea views and street after street of coffee-drinking options, it was like a mini-break on the French Rivera.
Except for the hills. Please – don’t mention the hills.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the workshop, but it got off to a great start with complimentary coffee. I met several Twitter folk in Real Life for the first time, including Vanessa O’Loughlin, Maria Duffy, Hazel Gaynor and Niamh Bohane, and we all marveled at how we look so different to our avatars. (We’re even more gorgeous, of course.) Vanessa told us a bit about how she came to found Inkwell Writers and then introduced the day’s first speaker, Sinéad Moriarty, author of The Baby Trail, From Here to Maternity and In My Sister’s Shoes, among others. Poor Sinéad had lost her voice, but that didn’t stop her from sharing the story of her path to publication with us.
Sinéad, who was working in London at the time, would spend her lunch breaks in her local Borders, looking up the Acknowledgements page of the bestselling paperbacks, scouring them for agents’ and editors’ names. But after a sheaf of rejection letters, she decided on a new strategy to get past the infamous slush pile: target someone who doesn’t have one. After reading about how Penguin had just opened an Irish office, she packed her book off to them and waited by the phone. Not only did they call, but they called with an offer. Sinéad then sent an email to her top 4 ‘dream’ agents (entitled something like, ‘HELP! Have an offer from Penguin’) and soon found herself in the enviable position of being able to interview each of the four and choose the one she wanted. With a single phone call, her new agent got Penguin to triple the offer and Sinéad’s career as a full-time novelist began.
Next up was internationally best-selling author Monica McInerney. Monica had spent a successful decade working in the publicity side of publishing, rubbing literary shoulders with the likes of Roald Dahl and Edna O’Brien, and had already had a number of short stories published in her native Australia, when she decided to enter a Write a Bestseller competition run by Poolbeg (Ireland). While waiting for news on her entry, Monica entered another competition: her local Irish pub was holding a draw for a flight to the Emerald Isle. Convinced she was going to win the airplane tickets, Monica stationed herself in the pub on the night of the draw and, lo and behold, her name was the first out of the hat. Her and Irish husband flew to Ireland soon after and they were barely on Irish soil when Monica received a phone call: she’d come second in the Poolbeg competition – all her writing dreams were about to come true. She’s since been published in Ireland, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia (of course!) and the U.S, and Mel Gibson’s production company, Icon, has optioned the film rights for one of her books.
There is honestly nothing more motivational than listening to people who have achieved your dreams talk about how they did it. It also proves there’s no hard and fast rules (other than, ‘Be a good writer’ of course!). For example, Monica writes to a general outline of her plot, but it’s just a loose framework. She thinks nothing of punching out thousands of words only to decide later to discard them. (She once cut 60,000 words from a manuscript without a second thought; the room audibly gasped at this admission.) While that approach would leave me rocking back and forth in a fetal position, Sinéad was more like me: she planned meticulously beforehand and refused to leave her desk before getting down 2,000 words or so a day. But both writers were doing what worked for them and clearly, both ways really do work.
The highlight of my day was getting to sit next to Monica at lunch – squeal! (Cheesecake and the presence with a real, live author? Best. Hour. Ever.) She was super nice and pretended not to notice that I was staring at her in awe the entire time, hoping some of her best-selling novelist magic would rub off on me. Even though I swore to myself I wasn’t letting the agent cat out of the bag until Monday – and even then, only letting a little bit of it out – I couldn’t help whisper my news to her and she was super encouraging.
To close the day Monica did some quick writing exercises with us. I’ll admit, I normally loathe those kind of things – unless it’s a Tweet, blog post or email, I normally don’t write anything that doesn’t add to my WIP word count – but I was pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of Monica’s assignments. It was fascinating to see how every single woman in the workshop – I think there was about twelve of us – approached each one completely differently and it really proved just how much you can get done in the space of five minutes when there’s no time to stare out the window, check Twitter or twiddle your thumbs while the kettle boils.
Monica had brought international editions of her books (as well as half her last manuscript which was less than my entire one – GULP!) and invited us to take the English language ones if we wanted. Um, duh – you don’t have to ask me twice! I grabbed the US edition – I’m a sucker for US editions – (Ballantine), and had Monica sign it for me. When I read the inscription, I felt a bit teary. How nice is she?!
All in all, it was a fantastic day. I’ll definitely be heading back up there in October for the One Stop Self-Publishing Conference, only this time I’ll definitely bring a few copies of my book! You can visit the One Stop Self-Publishing Conference blog here, where you might just see a name you recognize…
P.S. I realized something else at this workshop: I am a writer and I have to start acting like I know that. I’ve been told off before for being a bit too self-deprecating, which I can’t help because I’m Irish, and Irish people love to see their own brought down a tack or ten, and the last thing I want is to be seen as someone who needs bringing down. But I’ve gone to the other extreme, stressing that Mousetrapped is self-published, belittling my upcoming launch as a ‘glorified signing’ and generally apologizing for the fact that I can write. Having only known me for a couple of hours, the other workshop participants – and Monica, even – picked me up on this, which tells you how bad it is! Well, it stops now. Or at least, I’m going to try to stop it now. First things first: I’m off to change my Twitter bio…
The next Inkwell Workshop is Getting Published on May 1st. You can see their full schedule of upcoming events here. All workshops are held in Fitzpatrick’s Castle Hotel, Killiney, Co. Dublin, which is easily accessible by car and public transport from Dublin City Centre and/or Dublin airport. We stayed in a B&B about 10 minutes walk away (a vertical walk, I should add!) called Druid Lodge. You can follow Inkwell Writers on Twitter or sign up for their fantastic free newsletter, packed full of advice, news and competitions.