Advice for aspiring authors
I’ve received scores of messages over the years from readers asking: ‘Do you have any tips to help me write a book?’ Writing a novel is a big undertaking and the experience personal to each author, which means it's impossible to cover everything in one short Instagram message. So I decided to list a few thoughts here that might be helpful to those with ambitions to write. Of course, one of the wondrous things about being an author is that you never lose the feeling that you’re still learning. I’m fairly sure I’d still feel like this if I was onto my 100th best-seller. As such, I don’t claim any of the following suggestions to be the wisdom of a great writing guru. They’re just the way I do it. Some of my methods are the same as other authors, some are very different; none are the ‘right’ way, only my way. On that basis, here goes…
1. Make sure the (original and hopefully brilliant) concept for your novel is firm in your mind before you start attempting to write or plot it out. I always begin by drafting some back cover copy – those five or six paragraphs of ‘blurb’ you find on the reverse of a book, designed to entice readers. That way, you’re completely clear about whether your idea is intriguing or strong enough for you to invest the time required to write an entire novel about it. It also gives you something to refer to throughout the writing process to keep your mind focused on the key themes.
2. Commit to plotting out your novel before you begin. Some writers are clever enough to simply sit in front of their laptop and start writing. I envy this gift in authors for whom it really works. But, when it doesn’t, the result can be a flabby storyline and unnecessary tangents. Neither of these qualities make for much of a page-turner. I’ve always been a fan of books that are tightly plotted, full of twists and surprises – and personally I can only achieve that by laying it out the key events at the start. The other benefit of plotting is that it helps avoid writers’ block; even on the days when you’re feeling less than creative, you know what you have to attempt to write to keep your story moving forward.
3. Dig out the Post-its, coloured pens, whiteboard or stationery of choice. I assign a different colour to each character or storyline and jot down major events, before arranging them into one giant plan. This usually takes up most of my kitchen table and means my kids have to eat pizza in front of the TV for a couple of days (there are no complaints about this). Once I’m broadly happy with the structure of the novel, I write it down in a colour-coded Word document, which forms the basis of a rough plot that I’ll go on to polish and tighten up. Of course, once I’ve started writing and get to know the characters a little more, new ideas occur along the way. So the plot can (and should) change, remaining fluid enough to allow you to make continuous improvements throughout.
4. Look for inspiration from friends, family, newspapers, social media and, most of all, real life. It really is everywhere. Anyone who’s read You Me Everything will probably guess that my children are a constant source of inspiration and comedy - I don't mind saying that I've pinched some great lines from them over the years. Additionally, all good writers are prolific readers, so you should read extensively, in a wide range of genres. Work out what it is you like about certain books; study dialogue that sparkles and how certain writers can create characters that feel so real they could be friends.
5. Set yourself a daily word count and make it happen, no matter what (I’ll let you off in the case of a house fire, but that’s it). When I’m writing a first draft, I aim to produce 2,500 words in two and a half hours, always in the morning when I'm at my most focused. I never waste that precious time on answering emails or admin – mornings are for writing and that time is golden. I usually write in a local coffee shop, which means that I have no excuses to break off to put on a load of laundry or something equally exciting. Producing that word count each day feels about as fast as I can possibly go - and I do that purposely to keep up the momentum. But do be aware that you end up with a fairly rough first draft (see 7).
6. Accept that writing can be an extraordinarily difficult endeavour for even the greatest authors on earth. It’s normal to be convinced that every word you’re writing is rubbish. As is a feeling that all the right words are there somewhere in your head, it's just arranging them in the right order that's the problem. This self-doubt is particularly acute once you’re in the thick of the novel. Personally, I find beginnings and ends easy, and middles quite the opposite.
7. Do not go back to refine or edit your work until you have written the words ‘The End’. The most important thing about the first draft is maintaining momentum. To do that, you have to accept that what you’re writing is less than perfect – so much so that you might ultimately end up deleting large chunks – but you still just have to keep on keeping on.
8. When you read back your first draft, try not to cry. There’s every chance you’ll think it’s awful, but that’s absolutely fine – that’s what second, third, fourth and fifth drafts are for… and after that your editors, if you’re lucky enough to find a publisher. Use your first read-through to draw up a list of things you’d like to fix in the second draft. Hopefully, the further along the re-drafting process you get, the shorter the list will become.
9. Get some support. Join a writing group or sign up for a course. Read books about writing (I read ‘Bestseller’ by Celia Brayfield and ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King before my first book).
10. If you’ve finished your novel and would like someone to critique it, be aware that this is a big responsibility that takes a lot of time. So, nobody who writes to an author asking them to do it for free in their spare time should be surprised or offended when they respectfully decline. Publishers and agents (who receive up to 300 submissions a week) are unlikely to give detailed feedback to anyone they don’t plan to snap up immediately. But if you feel you’d benefit from editorial help (and we all do, incidentally), you might consider the editorial services available from companies such as The Literacy Consultancy or Cornerstones.
11. Finally, recognise that this is a marathon not a sprint. When I first tried to write a novel and realised it isn't as easy as it looks, I imagined that published authors held the answers to some mysterious secret that I would never get to know. But there was no secret. Just a huge amount of determination, a passion for storytelling and lots of picking myself up and brushing myself down when things didn’t go my way. But, having been lucky enough to have carved a career out of writing novels, I can honestly say that this is the best job in the world, bar none. And it only keeps getting better.