This week’s post is the transcript of my introductory speech at Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival’s HULF Talk on Research & Inspiration last Saturday. held at the Bethesda Chapel, Hawkesbury Upton, Gloucestershire
As those of you who regular guests at the HULF Talks will know, I choose a different topic for each one, and this time I chose “Research and Inspiration”.
As I prepare my talk for Wrexham Carnival of Words next week, offering answers to FAQs (the most frequently asked questions) about writing, I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite advice from writers I admire. I hope you’ll enjoy it too, whether you’re a writer or a reader or indeed both.
George Orwell’s Six Rules of Writing
In my teens, I read the complete works of George Orwell for the extended essay that formed part of my International Baccalaureat at Frankfurt International School. His politics, his integrity and his rules of writing have stayed with me ever since.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
While I don’t follow Orwell’s rules blindly – for example, I will use a long word if it feels more natural than the short equivalent – I think any aspiring writer would do well to pin them over their writing desk.
Just Write, says Ray Bradbury
Fear of breaking rules should not deter the would-be writer from putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and just getting on with it. Many writers, especially when they’re starting out, spend far too long dithering, thinking about writing, talking about writing, and admonishing themselves for not writing at all. They should listen to the hugely prolific (and entirely wonderful) Ray Bradbury:
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.
Stephen King on Concision
Possibly the most useful English lesson I learned at school was the art of précis. I’m amazed it isn’t taught more widely.
I’m naturally garrulous in conversation and with the written word. Knowing how to cut out superfluous words without losing meaning was therefore invaluable in my early careers as a journalist and a PR, when I had to write articles to fit precisely into a given space or to match a specific word count. Ruthlessly editing down other people’s text, or pieces I’d written on clients’ products that weren’t close to my heart (eg cat litter, frozen peas, drainpipes), was great practice for when I began to focus on writing fiction.
Novice writers are often disbelieving when I tell them it’s possible to cut 10%, 20% or even more from something they’ve written – and return pleasantly surprised to find that not only did they manage it, but that the edited piece is more powerful. Stephen King, whose memoir On Writingshould be on every writer’s shelf of reference books, sums up the process well:
When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt: revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.
More Murderous Recommendations from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Stephen King is not the only writer who invokes murder. Although the next piece of advice has been attributed to many authors over the years, it was author and critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who originally coined the phrase in On the Art of Writing in 1916:
Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to the press. Murder your darlings.
I love this particular tip so much that I made it the playful title of my mystery story set at a writers’ retreat, published last year. It now feels like a lucky charm, as Murder Your Darlings has now made it to the shortlist of six novels for adults shortlisted for The Selfies Award, given by publishing industry news service Bookbrunch for the best self-published books in the UK.
A more succinct version of Quiller-Couch’s recommendation comes from Elmore Leonard:
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
I like to think George Orwell would approve!
Above All Else, Read!
But probably my favourite piece of advice to writers, and the one that irks me most when aspiring writers ignore it, is simply to read. I have no patience with those who say they can’t spare the time. Would you trust a chef who never tasted food? Over to Samuel Johnson:
The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.
Without wishing to sound smug, in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve read part of all of these:
From the Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introductions” series, American History by Paul S Boyer
A collection of classic children’s stories, Mary’s Plain’s Omnibus by Gwynned Rae
The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
The Times newspaper
Join Me at the Wrexham Carnival of Words (online this year)
If you’d like to hear my own writing advice at Wrexham Carnival of Words, which is being held online from 17-24 April, you’ll need to buy a ticket – but the good news is that just £15 will gain you a pass to the entire festival. Visit their website to find out more about the huge array of events on offer and to book your ticket now: www.wrexhamcarnivalofwords.com
For the Wrexham Audience
I’ll be sharing with delegates the following list of recommended further reading…
The Art of Writing Made Simple – Geoffrey Ashe
Polish Your Fiction & Writing in a Nutshell – Jessica Bell
Self-editing for Self-publishers – Richard Bradburn
Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury
Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande
Write Every Day – Helena Halme
On Writing – Stephen King
Nail Your Novel series – Roz Morris
Use the Power of Feedback to Write a Better Book – Belinda Pollard
Punctuation without Tears – Dominic Selwood
… and this list of recommended membership organisations for writers:
A post to help writers become self-publishing authors
“Help! I want to self-publish the books I’ve written, but I haven’t got a clue how to go about it!”
That message arrived in my inbox from a very nice chap who I’d enjoyed chatting to at the recent Triskele Literary Festival in London. The advice that I sent him in reply will help any writer thinking of becoming a self-publishing author, so I thought I’d put it on my blog to help as many people as I can.
Tip #1: Join the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi)
First of all, you should most definitely join the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) via this link, because you’ll find it an invaluable resource at all stages of your self-publishing journey, in lots of different ways, e.g.
meeting and networking with other self-publishing authors
access to our private Facebook forum where you can ask and find answers to questions about any aspect of writing and self-publishing any time of day or night from our global membership
free guidebooks in ebook form which are definitive guides to different parts of the process
discounts and deals on a wide range of essential services and events
entitlement to post your book news on our Member Showcase
The benefits are incredibly good value for money, and if any aspiring indie author can afford to pay for only one thing, that’s the one thing I’d recommend.
Tip #2: Learn as Much as You Can Yourself
Secondly, it depends on how IT-savvy you are. Self-publishing requires a whole string of computer-based tasks, but they are not rocket science. If you are comfortable with word processing and social media, and you have some spare time to throw at the task, it’s not that hard to master creating book files, especially if you acquaint yourself with various good guide books that I can recommend:
You should soon realise what tasks you can and can’t manage yourself, and you should delegate those to someone else who can. You should ALWAYS get your proofreading done, at the very least, and preferably some editing too if you can afford it, and next on your shopping list should be a good cover design from a book design specialist.
That will be sufficient to get you started by publishing to Amazon in print and ebook form, and once you’ve mastered that you can move on to the various other distribution platforms. If you want to be able to sell your books via bookshops, you should also publish via Ingram Spark. (NB This doesn’t guarantee that your book will be sold in any bookshops, but it makes it possible for bookshops to order them if they want to.
Tip #3: Decide on Your Priorities: Cash vs Time
Thirdly, it depends on whether you are cash-rich, time-poor or cash-poor, time-rich. If money is no object, you can pay a company to publish a book for you, who will do everything other than write it, to get it to the production stage – but you will have to market it. Buyer beware – there are LOTS of charlatans out there, but the good news is that ALLi will help you identify the good guys! Also, of course, if you delegate to a third party, you relinquish some degree of control. Our guide Choosing a Self-publishing Service (free to download if you become a member) is available to buy in paperback here).
Tip #4: Network with Other Indie Authors
It’s also worth joining a good local meetup group of self-publishing authors, if you can find one near you. I run two, in Bristol and Cheltenham, and I’m also involved with one in Oxford, and know of others in London and elsewhere. If you’d like me to put you in touch with any of my self-publishing author friends near where you live, leave a comment and I’ll see if I can hook you up with a group or a like-minded individual.
Tip #5: Make Sure Your Book is Really Ready for Publication
Make sure your book is the best it can be before you publish it – it is so easy to self-publish a book these days that it is too tempting to push the “Publish” button sooner than you should!
Tip #6: Keep Writing!
The more books you self-publish, the greater your chances of success. Received wisdom is that provided the books you’ve self-published are any good, and that they are in the same genre, you’ll see a significant increase in sales when you publish your third, fifth and seventh book, and so on – although yesterday someone told me that the fourteenth is the biggest tipping point (no idea why!) So I’d better get back to writing my books, then…
My Self-published Books
I’ve now self-published a number of fiction and non-fiction books, and I’m also currently writing the second in a cosy mystery series of seven, the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery Collection.
A post to help would-be writers find their voice and their confidence
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.
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 systems – Dragon 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
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.
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.