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Every new school year brings with it hopefully a new year for CloudofThink. It must be admitted, however, that the creative writing club has struggled somewhat to get off the ground this year.

We decided then that it was about time to raise a greater awareness of the club and of the general pastime of writing by inviting an author to the school to speak to students. Ciarán Collins, a Cork writer and teacher, kindly consented to come along to our school on Tuesday 20th, and discuss both his new book and the process of writing.

This book, Mr Collins’ first, is called The Gamal. It tells the story of Charlie, a lad from a small West Cork village, who keeps mainly to the sidelines of life but, contrary to the popular belief that he is a bit of a fool or “gamal,” notices anything and everything from joy to sorrow to the book’s central doomed romance. Charlie’s first-person narration meanders from the realms of the hilarious to the heart-wrenching in a touchingly real and relatable account of the life of a teenager.

It was with a reading from the first pages of this novel that Mr Collins began the event on Tuesday, a reading which I could see left the whole audience enthralled and determined to read more of the book themselves. I then sat down with Mr Collins for what proved to be a fascinating and very informative discussion about his work.

He described how, when he was beginning The Gamal, he thought it very important to “be as ambitious as I could… to try and write the very best deepest, funniest, most heartbreaking, engaging, insightful kind of a book that I could come up with,” a sentence which captures perfectly the extraordinary blend of genres, feelings and themes which make up his novel. In response to a question on whether the book was in any way autobiographical, he said that he thinks “everybody who writes anything is always going to be influenced by their own life… we’ve all felt different at times.”

A lengthy portion of the discussion related to the process of writing – the thoughts, the methods and the work that goes into the production of a novel, from the first spark of an idea to the placement of the finished product on a shelf. When asked if he had a routine for his writing, Mr Collins said he “wasn’t a good man for routine;” he did, however, go on to describe a vague system of his in which he focused on his writing during the summer holidays, by going for a run and starting “in the evening, around eight o’clock” and sometimes “working through even to the morning” getting “3000 words done in one sitting.” He admitted that the next day he might only get 300 words done, and that the novel progressed in a slow, “sporadic” fashion. Mr Collins did stress, though, that, as long as a writer knows where he is going and knows his characters well, progress will inevitably be made, even if a certain routine has not been very well defined.

A question about what it was like trying to get an agent or a publisher elicited a particularly enlightening response on the difficult task of getting oneself noticed. Mr Collins said that he had sent a synopsis of his novel and the first twenty pages to “probably two hundred or three hundred literary agents” whose email addresses he acquired simply by searching for agents from all over the world on the Internet. “You have to do a little bit of work in terms of what a synopsis is,” said Mr Collins. “I wrote a couple of them and, having done research, I found out – ‘Well, OK, it has to be different.’ Literally, you’re not commenting on it, you’re telling the sequence of events, right? So it’s like telling someone about a book that you’ve read, in detail.” Synopses are generally one or two pages long and are meant to give a summary of everything in the story – the main character(s) and their journey, the beginning, the middle and, most crucially, the end. As well as a synopsis and an extract from the book, Mr Collins also informed the agents of the genre of the book (historical fiction, science fiction, non-fiction, etc.) and the word count, which in the case of The Gamal was 90,000 words; (advice varies, but it is generally accepted that a first novel should be somewhere in the vicinity of 75-100,000 words).

Anyone who has ever tried to send anything of their own to agents would no doubt have sympathised with Mr Collins when he said that “most of the emails that came back were ‘Sorry, we do not accept unsolicited scripts’” – that is, manuscripts from authors who have not been personally invited to send in their work. This would surely be a Catch-22 – in order to have any of your work looked at you need to be known to the agent who could not possibly know you unless they had a look at an unsolicited manuscript. Alas, it seems this is somehow the way of a great many agencies, and a sad fact that those who hope to succeed must simply accept and ignore. Mr Collins then very clearly and effectively described another common woe of the aspiring writer, the rejection email: “most of them (the replies to his email) were just rejections, rejections, rejections, rejections.” I could not have put it better myself. Mr Collins said that “two or three” agents replied to him asking to see more of the book – two or three out of two hundred or three hundred. It was a grim revelation that a writing career is an exceptionally difficult thing to achieve but, nonetheless, should not be given up on too easily because maybe, just maybe, somebody will take notice of your work and one agent is all you need.

Mr Collins at that point had written only the twenty pages that he had sent off, and so had to work furiously to produce another fifty over a few days. Soon after he was asked for the entire book and he told us that “you’re not supposed to approach these people until you have a novel;” but, if one does end up in such a situation, one can, as Mr Collins did, bluff your way to an extra few months by saying, “I’m not really happy with the rest of the novel, I want to make a lot of changes.”

Once the whole book was in his agent’s hands, Mr Collins received a number of suggestions and proposed tweaks which his agent thought would improve it. At last it was sent to publishing houses eventually being taken by Bloomsbury.  More editing was necessary then as fresh eyes read through the novel and spotted “inconsistencies” or suggested that “this might be better here or maybe this goes on a little bit too long or maybe the language here doesn’t sound exactly like something Charlie (The Gamal’s narrator) would say.” Mr Collins hoped that anyone who pursues writing as a career or even as merely a hobby has somebody with whom they can share their ideas and from whom they can receive advice on how to make their work better. Editing, though it might sometimes be difficult and strenuous, is overall a great help and in the end will allow the book to become the best that it can be.

Mr Collins later gave a little information on the financial aspect of writing; his agent got 10% or 15% of what was made from a book, his publisher got a certain cut and the author himself got the rest. Income from book sales is notoriously small and can sometimes be reduced even further by oppressive contracts and naïve authors who sign them without question. It is important that, if accepted by a publishing house or an agency, you try to get the best deal that you can and it is also wise to have another job so that you do not depend solely upon the sales of your book.

Another question put to Mr Collins was how he would deal with writer’s block, a frequent occurrence for many authors which involves basically a total, terrible lack of ideas for writing projects of any sort. I myself have experienced it on a number of occasions; a short story or a longer piece could be whistling happily along and all of a sudden hit a metaphorical wall like a metaphorical car and leave you with nowhere to go. Mr Collins, however, had a more optimistic stance on the matter. “Writer’s block [is] very common among writers; for me, it’s not something I’d lose a wink of sleep over. How do I deal with writer’s block? I might puck a sliotar against a wall, I might read another book, I might watch a film, I might go to work… just forget about it, right? When I have writer’s block, I’m just not a writer, I’m just an ordinary bloke going about his day’s work… so, I’d never sweat about writer’s block or not being able to write… just leave it alone, go and live your life, because that’s the raw material for writing, and sooner or later more ideas will come to you. The more you live, lads, the more you’ll have to write about.”

And that, I think, is perhaps the most important thing we learned from Ciarán Collins’ visit – everybody, regardless of who they are or what they might think they are writing about, writes about their own lives to some degree; and writing isn’t just about locking yourself in a room with a computer, it’s more about going out there and experiencing the world in your own unique way and then allowing others to experience it with you.

We here at Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh and at CloudofThink would like to thank Ciarán Collins once again for taking the time to come to our school for what was a tremendously informative discussion, and wish him the best of luck in his future projects.

Cian Morey