Posted in Events, Writing

My Favourite Writing Advice Quotes

poster for Wrexham Carnival of WordsAs 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.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. 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

Cover of Stephen King bookFear 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 Writing should 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 couldn’t resist using this famous writing tip as a title for one of my mystery novels

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
All in a day’s reading for me

Join Me at the Wrexham Carnival of Words (online this year)

poster for my talk at Wrexham
My talk will be only in English, despite the Welsh on the poster – as Wrexham’s in Wales, they provide info in both languages

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:

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:

  • Alliance of Independent Authors (affiliate link) – a global nonprofit organisation, for which I’m UK Ambassador
  • Fictionfire – run by my friend Lorna Fergusson, the most amazing writing coach and editor
  • Jericho Writers – the leading online writers’ club for which I’ll soon be teaching a course (more news on that soon)
  • The Society of Authors – the trade union for UK writers; similar organisations exist in most countries

Do you have a favourite quote about writing or a book for writers to recommend? I’d love to hear it, so please feel free to leave a comment. 

Posted in Writing

Writing: Why It’s Sometimes Good to be an Irregular Writer

Many writing coaches counsel writing a set amount every day, preferably at the same time, and even in the same place, to programme oneself into good productivity habits. In this post, I’ll describe how when I flouted that advice I surprised myself with the new-found productivity of an all-or-nothing binge writing routine.

This post first appeared on the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Author Advice Centre blog here.

ALLi logo

Plenty of bestselling authors point to their own regular work pattern to account for their success, from Jeffrey Archer (four two-hour stints per day – phew!) to Graeme Greene (a low word count of just 500, but consistently adhered to). Simple arithmetic provides a compelling argument for such regularity.

365 days x 500 words = 182,500 words = 2 novels

500 words a day – that doesn’t sound so hard, does it?

From 0 to 60K in a Month

Before I started writing novels, I wrote short stories, most of them no longer than the articles and features I’d written previously as a journalist. Used to polishing short word counts, it was a huge change for me to fill a bigger canvas. I took the NaNoWriMo route, aiming at 2,000 words a day, till the first draft of the novel was done. This well-trodden path seemed a sensible choice.

But a short and minor hospital surgery that left me resting in bed for a couple of weeks unleashed a whole new writing me. I discovered that when the rest of life didn’t get in the way, I could just keep going. In fact, I not only could, but I longed to.

Before long I was writing most of my waking hours, and between the end of November and the middle of February, I wrote the first draft of not one but two novels, the second and third in my new Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Trick or Murder and Murder in the Manger.

Are Writing Rules Made to be Broken?

Cover of Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac
A holiday read – and a holiday write too, apparently (Image from Amazon)

I felt like a schoolgirl disobeying the rules, although I also took heart from the role model of Anita Brookner, a university professor who only wrote fiction during her summer vacation – but then churned out a whole novel, to a very high standard. Her Hotel Du Lac won the Booker Prize in 1984.

Ironically, by mid-February, my health had returned and I’d got over my op and the anaesthetic, but I was completely exhausted. The ten-week writing binge had sucked me dry.

However, I felt as if I’d discovered magical powers. I’d let the binge-writing genie out of the bottle.

Writing non-stop till I’d drained the creative well felt so much more natural and productive than the scientifically measured and monitored x words per day. I was then so exhausted mentally that I felt I had no choice but to take a complete break for about six weeks before I sat down to edit the first of those manuscripts, which I’m now just about finished two months later. So it’s been an all-or-nothing process, but it’s got me across the finishing line. It’s worked.

ALLi pen logoAm I a lone rebel against the tried-and-trusted regular writing method? I put the question to the ALLi hive and was gratified to have a flurry of positive responses from people who shared my approach. Their endorsement has given me the reassurance I needed to continue to follow my writing instincts, and as soon as I’ve finished editing these first drafts, I’ll be putting my head down to go round again for book four. Seconds out…

Visit the ALLi blog here to read thoughts from other ALLi author members who love binge writing. 

  • Cover of Trick or Murder?
    The sequel, set around Halloween, will launch on 26 August

    One of the products of my latest binge writing session will be published next month, Trick or Murder?, the second Sophie Sayers Village Mystery novel, and it’s already available to pre-order as an ebook here.

  • The first in the series, Best Murder in Show, is already available in paperback and as an ebook.
  • Order Best Murder in Show on Amazon UK here
  • Order Best Murder in Show on Amazon US here
  • Or order from your local bookshop by quoting ISBN 978-1911223139



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
The writer at work! (Photo by Clint Randall of

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 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.


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.


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


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!


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.


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.