How I Write – Shane Cowley

Shane Cowley lives in the north east of Ireland. He is a marketing professional by day and an aspiring children’s author by night. He is a purveyor of tall tales featuring highly eccentric characters with extraordinary experiences and the occasional magical adventure.

Tell us about your writing background, have you always been a scribbler?
I’ve been writing silly stories about even sillier characters as long as I can remember. Sometime around the age of six, I started contributing articles to ‘The Daily Disaster’, a weekly newspaper created by my big brother. It was most likely a bi-product of us spending many Saturday afternoons watching repeats of classic Irwin Allen disaster movies. When I was twelve I took my first stab at writing a novel which eventually got shelved due to the arrival of my Sega Mega Drive.

I studied Film and TV in GMIT with script writing being one of my chosen specializations. I won an RTE sponsored short script award with a prize of €10,000 to produce the winning script into a short film. We enjoyed a year of travelling to festivals around Ireland and as far as Boston with my short ‘24/7’.  Although we had great fun making this film, I realized then that I didn’t want to be a film maker. I just wanted to write stories. So from that point on I spent most of my spare time writing for children

It took me several years to decondition myself from the influence of studying in an environment with a focus on producing low budget independent films very much grounded in realism. Once I learned to trust my own judgment and to not put any restrictions on myself I started to really love writing again.

I spent several years building up a body of work that included two complete manuscripts and a couple of collections of short stories. Like most creative practitioners I went through a phase of self doubt refusing to tell anyone I had aspirations to be a writer in fear of being ‘found out’. When a close friend borrowed one of my stories to read to her class the reaction from her group of seven year olds gave me a real confidence boost.  They loved it so much they wanted to replace their Nativity play with my short story.  Some parents even enquired whether they could buy the book.  I’ve since gotten over those feelings of being an imposter. I write every day; therefore I am a writer. Hopefully I can add that I am a published writer in the not too distant future.

What is your writing routine? Has it changed over time?
I always write my first draft of every story on paper. I find my eyes get tired quickly if typing and concentrating on what happens next at the same time. Most of my abandoned projects were the ones that I attempted to write exclusively on my laptop.  My process now is to write a first draft on paper and then type it. I usually edit as I type up my handwritten manuscript. I find this results in my ending up with a more developed, tighter, second draft.

I’ve always needed quiet in order to write. I’ve never been able to write with music or a radio playing in the background. I have a cozy office that makes a great writer’s den at the back of our house. I find my best work is usually produced here. A cheap Ikea rocking chair in our living room often tempts me from my office as it’s extremely comfortable with arm rests at the ideal height for a writer’s elbows.  Now that I think about it I’m going to move that Ikea rocking chair out to my writing den.

I’ve modified my routine very slightly over the years. I used to be pre-occupied with how many hours I clocked up writing. However, I find that my ideal writing time is just under three hours after which there is a notable energy and quality drop. If I ever have the luxury of writing for a full day, I write for three hours in the morning with a few hours break and then do another few  hours in the evening.

Some of the best advice I ever received was about editing my later drafts on the computer. I now print each draft and make all my notes on paper before reverting back to soft copy to add edits. Words on a screen can be nudged and moved all too easy. Before you know it what is intended as a small tweak can end up similar to when Fr.Ted tried to tap a single dent out of Bishop Brennan’s car. I learned this the hard way when I ended up spending a couple of months rewriting most of my book when applying notes that just advised some minor tightening here and there.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Luckily I’ve never experienced writer’s block. In college our script lecturer drilled us with the mantra “Don’t get it write, get it written.” She used to warn us that blank pages can play tricks with your mind. I have however suffered from lack of confidence and self doubt which is probably as bad if not worse.

You write children’s books. Where did this interest come from?
I’ve always had a very active imagination. Luckily my father really fed our imaginations as kids and provided us with a childhood rich in creativity. We were read to from an early age. My father was great at making up bedtime stories. We even got regular letters from fairies that usually contained secrets about the future or funny tales.

What did you read as a child and if you could wave a magic wand, where would you see yourself as a children’s author? Any comparisons?
I read a lot as a child. I was raised on a diet of Roald Dahl, O’Briens Children’s Press, comics like The Dandy and a magazine called Little Storyteller. The book that left the biggest impression on me was ‘Paddy Clarke Ha, Ha, Ha’ by Roddy Doyle. I was twelve when I first read it and it blew me away. That book is a masterpiece. I’ve always loved bittersweet themes, black humour and adventures. I’d say my stories are influenced by a mash up of influences from Roald Dahl to film makers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

If I had a magic wand I’d want to be able to wave it so I could write full time. I often dream about being able to spend full days mining the imagination for ideas and putting them down on paper.

How important is it for a children’s author to be involved with an illustrator? Can you get by without one?
Ask me again this time next year, hopefully I can talk from experience of having something published. As yet I haven’t worked with an illustrator. I’ve dropped in some descriptions of suggested illustrations into the text on advice. From speaking to a couple of experienced authors and editors recently, it would seem that if you match your manuscript to the right publisher they will appoint an appropriate illustrator if relevant to the story.

2015 has been a good year for you; tell us how you finally decided to call yourself a writer and your hopes for 2016?
I was always conscious of not wanting to become somebody who talked about all of their great ideas but never produced the actual finished work. I probably took that to the extreme in that I ended up writing for years in total secret. It was only in 2014 that I bit the bullet and started to share my work with industry professionals. Since then I’ve been building steady momentum. I’m happy to be patient as long as I’m making progress or learning something. I’m making good contacts and getting some encouraging feedback.

I’ve always been reluctant to refer to myself as a writer due to the fact that I’m neither a professional nor published author. Earlier this year I was fortunate to have a successful author read my manuscript.  She was kind enough to tell me that not only am I a writer, she thought I was decent one at that. I remember Roddy Doyle being asked what makes a writer, his answer was simple, “If you are compelled to write then you’re a writer.” I’m hoping 2016 will be the year that I will manage to get over the final hurdle and get some work published.

How important is it to seek professional support?
Somebody who believes very much in the ‘Law of Attraction’ recently told me that if you don’t tell people what you want to do then they can’t help you. Why spend years learning the hard way when you can save time by getting valuable advice from somebody with more experience? It’s good to listen to all advice and then be selective about what you apply to your own situation. I’d recommend using services like Inkwell for help and advice.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got a number of projects at varying stages. I’ve just re-submitted a manuscript for my first children’s novel after applying some notes from a publisher’s editor. I’m looking forward to using some time off over Christmas to prepare another manuscript for submission to publishers by the early new year. I’ve a fresh idea that just refuses to go away, I’m looking forward to starting something totally new and fresh.

Would you ever consider self-publishing?
I’ve been told by a number of people that for a book to be published it can take more than just a good manuscript. You need to get it to the right publisher at the right time and have a bit of luck too. If I reach the stage where I’ve knocked on every door without getting published then I would definitely consider self publishing. I know a lot of people who use crowdfunding for film and photography projects so I’d definitely give that serious consideration. Sharing a story with even a small audience is better than leaving it lying idle in a folder on your computer.

How important is social media in your writing life? Do you use it much?
I’ve mixed views on social media. It can be a powerful marketing tool but also a distraction and a major drain on time. I’d prefer to spend an hour or two working on a story than to spend those hours flicking through newsfeeds on my phone. Once I have a finished product ready to promote I will jump on board the social media bandwagon. It’s an amazing thing for a reader to be able to engage with their favourite author as well the same being true in reverse too.

What do you like to read?
I read a very broad mixture of styles and genres . I love reading David Mamet and Raymond Chandler for their razor sharp dialogue. I’m a big fan of Flann O’Brien, JP Dunleavy and Roddy Doyle for simply being amazing storytellers. I love the darkness within the world of Charles Dickens. As a sci-fi fan I really get a kick out of the dystopian future depicted by Orsene Wells and Philip K Dick.

In terms of children’s writers Roald Dahl would be my hero. Derek Landy and Eoin Colfer are two of my favourite current children’s writers. I recently read The Rebel Prince by Celine Kiernan and was really drawn in by how she’s mixed fantasy with historical periods and Irish-ness too. I love reading something that makes me want to know how the writer ever came up with such a story, character or plot twists.  I love when a story surprises me.  I recently read Ulysses but that was more of a personal challenge and proved to be quite the endurance test.

Where do you write?
I usually write at home in my writer’s den (office) at the back of our house or occasionally in the living room as long as the house is quiet and TV is off. When on holidays I like to find quiet areas in public parks to spend a few hours scribbling in between sight seeing.

LadyNicci comment: I’ve been friends with Shane for years, but it’s only when I started blogging about my own writing experiences that he came forward to ‘confess’ that he was a writer too. How many more secret scribblers are there out there?! I think that Shane gives a great insight into the publishing world and the life of a writer. The voracious reading as a child, the varying career paths, the self-doubt and lack of confidence, the hope and all the time, the writing and developing of a talented craft. His take on social media is interesting. He’s right in that you can spend more time on newsfeeds than at your desk writing, but is it something you can just dip into when your book is ready? I can’t wait to read Shane’s work and from the feedback he’s been getting, I know it won’t be long until his work is on the shelves. How did you relate to this interview? Can you see yourself in any of what he has to say?

shane cowley
“I was always conscious of not wanting to become somebody who talked about all of their great ideas but never produced the actual finished work.”

How I write is a weekly blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email nicola.press@gmail.com with How I Write in the subject line.

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