So I’ve just completed a new novella. It’s called A Bhikku’s Tale and there is a piece from it on the Excerpts page. Check it out and please let me know what you think!
Anyone who has written a book will know the importance of discipline. Getting up at roughly the same hour every morning and sitting down at the computer to ‘face the white bull’ as D.H. Lawrence called it.
Every writer has their own way of doing things. Dark fantasy author, Clive Barker, always writes the first sentence of a new chapter at the end of his working day so’s he isn’t starting from scratch the next day. Some writers do not hit the word processor when they get up in the morning (or afternoon). Neil Gaiman waits until around midnight to start writing. Everyone approaches the white bull in their own way. Here is how I do it.
- Be disciplined but not machine like. You don’t have to do a 9 to 5 day every day. When you feel you’ve done enough work, save it and turn off the computer. We know how writing is hard work, right? So you don’t have to feel guilty about finishing up in the afternoon. Also, you might want to return to your book later in the day. Be structured but keep it loose and flexible. Good writing is a mix of hard graft and inspiration.
- Put your thinking cap on. The book won’t flow out of you from beginning to end. There are periods when you have to put your thinking cap on. When you need ideas, in particular for plot lines, if your writing fiction, you have to stop writing and start thinking. You have to be obsessive about it. You have to go to the edge. No one knows where ideas come from, right? So in a way it’s like fishing. This implies relaxation and ease but we know how hard it is even if others don’t, so, again, don’t feel guilty.
- One line at a time. Remember that half the job of writing is making one line flow from another. You might have so much to say but you don’t know where to start. Well, just write a sentence and think of nothing else but the next sentence, how it will flow from the first. This is essential to the craft of good writing. Be patient. In time you will say everything you want to say. Trust in your mind.
- Self-belief. It’s important to keep motivated. Make sure you read over what you’ve written so far so you can remind yourself of how good you are! Believe that you are capable of writing the best book you can. If you are just starting out get feedback from others. Self-belief is at the core of good writing. Consider Samuel Beckett, a writer who only achieved the recognition he deserved when he was in his 50s. Think of the self-belief and discipline he must have had to keep writing. If you don’t believe in yourself, there is no point in getting up to face the white bull every day.
- Treat it like a journey. Writing, just like reading, is a journey: it’s important to finish it. Finish everything you start. Abandon nothing. Think of yourself as sitting in a pilot seat, making a journey every day until you reach your destination. Think of your readers as taking this journey with you. You have the responsibility to get them home.
So be disciplined and it will pay off. The joy of writing is in finding inspiration as you work. This is the ‘zone’ of creative writing. Trust in your mind and trust in your fingers and they will take you there.
Here are some musings on the differences between Irish mythology and Greek mythology.
Anyone familiar with James Joyce’s Ulysses will probably know that Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey as a structuring device, hence the title. In doing this, was Joyce proposing a hybrid culture? A kind of Greek and Irish civilisation, if you will? With the Greeks providing the form and the Irish the content? With this in mind, I’d like to compare and contrast Irish and Greek mythology. I will focus on the differences because, well, it wouldn’t be a hybrid culture if there were none. Celt and Greek have a lot to learn from each other.
The first major difference is imagination. Greek mythology possesses a universal imagination whereas Irish mythology is often more particular and local. But let’s bring in Joyce again here and consider what he said about his art: in the particular is contained the universal. Irish mythology bristles with imagination. It is often strange and bizarre. See the description of Cu Chulainn’s warp spasm in the Tain. Some critics characterize the myths as ‘childish’ because of this uninhibited imagination but they are wrong. This small mindedness is typical of those who don’t know the importance of a healthy imagination no matter what your age is. Greek mythology doesn’t have this unrestrained, liberated character. It doesn’t have the same imaginative and emotional exuberance. What it does have, however, is a tremendous clarity and insight into the human condition. It is easier to decipher the meaning of the Greek myths. Irish mythology is more enigmatic. It doesn’t give up its secrets so easily.
Another major difference is expression of national character. Irish mythology is a national treasure for all Irish people. It speaks with an authentic Irish voice. Reading the Tain or the Book of Invasions is like looking into a mirror. I don’t know of any other literature that expresses what it is to be Irish so well. As for what ‘Irish’ is, that is a question not easily answered. You’ll just have to take my word for it. It is even more hard to say what the character of the Ancient Greeks was but I would guess that it involved clarity of mind and being philosophical.
Greek mythology has a longer history than Irish mythology. Homer’s Iliad was written around 700 BC whereas the earliest version of The Tain we have dates from around the later part of the 11th century AD. Because of this, writers have been writing about the Greek myths for a far longer time then they have the Irish myths. The Classical Tradition is strong but the Irish or Celtic tradition has come on over the last couple of centuries through writers such as Lady Morgan, Synge, Yeats and Heaney. Perhaps the finest examples of the Celtic tradition are found in the early poetry of Yeats, especially his collection, The Wind Among the Reeds. To my mind, the best of these poems are as good as any poems written in the Classical Tradition.
So what of this hybrid of Irish and Greek culture that Joyce seems to be proposing? What of this meeting of Celt and Greek? Well, it is clear that they have a lot to learn from each other and a lot the agree on. So it is a friendship well worth cultivating, I would say.
Quentin Tarantino once said that Clive Barker is the ‘Beatles of fiction’. High praise indeed from a creator who is on a par with Barker as a writer and filmmaker. The comparison works for many reasons. Like the Fab Four, Barker was born and bred in Liverpool. His books are loved all around the world and have sold in their millions, just like the Beatles’ records. His greatness as a writer of popular fantasy fiction, or the ‘fantastique’ as he calls it, cannot be denied. Like Lennon and McCartney, he will be remembered as a master of his craft.
I discovered Clive Barker in 1990 when I was fifteen years old. I bought the Books of Blood omnibuses on the recommendation of a certain Stephen King. From the very start I was hooked. The stories were so original and full of imagination and, of course, well written. This was something new. A sensibility I had never tasted in a book before. I wish I could describe the way the books made me feel. The best I can do is to say it was a revelation. The sheer imagination was mind blowing. I got so much joy out of those omnibuses that you can imagine my elation when I discovered he had more works published. I remember reading Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show and thinking this just gets better and better. He turned down the horror and turned up the fantasy and this suited me fine. I went through a fanboy period when I bought everything with his name on it.
So that was me back in the day, feeling blessed to have this writer in my life. This name that was synonymous with originality and imagination. This world weaver who I never got tired of reading.
What does Clive Barker mean to me today? Well, I’m not a fanboy anymore but I still love his work and I know I’ll be reading him for the rest of my life. Some books, when you return to them after a long time seem limited and shallow: you feel you’ve grown out of them. Not with Clive Barker. He’s just so goddamned good!
My favourite Barker book is probably Gallilee. There is a scene in the book where the eponymous hero burns incense on a fire on a beach in order to attract the female protagonist out of the holiday home she is staying in. For me this is a good metaphor for the attraction of the book and, indeed, all Barker’s books. There is something potent and intoxicating about them. Barker pleasures us like no other writer can and he does it by accessing the deepest parts of our psyche. ‘Exotic’ is also a good word to use in relation to his work. I can’t think of any other writer who combines such a powerful imagination with the ability to write like an angel. This is not the place for a critical analysis of his work but he certainly deserves to be studied and researched. There are many themes and aspects to his work which will stimulate academic research. The Faustian pact with the Devil is one. Redemption is another. The character of houses in his work is also a potential area to be explored.
So that is why I like Clive Barker so much. I wish I could express better how his books make me feel but it is beyond my poor powers as a writer. I met the man once in Dublin when he was promoting Everville and I’m glad to be able to say that he is just as great a person in the flesh as he comes across in interviews, both filmed and written. To return to the Beatles, like they were, he is totally down to earth and handles fame extremely well.
If you are new to Clive Barker, I envy you for what you have in store if you decide to bring him into your life: a contract made in Heaven and Hell and everywhere in between.
The Chronicles of Dan Lee O’Brien was written over a period of four to five months in 2015. It is fair to say that it flowed out of me. Reading it now I’d say the best quality is the dialogue. It seems to capture the rhythms of speech successfully as well as facilitating the discussion of ideas. One of my favourite creators is the film maker Quentin Tarantino. His dialogue is, above all, lucid and intelligent and I’ve tried to emulate that in the Chronicles. However, the writer I am most indebted to is undoubtedly Neil Gaiman. The whole idea of putting gods into a modern context comes from him, especially the Sandman comic and his novel, American Gods.
When writing the book my overall aim was to play with the Irish myths. To make them more fun and accessible. I also wanted to use them to talk about the power of the imagination which is, perhaps, the dominant theme of the stories. I tried to keep the stories clever and humorous and ensure they have a broad appeal. My favourite story is probably Gungnir, as the concept of the story is clever but it also has a strong autobiographical element, so it is close to me.
The character Dan Lee O’Brien came about as I wanted to create a protagonist or anti-hero who was both old fashioned and cool: a pipe smoking, bike riding old man who is a magician and investigator of the supernatural. He is like an older, more laid back John Constantine. I also tried to put in strong female characters, both goddesses and humans. This seems to have paid off as most of the positive feedback I have gotten has come from women.
I also wanted to give people things to think about e.g. the need for imagination to bring about social change, the power of music and the idea of being haunted by ghosts of the past. I tried to put a lot of ideas into the mix to create something complex and multi-faceted.
All books are a journey. I hope those who choose to take the journey with me will find it both entertaining and stimulating.
Reflections on the Imagination
For this writer the hardest part of creating is coming up with ideas. Imaginative ideas. It takes up so much mental energy that I have little left for the writing part. But when my energy is restored I find that putting words on paper and giving shape to my thoughts and ideas is a lot easier than that initial imagining. I usually lie down on my bed for the initial imagining stage and it is by far the hardest work you can do whilst lying down on your back. A line from Yeats’ Adam’s Curse comes to mind:
Be thought an idler by the noisey set
Of bankers, school masters and clergy men.
The ancient myth about the birth of Athena is typical Greek brilliance, an insight into the nature of the imagination. The myth goes that Athena just popped out of Zeus’ head, suddenly, from out of nowhere. The imagination comes, seemingly, from out of nowhere and therefore it is a mystery on a par with music and wine. That the myth refers to the imagination is perhaps confirmed by the role given to Athena in Homer’s Odyssey. She gives Odysseus ideas for getting out of trouble and getting back to his home on Ithaca. She is like a personification of the imagination. In the poem she is often referred to as ‘the goddess of the flashing eyes’. What could be a better metaphor for the imagination, for the inner eye?
So the imagination is hard work and it is mysterious. All I can add to this is that it is stressful. It seems to come about by mental chafing in the same way that fire is started by rubbing wood against wood. We can bring in another myth here. The myth of Prometheus, who gave the gift of fire to man and was punished for it. Is fire another metaphor for the imagination? For the imagination in all its power and mystery must be the greatest gift that man possesses. All original thought comes from the initial spark of the imagination. Every invention, every great work of art is the offspring of the imagination. All civilisation and progress owes a debt to the imagination.
So the next time you are dreaming with your eyes open, remember that you are not an idler. Or if you are an idler then it is an important idleness. You are partaking in an activity which has lifted humanity to its very summits. You are partaking in something divine. For the writer who must come up with an original idea it is hard work but once it happens and the words begin to cascade and flow no writer will deny that it is worth it.