With Creativity Month 2016 still in full swing, local wordsmiths have been encouraged to get in on the action with a variety of literary events organised by Libraries NI. These include the annual Writer in Residence events, where Libraries NI invites an author to host workshops and writing clinics, offering feedback on work, along with tips and advice.
Previous writers in residence include Man Booker-nominated author, Eoin McNamee in 2015, Derry-based crime writer Brian McGilloway, and Portstewart novelist Bernie McGill. This year however, there’s not one, but two official writers in residence, with Omagh’s Martina Devlin and fellow County Tyrone writer Anthony Quinn getting involved.
Both journalists and published authors, Devlin and Quinn have been sharing their writer in residence roles, with each running writing clinics at various locations in Northern Ireland. All of these events are free and offer new writers, seasoned writers or anyone wanting to give it a try, the chance to receive feedback from the pros. The pair have also been blogging about their experiences throughout the month on the Libraries NI website.
'I’m doing writing clinics in Omagh, Derry and Newry, where eight people in each location will have one-on-one feedback on a piece of writing submitted in advance,' says Devlin. 'I’ll be looking at characterisation, plot development, dialogue, the opening and how compelling their voice is.'
'It feels natural to many people in Ireland, north and south, to want to express themselves through the written word. That ought to be celebrated – and this library initiative certainly is one way to do it.
'Stories are one of the ways in which we communicate with each another. I don’t believe everyone has a book in them, but I am convinced everyone has a story in them; sometimes (not always) people can be taught how to share that story. After all, writing is something that can be practised and improved on – all writing fundamentally is rewriting.'
Keen to meet fellow 'bookish people,' Devlin adds that she likes to make stories accessible to readers and so her talks often include visual material. This could be anything from posters, to images of the places featured in her work, or mini book trailers.
With both Quinn and Devlin taking the time to assess individual pieces of writing, attendees have been receiving valuable professional feedback which wouldn’t ordinarily be available to them. And feedback, says Devlin, is key to any writer’s work, as it helps to identify weaknesses, and highlights what needs to be worked at.
'Some writers are more skilled at character development than at maintaining the pace of a story,' she says. 'Some writers can rustle up a graphic description of a scene but their dialogue is wooden. Virtually every piece of work can be enhanced. One of the first lessons you learn as a writer is to cut and polish. And then keep doing it, in draft after draft.'
Like all writers, Devlin herself has benefitted from and 'learned to appreciate' constructive feedback. 'With the emphasis on the word constructive,' she explains. 'Most of us receive our feedback via book reviews in the media – a process which can require a thick skin. On the other hand, a good review is a wonderful experience.
'What I appreciate most is word-of-mouth reviews, however. I also value comments from book clubs because members tend to be readers who choose what they read with care, and reflect on a piece of work.'
As a best-selling author and award-winning journalist, Devlin is currently working on her next project – a historical novel set in rural Tyrone in the 1930s. It’s a world away from her most recent novel, the critically acclaimed About Sisterland, which is set in the near future in a world ruled by women.
To date, she has had nine books published, while also writing weekly current affairs columns for the Irish Independent. Quinn, meanwhile – author of last year's critically acclaimed Disappeared – and four other books, is also a journalist, so is kept suitably busy with all sorts of stories.
While Devlin has penned memoir and historical and dystopian fiction, Quinn is firmly in the Northern noir category with his fictional anti-hero, Inspector Celcius Daly from the PSNI. Indeed, he says fellow crime writers Stuart Neville and Colin Bateman influenced him in subtle ways, while Graham Greene has perhaps had the biggest impact on his work.
A former market gardener, English graduate and social worker – he spent 10 years working in mental health with ex-paramilitaries and victims of the Troubles – Quinn has now embraced writing as his career and described his residency as 'a wonderful honour'.
'I remember going to the old Dungannon Library when I was seven and picking three new books every month,' he says. 'I wasn’t old enough to join, but my mother let me use her card, sacrificing her own quota. My parents always encouraged me to read and this is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child.
'Now children are encouraged to have their own card and they can borrow up to nine books. Parents can bring their children to the library from a young age, to encourage them to love reading. Libraries not only touch our minds, but also our lives in very fundamental ways.
Though now nearing the end of his tenure, which has seen him visit a wealth of libraries across Northern Ireland, Quinn is firm in his belief of their lasting power and importance to community creativity. Devlin echoes the sentiment, adding that it's often the first thing she seeks out when visiting a new town.
'Once through those doors, a sense of excitement catches hold: so many worlds to inhabit, so many characters to meet,' she says. 'Libraries are physical proof, for me, of the value placed on stories and storytelling. Stories are recreational, of course, but they also function as learning tools. The stories which a society chooses to remember and pass on to future generations tell us a great deal about how that society views itself.'
Admission to all the Creativity Month library events is free and everyone is welcome. For a full list of remaining events visit www.librariesni.org.uk. See what's left of the NI-wide Creativity Month programme at www.creativityni.org/events.
By Claire Savage.