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Insider Knowledge: 10 Insights I Got from Speaking to Writers

In recent months, I’ve developed a passion for writers’ events – small gatherings where novelists and potential novelists gather to compare notes and talk about their approach to the written word. The events tend to have dual themes: dealing with the nuance of putting pen to paper successfully (be it in marketing, editing, structure, or dialogue), and the presence of talented and acclaimed authors. Those authors who are present tell you their thoughts, processes, and struggles, including the harsh realities of their experience writing, and what they’ve learned on the way to selling a whole lot of books.

I’ve found that listening to writers has impacted heavily on how I read. Certainly, it’s impacted how I read these particular authors’ books, as I have a small sense of where they’re coming from, but it’s also influenced how I see fictional texts in general, from what to read between the lines, to how I shop for books.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. For the writer, characters often run far deeper than a story might suggest.

For a long time, I was confused why J.K. Rowling kept adding little details to the Harry Potter books over the years. From confirming or denying fan theories to assigning sexualities and exploring motivations, Rowling’s clarifications of what was originally written in her award-winning novels have been regular and varied. Recently it clicked for me, when a series of authors told me they’ve already thought about all these unwritten characteristics of their own characters.

They’ve connected with their characters in a way that runs far deeper than the words that actually make it in the final version of book. They’ve envisaged sitting down for a coffee together, they’ve played out scenes in their heads, examined the hidden reasons the characters behave in certain ways, and thought about their belief systems. This works wonderfully when it is passed on subtly to the reader. Whether it’s in surmising a nationality that’s never actually been given, placing a character in a social class, or relating a fictional being to someone you know, the tenuous mental links that come into play because of character development can be what elevates a book. It’s scarcely surprising, then, that authors insist in defining their characters so carefully.

2. A lot of authors don’t like their first books.

In fact, it seems to be a firmly established theme. No doubt we’d all like to think we get progressively better at what we do, but equally, there’s certainly an argument to be made for the very best stories being written by people who’ve been storing them up for a lifetime before putting pen to paper (I can see a logical case for a bookish equivalent to ‘second album syndrome’).

For self-published authors, this dislike of first books seems to come down in a large part to editing. The ability to spot something you’ve written that doesn’t quite deliver your precise meaning in the way you intended is an acquired one, and it takes a great editor to interpret words that never left the mind in inky form. For others, it’s about clarity of point: getting across what you intended, only what you intended, and doing so unambiguously and eloquently. It’s not universal, of course, but there is a definite theme: most writers believe they’re at their best second, third, or fourth time around.

The Five Best Bands I Saw At Europavox 2018 (Clermont-Ferrand)

Clermont-Ferrand is a small town – a touch bigger than Galway – in central France. It’s famous for its dormant volcanoes, which dominate the skyline, and for its rugby team, ASM Clermont Auvergne, who currently compete in the Pro-14, and lost the European Cup Final in 2013, 2015 and 2017. There’s also a stunning cathedral hewn from the lava rocks of the nearby volcanoes sat in the town’s heart.

Every summer, the town hosts Europavox Festival, a four-day event that’s part media meeting, part music festival, and part cultural promotion. It draws bands from all over Europe, picked out by local experts to be promoted beyond their immediate local fanbase. I was lucky enough to be asked to come and check them out (I’ll also be contributing to their website on Irish music in the very near future).

As I only connected with Europavox in the last two months or so before the festival, I only made the Saturday and Sunday, so a small disclaimer before I start: this list is based on only two evenings at the event, and not the whole four. That means I missed some of the bigger names at the festival, including Norwegian breakout star Sigrid and awesome (and ridiculously named) Brit-rockers Cabbage. The only Irish act booked had to pull out, too, so there was no Rejjie Snow to enjoy.

There’s something fantastic about short, ‘show us what you can do’ slots from bands all over Europe, though, so I saw quite a few great bands in short form. Here are the ones that really caught my eye:

Σtella (Greece)

Athens electro-pop sung in English by a tight, vibrant band with the capacity to surprise. Σtella would be a little bit samey if they stuck to the same old electro-pop schtick all the way through. Instead, they delve into some extended prog-rock interludes, lay off the synths every so often, and really engage with those in the front row. Frontwoman Stella Chronopoulou is intensely charismatic, which obviously helps, too: technical problems early in their short set couldn’t do a thing to stop these guys.

Secret Garden: An Instrumental Career Built On 90s Eurovision Stardom

Unquestionably Ireland’s most famous ever Eurovision took place in 1994. As well as an Irish win, through Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan’s ‘Rock N’ Rolls Kids’, a far more lasting legacy was established through the first-ever performance of Riverdance at The Point.

Because of the win, the contest returned to Dublin in 1995, a Eurovision long thought to have been deliberately lost by the home team, due to the cost of hosting the event the following year. In an odd twist, though the winner that year, Secret Garden, has substantial Irish links. Irish-Norwegian instrumental band Secret Garden (representing Norway) had met at the contest in 1994, and through their unusual (for Eurovision) haunting track ‘Nocturne’, brought a little Irish glory through violinist and Naas native Fionnula Sherry. The band have always lived apart, working together across two countries, with songwriter Rolf Løvland based back in Oslo.

Amazingly, 23 years after forming, and following Sherry’s spectacular recovery from two broken arms back in 2015, the pair are still going strong, and have just released the first ever version of their other big hit ‘You Raise Me Up’ to feature the vocals of Johnny Logan. Logan made the original recordings, only to be bumped in favour of Brian Kennedy on the single that was ultimately released, a point of some dispute with Logan that has finally been cleared up all these years later.

“It’s like a full circle being back,” Sherry says ahead of the pair’s Late Late Show performance just ahead of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. “I’ve actually played in a lot of Eurovision’s with the orchestra, as we were having that nice run of wins at the time.”

“We connected in ’94, and thought maybe we could do something together,” Løvland recalls. “I had a lot of instrumental tunes I was working on. I started to send some songs over to Fionnuala, and that was the beginning of Secret Garden.”

“I don’t think there’s been another song like our since,” Sherry admits. “We juxtaposed the idea of instrumental and lyrics, the vocal part was the introduction to the song [Nocturne], and the outro. It was planned for the album, the development of Secret Garden. It was halfway produced, and then it was suggested we do something very different for Eurovision.”

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 6: An Atmospheric Final, and An Encounter with Tibet

Karpatalya v Northern Cyprus, CONIFA Final at Enfield Town FC

There’s a park match taking place at the side of the pitch at Fisher FC, in the shadows of the towering buildings of the Isle Of Dogs. Kids in Bristol Rovers shirts and kids in Tibet shirts have little idea what’s going on over on the pitch, but their intense battle for supremacy isn’t a bad contest.

Bristol Rovers fans’ affinity for Tibet is a strange side angle on this tournament, one that’s jumped out like the Tottenham fans’ strange love for Hungarian side Szekely Land, and the Watford fans’ love for Panjab.

It’s the final day, and I’m completing my ‘clean sweep’ of every team in the CONIFA World Football Cup: by sheer good luck, the two I haven’t seen – Tibet and the United Koreans In Japan – have drawn each other in an 11th and 12th place playoff, in a convenient location in fairly central London that allows plenty of time to head over to the final.

Tibet have been followed passionately, by all accounts throughout the tournament, and while they’ve been close, they’re yet to pick up a win. They take the lead, through a powerful edge of the box drive, but spend most of the game pegged back into their own penalty area.

The largely dominant Koreans equalise with about ten minutes left, and threaten to snatch it. Instead, they win on penalties, though not before Tibet score their first, and their striker rips off his shirt and does a Hulk impression to celebrate. The Tibetans are sung out by the haunting melodies of their fans: they’ve massive underdogs and they’ve been close in most games, playing a multitude of players from semi-pro leagues. They’ve done themselves proud.

I decided to skip the third/fourth place play-off and spend a couple of hours writing – as you can probably imagine, I have a substantial amount of work to do on my CONIFA book now, and also a certain amount of football fatigue. The two games today bring me to a total of 16 live games in a nine-day period (and only six of those nine days had any games at all on them), so I’ve been going some.

The final, way up north in Enfield, drew in a massive crowd. An entire squad of Abkhazians were draped over the closed off area of the stand. Tuvalu players climbed trees to get a better look at the pitch. Behind one goal, a large group of Hungarians set off flares and sung throughout, while the Northern Cyprus fans responded with melodic pipe and drums, and countless flags.

The CONIFA Diaries Matchday 5: Fantastic Semis Light Up The World Football Cup

Tuvalu v Tamil Eelam at Sutton United

“To understand Panjab, you need to talk about the partition of Hindustan, and the effect it had on people of any religion other than Hindu or Muslim. We were just caught in the crossfire.”

I love the conversations that happen around this tournament, and one of today’s was an in-depth lesson on the history of Sikhism, and the consequences of the formation of India and Pakistan on the religion. Panjab is one of the few entities that represents both.

This was a real ‘up and out’ day: four games of football in a day is, let’s be honest, too much. But it was necessary:

I’ve been quietly fostering a small behind-the-scenes goal over the last five days: to see all 16 CONIFA sides in action in person. That probably doesn’t sound all that challenging, given the tournament lasts ten days, but in realit,y it required two results to go my way today. I saw Panjab and Tuvalu for the first time at Sutton United, and I needed both United Koreans In Japan and Tibet to lose today so I can catch them playing each other before the final on Saturday. I don’t want to wish defeat on anyone, especially the loveable Tibetans, but I got lucky: it happened.

Seeing Tuvalu was just excellent. They’re one of those teams who can’t defend, at all, and as the game went on they played a higher and higher line, allowing a fairly weak Tamil Eelam team – a side who hadn’t scored before this game in the entire tournament – to simply play the ball in behind them and run onto it. That said, Tuvalu were surprisingly adept going forward, and smashed in a couple of brilliant goals, including one hit at pace on the volley from 15 yards, to lead 3-1. Both sides also missed a penalty, the Tuvalu ‘keeper making a diving save to keep out the Tamil Eelam finish.

Then Tuvalu capitulated, conceding three late goals to lose 4-3, the last two goals coming in stoppage time. Probably the game of the tournament so far, though you have to feel for the (smaller)  islanders.

After a brief lesson in the history of Sikhism and the importance of the Panjabi identity, I caught the first half of the North Indian team’s win against hosts Barawa, too, which ultimately ended 5-0. They were the highest ranked team coming into the tournament (though not the favourites), and looked very decent if lacking a particularly outstanding playmaker. They’ll play for fifth place next.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 4: A Lull, A Protest, A Thrashing, and A Cracker

Sutton United entrance CONIFA World Football Cup

Every tournament, even a World Cup, has a lull: a moment when – if only for one game – you wonder if there might just be something better you could be doing with your time. Whether it’s England’s invariably turgid group games against ‘lower standard’ opposition at the World Cup, or a player dispute at CONIFA, a tournament wouldn’t feel quite real without it.

That moment has just arrived for me. It came somewhere between A Tuesday morning mini-scandal, and a quarter-final thrashing. Both involve unfortunate hosts Barawa.

Someone observed to me today that CONIFA seems to be taking part in large part on Twitter. It is an impressive social footprint the tournament is leaving across London, a part of which I am contributing to, in my own little way. It was through that particular medium that I learnt of a dispute over the results of Group A on Tuesday morning, after the final games took place on Sunday.

Barawa’s star man Mohamed Bettamer, a former Libyan international and African Champions League player, was evidently registered after Barawa’s opening game of the tournament against Tamil Eelam on Thursday night, and went on to be a critical player in both their loss against Cascadia, and in their win against Ellan Vannin. The latter result saw the Isle of Man side knocked out. Barawa won the game 2-0, and Battamer got a goal and an assist. Ellan Vannin vociferously protested. I gather, from asking around, that Cascadia weren’t overly happy with his inclusion, either.

Some have made the fairly obvious point that Bruce Grobellaar turned out for Matabeleland on Sunday, against Tuvalu, and also wasn’t on the squad list. I’m inclined to believe that CONIFA have been universally lax with the rules on player registration, as they suggest, given the obvious difficulties with sorting squads for a tournament like this. But the pure fury reigning down on the organisation from the Ellan Vannin side – and Barawa’s radio silence on the issue ahead of their game with Northern Cyprus on Tuesday afternoon – didn’t do the tournament any favours, right or wrong.

I understand the need for a laid back process around player registration – as CONIFA’s Secretary General pointed out on Twitter, several teams wouldn’t have made the tournament without it – but I also understand frustrations at the late inclusion of a clearly very good forward. There’s a bit of me that wonders if Ellan Vannin might have been better served taking it on the chin, but then again, I understand their frustration. Perhaps quitting the tournament and heading home early, though, was a little overblown (and yes, that’s exactly what they’ve done).

As a result, the lower-tier ‘placement’ games are heavily disrupted, with Tibet turning out yesterday against a late, volunteer opposition drawn from the local Turkish community, and given a by in a game that should have been against Ellan Vannin.

The Last Dublin Flea Market in Newmarket – May 2018

Newmarket Square on the day of the final local Dublin Flea Market

For the last five years, I’ve lived a short walk from two lively, varied and enticing markets in Newmarket, Dublin 8, called the Green Door Market and the Dublin Food Co-op. They are essentially warehouse buildings, but beautifully used ones.

The fast development of the area around Newmarket has been a mixed blessing for us: it’s included the arrival of a long-overdue public park, the Teelings Distillery, and big increases in house values (the latter goes for pretty much everywhere, of course, though I suspect our part of Dublin 8 more than most).

When an area starts to attract things like these markets, the long-term result is often the departure of the more inventive and low-budget things that attracted people to the area in the first place. The markets helped create an allure and, in turn, land value in this part of Dublin 8. That very same effect is now pushing them out as those shabby warehouses stand to be knocked down to enable development.

Taking a step back, I have mixed feelings about it all (the arrival of Weaver Park just down the road really changes our four-year-old’s life, for one). But I’m really, really sad to see the back of these rugged markets, a Sunday mainstay for us since 2013. I would far prefer they stay, but sadly it’s not to be.

For the final Dublin Flea market, I walked around quite emotionally snapping a few pics to remember it all by. These are below, taken on Sunday, May 27. The end of an era.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 3: The Favourites Fall, and A Taste of Kabylia

Northern Cyprus and Abkhazia line up for the anthems in Enfield

“We’re Turks, not Greeks. I can’t imagine any player from Northern Cyprus would ever want to play for Cyprus, any more than he’d want to play for Greece” – it’s a quick outline from a fan, but a good summary of one of the most convincing arguments for the ascension of a non-FIFA affiliated country from its current status. Northern Cyprus have had players – like Muzzy Izzet – turn out for Turkey, but turning out for the current Cyprus team is just unthinkable.

The Turkish-Cypriots in Enfield on Sunday afternoon are passionate, and more than happy to lay out their position, as the inverted Turkish flag – red on white rather than white on red – of the Cypriot Republic sits draped all over Enfield Town’s Queen Elizabeth II ground.

The Abkhazians were somewhat less forthcoming on their relationship with Georgia – “we don’t talk about that,” two tell me, before launching into the longest national anthem I’ve ever heard in competitive sport, delaying kick off by a couple of minutes to allow for their solemn orchestral opus.

Two years ago, CONIFA’s second ever World Cup was played out in Abkhazia, a separatist region of north-west Georgia, with the hosts taking the title in penalties, and followed fanatically. Over 5000 people attended the final.

Their bid to retain the title crashed and burnt this weekend, first against Hungarians in the Ukraine, Karpatalja, with the late replacement side who’ve risen to the occasion beating them 2-0, and then with a 2-2 draw in which they couldn’t add to a late equaliser against Northern Cyprus in a ‘must win’ encounter.

This was an odd game, perhaps best described as melodramatic. It was poorly refereed, and with the Abkhazia side a touch aggressive, and the Northern Cyprus side willing to go down at the slightest touch, things were a little farcical at times. Nevertheless, Abkhazia opened the scoring with a thunderbolt of a finish from 25 yards, though Northern Cyprus has been in charge for much of the game. The Cypriots hit back to lead 2-1, before a late penalty and lots of farcical bickering saw out the game at 2-2, enough to see Northern Cyprus through in second in the group, and holders Abkhazia out.

Ellan Vannin, another side I had pegged as a potential winner, crashed out elsewhere as Cascadia got more than the five-goal goal win they needed against Tamil Eelam to overturn the Isle of Man side on goal difference, and see themselves through alongside hosts Barawa, who shocked Vannin.