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My top writing tips

Ok, ok, I know I've not been in the writing game that long really, with only one published book (two if you're reading this after 30th April 2015), but I've been on one hell of a steep learning curve these last few years! When I was asked by fellow debut author Laura Salters to do a guest post on her blog with my top ten writing tips I was flattered and only too happy to oblige.

Click here for a link to the post on Laura's blog, where you'll also see some other great posts. And here are the ten tips I provided:

1. The number one question I get asked is how do you start writing a novel? It’s a daunting prospect for anyone new to writing but really it’s more simple to start than people think. Don’t worry about having a fully formed plot, or the structure or even the ins and outs of the various characters – just start writing and see where it takes you. When I first put pen to paper (so to speak) I had only one scene in my head. I’d worked it through in my mind a number of times and in the first instance I just wanted to get that one scene onto the page. As I started writing, I quickly realised that the more I wrote, the more plot ideas and twists and characters came to the fore. Starting a novel with just a couple of big ideas is perfectly fine and for me actually seems to be my preferred choice.

2. Write lots. I’m all for theory and classes and courses or whatever else but I’m a great believer that people develop skills far more quickly when actually getting their hands dirty. That’s not just writing but with anything in life. The more you write the more you’ll learn the trade and what works for you.

3. Set yourself a target each day you write. This may not be for everyone but I like to do this as it helps to break down what can seem like a mammoth task. It can be a scary thought to sit with a blank document and wonder where the hell you’re going to find 100,000 words from. So break it down. Set yourself a goal each day whether it’s 1,000 words or 10,000 words. I find that doing that keeps me focused and breaks the process down into manageable chunks. I currently aim for 4,000 words a day. I’m not sure where that number came from! I think for the most recent draft I did (the 3rd book of the Enemy series) I hit the target on every day but one and it’s always a huge motivation when you do.

4. Draft hot, edit cold. I guess this follows on from the first point. I’m a big believer in getting the drafting done in one go. When you’re drafting, when you’re in the zone, that’s when the ideas come to you thick and fast (writer’s block aside!). You need to harness that power. Worry about the tightness of language, the settings, the structure, even some of the characterisation after. The first task is to get that draft, with the beginning, middle and end, written out. Then leave it. Don’t touch it for a while. Take a break or start another project. When you go back to the draft fresh and cold after a few weeks you’ll do a much better job of editing and polishing it.

5. Don’t scrimp on editing. During editing is where I go back and really pay attention to the structure of the book. I map it out chapter by chapter, making sure that everything works and sits tightly. Think about: plot, points of view (how many characters have a point of view in the story? How are these interspersed through the book?), chapter lengths, pacing, timeline. I create a nice little spreadsheet for each book capturing all these details and making sure the story has a good, consistent flow. And don’t be afraid to really tear-up the work at this stage.

6. Read lots. Countless other writers say this and it’s something I probably need to do more of myself to be honest! But there’s no substitute than to read lots, see what others are doing, enjoy their work, but also read with a critical eye which will help you in your own writing and editing.

7. Don’t jump too soon. If you’re looking to approach agents/publishers or to self-publish your work, make sure it’s as good as it can be. Don’t get over-excited about that first draft. I learnt this the hard way, that in the beginning my book just wasn’t good enough. It took a lot of work and a lot of re-editing and with hindsight I wish I’d been more patient because it would have saved me from a lot of rejection. I edit and re-read my manuscripts probably around 10-12 times and I always make changes with each read through. At some point you have to let go but make sure you’ve really given it your all before you do.

8. Get feedback. This can be a frightening prospect – to actually show your work to another human being! It took me weeks to build up the courage to even tell my wife that I was writing. But, in the end, you need feedback from others. Use friends and family in the first instance but just be wary that, in most cases, they’ll maybe not be as critical as you need them to be. There are plenty of forums where you can get other people to review your work or parts of it so make use of that. If you can afford it, and you’re happy to invest in your writing, then consider using a professional editor too. That was probably the single most beneficial step I took on the journey to publishing my first book, really helping to transform my manuscript but also teaching me a lot in terms of the mistakes and pitfalls that were riddled within my plot and the structure of my novel. Whether you’re looking to get an agent/publisher or to self-publish I think this is a really crucial consideration.

9. Stick at it. It’s not an easy road to write a book, to get it published, and to get it to sell. But the more hard work you put into it at each stage, the more reward you’ll get—be prepared for that hard work. Most new writers will experience a lot of rejections when trying to get their work published and it can be very demoralising. But don’t let that deter you. Keep going and in the end, whether you get a good publishing deal or you choose to self-publish like I did, it’s the readers who decide whether or not your book is any good. And, as the saying goes, where there’s a will there’s a way.

10. Write because you enjoy it. It’s not a career choice to enter into to pay bills. Very few writers ever get to that stage unfortunately and those that do often have a long road to get there. If fame and fortune finds you then that’s great but it can’t be your expectation and you need a back-up, a safety net, too (i.e. a day job for most new writers!). So if you’re not enjoying writing, I’d say just give it up and get on with life. If you do enjoy writing, then keep going, regardless of whether your books ever get published and whether or not they ever get into the best sellers charts. You should be getting satisfaction from the writing process itself – from the accomplishment of putting together a story. Few people will ever do that so feel pride in your achievement.

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