So you want to be a writer?

Workshop leaders from the West Cork Literary Festival offer tips for writing in areas such as biography, short stories and travel, writes Des O’Driscoll
So you want to be a writer?
West Cork Literary Festival is currently running a number of online writing courses. 

Travel Writing: Claire Nelson

Claire Nelson 
Claire Nelson 

Top tips:

Show, don’t tell: Travel writing is more than relating your experiences – it’s taking the reader by the arm and pulling them into that place and that moment with you.

Create a new lens: Even if the subject matter feels old, find a new way to look at it. You could be writing about anywhere – be it the Alhambra, or your local IKEA! – but regardless how familiar a place might be to the reader, they’ve never seen it through your eyes, and a fresh perspective can make it compelling.

Memorise the details: Wherever you’re going, even down the street, look around you and consider the smallest details… colours, textures, sounds, smells… It’s actually a wonderful exercise in mindfulness, but will also train an observance that is invaluable for setting scenes in your writing.

Two examples:

Creating a new lens: Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck: The writer is treading old ground in writing about a road trip across America, but we see the country through the eyes of a man who has grown romantic in his own age, and he in turn is seeing it through the eyes of his dog Charley.

Attention to details: Infused, by Henrietta Lovell: The way she writes about tea and the places it has taken her is so vivid and sensual; you can see the colours of the walls in Claridges hotel, and almost smell the fragrance from the tea fields she visits in Malawi.

  • Claire Nelson is a New Zealander who spent more than a decade in London working in food and travel journalism, including over 5 years at Jamie Oliver’s magazine. 
  • Her first non-fiction book Things I Learned From Falling was published in March 2020 and is included on Stylist magazine’s list of 2020’s best non-fiction books. 
  • Her workshops tke place online on Mondays and Thursdays over two weeks from 13 to 23 July

Essay and Life-writing: Rachel Andrews

Rachel Andrews
Rachel Andrews

Top tips:

1. What is the story that needs to be told?

2. Who is the persona needed to tell the story?

3. Structure is everything.

Two examples:

The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick: A seminal guide to the literary strategies of creative nonfiction.

Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, edited by Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, Gail Scott: Forty-eight renowned writers share their engagement with language, storytelling and the world.

  • Rachel Andrews is a Cork-based writer who has published in the London Review of Books, the Stinging Fly, Gorse, Banshee, and elsewhere. 
  • In 2018, she was runner up in the inaugural Hubert Butler Essay Prize.
  • Her workshops take place online over five Mondays until 27 July.

Teenage Writing: Dave Lordan

Dave Lordan
Dave Lordan

Top tips:

Follow your heart.

Read old books.


Two examples:

The Autobiography of Mother Jones: A classic of oral literature transcribed into text and the story of one of Cork’s mightiest internationalists & rebels; find it free online.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac: On The Road provides a thrilling alternative vision of a naturally free, nomadic & egalitarian human being, erupting in rebellion inside the very beast that has swallowed us - it set my soul on fire when i was sixteen &, three decades on, i still hear its wild call.


  • Dave Lordan is a writer, educator, and multimedia artist who grew up in West Cork. He’ll be joined by ER Murray to teach Words Allowed, a writing workshops for teenage creatives aged between 14 and 17. It takes place online on Tuesdays and Thursdays over five weeks until July 30.

Teenage Writing: Elizabeth Rose (ER) Murray

ER Murray lives in West Cork and writes for children, young adults, and adult audiences in various forms including short stories, essays, novels and poetry. Her books include Nine Lives Trilogy and Caramel Hearts.

ER Murray 
ER Murray 

Top tips:

Read as widely as you can.

Dare to dream - and then work for it.

Writers write. It’s that simple. Make it a habit, a joy, and your writing will improve.

Two examples: 

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: A stellar example of using different narrative voices, using passion to inform your work, and playing with reader emotions and empathy.

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas: honest, raw, gripping, punchy, and beautifully written - it’s a page-turner with grit.

  • ER Murray lives in West Cork and writes for children, young adults, and adult audiences in various forms including short stories, essays, novels and poetry. 
  • Her books include Nine Lives Trilogy and Caramel Hearts.

Cynan Jones: Short Stories   

Cynan Jones  
Cynan Jones  

Three tips:

Don’t just read, read forensically: Work out how great writers write great sentences. What choices do they make with language and timing? What do really strong stories have that passable or forgettable stories lack?

Know your story before you write: You might find that story through the process of scribbling away at an idea you only had a vague sense of, but treat what you produce then as a working draft.

After it has become clear, start again with your eye fixed on what the story is about.

Be honest and unabashed about the intention of your story: Are you aiming to thrill, or amuse, or sadden the reader? All three, perhaps? 

Pare away anything that hampers the emotional line(s), or detracts from the sentiment you want to generate in your reader.

Two examples:

The Breakfast by John Steinbeck, in his collection The Long Valley: An example of how strongly a place can be evoked, the human condition caught, and how much can be said in just a handful of paragraphs.

The Sea Raiders by H.G. Wells: A tense, image-driven mini-adventure that reminds me why I fell for reading in the first place - we’re never too old for stories like this!

  • Cynan Jones is a Welsh author whose novels and short stories have been published in various places, including Granta and The New Yorker. 
  • His most recent work, Stillicide, is a collection of twelve stories originally commissioned by BBC Radio 4.
  • His course runs online from until Friday 17 July.


* This year’s West Cork Literary Festival’s writing workshops are all taking place online and the festival is also offering an online seminar with Literary Agent Kate Burke from Blake Friedmann Agency in London and one-to-one sessions with Federico Andornino, editorial director for Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the literary imprint of the Orion Publishing Group. 

* Next year’s festival is due to take place on July 9-16

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