I get asked this all the time, so I put it right at the top.
Every book I’ve written has come out of an emotional response to something. It might be something I've read, or something I heard or experienced. Or perhaps somewhere I visited. At the time, it may not have been a big deal. I mightn't even notice it to begin with, but soon afterwards, I’d find a story emerging and I’d track it back to a particular event.
Some events are single moments about which I know I have to write a story, but most of the time, ideas gather together over time, perhaps as my awareness or understanding matures. Gradually, a story emerges and I work on it to develop it into a book.
In general, I best like whatever book I'm working on, but I think that's because it's occupying my mind and I'm completely caught up in it, so it becomes very important.
When I go back and read some of my earlier books, I get irritated with details and only manage to frustrate myself by thinking of something I could have done better or differently. Like most writers, I could spend forever changing and adjusting, moving a word here and a sentence there, even an entire plot in some cases, but at some point, I have to say enough is enough. I need to remind myself that they’ve all come from something important, something personal, to me.
Lots of them! I read anything I could get my hands on, even books for adults that I was way too young to read. Often, I didn't even really understand what was going on.
As a family, we'd troop off to the library every couple of weeks to get our quota of books, which would keep me quiet for a few days. When we went on summer holidays, my mum would buy half a dozen books or a heap of old comics for long car journeys. She would dole them out one at a time to try and make them last a bit longer. I was a fast reader.
Some of my favourites include The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones, Kathleen Fidler’s The Boy with the Bronze Axe; Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes and Apple Bough and Susan Cooper’s mysterious Dark is Rising series. I also loved The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and The Adventure series. Books I loved were read over and over again until they fell apart.
I also read lots of poetry for children and had several anthologies by various poets, including Eleanor Farjeon, Ian Serraillier, A A Milne and E V Rieu.
My brother and I got comics after Mass every Sunday. Mine was Jinty and Lindy and I collected them avidly until the heap became too big and toppled over. Then I’d have a clear out of the oldest editions and start again. I also got a comic annual at Christmas every year and comic booklets on special occasions. I don’t think you can get those anymore, but I loved them and added to my collection by buying old ones at Sales of Work or swapping with my cousins.
I started to write when I was young child. I have a Book of Poems that I wrote when I was six years old. When I was in primary school, I wrote action-packed stories featuring tragic heroines and terrifying dragons, which I illustrated. I still have one of the copybooks and it’s embarrassing to look at now.
In 1993, When Stars Stop Spinning was published by Poolbeg Press, Dublin. It won the 1994 Bisto Book of the Year Award. A copy of it is buried in a time capsule in the Zen Garden of the Irish Writers’ Centre in the centre of Dublin city. The capsule is due to be opened in 2045. I wonder if I’ll still be alive then?
That depends on the book and what has inspired me to write it in the first place. My first book, When Stars Stop Spinning, took twelve weeks to write. Chalkline took a great deal longer - several years in fact, although I wasn’t working on it for all of that time. A Dangerous Crossing took from January to July: 7 months to write.
Download my writing tips and print them out on an A4 sheet to pin on your wall so they are always to hand when you are writing.
Write about what you believe in. Write with passion and energy. Don’t be afraid to try something new, or something different. Give your craft time to develop and mature, but keep working on it, and give yourself due credit for working hard. Always be open to learning something new.
Don’t be too critical of yourself, but make sure you keep working at your craft. Writing is like any skill - it needs constant practice to get better so set some time aside and write regularly, every day if possible.
Don’t listen to what other people are saying about your work (except your editor), unless they’re all saying the same thing, then give it a bit of thought…but just a bit.
Not really. I might observse someone using a unique a gesture or a turn of phrase, and might decide to include it. But it's more important to me that my main characters are strong and realistic, so that the reader can identify with them.
Not enough to write full-time and certainly nothing near as much as most people seem to think – but perhaps I'll be rich someday.