Posted in Writing

My Writing Advice for Aspiring Authors

A post to help would-be writers find their voice and their confidence

The writer at work! (Photo by Clint Randall www.pixelprphotography.co.uk)
The writer at work! (Photo by Clint Randall of http://www.pixelprphotography.co.uk)

Have you ever wanted to write a book, a story or a poem, but not known where to start?

A friend of a friend recently asked me for some guidance, and I was happy to advise her. I’ve posted my answers to her questions below, in the hope that they will help others in the same situation.

If you would like to ask any further questions on the topic, please leave a comment and I will be glad to reply.

1.  SOFTWARE

Is there a specific type of software program I should be using? 

You don’t need any special type of software to write, and you’re probably best at this stage just to write on whatever software system you’re familiar with, e.g. Word.

If you’re not a touch-typist and have to think about what you’re typing, use a pencil or pen and paper instead. There is a school of thought that says writing by hand helps you be more creative and thoughtful, not least because it makes you write more slowly and think before you write something.

Some writers like speech-to-text dictation systemsDragon by Nuance is the most popular, and I’ve found the latest edition amazingly accurate – to increase productivity, but at this point, just use whatever you find the least inhibiting and most practical.

Once you have got into your stride, you might like to try Scrivener which is very good for organising long works or collections of short pieces.

2. PLANNING MY STORY IN ADVANCE

Do I come up with an entire story line first, organizing thoughts for chapters in advance? Or do I just start writing, letting ideas and thoughts come as I go, or both? Do I keep a notebook and jot down ideas and incorporate them where they belong within the story? I’m concerned about putting it all together in proper order, so I’m not wasting time later.

Yes, keep a notebook, which will be a kind of verbal sketchbook. Write down anything in there that inspires or interests you. Otherwise you’ll never remember all your ideas. If you want to write something and you’re stuck, just read through your notebook and you’ll have an instant prompt to start writing.

I think it’s helpful to plan a piece of work in a reasonable amount of detail before you start writing, so that you have a structure or roadmap in your head, and it also makes you less likely to go up any blind alleys and get stuck.

But some people prefer literally to make it up as they go along. I chaired a fun discussion on this point at the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Indie Author Fair earlier this year – you can watch the video of it here.

Bear in mind that every writer will revise and edit a piece of work over and over again, and it’s very rare for a story or poem to come out perfect at first shot. Expect to rewrite and fine-tune your work over and over. Many authors think that it’s best to write your first draft as quickly as possible, to maintain flow and get it done, and then spend very much more time editing. Thank goodness for word processors that make it so easy to amend copy these days!

Allow yourself as much time as you need to write, and don’t feel bad about crossing anything out or changing it – all changes will make the end product better.

3. STAYING ORGANISED AS I WRITE

How do I organize content as I’m writing?

It depends what you’re writing. Some people write everything in Word or similar, and print out drafts and put them in a ring-binder, then edit them on paper.

Others use an online filing system e.g. creating a new folder for each book with sub-folders for each chapter etc.

Scrivener is really good for organising as it also gives you areas to put research material, ideas, etc but it takes a while to learn all its tricks. But there are no rights and wrongs – just try to decide what feels most comfortable ad least distracting for you. I always find buying new stationery very motivating

4. INSPIRATION

Cover of The Owl and the Turkey
A fun short story inspired by mishearing a snippet of news on BBC Radio 4

What are the best ways of coming up with ideas for writing content?

You need to develop a writer’s eye and ear.Become a people-watcher. Look out for situations, scenes, overheard snippets of conversation as you go about your daily business. If you find any interesting things, put them in your notebook as raw material.

Some people like creating prompts by doing things like picking up a newspaper or magazine, picking a few stories at random, and investing a back-story behind the headline. Or you might try turning on the radio at random and using whatever you hear as a starting point for a story. (I did this with my Christmas story, The Owl and the Turkey – based actually on mishearing something on the radio. You can read the result here – and there’s also Shay’s kind review of it there!) Other popular writing prompts are to pick a few words at random from a dictionary and find a way of working them all into a story. Personally, I love writing to prompts – it’s great fun!

5. NARRATIVE VOICE

When is it ok to narrate a story and when to have character dialogue?

Again, there are no rights and wrongs about this. Some stories are nearly all dialogue, some have little or none, and plenty are in between. If you are writing in the first person (e.g. there is a narrator who tells the story “I did this” etc) then you will probably have less dialogue than in the third person (when the narrator is not an obvious person).

Experiment and see what sounds right. You will probably realise it without even thinking about whether it is right or wrong – it’ll just feel instinctively correct one way or another. If you’re not sure, try writing a scene both ways, and seeing what feels right, and one is sure to jump out at you as being right.

Equally, when deciding whether to write a story in the first or third person, if you can’t choose, try writing a passage both ways, and one will feel much better than the other. Writing comes a lot from instinct, not from deciding what rules are and trying to follow them. It’s not like making up furniture from a flatpack IKEA kit.

6. WHERE TO BEGIN?

Do I start out just writing a journal for practice of little short stories? Poems?

Writing a journal is a really good idea, as it will help you find your voice and get accustomed to setting out stories. I found blogging was really helpful to me, and lots of aspiring writers write blogs when they’re starting out, sharing their author journey. The journal could be about your daily life, or it could be little stories or snippets of story, practising using words in different ways.

A lot of people assume short stories are easier to write than novels just because they are shorter, but I know plenty of novelists who claim they can’t write short stories because they need a bigger canvas. I’m the opposite – short stories are what comes naturally to me, after years as a journalist and PR writing short pieces, and manipulating the larger pieces are much more challenging for me. However. I’m now getting into my stride as a novelist, and am a quarter of the way into the second of a series of cosy mystery novels that will be published next year, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. Allow your writing to evolve and you will grow as a writer.

Poems are a great way to savour words and phrases and get used to using language in creative ways, but don’t let yourself be constrained by form e.g. they don’t have to rhyme or have the same number of syllables on every line.

Basically, follow your heart and your natural voice (reading a piece aloud, by the way, is a great way to see whether it works and what needs editing), be patient and don’t expect fast results, or try to rush, because being an author is a marathon not a sprint. Allow yourself to experiment and play around, and you will eventually naturally lean towards one form or another.

If you’re the kind of person who likes joining local social groups, you might look out for a writers’ group in your neighbourhood – though on the other hand these can be offputting, as not all of them are very encouraging! I run two of these, one in Bristol and one in Cheltenham – any aspiring authors nearby are welcome to join.

ALLi logo
Great source of author networking opportunities – click the image for more info

Finally, I’d recommend anyone starting out as an author to join the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) as an Associate Member – you can convert to Author Membership when you publish your first book. You’ll find this global online non-profit group an enormous source of moral support, friendship, networking and practical advice wherever you live in the world. Find out all about ALLi here. 

Whatever your writing ambitions, I wish you every success!

If you have any questions not answered above, please leave a comment, and I’ll be happy to reply. 

Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

The Power of the Summer Holiday

In my column for the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, I’m reflecting on the restorative powers of the summer holiday – mine was just drawing to an end when I wrote the copy

Scenic view overlooking bay with islands
The restorative power of a great view: early morning photo taken from the window of our camper van in Oban, the busiest departure point from mainland Scotland for the Inner and Outer Hebrides

On holiday in our camper van this summer, we had the usual struggle to recharge all the family’s electronic gadgets from a single cigarette lighter socket. Not that we’re hooked on our gadgets – in fact, we were trying to have an internet-free break. (Not difficult in Scotland, because the mountains block the signals.) But we still wanted to use our phones to take photographs and to text home, and I wanted to keep my Fitbit topped up. Continue reading “The Power of the Summer Holiday”

Posted in Events, Reading, Self-publishing, Writing

My Talk for Sopworth Ladies’ Circle: An Author’s Journey in the 21st Century

A summary of the talk I gave to a local women’s group about being an author

Cover of Tetbury Advertiser
Unfortunately I couldn’t take any photos last night at the delightful village of Sopworth, so here’s the cover of the latest Tetbury Advertiser, which was the catalyst for this gig! (My Young By Name column gets a shout-out, bottom left.)

Last week I did something I’d never done before: entered Sopworth Village Hall! Sopworth is an idyllic little village tucked away on the edge of rural Wiltshire. A drive through its winding lanes is an estate agent’s dream. Beautiful honey-coloured Cotswold stone cottages and substantial detached houses are surrounded by flower-filled gardens, with the only background noise the sounds of nature.

I’d been invited to speak to the Sopworth Ladies’ Circle about my life as a writer because the events organiser enjoyed the regular column I write for the local monthly magazine, the Tetbury Advertiser. (Tetbury is Sopworth’s nearest town.) This magazine, run by the Tetbury Lions, does great things to unite and inform the local community. For this it was rewarded last year with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. I’m proud to support its work.

The Essence of My Talk

About fifteen ladies attended, a couple of them interested in writing themselves, and they all listened attentively to my three-part talk (15 minutes per part) in which I explained:

  1. how I came to be an author
  2. why I think there’s never been a better time to be an author
  3. my ten top tips on how to become an author

I won’t say any more about the first point, because that information is elsewhere on this blog (see personal bio and career). Instead I’ll give an abridged version of what I said about the second point, and list those 10 top tips.

Why There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be An Author

The many reasons include the greater ease of writing, editing and publishing; the wider reach of books in all their forms to potential readers around the world; and the benefits authors gain from self-publishing such as greater creative control and higher potential earnings. Here are those points in a little more detail:

  1. Modern technology makes it much easier to write and edit manuscripts, whether you use bog-standard software such as Word, or invest in specialist software such as Scrivener (a fancy word-processing system developed especially for authors, complete with virtual corkboard for plotting) or Dragon (highly accurate voice recognition software that enables you to write much faster, no matter how high your typing speed).
  2. Technogical advances and trends also make it possible for authors to upload their books to publishing and distribution platforms such as Amazon, which means that authors can, from the comfort of their own homes, publish books that are almost immediately available to buy in print and in ebook form all over the world.
  3. The development of sophisticated ereaders that allow for the user to choose typeface style and size makes it possible to reach those who are “print disabled” whether through conditions such as dyslexia or bad eyesight, and those who are unable to hold printed books e.g. those whose hands are weakened by rheumatoid arthritis (e.g. me).
  4. The new era of digital audio books is increasing reach to the blind.
  5. New synchronising technology that connects ebooks with audio books, enabling you pick up on audio in the car where you left off reading your ebook at home, for example, creates more reading opportunities for readers – and therefore more readers for authors. 
  6. The easy availability of books on smartphones is opening up new markets in developing and remote countries previously unreachable by print or where print books are beyond the financial or practical reach of most people
  7. The rise of modern self-publishing as a viable alternative liberates the would-be author from dependence on previously essential third parties – agents and big publishing houses.
  8. Self-publishing allows authors to retain creative control rather than having their views overruled by publishers’ marketeers.
  9. It also allows authors to make much more money per book sold – typically 70p in the £ of the cover price for an ebook, compared to 5p for trade-published books.
  10. Reading is still a very popular hobby, with all the debates about ebooks and ereaders having fuelled new conversations about reading, rather than killing book sales.
  11. Bookshops are thriving, despite some closures, with new bookshops becoming more dynamic and exciting places to be – real community centres buzzing with events, activities and coffee shops, rather than just being places to buy books.
  12. National programmes and charities continue to promote reading as a desirable activity to the general public, e.g. World Book Day, World Book Night, Readathon.
  13. The general public are hungry to meet authors in real life, even those they’ve never heard of – hence the growing popularity of small local festivals such as the free Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival (run by me!)
  14. There is a hugely supportive and generous community of self-published authors which anyone may join to help them take advantage of all these opportunities – the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), of which I’m proud to be a part. (I’m Commissioning Editor of ALLi’s Author Advice Centre blog.)
ALLi logo
Great source of author networking opportunities – click the image for more info

Just Two Disadvantages

Of course, it’s not all good news. There are two key disadvantages:

  • as a self-published author, you assume all the responsibilities of a publishing house, including production and marketing (but don’t worry, it’s best practice to delegate to freelance experts or specialist services for aspects that you don’t have the skills to do yourself e.g. cover design – and no-one should ever attempt to do their own proofreading!)
  • with it now being so much easier to publish your own books – and it’s that fact of publishing your books that turns you from being a mere writer into an actual author – more people are doing it, which means you have much more competition in the market

10 Top Tips on Becoming an Author

If those two factors don’t deter you from entering the fray, here are my  ten top tips to help you achieve your writing ambitions.

  1. Cover of Dorothea Brande's Becoming a WriterEstablish regular writing habits, ringfencing realistic timeslots to suit your life e.g. get up earlier, go to bed later, scribble in your lunch hour.
  2. Aim to write a set number of words every day – it doesn’t have to be huge, but a single daily page will add up to a substantial novel over a year.
  3. Don’t wait for the muse to strike – just allow your brain free rein, writing whatever comes into your head or to specific prompts (e.g. imagine a back story to a newspaper article, or turn the radio on at random and write about the first thing you hear). You’ll soon realise you have got plenty of ideas and inspiration after all.
  4. Join encouraging groups such as ALLi to reassure yourself you’re not alone and to gain moral and practical support (conversely, leave any writers’ groups that bring you down).
  5. Take advantage of technology to increase your productivity – Scrivener (writing software) and Dragon (speech recognition) are excellent investments of your money and the time it takes to learn to use them well.
  6. Expect to edit – a lot. No-one writes perfect copy first time. Rough gemstones need lots of polishing to make them shine.
  7. Delegate what you can’t do yourself, including different aspects of editing.
  8. Read good advice books about writing – whichever ones resonate with you. My favourite is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.
  9. Read widely in general – your writing will improve by osmotic or subliminal learning.
  10. Make a public commitment to your writing goals and they’ll seem much more real and worth striving for.

lit-fest-bookmark-flip-side-webinvitationto-the-hawkesbury-upton-literature-festival-low-resThanks again to Sopworth Ladies’ Circle for making me so welcome. I’m hoping they will take up the invitation I gave them to attend the next free Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival next April!

I always enjoy the opportunity to talk to groups like this – invitations are always welcome via my contact page.

A full programme of my events may be found on my Events page

 

 

Posted in Events, Family, Personal life, Writing

September – Not an End, but a Beginning

In my column for the September issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I’ve been sharing my take on the end of the summer holidays and the start of the new  school year.

Photo of panda-themed float called Pandamonium
Our entry for the carnival a few years ago (although every Hawkesbury Show Day it’s pandemonium in our house)

They Think It’s All Over

How old do you have to be before you stop thinking in academic years? Even when my daughter has finished her education, I’m sure I’ll still be treating September as the chance for new beginnings – a time to start learning new skills and mastering different subjects.

Not that I intend ever to take another academic exam. My ambition applies to a completely different kind of accomplishment: entering exhibits for the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show.  The start of September means I have a whole year ahead to create a worthy winner in any category, whether handicraft, domestic, or horticultural. Continue reading “September – Not an End, but a Beginning”

Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel

Thank You, Matthew Paris – Now I Don’t Have To Go To Peru

A post about holiday reading, discussed after my holiday on the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club this week

Photo of Debbie in hat and coat at northernmost point of mainland Britain
Fending off the most northerly midges of mainland Scotland this summer

Although I love travelling, and rarely turn down an opportunity to travel anywhere, I do love putting in extra miles via the pages of a good travel book, whether to places I know well, to places I plan to go, or places I know will always be off my agenda. Continue reading “Thank You, Matthew Paris – Now I Don’t Have To Go To Peru”