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Want to Write? – Interview with Literary Scout Vanessa O’Loughlin

Posted on 19 March 2012 by Marése O'Sullivan

Irish writer, literary scout, publishing consultant and mum Vanessa O’Loughlin has achieved a remarkable amount in a very short time. After much success with short story writing competitions for the likes of Poolbeg and Mills & Boon, the literary guru founded Inkwell Writers’ Workshops in 2006 and it has gone from strength to strength. Her advice and encouragement have secured many writers their own publishing deal, and O’Loughlin herself has written many a captivating narrative. Her e-book True Colours is now available on Kindle under the name Vanessa Fox.

O’Loughlin says she always had a passion for literature, but it wasn’t until 1999 that she decided to properly put pen to paper. “My husband [had] set sail across the Atlantic for an eight-week trip on the Atlantic Rally Cruise race. I was left at home (no children!) with lots of time on my hands. I had an idea for a story so I just started writing, and I haven’t stopped!”

She writes both crime fiction and women’s fiction. They are two remarkably different genres, but she reveals that they are closer than they appear. “I’m really interested in people, in what makes them tick and the secrets behind closed doors. I love the romantic tension that is generated between two people who like each other, but can’t say, just as I love the tension created as cops inch closer to the truth. Secrets and lies are strong themes in both genres.” Her pen name for crime fiction is Sam Blake. Sometimes, she consciously thinks of herself as her pseudonym when she is in the process of writing a crime novel. “It helps me focus on the story and cut [myself] off from all the other things I do. It can be very handy to slip into character when you’re writing!”

O’Loughlin is well known in literary circles for establishing Inkwell Writers’ Workshops in 2006. Her struggles to find a workshop that suited her schedule inspired her to set up the one-day workshops. “I did a fabulous weekend workshop with Julie Parsons in Dingle [Co. Kerry, Ireland] – I really enjoyed it and came away hugely boosted by the fact that my writing had been well received. I felt I could do it. I knew, too, that I still had a lot to learn [but] I couldn’t commit to an evening class. I had a one-year-old and a four-year-old, so another weekend wasn’t an option. I wanted to do a one-day workshop – something really intensive – and I also wanted to hear from best-selling authors to find out their secrets! There wasn’t anything like that on offer in Ireland at the time, so I decided to set up my own. Originally it was only going to be one workshop, but like everything, the idea grew!”

In addition, O’Loughlin then created and developed the website writing.ie because of the fantastic feedback she was getting from all the creative minds that were receiving Inkwell’s monthly newsletter. “They are such a wonderful, talented bunch and they really enjoyed getting information on competitions and hearing of others’ successes. I also felt that, although we are a nation of writers, there was no central point for writing information.” She then discovered the writing.ie domain was available and she has never looked back.

O’Loughlin balances her writing career with being Public Rrelations Officer and Newsletter Editor for Irish PEN. The role, she says, is not that different from her day job: “Irish PEN is the association for Irish Writers, and is affiliated to International PEN, which defends free speech worldwide. Irish PEN is open to published and unpublished writers, and has a vote in the selection for the Nobel Laureate. As PRO, I principally organise events and send out the press releases.”

O’Loughlin is regularly present at literary festivals, such as the Waterford Writers’ Weekend, the Mountains to Sea Festival, the Dalkey Book Festival and the Dublin Book Festival. She declares that these events can be “hugely informative and inspiring for writers… learning how other writers’ minds work is an invaluable part of the learning process”. O’Loughlin herself often runs a Getting Published workshop. “I explain how publishing works and what authors need to do to make their work and themselves more publishable. I suggest the best people for them to approach. So far on average, I’ve met at least one writer at every workshop whom I’ve been able to help personally get a publishing deal or an agent.”

O’Loughlin has published an e-book entitled Bringing the Dream Alive: Writing to Get Published. She believes the self-publishing phenomenon offers “amazing opportunities to writers that just were never there before”. The rapidly growing industry has seen many of Inkwell’s writers, such as Maria Duffy, achieve their dream of landing a contract. “It used to be that if you couldn’t get a publisher to take your book, it ended up in a drawer or under the bed. Now writers can reach readers through print and e-publishing.”

She issues a word of warning for anyone thinking of taking that route with their writing. “I can’t stress highly enough, though, the need to employ professional editors, proof readers and cover designers,” she states. “If you want your book to compete with mainstream titles it has to be as good, if not better. Unfortunately, writers who finish their first draft and put it straight out to Kindle give self-publishing a bad image, but done properly, it can be extremely lucrative.”

Her creative process is quite disciplined when she puts her mind to it and she emphasises her determination to get the words written when she has to. “I have to squeeze writing in around everything else,  I’m quite intense. I do try and stick to a routine: 1,000 words a day when I need to get something done. The key is to sit down at my desk and do the 1,000 words before I go near the email or Twitter. Easier said than done!”

The writer who has most inspired her along the way is Daphne du Maurier – “Rebecca is a thriller and a romance rolled into one, beautifully written, thematic and multi layered. It’s a must read!” – as well as crime authors Karin Slaughter and Lisa Gardner. Her “all-time hero” is Lee Child who she interviewed earlier this year. “In terms of writing books – Stephen King’s On Writing will teach you more about voice than any other book,” she recommends.

The most vital advice she can give to prospective authors was given to her from author Sarah Webb: “She said ‘just keep writing’. I’m a firm believer in that, the more you write, the better you get, the closer to publication you will get (assuming that is your goal). Another brilliant piece of advice is ‘don’t let the words get in the way of the story’. Keep it simple [and] let the story shine.”

Her literary future is ablaze with plans. She says that she has “several exciting projects underway at the moment, including a National Emerging Writers Programme in association with Dublin UNESCO City of Literature”. The others are still a closely guarded secret. “I can’t talk about [them] yet, but one day I aim to get to the stage where I can spend at least half the week just writing!”

You can follow Vanessa (and Sam Blake) on Twitter to keep up with her fast-paced writing career.

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