I’m often asked for my top writing tips so I thought I would take this opportunity to share some with you. Remember though, I am only sharing what I have learnt along the way, and what works for me may not work for you. A lot of these tips overlap and inform each other, but that's a good thing. It makes a long list far more achievable.
This seems so obvious but I think it really is worth saying. Stephen King famously says in his book 'On Writing' that you can't expect to be a writer if you're not a reader and he is right. I have lost count of people who tell me they want to write fiction but don't read it. That baffles me. By reading you are not merely losing yourself in a good story (joy) your brain is constantly noting, storing things for later. And by this I'm not suggesting plagiarism, stealing ideas from here or there like a little literary magpie, that is in no way okay but noticing what works for you as a reader and what doesn't is invaluable. By reading widely - and I'm a big fan of widely – you are constantly absorbing plots, characterisation, pacing. You are improving your vocabulary, your understanding of structure and your knowledge as a whole. A fabulously written book will give you something to aspire to, a poorly-written read will embed what you want in avoid in your own work.
Write as often as possible, preferably every day.
This is pretty prescriptive and I'm going to staunchly defend it as a discipline and then undermine myself and contradict it slightly. Ready?
I think - like any discipline - for something to be effective you should work to embed it firmly until it becomes a part of your routine. If you want to write a book the average commercial novel is between 75,000- 95,000 words. These words will not write themselves. Neither will they magically put food on the table before they've been published (and often not for quite a while after) so you need to write your novel whilst holding down a day job.
Like all mammoth undertakings the best way to do this is to break it into small manageable units, a hundred words a day, a thousand if you write very quickly and know exactly what you are trying to say, two sentences will do at a push - any amount soon becomes several thousand, and lots of thousands soon becomes a book. Thus, it is achievable even when working full-time and/or bringing up a family. The key is setting that time aside every day you can, even if it's just half an hour, and before you know it the word count steadily builds. Finding excuses every day not to do it will only guarantee you an unfinished book. Turn the TV off, have a shorter bath, wake up half an hour earlier, write some words. Before you know it, the routine is embedded, you miss it if you can't do it and you have officially become a writer, published or not.
Now the contradiction – rather like the idiom that you have to know the rules to break the rules, the same is true of writing. Once you have embedded the routine, utterly and totally so you are thinking about your words throughout the day until you get to your laptop or your notepad, then you can afford to be kind to yourself. Allow yourself some leeway, discipline is important but you also have to recognise that the one thing life does beautifully is throw a curve ball and when that curve ball hits the least helpful thing you can do is beat yourself up about a word count. So, embed the routine and then be kind when you, occasionally, need to break it.
I always say I write every day, and it is both truth and a lie. I have an illness which means some days, often many days, I am not well enough to write. I am ridiculously self-disciplined however (and clearly a little smug) so I write every single day I am well enough. And that's okay.
Make friends with other writers.
No matter how supportive your partner, friends or family are, no-one understands the joy – and pain – of writing like writer friends. Writing is a fairly solitary craft, but even if you are the most introverted of introverts, it is still nice to have colleagues to chat to. These are your writer friends, you can reach out on social media, through email or on the phone and they will understand exactly where you are at, whether it be that bit in the middle of the novel where it is all oh-so-slow, the stage where you've decided everything is rubbish and you need to delete the lot or that exciting part at the start where you are fired up and this book is going to be the best thing you have ever written. Family will not understand these stages but your writer friends will and can reassure you that you are not completely bonkers, that it is all part of the process. I have a daily writing buddy, my lovely friend Jane Cable, we check in with each other every day, cheer each other along, chivvy each other if it's needed and generally just provide a safe space for a jolly good moan. Every writer needs a Jane. I would be lost without her.
Writer friends provide invaluable support through the emotional up and downs and the willingness to celebrate every step of the way, they also offer practical insight in terms of developing how you write and teaching you about the industry. If you have encountered a specific problem with your book, there is a strong chance that someone in the writing community has also done so and is prepared to guide you through, offer suggestions or just support you as you untangle it. Additionally, when it comes to the industry side of things, everyone has different contacts and whilst a lot of them overlap, not everyone has the same experience. The truth is not every publisher or agent is a dream to work with, publishing is just like every other sector with its good and its bad. No-one is going to tell a complete stranger who to run screaming from, the information is too sensitive, but they will tell friends who is reliable and who should perhaps be avoided. I have found the writing community to be one the most supportive groups of people I have ever had the fortune to encounter, so I encourage you reach out and find your tribe, it will be so worth it.
Learn the realities of publishing.
Before I threw myself into the writing community I had fairly fixed, but I believed well-informed, views on what an author's life was like. Every single belief has since been revealed as a myth, bar the one about working in pyjamas if I want to. Brace yourselves, I'm going to explode a few for you now.
I used to think authors made lots of money, I'm thinking second homes, fast cars type of money. As I started to mingle within the writing community, I learnt this was only the elite of the elite. The average annual income of an author according to the ALCS survey undertaken in 2018 was £10,500. That is less than minimum wage. And if you consider an average includes all the high rollers then you can see that the majority are not earning sports car money. The ALCS survey also tells us only 13.7% of writers earn their income solely by writing. On the upside we do love what we do and if you put the work in, accept that it will take a long time and a lot of books, then you do have a chance of making a decent living wage.
It's worth remembering that publishers are experts in their field so working collaboratively with them is key, they know what is marketable and that is important, publishing is a business. What I didn't realise when I started out is that authors don't chose the covers, the titles or write the blurb – authors write the book and although are consulted and feed in, publishers tend to have the final say; and quite rightly, they know the market and have a much better idea of how to sell and what sells. Authors are a cog in a big machine and it is important to be willing to work as part of a team.
And finally, I used to think authors could potter along, spend a fair amount of time daydreaming or waiting for inspiration but the truth is, particularly in commercial fiction, most publishers like a book a year, with some digital publishers asking for two. With such deadlines there is very little time for drifting about in floaty frocks and staring dreamily into space, you need to sit yourself down and get those words on a page.
Learn the market.
Whilst I think it is sensible advice to write what you love, not write what you think will sell – it always shows in the manuscript - it is still worth studying the market, looking at trends. I have an awful lot of friends who have been rejected because the book they have written fitted the market five years ago or so but since the market has been saturated and readers have moved on. The book can always be put in a drawer and reworked later so all is not lost but it can be very frustrating. Learn what is being published, what people are buying, what people are reading but be aware that it can take a long time from a manuscript submission to getting a paperback on the shelves. Although it is fair to say the huge growth of digital publishing in recent years means that things can be taken to market much quicker.
Knowledge is never a bad thing, so immerse yourself in the publishing business, the knowledge you gain will help inform later decisions even if you don't realise it at the time and will help shape a business-like attitude to this life. The Bookseller is a great resource and will deliver a daily update to your inbox, although some articles are behind a paywall. Twitter is also your friend, there is a huge, very active writing community there which will not only help you find your writer friends but will also help familiarise you with which publishers are open to submissions, what they are looking for and the same with agents. If you can join a professional organisation (the Romantic Novelist's Association is a fine example) or attend genre-specific conferences then do so, networking is a great way to further your understanding of the industry and embed your place within it.
Don't fiddle, power through that first draft.
We've established that getting the words down every day is the only sure-fire way to finish a book. But I have something to add to this, and that is to try and resist the urge to fiddle along the way. The temptation is to make sure that the words in your book are perfect and therefore just blasting out your word count is not good enough; you need to go back and make sure they are exactly as you want them to be before you move on to the next paragraph or chapter. This is a bad idea. A really bad idea. Yes, editing is fundamental but you need to have something substantial to edit in the first place. No-one writes perfectly every day and a lot of what you write will need to be rewritten and chunks of it binned – agony though it is. So, if you fiddle with every sentence before you move on, you will take a squillion times longer to finish than if you just power through. Constantly tidying as you go is the perfect form of procrastination because it feels like working but trust me, in the early stages of writing a novel, it's procrastination.
A book tends to morph as it is written, it evolves and often takes the writer by surprise as it does so. Some writers say they don't know what the book is even about until the first draft is written and I used to think that was bizarre, now I understand it. Characters develop and themes evolve and often what you thought was going to be a straightforward romance can become a book about identity, self-belief, all sorts of things. It takes writing a first draft to reveal who your characters truly are and the themes that occur, when that is done you have a far better, far more accurate idea of what you are in the process of creating. So to pick and fiddle and polish before you know the true nature of the beast you are dealing with is not an efficient use of your time.
Edit, edit and then edit some more.
Once your first draft is down then you can tinker as much as you like. I have often heard writers say this is where the real work starts. There is a lot of truth to that. Finishing a novel isn't about writing 80,000 odd words and typing The End, finishing a novel (up to the submission stage anyhow) is writing your 80,000+ words and then pulling the whole thing apart and rebuilding it again, often multiple times. Once you have your first draft you know your characters, when you start you just think you know them. Even if you are a planner rather than a pantster you will still have structural things you need to change, plot holes that need to be sorted and chapters or paragraphs that do not contribute anything new although they often have something in there that you love. Stephen King (in his book On Writing, well worth a read) uses the phrase Kill Your Darlings when he is talking about editing, this means it is often the bits we love that are the ones that need to go. I have never written a book yet where I have not had to chuck out the bits that I think are the most amusing, it is often the bits that appeal to our ego the most that are doing very little for the novel as a whole. Be brave, get them gone. As I go through and make the changes that ensure there are no plot gaps, that the characters are consistent, that every bit is relevant, I have to hack huge chunks out, often whole chapters. I had to bin almost 50,000 words (a novella in itself) whilst writing The Cornish Village School – Happy Ever After and then write an awful lot more to make it coherent, to get my main character where I needed her to be. Ironically, I was writing about Marion, a character I knew well because she had featured in the four previous books, but to get the novel down to its kernel I had to do huge amounts of exploring even though I had had a fairly detailed plan before I had started and had been feeding into this final book in the series throughout the two previous novels. Binning that amount of work hurts, but you cannot see those words as wasted, they may not be used in the books' final form but they have been a fundamental part of the process that has informed it. To ease my soul as I delete I like to copy and paste the erased scenes into an alternative document, somehow that makes me feel better about getting rid of them, as if they are not completely gone.
When you are convinced you have finished editing, when you have sorted out the structure and gone through line by line to make sure every sentence is as good as it can be, then put it in a drawer for as long as you can afford to for a minimum of two weeks. When you pull it out and read it again you will see clearly what else needs to be done, but you will need distance to be able to do that. My rule of thumb is that it is ready to submit (or send to beta readers if you are not contracted) when I genuinely cannot see what else to do with it and need another person's eye to guide me.