My journey from journalist to author through the five Ws

Ann O'Loughlin: 'I love journalism and I love writing. For me there could not be a greater combination.'

‘Irish Examiner’ reporter Ann O’Loughlin discusses how she combined the day job with the day-and-night job to write her first novel.

Who, what, where, when, and why — the most important word of all.

In all my years as a working journalist those five words have been king. The big five are the cornerstone for any good piece of journalism. The five Ws have guided me through the difficult stories; the fluffy, feel-good, and easy stories; the controversial stories; the lead stories; the colour stories, and the odd exclusive. But it was the five Ws which had to get the boot when I sat down to write my debut novel, The Ballroom Café.

They did not fall off the page quietly either, but popped up demanding to be included.

Jumping in to my head, they had to be chased away until eventually they retreated, leaving me free to write The Ballroom Café.

Working as a journalist during the day and writing late at night and early morning, it was almost as if I had to become a different person, before I let my fingers dance across the keyboard. Any student of journalism will tell you the five Ws — preferably neatly tucked in to the first paragraph — is the way to go.

Anyone writing a novel will tell you who and what are important; you may never get as far as why, preferring to leave it to the readers to decide for themselves. And yet why is forever looming in the background, raising all sorts of questions, teasing the writer through the chapters.

Many journalists become writers and there are great novels out there penned by excellent journalists. So how do you separate the day job from the day-and-night job. I think any journalist/novelist will agree that it is not so much the writing, but the change in mind and heart that is the key difference between the two.

As a writer you have to enter an imaginative world, where mulling over a sentence for a day and a night is all right, where deadlines only exist in your agent’s head, and long descriptive passages are normal practice.

The journalist is usually only interested in here and now, the bald facts and fulfilling the next deadline. The journalist thinks in soundbites, paragraphs, small word counts, simple explanations of complex matters as deadlines bear down. When you “hammer out a story”, as they used to say in the old days, it is with a certainty and determined push to make the page.

As a writer, you mull over the lines, the words, the commas, read, reread, make tea and toast, write and rewrite. The worst insult as a writer is to be told you write too much like a journalist. Translation: No depth. The best praise as a journalist is to be told you definitely hack it.

So how do you combine the two? The easy answer is to say I don’t know.

I can tell you it is not easy, but it can be done with the same dogged determination that makes you knuckle down to over 1,500 words a day on the novel.

For me, the world of journalism, where the writing and the deadlines are fast and the gratification almost immediate when the piece is published online within minutes or in the next day’s paper, is a wonderful break from the tough, slow writing and rewriting a novel demands.

The world of The Ballroom Café, where the characters drink from china cups in the little café situated in a crumbling old mansion, is often a respite from the heavy toll of bad news which comes across my desk.

Researching the wonderful vintage costume brooches of Albert Weiss, New York, for The Ballroom Café has been an absolute pleasure. What a luxury it is for the writer who has the power and control to include or exclude and follow up on interesting asides; you can’t do much of that in a straight news story when you are talking about the banking collapse or the Moriarty tribunal.

Fact and fiction; they don’t compete, but can happily co-exist. My work as a journalist informs my writing, Central to The Ballroom Café is the forced illegal adoption of Irish children from orphanages in the US.

I first came across this as a journalist, but writing the novel has made me research the subject in depth. Newspaper men and women move so quickly from one story to the next that there is no time to stop and stare, never mind take time out to research.

It is the one luxury the novel has given me. Being able to do justice to all those stories of heartbreak around illegal forced adoption while wrapping in a story where The Ballroom Café serves leaf tea, cake, and a good dollop of gossip has been both a luxury and a privilege.

Being able to spend time writing finding the right words and working to a far off deadline has been a delight.

I love journalism and I love writing. For me there could not be a greater combination.

Instead of competing against each other, they compliment each other.

As an aside, there is one clear advantage agents tell me for those who learned their trade in the school of hard knocks that is journalism. Writers who were journalists in an earlier life are more philosophical when the rejections come flooding in — or maybe we just pretend we are.

The Ballroom Café by Ann O’Loughlin is out now.


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