Loads of you are writing your own stories and as a result, I often get asked for writing advice. Some of you have sent me your work and I’m impressed! There is some real (even slightly intimidating) talent out there. Some vivid imaginations and pacy, gripping prose. However, we all need new ideas sometimes, so here’s a selection of what I’ve suggested to people in the past.
Don’t try and follow all of it. Just pick a couple of things that appeal to you and think about those.
And if an idea sounds wrong, or if you think I’ve missed something crucial (which is bound to be the case), then please write in and let me know.
Here goes …
- You know how your English teacher has spent years teaching you to use lots of adjectives and adverbs? Well, aspiring professional writers spend years learning how to avoid them. Adverbs and adjectives are magical literary creatures. Use them sparingly and make them count.
- Start in the middle. You don’t have to do this of course, but consider it as an option. Get the reader gripped from the word go. You can go back and fill in the backstory later.
- Read read read! You can’t read too much, really. But I find I can’t read books in a similar style to my own while I’m writing, just in case I copy it. So I often read non-fiction while I’m writing.
- Surprise yourself. You must surprise your reader, and your reader is always cleverer than you think, so make sure you’re one step ahead.
- Read what you’ve just written aloud. Especially if it’s dialogue. Does it bounce along? Does it work?
- Write a bit every day, if you can. Persevere, but try and be objective too. According to Thomas Mann, ‘Writers are people who find writing more difficult than other people.’ Be proud of every page you write.
- If you’re serious about being published one day, try reading the essays in the ‘Writers and Artists Yearbook’. I think they’re very good and they certainly helped me. Doesn’t matter what year you pick – they’re all good.
- Ditto ‘How not to write a novel‘, which is funny as well as useful.
- Read anything by Elmore Leonard, especially if it’s about writing. And bear in mind that he writes all day and throws much of it away, until his bin is overflowing with scrumpled up pages of yellow legal paper. If Elmore Leonard can chuck all but the best stuff out, so can I. And so can you.
- Don’t spend ages working out alternatives to ‘she said’, ‘he said’. What matters is what they said, not how you frame it. Elmore Leonard: ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’
- Don’t (only) believe your mother! She will, of course, love it. That’s her job.
- Don’t be surprised if you hate any form of criticism of your work. We all do. But some of it’s right and we have to listen to it. However, the writer reserves the right to work out how to fix it.
- The story’s the thing, but spelling and grammar will eventually matter. While I loved that funny little piece about the kings invisable overcoat, I spent half the time wondering about the writer’s spelling and the other half searching for the kings invisable apostrophe.
- If you’re stuck for inspiration, look out for writing competitions in newspapers, your local library, the BBC writersroom website, or the rest of the web. Having somebody else’s deadline to work to really helps concentrate the mind.
- If you want more practice, find opportunities to write whenever you can. Offer to write for free. Review stuff for blogs, local papers and magazines. Writing for other people will force you to hone your style, fast.
- It’s work! ‘Writers are people who find writing more difficult than other people,’ remember? Don’t worry if it’s hard. It’s supposed to be. The fact that you can do it at all is fantastic. When I come back from a difficult day at the library, struggling with character and plot, my husband is totally unsympathetic. He’s right. It’s what I chose, I love it, and I’m lucky to be doing it at all.
- If in doubt, cut. Works almost every time. *Delete.* Works every time.
- Check out writers’ blogs to see if they have any suggestions. Oh yes, you’re doing that. Go you!
Finally, try this article from the Guardian, written in February 2010. It’s lots of tips from different writers. Some great advice and some, frankly, dubious suggestions, but hey, it worked for them. This link to the article had 20,000 hits the last time I looked, which was only days after it came out, so I’m obviously not the only writer who thought it looked useful.
Look out for Neil Gaiman’s tips. I particularly liked those. (I worked a couple of them in here. See if you can spot them.)