Conor Kostick: teaching writing and finishing your novel

Interview by Donna Sørensen As part of a UK and Ireland Blog Tour for his latest novel, EDDA, published by O'Brien Press, author Conor Kostick has stopped by at Write for Your Life to answer questions about his life as a creative writing tutor and how this has influenced his writing.

Might as well start off with this one - can people be taught to write?

I assume you mean is it a gift rather than an acquired skill? Some people think so, but I think there is an exaggerated mystification about successful artists in any field.

For me, learning to write is like learning to play the guitar. At first you are rubbish and derivative, then you start to improve, perhaps by learning from your favourite guitarists. Finally, you have sufficient technique that you can explore your own ideas and people actually want to come and hear you.

In short, yes good novel writing can be taught, and as it mostly comes through writing, writing, and writing some more, it can be self-taught.   Your Finish your Novel course at the Irish Writers’ Centre has sold out every term. Why do you think so many people are taking courses to help them get their books done?

I’m not sure there is any country in the world with so many novelists per capita as Ireland. So part of the answer is simply that there is a huge literary culture here. But why don’t they finish their novels at home?

Very many do work in isolation, the majority in fact. But some people want to workshop their work in progress with their peers. And it is much better teaming up with people with the same goal than being unfair to your partner and asking them to read your manuscript.

For some people, too, it’s a bit like joining a gym. Committing to this course means committing to at least 2,000 words a week and actually knuckling down to the task of finishing that novel which has been lingering and put aside due to the demands of work, childcare, lack of self-belief and so on.

Lastly, there are not many courses on finishing novels. There are thousands of courses on creative writing, but this is different.

We don’t do any creative writing exercises, but what we do look at each week – before the workshop part of the meeting – is a classic novel that highlights a particularly successful example of characterisation, drama, pace, structure, dialogue, prose style, etc.

And there are a lot of techniques at work in these novels that we can learn from to build up a powerful aesthetic impact in our own writing. You can learn all these things – perhaps even unconsciously – from your own reading, but to have discussions around these topics from fellow writers helps you become conscious of your own decisions and the alternatives.   Your latest book EDDA is out now and you’ve been writing alongside teaching other people to write. How has being a creative writing tutor influenced your own writing?

It has improved the style of my writing. Like a lot of bands, whose first album is their best, it could be that my first novel, Epic, will always be my outstanding book. But I feel that I’m improving all the time in terms of technique and perhaps, like William Trevor, I’ll write my best book at the age of 85!

When I do readings from Epic, or when I’m looking through it, I wince sometimes at formulations and sentence constructions that I would happily rewrite if I got the chance.

Also, I’ve had to read a lot about the process of writing novels and have picked up some ideas from Ursula Le Guin and Stephen King especially.

I also loved what Ray Bradbury had to say about writing, but his is a very Zen approach and more suitable for short stories than novels. He’d have answered your first question with the exact opposite of my view, I’m sure.

Lastly, in order to assist novelists working in particular genres, I’ve massively broadened my own reading. So I’ve read a great deal of contemporary women’s fiction, which Ireland is producing in quality as well as quantity, crime fiction, and a certain amount of historical fiction.

This broadening of my reading probably helps my writing, although I’d be hard put to specify exactly how.   Why do you enjoy creating fictional worlds and writing inside them? Have you ever written about the nitty-gritty of here and now, ordinary life?

Well, you have to be careful with this question, because it would be a mistake to think of Lord of the Rings say, as a world unto itself and without a bearing on the nitty-gritty of here and now, ordinary life.

The ring can be seen as a metaphor for all sorts of seductive pressures on people today. You could have similar tests of character in a modern workplace, but not in such a pure form.

Similarly, when he wanted to investigate the utter limits of loyalty and love, George Orwell found it necessary to invent a whole world, rather than locate the drama in, for example, the local supermarket.

I’m equally interested in the here and now. But let’s use readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief to push the exploration of here and now concerns.

For example, while we tend to make do with the life we have, most people also wonder what might have been. So, we could use the multiple-universe theory to set up a story where the main character is going to a fiftieth reunion: of her alternate selves.

Present will be versions of herself that took very different paths through life, married differently, for example. And which of them has turned out for the best? How do you judge this? Rejecting wealth and fame, then what is the measure of a decent human being and how would that express itself if you met up with all your alternate selves?

This idea, incidentally, arose from the very nitty-gritty experience of reading over how my schoolmates presented their lives on Friends Reunited.   Have you ever heard ideas discussed in your classes that you’ve decided to use in your own books?

It would be unethical and, indeed, illegal, to steal someone else’s creative work. So of course the answer is ‘no’.

If you meant something else by this question, such as: is it ever a concern of participants that their ideas might be stolen by others at the workshop stage? Then I would say that I’ve never come across such an incident, but I suppose in theory it could happen.

Most books, however, are not successful just because of a good idea, they are successful because of the way they have delivered on that idea.

The idea of a wizard going to wizard school as a youth and being bullied by those who look down on his low social status was developed very differently in the hands of Ursula Le Guin in the 1960s than JK Rowling in the 90s.

A man being troubled by the infidelity of his wife is a common enough character, but not many writers would present him as Joyce does Leopold Bloom.

If someone was worried about protecting an idea that was particularly unique to them, he or she could establish their copyright by sending a letter with the storyline to his or her own address, signing across the label of the envelope and sealing it with clear tape in such a way as the signature would be damaged if the envelope were opened.   What are the best tips you can give Write for your Life’s faithful followers to help them finish their novels?

Firstly, fight off the doubts. I’ve been long enough at this that I’ve seen four former participants of my course get three-book deals and others get agents.

Even in these difficult economic times, publishers are looking for new works. And if you manuscript isn’t published – as is the case for most first time novels - you'll have learned a lot about writing from the process and you'll have eliminated the sense of regret that will otherwise follow you if you don't finish it.

Secondly, don’t prevaricate or stall because of anxieties about the novel. Don’t allow dirty dishes or laundry or the internet to distract you from the time you have set aside to write, while you use the excuse that you are not clear yet what you want to write.

Keep writing, even if you’ve no idea what you are going to put next on the page, because what you’ll find is that most of the issues troubling you are resolved in the act of writing. That strange semi-conscious state of mind you fall into as you write is very productive and you can usually write your way out of a bind.

When you’ve finished the novel you might well have lose ends and clumsy chapters, but it is much easier to polish everything afterwards when you know you’ve got there, than wait at the half-way stage in the hope of inspiration and become discouraged.

Photo: Mark Granier

Subscribe for free

If you’re enjoying your time here on Write for Your Life, why not subscribe for free and get new posts delivered straight to your email inbox? Or if you’d prefer updates via your RSS reader, that’s totally cool beans too.