my review of the new Colum McCann book in last Saturday's Weekend Australian...
Half a dozen times a day on my Twitter feed someone will post the following quotation attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “Writing is easy — all you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”
It’s a good quote because it captures the school of thought that sees writing novels as a heroic, almost impossible endeavour. The fact Hemingway never said any such thing is neither here nor there. He is the patron saint of those who strive to wrestle and throttle the blank page into submission.
In opposition to this model there are the utilitarians who see writing as a job like any other that simply requires you to punch in in the morning, working until you hit the daily word count, whereupon you punch out. Novelists who started in newspapers tend to be of this school. They are used to deadlines and discipline. “So what’s the secret of your success?” I once asked a famous novelist. “Sit down, shut up, stop looking out the window and do your 1000 words,” he explained succinctly.
Colum McCann’s wonderful new book Letters to a Young Writer is an attempt to steer a course between these two different philosophies. The New York-based Irish writer is all for discipline and sitting at the desk but he cautions that a successful day’s work is often one in which you cut your text by 1000 words. It can be glorious to ride the delete button or “fling the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut the better.”
The essential thing for McCann is to toil hard on the manuscript, continually testing it for authenticity and beauty and integrity. Work on it and put it away and work on it some more. Is this paragraph the sort of thing you’re going to be proud of if the book makes it into print? If not, edit it or delete it and begin again.
For McCann writing is a job and a calling, and not an easy one at that. His metaphors come from the boxing ring, the coalmine and the cross-country track. He agrees with Joseph Conrad that a work of art must justify itself on every page, and preferably every line. If that sounds too difficult, well, there are easier professions.
Letters to a Young Writer is more a series of meditations than a Novel Writing For Dummies guide but it’s the more welcome for that. All of us need someone in our corner telling us things aren’t as grim as they seem and that we have to keep jabbing away at our opponent.
And who is this opponent? Not other authors, not agents, not publishers; no, our enemy is probably fear itself. Fear of trying something new, fear of starting over, fear that time is passing us by and we have left it too late to begin. It’s never too late to be a ‘‘young writer’’ McCann says. Look at Frank McCourt, look at Miguel Cervantes, look at Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
Not that this book doesn’t have practical advice too. There are excellent chapters on finding an agent, finding an editor, how to build characters and how to shape a story.
Get yourself a small notebook, McCann says, carry it everywhere and write down snatches of dialogue, descriptions, ideas. Most of these notes won’t be useful at all, but some of them will germinate into a paragraph, or a page, or even a book.
One of the most powerful sections comes near the end when McCann, a writing teacher of 20 years’ standing, allows a little of his frustration to boil over when he asks how anyone can think of writing when they have barely begun to read. You have to read wide and deep, he says. You have to know your chosen genre inside and out. You need to understand where the literature has come from and where it’s going. You need to know the work of great contemporaries. You have to read poetry and plays, the classics, the Russians, James Joyce, the pulpy bestsellers, everything.
“Read, read, read!” McCann says, echoing the famous mantra of Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School. Read not hundreds of books but thousands. That’s where you will learn grammar and truth and the ‘‘rules’’ of the game.
When you’ve done the reading and wrestled with your opening line (McCann has a great chapter on opening lines), what then do you write about? Don’t write what you know, he says. Instead write about something you would like to know more about. Go on a journey, do the research, explore, become obsessed by something and write about your obsession.
I’m not so sure about that one myself. Personally I’d rather have fewer novels by master of fine arts students who’ve become obsessed with obscure figures from history and more books by people who have actually led interesting lives outside the academy.
I also wish McCann had given us a comprehensive reading list the way Herzog and Stephen King in On Writing and Harold Bloom do. I’m sure there will be people who read Letters to a Young Writer wondering who on Earth this DeLillo fellow is that he keeps speaking about.
But these are only minor gripes. McCann’s book will make an excellent pick-me-up for all wannabe writers out there. Put it on the shelf next to Bloom’s The Western Canon and Robert McKee’s Story and take it down when things are looking bleak and your latest opus is lining the cat’s litter tray.
In the end, of course, there’s no real substitute for sitting there at the desk and staring at that awful blank page. Books on writing are a bit like a map of a minefield. It could be the greatest map in the world but the only way to test it is to venture out there into the unknown, step by terrifying step.
Adrian McKinty’s latest novel is the sixth instalment in his Sean Duffy crime series, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.
Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice
I was born and grew up in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. After studying philosophy at Oxford University I emigrated to New York City where I lived in Harlem for seven years working in bars, bookstores, building sites and finally the basement stacks of the Columbia University Medical School Library in Washington Heights. In 2000 I moved to Denver, Colorado where I taught high school English and started writing fiction in earnest. My first full length novel Dead I Well May Be was shortlisted for the 2004 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and was picked by Booklist as one of the 10 best crime novels of the year. In 2008 I moved to St. Kilda, Melbourne, Australia with my wife and kids and started writing full time.
I'm probably best known for my Sean Duffy books. The first Sean Duffy novel, The Cold Cold Ground, won the 2013 Spinetingler Award and was picked as one of the best crime novels of the year by The Times.
The second Sean Duffy novel, I Hear The Sirens In The Street, won the 2014 Barry Award for best paperback original crime novel.
In The Morning I'll Be Gone (Sean Duffy #3) won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for best novel and was picked as one of the top 10 crime novels of 2014 by the American Library Association, The Daily Mail & The Toronto Star.
Gun Street Girl (Duffy #4) was shortlisted for the 2016 Edgar Award, the 2015 Ned Kelly Award, The 2016 Anthony Award and was picked as one of the best books of 2015 by The Boston Globe and by The Irish Times.
Sean Duffy #5, Rain Dogs, was a Boston Globe best novel of 2016 and anIrish Timesbest crime novel of the year; it won the 2017 Edgar Award in best paperback original category.
"If Raymond Chandler had grown up in Northern Ireland he would have written The Cold Cold Ground."
"Hardboiled charm, evocative dialogue, an acute sense of place and a sardonic sense of humour make McKinty one of our greatest crime fiction writers."
"A literary thriller that is as concerned with exploring the poisonously claustrophobic demi-monde of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and the self-sabotaging contradictions of its place and time, as it is with providing the genre’s conventional thrills and spills. The result is a masterpiece of Troubles crime fiction: had David Peace, Eoin McNamee and Brian Moore sat down to brew up the great Troubles novel, they would have been very pleased indeed to have written The Cold Cold Ground."
---The Irish Times
"McKinty is a gifted man with poetry coursing through his veins and thrilling writing dripping from his fingertips."
---The Sunday Independent
"Adrian McKinty is fast gaining a reputation as the finest of the new generation of Irish crime writers, and it's easy to see why on the evidence of The Cold Cold Ground."
---The Glasgow Herald
"McKinty is a storyteller with the kind of style and panache that blur the line between genre and mainstream."
"McKinty's literate expertly crafted crime novel confirms his place as one of his generation's leading talents."
"McKinty crackles with raw talent. His dialogue is superb, his characters rich and his plotting tight and seemless. He writes with a wonderful and wonderfully humorous flair for language raising his work above most crime genre offerings and bumping it right up against literature."
---The San Francisco Chronicle
"The first of McKinty's Forsythe novels, "Dead I Well May Be," was intense, focused and entirely brilliant. This one is looser-limbed, funnier...so, I imagine, is the middle book, "The Dead Yard," which I haven't read but which Publishers Weekly included on its list of the 12 best novels of 2006, along with works by Peter Abrahams, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy and George Pelecanos."
---The Washington Post
"McKinty, who grew up in Northern Ireland, has an ear for language and a taste for violence, and he serves up a terrifically gory, swiftly paced thriller."
---The Miami Herald
"There's nothing like an Irish tough guy. And we're not talking about Gentleman Gerry Cooney here. No, we mean the new breed of bare-knuckle Irish writers like Adrian McKinty, Ken Bruen and John Connolly who are bringing fresh life to the crime fiction genre."
---The Philadelphia Inquirer
"McKinty's writing is dark and witty with gritty realism, spot on dialogue, and fascinating characters."
---The Chicago Sun-Times
"If you like your noir staples such as beautiful women, betrayal, murder, mixed with a heavy dose of blood, crunched bones, body parts flying around served up with some throwaway humour, you need look no further, McKinty delivers all of this with the added bonus that the writing is pitch perfect."
---The Barcelona Review
"I really enjoyed combination of toughness and a striking literary style."
"This is a terrific read. McKinty gives us a strong non stop story with attractive characters and fine writing."
---The Morning Star
"[McKinty] draws us close and relates a fantastic tale of murder and revenge in low, wry tones, as if from the next barstool...he drops out of conversational mode to throw in a few breathtaking fever-dream sequences for flavor. And then he springs an ending so right and satisfying it leaves us numb with delight and ready to pop for another round. Start the cliche machine: This is a profoundly satisfying book from a major new talent and one of the best crime fiction debuts of the year."
"The story is soaked in the holy trinity of the noir thriller: betrayal, money and murder, but seen through with a panache and political awareness that give McKinty a keen edge over his rivals."
---The Big Issue
"A darkly humorous cross between a hard-boiled mystery and a Beat novel."
---The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"A roller coaster of highs and lows, light humour and dark deeds, the powerful undercurrent of McKinty's talent will swiftly drag you away. Let's hope the author does not slow down anytime soon."
---The Irish Examiner
"A virtual carnival of slaughter."
---The Wall Street Journal
"McKinty has once again harnassed the power of poetry, violence, lust and revenge to forge another terrific novel."
---The Irish Post
"A pacey, violent caper in which McKinty vividly portrays [Belfast's] sleazy, still-menacing underbelly."
---The Sunday Times
"McKinty writes with the soul of a poet; his prose dances off the pages with Old World grace and haunting intensity. It's crime fiction on the level of Michael Connolly with the conviction of James Hall."
---The Jackson Clarion-Ledger
"The Bloomsday Dead is the explosive final installment in a trilogy of kinetic thrillers."
---The New York Times
"McKinty's Dead Trilogy has been praised by critics, who call it "intense," "masterful" and "loaded with action." If your reading pleasure leans toward thrillers offering suspense, close calls, wry wit, sharp dialogue, local color and sudden mayhem, you wont do better."
---The Sacramento Bee
"Le Fleuve caché d'Adrian McKinty impressionne par la richesse et la diversité de son ton et de son écriture, passant avec aisance du lyrisme ample de la nostalgie de l'amour perdu au rythme saccadé du narrateur sous l'emprise de l'héroïne. Ce livre rare et maîtrisé est une réussite bien digne de la Série noire."
"McKinty - that guy is a friggin genius."
"McKinty is a cross between Mickey Spillane and Damon Runyan, the toughest, the best."
"Adrian McKinty is one of the great new crime writers emerging from Ireland."