A little writing advice

I did tell you I wasn’t good at blogging, didn’t I? Well, here we are, three months after I last posted. But today I got an email from a reader asking me for some advice on writing, and I was reminded of a post I made on LinkedIn almost four years ago now. So I figured “What the Hell? Might as well update it and use it as a post on my new blog.” And here we are. I hope it’s useful! 🙂 (Some of the TV references are a little dated, but I stand by them!)

The advice I’ve had most often for blogging is this: “Do writing tips! Everyone loves writing tips!”

There’s a problem with that: I don’t feel qualified to give out writing tips. It feels a bit … cocky, for lack of a better word.

So here’s what I’m going to do – I’ll tell you what I think, and you can decide for yourself whether to completely ignore me or not.

To begin with, not everybody can write. There’s a bit of a fallacy amongst professionals who are not writers that hiring an expert to write about a subject they know will automatically produce a good piece of writing. It won’t. Writing is a skill in itself. It has to be learned, practised and honed like any other skill, and should be valued as such. (#paythewriter)

But everyone who wants to should write.  And if they’re not happy with their first results, they should keep writing, because it’s incredibly rewarding as an experience in itself. And to be honest, hating your own writing and being convinced you have no talent is a pretty common symptom of being a writer.

Writing is a combination of art and science. The science is grammar, punctuation and spelling. You should know the science as a starting point. If you’re looking for advice on the basics of good writing, just Google ‘writing tips for authors’. There’s a bucketload of sites that will give you much the same basic advice. That’s not the kind of writing tips I want to talk about in this post, though, so I’m going to quickly cover those:

  • Stop procrastinating and write
  • Finish the book
  • All first drafts are awful
  • 90% of good writing is editing
  • Don’t overwrite
  • Read good books
  • Grow a thick skin

Those are all great, solid pieces of advice and any writer should absolutely take every one of them seriously. That’s all science.

It’s the art that’s hard. Telling a great story, creating interesting characters, painting a picture in your readers’ minds – they’re the scary bits. Storytelling and writing are two different skills. Of course, there are rare people who are natural writers and great storytellers. I like to call them bastards. The rest of us have to work at it.

Take Dan Brown as an example. Dan Brown is a fantastic storyteller. His biggest success, The Da Vinci Code, is an absolute page-turner. He knows exactly how to hook you at the end of a chapter so you have to stay awake and read just one more chapter. But a lot of people don’t like his prose. I, personally, never noticed it was especially good or bad when I read it, but I did think it was a great story – and I stand by that.

What’s interesting is that the movie version did not work very well. And understanding why it didn’t work is a big part of understanding good storytelling, I think. The film was too slavish to the book and the cliffhangers from the book simply didn’t translate on screen. In other words, director Ron Howard didn’t do enough to translate the essence of the twisty-turny, cliffhanger-stuffed book for a different medium. It was predictable. A lot of that came down to things you can do in a book that don’t work on screen – like leaving out details you can’t miss out visually – but that’s a lesson in itself: know what to reveal, and when, and what to tease. Keep your readers guessing – if you spoon-feed them, they’ll get bored.

Having said all of that, one of my biggest pieces of advice is this: watch TV.

I know, for many writers it’s ‘the Enemy’, but there’s a huge amount you can learn about storytelling from watching TV. I have watched a lot of it in my life, to the extent that I can almost always predict how storylines and plots are going to develop. I’ve learned to read the signs.

So many stories are told with predictable clues and foreshadowing that you instinctively learn to see them and know what they mean. There’s an old rule of theatre that if you show a gun in Act 1 you better fire it in Act 2 – or something like that – but I think too many TV shows have become predictable by following these kinds of rules. We should all be breaking them more. People like being surprised!

So watch TV, and concentrate on the structure of what you’re watching – think about what you like, what engages you and why you enjoy it. Then think about what turns you off and what you see that makes you think “I know where this is going”. If you’re watching a mystery and you figure out ‘whodunnit’ after ten minutes – work out why. What gave it away? And then don’t do that in your writing!

Personally, I think some of the absolute best storytelling in TV happening right now is in genre TV. For my money, The Walking DeadGame of Thrones and Daredevil are some of the most cutting-edge, intelligent, well-written TV shows going. I’d also recommend, from the non-genre shelf, Ray Donovan and Luther, not only because of the excellent storytelling, but also the fantastically complex and interesting characters (as well as some compelling performances from Liev Schreiber and Idris Elba).

But if you really want to see writing that usurps expectations and regularly hits you with a bucket-load of surprise and delight – watch Firefly. Joss Whedon is an absolute master of setting you up to think you know what’s happening, and then whipping the rug out from underneath you. I love that about watching anything by him – I know he’ll never set me up for a cliché and follow through.

There’s another great thing you can learn from TV – especially from anything by Aaron Sorkin – great dialogue. One of the biggest sins of a badly written book, for me, is bad dialogue. Dialogue that looks kind of cool when you write it down, but if anyone ever said it out loud it would sound utterly ludicrous. As far as I’m concerned, speak every line of dialogue out loud. If it sounds ridiculous, change it. If you stumble over it, change it. If you can’t imagine a single human being you’ve ever met saying it out loud – change it! Sorkin’s dialogue is like an example of the conversations you wish you could have – if you were quick-witted enough to have them. Few people are, but by heck they’re tightly written and they really, really work. In particular, watch his episodes of The West Wing and The Newsroom. Quentin Tarantino is another for fantastic, engaging dialogue – Pulp Fiction is my personal favourite of his for that.

And the thing about good dialogue is it helps build good characters. Make sure every character has a unique voice. Hear it in your head. Use people you know as proxies if you need to, but make sure each character’s voice is distinctive – one of the worst sins of bad writing is having characters who all sound the same.

My other tip for creating good characters, is that they should not make sense. Think about the people you know. How many of them fit into simple, predictable pigeonholes? I get frustrated with people who say things like “A man who loves dog-racing can’t also be an opera fan, that’s totally unbelievable!” Why not? Who ever said people have to make sense? Do you? If you wrote down a list of all the things you love, would they add up logically to a stereotypical character? I hope not.

Real people don’t make sense, and neither do the best characters. They’re complicated, unpredictable – and they’re much, much more interesting for it.

Right, enough about TV. This is about good writing, so let’s get back to books.

Read Dr. Seuss.

Seriously. I have never read anyone who had a greater appreciation of and flair for the rhythm and flow of language than Dr. Seuss. The Sleep Book is a work of art. OK, he takes the Shakespeare route and makes up words left, right and centre, but his books sing like concertos – they are wonderful to read out loud. All good writing should have a music to it; it should ebb and flow with the pace of the story. The only way I know to learn this is practice, practice, practice. Nobody should really try to write like Dr Seuss – especially if you’re writing a gritty murder mystery – but to really understand the music of language – Dr. Seuss is the king. Again, the way to get this right is to read your writing out loud. It should flow easily and change pace as fits the story. If it doesn’t – rewrite it until it does.

Next – though this is certainly something you’ll hear elsewhere – write what you love. And write what you know. Write a story you would want to read; write an adventure you would want to go on. Because nothing rings more false, for me, than a writer trying to write something because they think it will sell. I speak from personal experience. When I started The Lost War, someone suggested I should try to write it for a YA audience. So I did. And it drove me insane. I constantly felt like I was censoring myself and nothing I wrote felt real – so I went back and started again, writing it in my own style. It turns out I’m quite sweary – so no impending Harry Potters from me.

Write what comes naturally and write what you enjoy – that will shine through in the story. And if you like it, there’s a damn good chance others will too.

And finally, I cannot stress this enough – if you’re serious about publishing your writing yourself, there are two things you have to invest in – a professional editor and a professional cover artist. They will be worth their weight in gold. I know, it seems like a big expense at the outset, but if you really believe in your writing, and you really want to make it work, those are two expenses you will never regret – an amateurish cover will cost you sales and a badly-edited book will get you bad reviews. If you’re lucky enough to get a publisher, great. If not, and if you have it, spend the money. If you don’t, try bartering. If nothing else, at the very, very least, get some beta-readers you trust and ask them to be brutally honest with you (you’ll need that thick skin), because the one certainty for any writer is this: you can’t see your own flaws. Only an editor can do that, and the good ones are worth every penny.

Ultimately, write because you love it. Write because you have to. Write because it feels like breathing clearly for the first time in years. Write for the writing, not for the publishing. If it gets published, if you make it as a writer and get to live the rest of your life working only as an author, then count yourself among the blessed few.

Good luck,


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