Make ’em laugh… or not.

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They say that if you want to learn to drive a car it is best to learn in a car with manual transmission. The reasoning says that manual is more difficult than automatic and once you’ve learned how to manage a gearshift anything else is plain sailing. Well, I learned to write what passes for humor in one of the toughest places I could think of. I used to have a regular weekly column in a Sunday newspaper. It was in the sports section and the main topic was angling. The remit was: it has to be about angling issues and it has to be entertaining. You might think this is easy, but there are only about three angling issues and making something “entertaining” is the “Holy Grail” of every writers. So I had my work cut out. I was also writing to a deadline and I can think of no more effective wet blanket than the phrase: be funny; you’ve got ten minutes. Nevertheless, they published me for 7+ years before other work commitments took over or did they get fed up with me? Can’t remember.

Anyway, I was thinking about how humor is created now, compared to how it was done in the past. Charles Dickens managed to convey humor through a number of different means. First he gave his characters funny names: Pumblechook, Heap, Philip Pirrip, Bumble, Malaprop etc. Secondly, he wrote “in a funny way”. What I mean by that was that the author’s asides to the reader were one of the main devices he used to spice up a scene. And lastly he used the inherently humorous situations. Most of these methods would be considered heavy handed today, since they tend to telegraph the laughs before you ever reach them. And when you write a whole book using these little tricks it could drive a modern reader to the madhouse – which is why I have never managed to reach the end of the Pickwick Papers even though I’ve tried several times.
Here’s an example from Little Dorritt: “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT.” (book I, ch 10) Okay, it’s taken out of context etc. etc. I know. But the point is that you have to be in a Dickens mood to find it funny. He has already told you it’s going to be funny with the name “Circumlocution Office” so the switcheroo at the end is slightly mitigated. Here’s a modern example from Dave Barry talking about Florida: “Just get on any major highway, and eventually it will dead-end in a Disney parking area large enough to have its own climate, populated by large groups of nomadic families who have been trying to find their cars since the Carter administration.” Okay that was from a non-fiction book but you get the point. He’s using tricks but he doesn’t telegraph them
Reading any novel that was published before the beginning of the 20th century is like learning a different language. Most of them just aren’t snappy enough for modern tastes. But trying to analyze what makes something funny, or even worse, how to write humorously is doomed to failure. So I won’t. Instead, here are a few quotes from the master of them all, P.G. Wodehouse:
“He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”
“To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement his book would have been finished in half the time.”
“The Right Hon. Was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say when”


Muscle for Hire Review

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Robert Carraher over a The Dirty Lowdown blog has done a great review of my book “Muscle for Hire“. He very kindly told me to feel free to publish it on this blog so here it is…


“The Taco Town takings were took from Tori’s Toyota on the way back from Tulip’s” Jimmy nodded. “The Toyota too.”

Muscle For Hire
What a great find! I was interviewing author Mike Faricy, and a comment was left by one Sean O’Neill. Mike is from St. Paul, Minnesota but lives half the year in Dublin, Ireland and of course writes great thrillers. Sean on the other hand is from Ireland, via Scotland where he was born, and now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota! And, as we are about to discover, writes thrillers! Sean sent me a book, “Muscle for Hire” which is one of the greatest books I didn’t know I was going to read last month….okay, let me put it this way. What a great book! Like finding a signed first edition of The Maltese Falcon for a dollar at a yard sale.
Ralph Tooley is a “gap year” student, in English…okay in American English, that means he is taking a sabbatical, a few months off of collegeTooley has already completed his first year at Glasgow University in English Literature when his dad gave him an ultimatum. Quit hanging out with his rough friends or leave the country for a few months. At least that is his dads excuse. After all, Tooley is getting good grades, but as we learn, no ones motive is exactly on the up and up in this dark, dangerous, violent and oh so damn cynically funny novel.
So, Tooley comes to St. Paul to work for his uncle Alex, a thoroughly corrupt ScottishBlood menagerie_O'NeillMobster running numerous rackets in the Twin Cities. While a lot of kids take a break from school, most learn to say, “You want fries with that.” Tooley beats people up, wrecks furniture, breaks legs and intimidates customers of uncle Alex loan shark & protection rackets. Nothing like a little life experience to make one a better man….
Now, our Tooley isn’t a big guy, he’s only just over five and a half feet tall, but he grew up in the “poorer sections of Glasgow” where you learn to be good with your hands. And Tooley is very very good, and he most likes beating the Holly shite out of bigger men who under estimate him.
But, deep inside his Celtic soul, Tooley is a writer, he yearns for the halls of academia, the neo-Gothic architecture of  the hallowed halls of the university, the quiet back-street coffee shops, the crowded pubs along Byers Road and Great Western Road enjoying a “wee goldie” and arguing over Shakespeare sonnets in the west end of Glasgow and sipping ‘real ale’. And, Tooley has a muse. Raymond Chandler.raymond-chandler_1234883c Or rather a ghost, seeing as how Chandler can get rather violent himself. Chandler has unfinished business, see, he failed as a journalist and regrets that part of his life. So he mandates that Tooley make this right by becoming a journalist, and Chandler points out that Tooley just may be able to make himself enough money as a journalist to fly back to home and hearth. Tooley takes a job at a publication who’s reputation for truth is only just below that of The National Enquirer….
Along the way, Tooley meets another gangster, Big Ted. Seems uncle Alex has had Tooley collecting from customers claimed by Big Ted, and Big Ted has to do something about it. Namely cut Tooley into many pieces and send them to uncle Alex. Nothing personal, just a business memo amongst hoods. To complicate matters, Tooley is soon harassed by the FBI who has gotten wind of the shenanigans of uncle Alex and Big Ted. They want Tooley to inform on uncle Alex or else they will deport Tooley. Well, this is what Tooley wants except if he leaves uncle Alex, uncle Alex will kill him and if he doesn’t come through with the scoop on an art heist that uncle Alex has planned, Big Ted will kill him, so a friendly deportation is out of the question. And if Tooley hasn’t enough to worry about, suddenly his stash of collection money, along with the pittance he earns moonlighting for the scandal rag starts disappearing from his apartment. He suspects his rather rude neighbor, A. Schneider. And just because there is room in the fire for another iron, Tooley has caught wind of a terrorist plot to blow up President Obama while collecting for uncle Alex.Sean O'Neill2
The story is shamefully entertaining as Sean O’Neill’s use of metaphor and original hardboiled simile is channeled through Tooley’s muse, Raymond Chandler. Chandler is often imitated, but Sean is spot on. Clearly influenced but totally and joyfully original. The story has more twists and turns, so many side capers and mini plots, whacky characters and twists per inch, that you wonder how any author could bring them all around and as Chandler said, “the solution, once revealed must seem inevitable.” And Sean O’Neill not only pulls this off, but pulls it off masterfully. I  think I have found that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow  in Mr. O’Neill.,he is sure to be a hit!
Sean O'Neill

Originally from Scotland, Sean has traveled about a bit, including living in Ireland, England (twice), Italy and the USA – which is where He lives at the moment. he has worked as a freelance journalist for about seven years and has had poetry, short stories and articles published in a variety of publications. In April 2011 he published four novels as Kindle eBooks on Amazon. They range from the thigh-slappingly funny, to the nail-bitingly tense, but mostly somewhere between the two. Be sure to get them at Amazon or Smashwords.

The Dirty Lowdown

A test of character

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According to received wisdom on such matters, you’re supposed to write out a description of each of the main characters of your novel. The understanding is that once you know the background to the characters the plot will effortlessly unfold with the inevitability of an electricity bill. I can see the point of this if you’re writing a book like a psychological thriller, a whodunit (although Agatha Christie seemed to get away with cardboard-cut-out characters populating an intricate plot), or even a romance (although the protagonists can often end up stereotyped even there).

The novels I’ve written are thrillers and so involve some fairly detailing plotting and a problem, or several, to be solved – even if the problem is merely a McGuffin. What really matters is the plot, so what about character development? What I’ve found is that the characters develop as you write. I personally hate the idea of dissecting each character and working out what makes them tick before beginning the novel. Not that I haven’t tried it. But I find that the characters still insist on developing in whatever way takes their fancy regardless of what intricate character description I’ve written for them. I think it’s a case of being pragmatic and not too rigid. Sometimes, the development of my characters suggests a plot twist I hadn’t thought of and which, hopefully, enhances the action. Sometimes I need to change the plot because a character has developed in a way that makes the planned action a poor fit.

For example, in my third novel, “Muscle for Hire” the protagonist, Tooley, is a “hard man” from the poor part of Glasgow, Scotland. Originally, I had him winning every punch-up and violent encounter with the bad guys because he was so tough. But that was too one-dimensional. His character turned out to be more accessible on the emotional side than I’d previously planned him. So occasionally I had the bad guys getting one up on Tooley, in order to even up the odds a bit and make it sound more believable.

Similarly, characters change because of encounters with other characters. They have to develop to respond to the situations they find themselves in. So no matter how detailed your character sketches are to start off with, if the character doesn’t evolve he or she can become just another stereotype.

So, yeah, some planning of the characters’ personalities is in order, but to my mind it’s not essential to the process of producing a novel. What is essential is being sensitive enough to the characters that you allow them to evolve as the story progresses. That’s my take on it, anyway.


What did I just say?

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I read an interesting interview with Mike Faricy over at Robert Carraher’s The Dirty Lowdown blog. In it Mike says that he starts his writing day by editing the stuff he wrote the previous day. It got me thinking about my own process and I do something similar. Revising scenes that I’ve just written is a good habit to get into, but I’m afraid I’m not religious about it. However, I always do it the day after I’ve had a good day’s writing. When I get into the zone and start hammering out 3k and sometimes as much as 4k words in a day (I think my record is 5k) I can tend to accidentally skip a word here and there. So It’s good to proofread, I guess. When I write fastest is when there is a lot of dialog. There’s a kind of rhythm, give-and-take, aspect to dialog that you can get into, and again I can tend to skip the odd word – and some of them are decidedly odd – or even get confused as to who is speaking (although that’s rarer now).

One thing I have noticed is that, as I write a scene, traits emerge in the characters which make me want to change some of the later chapters. So quite often I do. I also become aware when I’m writing that what I thought was enough material for a whole chapter, can turn out to be enough for about ten lines. That happened when I was writing “The Blood Menagerie“. I got near the end and realized that two of the closing chapters just didn’t have enough in them to justify the space, so I ruthlessly – though, not without a pang – chopped them out. Two chapters is a lot to lose from a book and in the finish up the novel was about 65k words long, which is short for me. However, I think it is also tighter and somehow zingier without the extra baggage.

Of course editing as you go along saves work at the end. It’s also easier to see whether the plot is going  in a different direction and make the appropriate changes. It’s easier to make adjustments to a synopsis than it is to rewrite an entire book. One of the things that helped me get into the habit of revising stuff I had just written was when I worked as a freelance journalist for a few years and had a regular column in a Sunday newspaper. Okay, so you’re writing to a deadline, but if you start producing work with glaring errors, they can just drop your column. So I went over it all meticulously before I sent it in. That habit remained and it has stood me in good stead.

Excuse me while I go over what I’ve just written…


How long have they got?

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I spent years hawking my books round publishers and agents and ended up with my fair share of rejection letters. The good ones told me how excellent they thought my writing was but it was “not for us”. The bad ones – well don’t remind me… If it weren’t for indie publishing I’d still be getting frustrated to distraction by the exercise in futility that submitting to traditional publishers has become. Now I have four published novels to my name (see the sidebar to the right) and am tentatively thumbing my nose at the establishment.

Of course, it’s now up to me to sell these books like crazy. But when you think about it, is that so much different from the traditional model. Non-fiction publishers will only publish your book if you can prove that you’re “on the circuit”, i.e. that you already have an eager audience of conference-goers to sell your work to and that your network of contacts will snap up as many copies as they can print. Fiction publishers will spend a minimum on publicity unless you happen to be Jonathan Kellerman or James Patterson; but even then you have to do the round of book signings, talk shows and interviews. It seems that being an author is hard work, but the easy part is the writing.

The growing trend of authors moving over to indie publishing through Amazon Kindle Store, Create Space and Smashwords will leave publishers asking themselves if they have been too discriminating for their own good. Of course, one of the disadvantages of self-publishing is that the public don’t get a gatekeeper – someone to tell them “this guy is a damned good writer”. What they get instead are any Johnny-come-lately shoving his book out there to further dilute the already watery mix of talent. Or do they?

What this doesn’t take into account is the power of social media. People, when faced with a sea of possible purchases, such as the pool of indie publications, don’t just close their eyes and throw a dart. They look for reviews, they see what other people are saying about the books available. These days, indie reviewers are becoming more articulate, more respected and more authoritative. But even if the book-purchaser buys a lemon, is it going to break the bank? Not when really fine novels are being sold for anything between $0.99 and $2.99. They can afford to be a bit adventurous. They can afford to give new and untried authors a go.

The question is, now that indie publishing is accruing to itself all the requisites of a new and vibrant market, how long does traditional publishing have before it simply fades away and dies? And if it wants to somehow cash in on the new publishing model, what does it have to do to survive?


How do you write a novel?

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One of the things I’ve always been fascinated with is what process writers go through to churn out a novel. I’ve heard various methods. Some writers, like John Buchan for example, prefer to have the entire story straight in their minds before they set pen to paper. Others start writing without knowing what’s coming next and have the bizarre, but very common, experience of having the characters take over the telling of the story, with the author as spectator. Other authors meticulously chart out the action in detailed synopses and timelines. I think I’ve tried most of these methods. But in the end, I settled on what seems to work for me.


There is no magic way of writing a novel that works for everyone. The first novel I wrote, “Lab Rat”, an urban fantasy about a dystopian city from which technology has been banned, started off quite casually. In the job I was doing, I was allowed one hour for lunch. So my daily routine was to gobble down a sandwich and then write for 50 minutes. This meant that I got through an average of about 500 words per weekday. Okay I also ended up with chronic indigestion, but that’s beside the point. It was amazing how quickly the volume of verbiage built up. Eventually I ended up with a gargantuan novel that was about 105,000 words long. When I’d got about halfway through, I realized that I had to start planning the second half of the novel. At that point I wrote out a synopsis charting the story so far and what direction I wanted it to go for the remainder. Of course, when I came to revise the book I ended up chopping out about 25k words, killing off 30+ minor characters and eliminating brilliant scenes that I thought worked well but were completely irrelevant to the main story.

My second novel, “Four Degrees”, about a clinically depressed forensic accountant who discovers a fraud being perpetrated by his psychiatrist, was similar except that I had more of an idea of where the story was going before I stopped halfway through to write the synopsis. It was shorter too, which shows that either I was more in control. Either that or that I was a lazy slob.

My third, “Muscle for Hire”, about a gap year student from Scotland who ends up embroiled in the criminal underbelly (which sounds kind of gross, actually) of gangland St. Paul, Minnesota, was different. I already knew something about the story and it had been rattling around in my head for over a year. So all I needed to do was write a few trial chapters and then sit down and plan out the rest of the book.

My fourth was the most elaborate and planned yet. Called “The Blood Menagerie” it tells a number of interwoven stories, but the main one is about two friends who discover a corpse in the trunk of their car during a road trip to Rockford, Illinois. Because I had to make sure the individual stories connected properly, not only did I write out a synopsis but also drew up a flowchart detailing the actions of each of the main characters. In fact, it was all I could do to tear myself away from the intricate plot turns, to actually write the damn thing. Again, I started off with a few trial scenes and very quickly got down to writing out the synopsis.


So I think my answer to the question ‘how do you write a novel’ would have to be a rather nebulous and non-committal, ‘it all depends.’


Chapter Chop

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This is by way of an update. I started writing my new novel, which has the working title of “Memorial Day Freight” about a week-and-a-half ago. Actually, the more I think of that title, the less I like it. I’m open to suggestions. Anyway, I’m up to chapter seven – round about the twenty-thousand-word mark. That’s pretty good going for me. I had some days where I hammered away at it and other days that were a trifle more difficult.

I had to stop and take a good, long, hard look at the synopsis though. What I found was that, so far, the chapters tended to come out at about 3,000 words each – give or take. The chapters generally have two sections in them with a break in the middle. The first half of the chapter will deal with what happens to one character, while the second updates the reader on what is happening to another. However, when I looked at some of the later chapters in the synopsis – ie the ones I haven’t written yet – I discovered that they only had enough material in them to make up half a chapter – in other words one section rather than two. I trust I make myself obscure.

Anyway, that got me thinking. Why have each chapter at 3k words? Why have two parts to a chapter? The conclusion I came to was – habit. I’m just used to having chapters of a particular length – somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 words. Why can’t I just make each subsection a chapter in its own right? That would make the chapters an average of 1,500 long. I can’t think of any plausible argument against this, except it would be a slight hassle renumbering chapters in the synopsis and I would end up with around 55 chapters rather than 28.

So I’ll give it a try. If I think of any major impediments I can always regroup to make larger chapters again. I’ll let you know how it goes. If anyone has any thoughts on this I’d be thrilled to hear them.


Catching Out

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In the course of my research into how railroads operate, as part of my background reading for the novel I just started writing, I’ve discovered an interesting fact. It used to be that hobos got around the country by jumping on freight trains and moving from one city to the next to collect food stamps and benefit checks. Well it turns out that “catching out”, as train hopping is called, has become the burgeoning hobby of bored yuppies. Weird. Who would want to sit for hours hiding from railroad police personnel in the hope that they could jump onto a moving death trap and sit for days on a hard floor lashed and beaten by the elements? On the other hand, who would want to sit in an office upward of ten hours a day?

Anyway, the novel is progressing fairly well and I have pretty much nailed my synopsis. Thirty chapters in all, each of which should average about 2.5k words. I’ve written the first couple of scenes and I think they work pretty well.

The key will be to keep up the momentum until the book is finished. That will depend on a number of factors but mostly on how much time I can devote to it each day. Watch this space.


A freight worse than death

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I just started writing another novel. The working title is “Memorial Day Freight” (although “Freight Worse than Death” sounds enticing too) and it’s the third in my Twin Cities Series. It’s a story about embezzlement, kidnapping, murder, suicide, building construction and railroad freight. The action takes place in the lead up to Memorial Day and several of the plot strands culminate on the day itself. 

I say I’ve started writing it but so far the bulk of my time has been taken up working out the plot and writing up a synopsis. Usually what happens to me is that I start writing and before long come to the conclusion, I don’t know a damn thing about freight trains OR construction. Embezzlement is something I do know about. But lest you get the wrong idea, it’s because I used to work in the finance industry and investigating frauds was part of my job. This was not quite as exciting as it sounds – well, actually sometimes it was (like the time I was sent to Milan, Italy to investigate potential embezzlement and there was suspected Mafia connections). 

Anyway, my next job is to do some research into the stuff I intend to put in this novel that I currently have zero knowledge of. It’s one of the most interesting parts of being a writer. 


Another interesting part is getting paid royalties. But, then, I have to write the book first…


I’m sorry to inform you…

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Rejection letters, or rejection emails (for lazy people like me who couldn’t be bothered submitting by snail mail) are a regrettable fact of life. You hear the old stories about authors who could paper the walls of their study with the rejection letters they have received – well, at least there would be a consistent, even if tedious, pattern to your walls. I’ve received scores of the things myself and my reaction has ranged unpredictably from “utterly crushed” to “who the hell cares”. There is no easy way to respond when an agent or publisher sends you the dreaded rejection and it always seems to catch you on the hop.

It seems to me that the biggest danger in rejections is that it can then affect your writing. You can begin to lose confidence that any of the stuff you’re writing is any good. After all, you have the evidence of its crappiness from professionals in the publishing business who “regret that your work is not a good fit for their list”, or worse still “is not something they would wish to be associated with.” As the small crowd of disheartening missives clamor round you screaming for attention, you can begin to let your delicately constructed self-assurance slide. You are then all set for a good long period of writer’s block.

One of the ways I’ve tried to avoid that is by treating submissions and the inevitable rejection simply as admin tasks. Friday, for me, is admin day. I decided that every Friday I would send something out to an agent, a publisher or a literary magazine. I have a database that keeps track of what I’ve sent out and when I can expect a reply. Then I set alarms on my phone and on my computer to remind me to follow up on submissions. Every time I send something out, I enter it in the database along with the title, type of work (novel, poetry, non-fiction etc.), the date and the follow up date. Every time I get a response it too goes into the database along with the date. Does this sound like an elaborate way of documenting my own failure? You could look at it that way, but I prefer to look at it as a way of compartmentalizing the submission/response aspect of my being a writer, which means I can treat it separately from my actual writing.

Eventually, I couldn’t understand why agents and publishers didn’t want to take my manuscripts. After all, everyone else I’d shown them to loved them and assured me that they were definitely publishable. At that point, I decided to self-publish through Amazon’s Kindle store. (See here)

I’d love to know how other people cope with rejection mail. There must be more to it that the proverbial stiff upper lip.