Five things we learned from Marian Keyes’ first writing masterclass

Thousands of budding writers joined one of Ireland's most popular writers for a free online writing class. Here's what we learned.
Five things we learned from Marian Keyes’ first writing masterclass

Author Marian Keyes: 'I show my work to Himself, because he’s kind but not a complete gobshite.' Picture:Dean Chalkley/PA

Nestled in among a crowd of thousands, it seemed like most of Ireland attended Marian Keyes’ first ‘how-to’ class on novel writing last night, a clear sign that ‘novel writing’ is the banana bread of Lockdown 3.

It was a giddy, gig-like atmosphere, with friendships formed in the comments and one or two wise-guys causing hysteria among the masses while ‘teacher’ wasn’t looking (see Dublin singer CMAT asking Keyes if she “ever considered writing a book about a very famous popstar from Dublin” for an example). It was an experience that was an utter salve to the bleak January weather and the heart-wrenching headlines we’ve been seeing since Christmas, which is exactly why Keyes chose to share her insights and tips into a creative outlet so many people are intimidated by.

Keyes is sharing a free four-week course on the basics of novel writing, from plot to characters and dialogue plus everything in between. It takes place every Monday at 7.30pm live on her Instagram page, with a catch-up video shared on YouTube soon after. She will also be sharing weekly challenges; this week our homework is to write 500 words a day based on her writing prompts.

If you were unable to watch live last night, you can catch up through Keyes’ IGTV on Instagram or watch the class on YouTube here:


So, what advice did the queen of Irish popular fiction have to share? I took plenty of notes during the first class, and yes, you can cog them:

1. Write for yourself, not for who you think your readers might be 

Keyes says the only reader you need to think about while writing is yourself.

“I completely write for myself. I’m so grateful for the readers that I have. The only way I can serve any reader is to pretend that there aren’t any,” she said.

“I have to pretend that nobody will read my book, ever. It gives me freedom to write the uncomfortable stuff, the unpleasant stuff, to give my characters aspects that are really not likable or to have them do things that are questionable.

“Don’t write for anyone except yourself. Ask yourself: ‘Is this the book I’d like to read? Would I be entertained if I picked this up?’” 

2. A happy life is a boring read 

No one wants to read about somebody’s perfect life staying perfect, Keyes says. Something needs to cause a change and trigger some drama.

“Every novel is about some sort of change. Something happens and it can be small or it can be enormous. Something has to happen to change the order of life in the novel previously.

“There can be no story without something bad happening. I’m sorry. There’s nothing more boring than hearing about somebody’s happy life. You’re delighted for them for a little while but then you think, arra now.

“There needs to be an unpleasant event of some sort at some stage in the book, earlier rather than later I would have said.” 

3. Don’t just kill your darlings, cut them out completely

Whether it’s a character that doesn’t really need to be there or a chapter that adds nothing to the story, there’s only one place for them: the cutting room floor.

“I’ve just had to cut a character. I just had too many, it was making things messier than it needed to be. Everything changes, it’s constant fiddling and constant work and constant moving,” Keyes said.

“I’ve taken a character out in the last couple of days and I’ll see now how it settles with the ones I have left but I might have to take more out. It is very painful because he was a lovely fella, I really liked him and he had some lovely dialogue but he didn’t really fulfill a function that the other characters weren’t already doing.

“It’s not really on to create a character and then abandon them, they have to remain like a thread through. If you can’t give each character, even the small ones, their own special light, let them go. If they’re not fulfilling a genuine function, let them go. It’s very hard.” 

4. Only show your work to a kind person that you trust 

“It’s nice to have people you trust to give you feedback. I would be very careful, especially at the very beginning,’ she said.

Keyes cautioned that you need to be sure the person you’re sharing your work with will provide the kind of feedback you want. If you want praise and motivation, make that clear. If you want criticism, ask for it.

“I show my work to Himself, because he’s kind but not a complete gobshite. He won’t flim-flam me but sometimes I’ll say to him, ‘all I need is encouragement’ and that’s all he’ll give me.

“Be careful who you show it to. Know in advance what you want from showing your work to somebody because if you’re looking for constructive feedback, if you get critical feedback, are you able [to handle it]?” 

5. You only need to write for 30-45 minutes a day, but you do need to write

“Sit down and write it. Your novel will not get written if you don’t write it,” Keyes said. She added that there is no divine intervention, the words won’t flow from any magical place through you.

“They’re written from everything you’ve learned about human beings, about relationships, about feelings, about dynamics, about events. That’s important for everybody to know, novel writing is probably more mundane than you thought.” She said the only thing you need to do is sit down, start writing and work your way through the story.

“Respect the thing you want to do. Respect it by giving it time that is exclusively for your novel-writing. Get up half an hour early in the morning or cut out 45 minutes of Netflix in the evening, spend less time on Twitter. Do it, if you can, every day.”

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