Thinking back and moving forward

Louise O' Neill

Posted on: 6th May, 2014

Category: Arts & Entertainment

Contributor: West Cork People

Louise O' Neill is from Clonakilty. Her debut novel, Only Ever Yours, has been described as 'The Handmaid's Tale meets Heat Magazine', and has received a glowing endorsement from Jeanette Winterson who said, 'O' Neill writes with a scalpel.' It will be published by Quercus in July 2014. You find her on twitter at @oneilllo or through her website louiseoneillauthor.com

One of the first things people ask you when you’ve written a novel is, ‘and where do you get your ideas from?’. It’s a fair question, although it was only when re-reading ‘Only Ever Yours’, that I could begin to see how my personal experiences had influenced me. It’s a dystopian novel (I read Post-Apocalyptic and Catastrophe fiction at college) set in a sealed female environment (I went to an all-girls primary school from the age of four to 18) in a world where women are no longer able to bear daughters. (When travelling in India, I became interested in how sex-selective abortions and the high rate of female infanticide were skewing the gender ratio there.) I hadn’t initially intended to write a novel for young adults, but after moving back into my parent’s house at the age of 27 and beginning to conveniently forget how washing machines/ovens/dishwashers worked, slam doors, and scream things like ‘WELL I NEVER ASKED TO BE BORN, DID I?’, I found that the main character, Freida, had the voice of that of a 16 year-old girl. And while ‘Only Ever Yours’ is fiction, and Freida is not anyway based on me, at times it did feel like a love letter to my sixteen year-old self, to all those feelings of self doubt and insecurity I had, which I hid behind a well-polished veneer of an easy laugh and a constant refrain of ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.’

Whatever your idea is, and however you came up with it, the most important thing is that you feel passionate about it. This might sound obvious but when you’re hoping to write between 80,000 to 140,000 words, it’s crucial that you feel there’s enough material to allow you to do so. You’re going to spend months, or maybe even years, telling this story — if you don’t love it at the very beginning, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever make it to the end. After that, there are a few tips to help you to start writing and to stay motivated:

•Set yourself a deadline. I arrived home from New York on September 1, 2011, and I said I would give myself a year to try and write a novel. I finished my first draft on August 31, 2012.

•Allotting regular periods of time to write is crucial. Forget any nonsense about waiting for The Muse to arrive, and just ‘start writing’. I made myself sit at my desk from 7am to lunch every day, whether I felt like it or not, and refused to leave my desk until I had written at least 1,000 words.

•I have never taken any classes or joined a creative writing group, so I can’t speak for their efficacy. What did work for me was ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron, a 12-week program to unblock creativity, and found the ‘morning pages’ to be unbelievably helpful.

•Read, read, and read some more. Stephen King has said ‘If you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time to write’. If you want to write in a particular genre then read as many books of that kind as you can, taking note of what works and what doesn’t.

•Be prepared to make personal sacrifices. In my case, the first casualty was an active social life. Jodi Picoult describes writing as ‘successful schizophrenia’ and I found it very difficult at times to interact normally with other people when all I could think about was this world I had created in my head.

The thing about writing is, while yes, it’s incredibly fulfilling and rewarding, it can also be lonely and frustrating. Some days are easy, it’s as if the words are streaming through me from a Divine source. Other days, it’s more difficult, and one sentence seems to take an hour to construct.

And there, at the end of it all, is the unfortunate truth. Sometimes it never seems as beautiful, or as perfect on the page as it did in my head. And I have to be okay with that. For all those years when I wasn’t writing, when I wanted to write but didn’t have the nerve, I kept myself happy with the knowledge if and when I did write my first novel, it would be a Pulitzer prize winning masterpiece. When other people got book deals, I told myself it was okay because my idea for a book was so much better than anything they could come with anyway. Writing means confronting the fact that it might be not be a masterpiece, that it might not be ‘perfect’, but that I just have to keep on trying. Because I would rather be the person who tries and fails than never risk anything, than be the person who never dares to challenge themselves creatively.

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