33 Authors Gave Us Their Best Advice On Writing
"Write the book that you're desperate to read. Fall in love with your characters. Finish the day's writing at a point where you want to know what happens next. And keep writing every day."
01. As Kandinsky says, "Everything starts with a dot." Sometimes the hardest thing in writing a story is where to start. You don't need to have a great idea, you just have to put pen to paper. Start with a bad idea, start with the wrong direction, start with a character you don't like, something positive will come out of it.
– Marion Deuchars, illustrator and author of Let's Make Some Great Art
02. Ignore every current trend and movement; pay no attention to what is presently most admired or most mocked; beware fervent admiration of any writer, however lauded, or any style, however praised. Think only of how you can make your writing most perfect, and most perfectly your own.
– Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent
03. Remember that writing things down makes them real; that it is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know; and, most of all, that even in our post-postmodern era, writing has a moral purpose. With 26 shapes arranged in varying patterns, we can tell every story known to mankind, and make up all the new ones – indeed, we can do so in most of the world’s known tongues. If you can give language to experiences previously starved for it, you can make the world a better place.
– Andrew Solomon, acclaimed psychologist and author of Far & Away
04. Write as if your words were a fire bringing warmth to a freezing cold room. Waste no words, just provide heat.
– Sir Tim Smit, writer and founder of the Eden Project
05. If your characters decide to play up by going silent on you, take them for a walk. Mostly, by the time you get home they’ll be chattering away to you again. Walking refreshes everything and chances are you’ll be running to get back to the manuscript to continue with their story!
–Kate Hamer, author of The Doll Funeral (out in February)
06. Set a goal each week for your writing and work to reach it. Wake up every morning and treat it like a job. It’s all about regularity. Read back what you’ve written and ask yourself, “Do I enjoy this? Does it work?” If you’re stumbling over something as you read it, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!
– Sharon Grenham-Thompson, author of Jail Bird
07. First drafts are always horrible and ugly. Don't worry about that – it's the same for everyone. Just remember that the first draft is as bad as the book is ever going to be, and if you keep redrafting, one day you will look at your horrible book and realise that you've turned it into something actually quite beautiful.
– Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series
08. Read! Read! Read! It’s vital to fill that well of creativity within you. Otherwise you’ll simply run out of words and ideas. By reading other authors’ books, you’ll learn what works, what doesn’t, absorb new words, trigger new ideas, and above all immerse yourself in the world of writing. A writer who doesn’t read can never be an author!
Top tip: Read Stephen King’s On Writing for a masterclass in writing fiction.
– Chris Bradford, author of the Bodyguard series and Young Samurai series
09. I think writing is a lot like acting, or roleplaying. You need to create an environment that lets you get into that headspace. That might be about sitting in a comfy chair, or listening to the right music, or burning a scented candle, or whatever, but you can only do your best work in surroundings that support it.
The most important thing you can do while writing is to spend time absolutely and completely NOT writing. The cliché is taking long country walks, which definitely helps, but so does playing a video game or watching a really stupid movie. Your unconscious brain needs time to process what you're thinking about. I'm pretty sure my unconscious wrote most of the best bits of Boy Made of Blocks.
– Keith Stuart, author of A Boy Made of Blocks
10. Write down everything that comes to you in an adrenalin rush in the small hours, and on waking up. About one-half – truly – will turn out to be useful and it sets you up for the morning's work.
Write something, anything, for the first few hours of the day before lunch. Even if it isn't perfect, it is the stepping-stone to the afternoon and settles your brain (and your conscience!).
– Laura Cumming, Observer art critic and author of The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez
11. When you know your characters inside out, when you know what makes them really "comfortable", throw the exact opposite at them and observe how they cope. It's only when we are met with challenges that our true self comes to the fore, and this is the really interesting stuff, for it's simple and honest warts-and-all reality.
– Tracey Corderoy, children’s author
12. Do listen to songs. Some poems need to sing.
– Alison Brackenbury, poet – latest collection Skies out now
13. Fill your life with love and joy and pain. Then fill your books with each of them.
All creative acts are acts of love, and vice-versa. Fill your books with love and the act of creation comes easily.
Don't write because you want to. Write because you must.
– Christopher Jory, author of The Art of Waiting
14. The advice I wish I had been given:
Write the index as you go along.
I had broken my ankle badly two weeks before the manuscript was due to be handed in and was in hospital having been operated on. I was heavily doped up with morphine, lying with my left leg at a 45-degree angle on a water bed in hospital, and my computer was at the level of my nose! Not the most conducive position to be in to write the index!
The advice my husband gave me:
Don't assume everyone knows as much as you but don't overexplain the background. People can look it up for themselves.
The advice I was given by Alison Weir:
Write something – anything – every day and ensure you send what you've written to someone else each day.
Have plenty of chocolate biscuits handy and worry about the diet afterwards!
– Neela Mann, author of Cheltenham in the Great War
15. They say write about what you know. But maybe, more importantly, one should explore the unknown within those areas of familiarity. Whether that be a technical or emotional aspect. Writing, as much as reading, is an investigation of the world and your response to it.
– Rachel Rooney, poet
16. Think of your book in layers. The first layer will by its nature be rough – it’s just a sketch – so don’t get frustrated if it feels too light or is badly drawn. You’ll add to your story as you go, layering more character, deeper plot, better description, and twists and turns; and painting in light and shade.
– Abie Longstaff, children’s author of How to Catch a Witch and others
17. Don’t give up. Take rejection on the chin. My first picture book, There’s a Pig Up My Nose – out next January – will be almost 21 years old by the time it sees publication. And two of the poems in my new collection, Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, are pieces I wrote over 30 years ago, when I was still at school. One of them was rejected by the teacher in charge of the school magazine for having, apparently, "no literary merit".
– John Dougherty, author and poet
18. Growing up I believed only certain people were allowed to write books – namely, fancy literary heirs who had gone to the right school and university. Not people like me. But of course, anyone can write a book. And anyone should, so that we have more diversity of voices in publishing.
– Julie Mayhew, author of Mother Tongue and others
19. If you want to write for children, you have to remember – vividly – what it felt like to be 10 years old. Before you grew busy and knowing. What were your fears then? What were your ambitions and losses? Above all, think back to your thirst for adventure and your capacity for wonder, because that's where the boldest storytelling comes from – the adult who still remembers how to think like a child.
– Abi Elphinstone, author of The Shadow Keeper
20. Don’t share too much of what you are writing with anyone else – until it’s finished. Every comment or remark potentially derails you and who is to say that anyone else is right? Keep writing, keep focused (without constantly going back to the beginning). Once you have reached the end of your story, then re-read it yourself and be self-critical. After that invite other people’s comments, and listen hard!
– Victoria Hislop, author of Cartes Postales From Greece and others
21. Use anger to drive forwards, to complete and improve your work. Every bully or doubter who has sparked anger in your chest has generously donated fuel to your writing fire. Prove them wrong.
– M.G. Leonard, author of Beetle Boy
22. You have to write because you love writing, not because of something external the writing might bring you. Most of what you write only you will ever see, and that needs to be enough or you will never do the work that’s needed.
– Benet Brandreth, author of The Spy of Venice and others
23. Write the book that you're desperate to read. Fall in love with your characters. Finish the day's writing at a point where you want to know what happens next. And keep writing every day.
– Keren David, author of Cuckoo and others
24. Every idea you ever have, big or small, clever or bonkers – write it down!
It means that you can always come back to it and review it at a later date. It could be in a day’s time or a year’s time but eventually it is likely that if you are a born creative or entrepreneur, that the idea you once had in the middle of the night, could turn into something fantastically successful one day. Everything you do, keep in mind that you need be passionate about it – you can't do something just because you think it is the right thing to do, there has to be longevity in it, a real drive pushing you, substance to it that you cannot deny. Passion is everything!
– Kelly Hoppen, MBE, interior designer and author of House of Hoppen
25. Keep generating new writing and new ideas. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Oh, and make peace with the fact that (in your eyes) it will never be perfect, or finished.
– Michelle Thomas, campaigner and journalist
26. Always keep a notebook and pen by your bedside. No matter how much you convince yourself you'll remember that brilliant idea in the morning, you really won't. Write it down because sleep has a way of giving you ideas and then stealing them right back.
– Swapna Haddow, author of the Dave Pigeon series
27. Pick somewhere inspiring to write, environment can be key – we [Jack Lewis and I] wrote The Mice Who Sing for Sex: And Other Weird Tales From the World of Science in the Wellcome Collection surrounded by books, exhibitions, and talks from some of the greatest scientific minds of the past century. Some of that had to soak in!
Do also write about something you're passionate about, have a huge stash of chocolate biscuits to hand before any mammoth writing session, and always, always turn your phone and emails off. Distraction is the enemy of all books-to-be.
– Lliana Bird, author and co-founder of Help Refugees, Radio X DJ
28. It's important to be inspired by other writers and sources, but when it comes to the actual writing, I swear by going into Tunnel Vision Mode. Pretend nothing else exists but you and your idea. Don't compare and don't despair.
– Emma Gannon, author of Ctrl Alt Delete: How I Grew Up Online
29. Make yourself write regularly. It's like anything: The more you practise, the better you'll get.
– Jennifer Gray, author of the Atticus Claw and Chicken Mission series
30. Give yourself permission to be terrible. There’s nothing more paralysing than trying to write a perfect novel in one draft. Do your best to turn off your inner editor and just write. Everything can be fixed later!
– Sarah Rubin, author of Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue
31. Don’t believe anyone who tells you you should only write if you have something important to say. Most writers don’t. They write because they like doing it.
– Sarah Naughton, author of Tattletale
32. You will inevitably be told be someone that you have to write a thousand words every day. You don’t, in the same way that you don’t have to run every day, or go to the gym every day. As with exercise, with writing you can let your muscles rest. Besides, writing is not just sitting at a keyboard bashing out words. When you’re not doing that, you’re still writing. Your work is percolating at the back of your mind. So, going for a walk is writing. Watching TV is writing. Staring into the depths of a glass of rum is writing.
– David Barnett, journalist and author of Calling Major Tom
33. Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one. And including this tip. Or at least take them with a big pinch of salt. I have never met two writers who work exactly the same way: One of the hardest, but ultimately most rewarding, things about writing is that you have to work out for yourself who and what you are as a writer, and how you yourself work best. When you’re starting out, it’s very easy to see a piece of advice by [insert your favourite author here] and think, If s/he writes like this, I must do it that way too. That can be unhelpful, and instead I think that every time you hear a writing tip, you have to decide whether it means something to you, resonates with you, or whether it sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s your book, you need to learn to write it your way. Now please ignore this advice.
– Marcus Sedgwick, author of The Ghosts of Heaven and others