How I Write – Tomás O’Connor

Tomás is from Cork and is currently studying Statistics at Trinity College as part of his ongoing actuarial training. He’s writing the second draft of his first book, a humorous novel about a fictitious footballer.

At what age did you realise writing was going to mean something in your life?
Writing was probably my strongest suit in school and I suppose it’s always something that’s been on the back of my mind since leaving. I always had good intentions but could never quite follow through. For instance, I joined my college newspaper at the start of first year and in the end, didn’t write one word for them in four years. Writing a book was something I always had in my head but never really had a plan or a solid idea. I’m a massive fan of Ross O’Carroll Kelly but always thought it was commercially limited because there’s not much appeal outside of this country for a rugby jock living in a parody of Irish society. So what’s bigger than rugby? Football. What’s bigger than Ireland? The world. I thought a similar book about a Premier League footballer would have much more of a global appeal.

What is your writing routine?
I try to write any time I can, but I’m generally a lot more productive at night. Probably because I’ve procrastinated so much during the day that I’m actually under pressure to finish my daily quota in time which spurs me on. They say a writer’s either an architect or a gardener and I’d definitely be more of an architect. I’ve always been like that.  If I had a week to write a story in school, I’d spend six days just thinking about it, scribbling down plot points and character traits on a spider diagram, then I’d write the story on the seventh day. So I try to plan as much as I can in advance before I actually get started on a project.

I’m constantly taking notes on my phone which are especially useful when writing humour because sitting there at the desk, trying to come up with something funny on the spot is generally pretty hopeless. I think forced humour is something that stands out like a sore thumb so it’s important to have all these anecdotes, one liners and what not at hand. I’ve been taking these notes for years so have reams of them to call upon when they’re needed.

You are working on a sports book, is sport something you’re passionate about in life?Yeah, definitely. Sport has always played a massive part in my life and still does. My initial degree was in Sport & Exercise Science; I basically chose it because it had the word Sport in it. I play a lot of sport and I’ve worked with football clubs in the past as well so I do feel like I’m writing what I know which makes life a little bit easier for myself.

Tell us about your book? You’ve referenced Ross O’Carroll Kelly in the style you’re writing in. Is it difficult to write with humour?
The book’s very much in the mould of Ross O’Carroll Kelly. It’s about the protagonist’s difficult first year in the English Premier League. I actually try not to focus on football too much in the book because let’s face it, “He got the ball, then he scored, then he won some stuff,” isn’t going to hold anyone’s attention for a hundred thousand words. So it’s more about his off field exploits, his relationships with the various characters he deals with in everyday life, and the lengths he’ll go to to get his own way.

In a way, writing with humour is more difficult because you have to succeed on two fronts: writing a good story and writing something that’s funny. Humour is so subjective though that even if you think you’ve succeeded in doing what you set out to do, there’s plenty of people for whom it won’t strike even the smallest chord. Then again, most of what I’ve ever written has been in a humorous style (an attempt at least) so I’m used to it really. I also find it more enjoyable to write humour as it tends to be more casual and natural. If I’m bored when I’m writing, then that probably means the material is boring as well. So in a way, I try to entertain myself as much as anything.

Have you made other attempts to write a book before this?
I first put pen to paper for this book back in 2012. I think I wrote one page before realising it was too dialogue heavy and relied on too many visual gags to really work so I decided screenplays might be more my thing. It’s quite a different craft to normal story writing though and found that I had a lot to learn about it from a technical point of view. As I got more into it, I sort of abandoned the footballer story I had planned and ended up toying with sitcom episodes, both existing and original. I then followed it up with a feature length film script.

Going all the way back to that original book idea, I’d now realised that in fact, the idea could well have worked as a book and I probably didn’t need to venture out into screenwriting at all! Although ultimately, I’m glad I did because I learned a lot about writing good dialogue and dealing with exposition which I think is more difficult in screenwriting as you really can’t afford to waste one word. I feel that I’m a better writer now for that experience.

Have you ever entered any writing competitions?
I entered a few screenwriting ones back when I was exploring that whole world. I was a quarter finalist in the Creative World Awards for a sitcom I’d written and I reached the final  5% of the BBC Writer’s Room for feature length comedy. I didn’t try overly hard to get my stuff out there though. I think every writer possesses this self doubt, but especially then, I knew I’d be sending these things out more in hope than anything else. I don’t think I truly believed anything would ever come of it. I feel a lot different about this current book though. Obviously there’s still hope involved but it’s a project that I really believe in this time.

What is the most difficult thing about keeping up a writing life?
I think it’s  mentally exhausting to just keep slogging away, day in day out. As I’m at college, and hence not working, and no kids, mortgage etc. to worry about, I’m probably in a better position than most in that I’m able to shape my schedule to suit my writing as that’s priority number one for me right now. With my college course finishing in May, it’ll then be back to working life so the motivation is there to get the book completely home and dry while I have the opportunity.

What do you do when you’re struggling for inspiration? Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I try to plan as much as I possibly can beforehand so that I don’t get too bogged down on plot points but it certainly does happen. My mind tends to wander when I get stuck and I find it harder to concentrate because I don’t have a clear vision of the road ahead. I think it helps to write down the questions of what exactly I’m stuck on. “Why would John care so much about Mary’s affair?” and write down literally any answer that comes into your head. It’s just a simple thing but it gets me to narrow down the problem and really focus on the obstacle facing me.

What do you like to read?
I tend to read more biographies than fiction. I like getting an insight into the lives of successful people, seeing what makes them tick and learning about their paths to success. I used to read tons of fiction of any genre when I was younger and that’s something I really need to get back into more I think.

Where do you write?
If it’s not at the desk in my bedroom then it’s usually at some library. The more comfortable I get with my surroundings, the less productive I tend to be so I try to keep it fresh and find myself in a new place every month or so. Luckily, at Trinity College there’s plenty of different study/writing locations dotted around the place so I spend a lot of time there.

tomas o connor

LadyNicci comment: Working with humour can be difficult for any writer. Even if you’re funny in person, capturing jokes on paper, takes a particular type of talent I think. And like all comedians, Tom puts the work in most days, taking notes and watching the world. It’s interesting that he’s tried his hand at screen writing and found it sharpened his writing and dialogue – I guess all training in writing, no matter what discipline, helps. His approach to writer’s block is like that of a problem solver. He writes down the issues he’s facing and tries to work them out on paper. For me, I tend to just think and think and hope the answer pops up into my head. According to people in the know, footballing books are set to be big business in the next few years. I hope Tomas’ work is one of them.

H0w I write

How I write is a 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.

2 Comments on How I Write – Tomás O’Connor

  1. I’m loving this series; humorous writing must be so difficult, I can’t imagine it, but then again, I can never deliver a joke properly! I love the saying that a writer is either an engineer or a gardener!

    • Thanks for your comment Naomi- I def think it’s one of the more tricky genres to crack – humour can be so subjective to. I don’t get that saying at all! But I am definitely neither!

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