The Secret to Writing by Paul O’Brien

Paul O’Brien’s debut, Blood Red Turns Dollar Green, was one of the more enjoyable books I read last year, a wonderful combination of organized crime and professional wrestling circa the early 1970s. I wasn’t the only one who loved the book–none other than wrestling legend and author himself Mick Foley got behind O’Brien’s work–and so O’Brien has picked up where he left off and now presents his eager readers with a sequel, Blood Red Turns Dollar Green Vol. 2. Along the way he appears to have discovered the secret to writing, which he has been kind enough to stop by today and share.

Paul O'BrienI have been lucky enough to begin my writing career under the wing of people who knew how to write story. They explained to me the rules and the boundaries and the arcs and payoffs of writing. I soaked up every word and tossed them left and right for fifteen years before I attempted my first novel last year, Blood Red Turns Dollar Green.

The novel came fifteen years after I began writing professionally for the theatre. After sixteen plays and a couple of screenplays. It also came after I’d been asked ‘what’s the secret to writing’ a couple of hundred times.


Of course there is no secret. It’s all about the work, the perseverance, the skill, the time. Or is it? Over the last couple of months, during the writing of Blood Red Turns Dollar Green Vol. 2, I think I’ve uncovered the simplistic ‘secret’ that I was looking for.

So this piece is for everyone out there who has ever wondered what the secret to writing is. You might be surprised by my findings but bear with me.

The secret to writing is:


Now, things are hard to get right. If you get your things mixed up or leave too much time between your things then it’s very hard to piece together a story.

Things are vital. Things are essential. But things can be the hardest piece to figure out.

First books are hard. Was for me anyway. Like I said, I had come from the theatre where characters are king and story is mostly a device to get the characters to flesh out some more. The theatre, where one monologue can hold an audience for 100 pages or an hour and a half. Where two men can sit and wait for a whole play. Where whole shows can be made up of just movement and sound.

Blood Red Turns Dollar Green Vol. 2To move from stage to page I had to learn my things. Because things aren’t as important in theatre as they are in a crime novel. But things are still things. They’re the ‘what happens’.

We meet your protagonist are the beginning of your tale – and then what?

Things happen.

Exactly. But what things? And how many? And where? And then your story is a weaving of things around other things, and through things. Things, things, things, things, things! Small things, big things, surprising things. But always things.

I found that if I didn’t have things then my story was shit.

Simple, hah?

So here’s my advice to people who want to write a novel – get your things right. They have to be well timed, well placed, wrought in conflict and happening to the right character. If you do that, then you only have to worry about style, form, POV, character, weight, theme, dialogue, substance and technique.

Otherwise known as ‘the other things’.

You’re welcome.

Paul O’Brien is a writer from Wexford, Ireland. In the last fifteen years he has written sixteen plays and two screenplays. His work has been commissioned and/or produced by The National Theatre of Ireland, Druid, Red Kettle Theatre, Gaiety School of Acting and Spare Key Productions. To learn more about Paul, visit his website.

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