Lots of different forms of creativity have influenced my writing. Whether it’s admiring a work of art, trying my hand at some photography, watching my daughters as they paint, or noticing the street art as we travel, it all makes me feel deeply connected to other creative humans, as I get to consider the world through their many perspectives and mediums. Getting creative myself in different ways, through classes and courses or just at home, removes the pressure of a deadline or the precariousness of maintaining a writing career, and reminds me of the uncomplicated happiness that comes from making something new. Afterwards, I can take all that back to my writing, reinvigorated and ready to go!⁠

Setting is an integral part of storytelling, but one that is sometimes neglected. Authors who appreciate setting never let it become the backdrop of the story but rather weave it through every aspect of character and plot so that they work in symbiosis. Just think of the opening lines of Rebecca, ‘Last night I went to Manderley again’, where place is immediately foregrounded, or try to imagine Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre without the moors … or Pride & Prejudice without Pemberley! I think of setting as an extra character in my story – living and breathing and needing as much attention and deliberation as everyone else. If you’re not sure where to start, playing with sensory description can help a setting come alive. ⁠

One of the most exciting parts of writing fiction is getting to know your characters. A hazy outline of character has been the genesis of all my stories, from the troubled, lonely woman standing staring out toward the ocean in Shallow Breath, to the three generations of women taking on the world in The Hush. I like to let them grow organically as much as possible to begin with, and they live alongside me in daily life while I plan their role in the story and figure out more about who they are. But at some point I begin to push the main characters into answering more and more questions, both through questionnaire-style interrogations about their background and interests, and by writing scenes so I can watch what they do.  As they take on a life of their own, they even begin to surprise me and I find myself writing a stream-of-consciousness narrative where they ignore my plans and do their own thing instead! This isn’t a regular occurrence but I love it every time it happens. (For instance, the feisty grandmother Geraldine in The Hush waited so long to make a rousing public speech that when she finally got the chance I could not shut her up!) By the end of the writing process these characters feel like real people somewhere out in the world beyond my imagination, living their best (or worst!) lives.

If you love the structured, organisational feel of character questionnaires you’ll find lots of examples online; but if your mind goes numb with boredom at the thought I suggest you get to know your people by putting them into either your planned scenes or random scenarios and finding out what they do. Whichever you choose, interrogate them and learn as much about them as you can, from their family history and education to their mannerisms and speaking style. By creating stand-out characters you will make your story sing!

One of the biggest challenges of writing a novel is pacing. Your plot needs to have a consistent momentum that will drive the story right to the end. However, this doesn’t mean relentless action, but rather that you should manage the ebbs and flows of your story and carefully consider the placement of each beat or turning point.  Back when I worked full time as a book editor, I was once asked to give advice on a sci-fi horror story that the authors were having trouble selling. The characters, writing and concept were brilliant and it took me a while to understand why the story was struggling. Eventually I realised it was the relentless pace – there were no pauses in the action, no chance for the reader to catch their breath, and by including so many scenes of conflict the authors had unintentionally lessened their impact. The whole book was one long, epic battle scene. This is unusual: most authors are more likely to struggle in places where the action/movement of the novel stalls for one reason or another. When this happens in my stories, my characters begin to have too many conversations, or extended periods of thinking/reflecting time, they phone friends, and sometimes they start relaxing and having cups or tea or heading off on fun nights out. At this stage I know I need to replot and make something happen to keep them on their toes and out of the pub! (Or at least there needs to be a bad guy at the pub, waiting for them.)

As for movement in life, I intend to make continual public service announcements to all authors to remind everyone to protect your back/neck/shoulders/wrists by getting up from the keyboard regularly, stretching, working from a standing desk, and avoiding the laptop as much as possible. It’s amazing the problems you can cause yourself by sitting still for too long, and I promise you’ll thank me in ten years’ time and save a packet on physio bills. Not to mention the mental health benefits that a change of scene can bring (see Writing Tip 22).

Theme is the foundation of your story. Knowing your theme is essential for successfully constructing your narrative arc, determining the decisions of your characters, and deepening your description. Theme shouldn’t be confused with plot. For example, the book I’m writing at the moment is essentially a mystery about a nanny who goes missing with the two young children in her care. However, the theme of the story considers how people find their way back to one another and themselves after times of struggle and disconnection.

Themes often centre around universally understood concepts such as love, forgiveness, redemption, justice, etc. When you know your theme you can work it into every aspect of your story, and play with it in literary devices, symbolism, characters’ speech, atmosphere, and so on. You can also use motifs, which are recurring narrative threads in a story (whether concepts, symbols or imagery), to reinforce your theme.

If you’re not sure of your theme, ask yourself why you’ve chosen to write this particular story, and look for places in your narrative where you feel a strong emotional connection with the plot, characters or setting. Keep asking yourself questions about why those sections are important to you, and you’ll begin to uncover the underlying theme of your work.

No doubt if you’re writing a book you’ll already have heard the debate about plotting versus pantsing. Well I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to be limited to one or the other! Taken to their extremes, both conjure up anxiety for me. When I think of methodically plotting a book I worry it will kill all spontaneity in my WIP because it’s no fun if I know  everything that’s going to happen beforehand. On the other hand, flying by the seat of my pants for the entire process gives me nightmares about writing a book that begins with enthusiasm and gets lost down umpteen dead-ends (the final result being missed deadlines and excessive chunky KitKat consumption).

Over the years I have gradually adopted a more flexible approach. I used to let myself write until I ran out of steam and then I would analyse what I’d written and organise the specifics of the plot in retrospect (I call this ‘reverse plotting’, and it’s a great way to get out of dead -ends, but it can add time and stress if you’re not careful). As deadlines have become tighter I’ve started to do an initial flexi-outline, which involves a rough layout of the story that I revisit and adapt as I go along. However, within that, I often end up winging it or changing my mind about the direction of the story! So I don’t feel like I’ve completely nailed my ‘process’ yet – even though I’m on my ninth book – but being reasonably flexible has allowed me to try different things when I feel the story is going astray; and being somewhat organised has kept me focused on the finish line. Somewhere in there is a system that obviously pays off in the end, and I highly recommend playing with your process and continuing to refine it and try new methods. That way you can discover what works for you without taking the fun out of your writing.

First of all, I am not claiming authority on this subject, I’m learning alongside everyone else. I believe  passionately in inclusion and in celebrating diversity in every sphere of life, but I also understand that very often the best way for me to assist that is to shut up, listen and learn. In fiction I hope to represent diverse society and experience but without forcing it or claiming knowledge about cultures or groups that I cannot accurately depict on the page (or those where I should not be a spokesperson at all). If I want to depict something or someone outside of my experience, I try to put in the work and speak to the right people so that I understand what I’m writing about.  I realise this topic might lead to difficult and frustrating conversations and self-reflection, but this is vital if we want to move beyond perpetuating (whether intentionally or not) outdated and dangerous stereotypes in fiction, and be true allies in building the writing and publishing business into a better and more inclusive place for all.

I don’t want to spoil your reading with too many of my thoughts here. Suffice to say, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a masterpiece of short fiction.  You might consider how Ursula Le Guin approaches and defies some of the usual conventions of storytelling in regards to plot, characterisation, narrative structure and voice, etc.  It’s all here if you enjoy analysing craft, and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

If you have trouble locating this story (it’s from 1973) try the dystopian short story collections in the libraries – there’s one called Brave New Worlds edited by John Joseph Adams which has this one and plenty more brilliant short fiction.

We know it’s important to make space in life for regular writing time, but have you done the same for your thinking time? A lot of writing happens when we’re not writing, as we’re always soaking up the world around us, but while inspiration comes in many forms, this ‘creative input’ (from books, films, podcasts, conversations, etc.) is not the same as allowing yourself some space for dedicated thinking time. It’s just as important to allocate a small amount of time in your day to this as it is to put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard. In my experience, the best thinking time happens when you either just stop and rest, when you go for a walk or take a drive, or when you’re doing mundane tasks that don’t require brain work (great ideas often come in the shower!). It works best when you can get quiet enough to fully contemplate the current state of your work in progress and ask yourself questions about how to achieve the next step. Remember to think in questions rather than statements/problems because then your mind will open up to possibilities and you’ll be surprised at how often the answers arrive as though you knew them already. You don’t need to allocate huge chunks of your day to this – 10-15 minutes can make a big difference and rejuvenate your enthusiasm and confidence.

Beautiful writing is a wonderful thing, but unless you fully engage with and demonstrate the central emotional theme of your story, even the most cleverly told tale can leave a reader feeling cold. It can be easy to get lost in the mechanics of plot and the fun of characterisation and forget why you’ve set to work on a particular project; so if you’re confused about where the heart of your story lies, then recalling the reason you decided to write it is a good place to start. The central theme of my novel The Hush is the relationship between all the women in the story, and the different ways they choose to communicate to forge new, stronger bonds. My next book is a thriller, but at its core it’s about how people find their way back to each other, and themselves. The emotional underlay of your story might be quite different to some of its outer layers and plot points, but this is how you will draw the reader in and keep them hooked from start to finish. (It’s also why AI has a long way to go before it can truly replicate the beauty and uniqueness of human creativity.)

Simple but important advice this week: in the same way as too many cooks can spoil broths, too many early readers can wreak havoc on a work in progress. Sometimes there will be consensus between different readers, but you might also get conflicting opinions and a surfeit of confusing and counterproductive advice. So limit those very early readers, until you’re confident in the direction of your work.
So what makes a great early reader? 1. They read a lot. 2. They read books  in the genre/area you’re working in. 3. They’re prepared to be honest. 4. They’ve got time to read a draft reasonably quickly. 5. They’ll let you quiz them about plot points. 6. You feel comfortable enough with them to show them early, unpolished drafts 7. They are able to offer constructive feedback. 8. They’re discreet and won’t share your work 9. They don’t get offended if you don’t take their advice 10. They’ll soften the blows of critique with some words of encouragement!
Finally, if you choose to pay for this service, check all credentials first, and know exactly what you’re paying for and expecting to get for such a service before you begin.

I’m a huge fan of putting multiple perspectives into novels. I’ve heard some readers say they struggle with it – perhaps it changes the rhythm of their reading and disrupts their steady engagement with a singular narrative voice. However, unless there’s a reason to keep to one perspective, I often find myself sharing the storytelling between different characters. I imagine these stories like diamonds, with each perspective a facet that provides an alternative angle and contributes something unique to the whole. I also like to play with the limits of characters’ knowledge and awareness and examine these beside each other. The exception is when I’ve wanted a very claustrophobic and intense feel to one character’s situation (hence the single narrative in Beneath the Shadows). Even if you’re unsure about including multiple perspectives it can be fun to try this as a writing exercise as it helps you to get to know other characters/pets/plants/inanimate objects (!) that make up your story: think ‘What the toaster saw’ ;)

Overwhelm can take its toll when I’m writing. Sometimes I go to bed thinking my novel is knitting together nicely and wake up to find an unravelling plot, unruly characters and washed-out writing. When I need inspiration, and I haven’t got time or energy to dig deep into a novel, poetry is both soothing and a reminder of the power of words (and also that you don’t have to be verbose to get your point across). I highly recommend it as an instant pick-me-up. I love anything by Dorothy Livesay, Mary Oliver, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. And two of my absolute favourites are by Wendell Berry: ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ and ‘What We Need is Here’. I’d love to hear your recommendations too.

The elevator pitch is a very quick summary of your creative work, and it should hook your listeners, leaving them wanting more. So the sooner you can precisely sum up your work in progress, the better. I’m certainly guilty of leaving all the marketing work until I’ve written ‘the end’, but there are a number of great reasons to hone your spiel asap.
1. You get people excited about your work in progress, and it gives them the chance to follow you and become an early reader.
2. You get to practice your pitch and gauge the audience’s reaction. Then you can refine it if they don’t seem enthused, before you try to pitch to agents and publishers.
3. If you tell someone about your great idea, sometimes it leads to really interesting conversations and insights. Or they know someone who can help with research.
So don’t be shy: craft that twenty-second super summary, and share away whenever you get the opportunity!

When I hit a roadblock, I find it so helpful to pick up a book by an author I admire and try to work out how they tell their stories so effectively. You can do this for virtually any aspect of writing (for example, dialogue, description, characters or pacing), and if you’re prepared to spend some time analysing exactly how the greats have constructed their stories, it can give you just as much insight as a writing manual or an expensive course.

I would also add that this strategy works best when you take short passages from a book and tackle one thing at a time – e.g. look at how the author handles speech tags over a few pages, or how they introduce a character so that you emotionally connect with them, or how they hook you into the story from chapter one. This will help you avoid overwhelm and zero in on technique.

Good writing has a distinctive tempo, reminiscent of a musical score, and this matters at both a macro and micro level. At macro level your narrative needs to ebb and flow so that readers can relax into the depths of your story in the adagio (slower) sections, but then be swept along in the allegro (excitement) of high-point plot twists and turns. At micro level you can have a lot of fun varying the length and structure of sentences to reflect the mood of your scenes. Collectively this is often referred to as ‘pacing’, and readers love it when you get it right! For me, it’s one of the most rewarding challenges of writing stories.

At some stage in your writing journey you will experience this. All professional editors know that you must present feedback as a shit sandwich: which is, begin with the things you love, then get stuck into the problems, pitfalls, tough love etc. and finish by returning to the positives and adding lots of words of support. I was an editor for a long time, so I have written plenty of these letters over the years.

The thing is, because I am well versed in this technique, all too often on receiving this letter I tend to skim-read the nice stuff and go straight to the problems. My advice: don’t do this! We need both: the good stuff to drive us on and keep us going, and the critique to help us work hard and improve. Also, don’t confuse the contents of the sandwich: the nice stuff isn’t bullshit, it’s genuine, it’s the strengths and successes of your work in progress. Please take pride in that before you delve into the problematic, shittier parts of your writing, because the praise shows you exactly how the editor values what you’re doing – and in the tough and exacting business of publishing it’s essential that you hear the support, not just the critique.

I once heard a story about a well-known author who began to suffer from writer’s block and couldn’t write for years. I’ve also heard another famous author say she doesn’t believe that writer’s block exists. Having been a working writer for nearly 20 years, my take on it is this: what you perceive as writer’s block is a signpost that you’re heading in the wrong direction. You might be pushing an idea too hard. You might have gone off on a tangent and lost the core thread of your story. You might need to take a break for personal reasons, or to give yourself some headspace. So if you feel like you’ve hit a block, I suggest downing tools for a bit, because stories don’t suffer if they sometimes have to wait for a while. Allowing yourself some space while you suss out the message on that signpost is well worth your time, and you’ll be back working on your novel before you know it!

Your ideal reader is waiting with open arms to embrace your next story. They love your subjects, your narrative voice, and the kinds of stories you want to tell. They stand ready to champion you and your books. They might also have critique at times, and that’s not something to be wary of. There’s always room for improvement, after all, and they deliver their thoughts kindly and thoughtfully. These wonderful people are worth working really hard for, as they deserve the best you’ve got.

Your critics, on the other hand, might not read your genre much. Or they love another writer working in the same area, and therefore expected the same kind of story from you. Perhaps they stumbled upon your book. Or their friend/husband/wife told them to read it. Whatever, they’ve got a bunch of criticisms, and that’s because they’re not the right reader for you … which is why it can be hard if their voices begin to resonate far more than those of your supporters.

And that’s why you must always remember who you’re writing for! Turn away from those critical voices and take a good long look at that ideal reader. They have such a lot to offer you. And if you’ve not shared your work much yet, and don’t know where to find them, start with yourself. YOU are often your own ideal reader. What do you want from this story of yours? Enjoy finding out, and go from there.

If you’re feeling uninspired by your work in progress perhaps it’s time to put your analytical hat on. Where can you dig deeper or go further (or do you need to pull back?)

A couple of examples for you. When I was writing The Hush, it took a long time for all the pieces of the world building to fall into place. I spent a lot of time playing with different scenarios that were interesting but not super exciting – however, when I finally came up with the crux of the story I had a literal shiver down my spine and had to sit down – because I KNEW that it was the scenario the story needed, even though the thought of writing it scared the bejesus out of me.

In the novel I’m writing now, one of the male characters came alive really quickly in lots of ways, but it’s always felt like there was something missing: until last week, when, after lots of notes and thinking about his character, I finally realised what he did for a living. And once again I got a nice little adrenalin hit as the piece fell into place.

So don’t struggle if something doesn’t feel quite right – push and play with the story until you find the answers to your questions – in my experience you won’t have to wonder when you find it, your gut reaction will tell you when you’ve struck gold.

Your writing process is as unique as your book. It incorporates your daily habits, life experiences and current situation, as well as your constantly shifting state of mind, and the specific challenges of your work in progress. Some books pour onto the page in an unstoppable torrent of words. Others are a marathon of painstaking decisions and wrong turns. (I dread to think how many great books have been killed by festering self-doubt.)

Your process is likely to be a little different each time, even when you’ve found your rhythm: but it’s easier than you might think to lean in to it. Ask yourself one simple question: what do I need to prioritise next? If all is going well it will be the next steps on your book, whether that be research, planning or writing, but it could just as easily be another practical challenge or some self-care. Rest assured, your book will wait when you need it to. And if you set your intention, and work consistently towards your writing goals, not only will the book get finished, but the process will be much more enlightening and enjoyable.

This is a hole I’ve fallen down a fair few times! I absolutely love research, but it can be hard to feel like you know enough. Sometimes research can become an exercise in avoiding the blank page – after all, it’s much easier to read a book than to write one! So if you find yourself stuck in a research trap or you don’t feel knowledgeable enough, my advice is to feel the fear and write your story anyway. You can always add more details later in the edits.

It’s always exciting and scary to begin a new project, and I never feel like I know enough (because of course I don’t!) so I love reading craft manuals at this stage and thinking about the different ways I might tackle my new ideas. I’ve also been  interested in the ‘write for market’ concept lately, because self-published authors really advocate for this, but the traditional publishing world often points out that the trend may already have passed by the time you’ve finished, so it’s more important to write for yourself.

But one thing holds true across all these considerations: I know I need to find the heart of whichever story I choose to tell. An idea is all very well, but there’s something wonderful about that moment when I find the core of the story. Sometimes I lose it as I go along, and have to seek it out again, but I know that all the books I’ve read and loved have this in common: the author has nurtured the heart of the story, and it’s this that makes it truly come alive in my hands.

So what makes the heart of a story? The core issue? The key character dynamics? The narrative voice? I think perhaps it’s a little bit of everything that comes together and makes the magic happen. What do you think?

The world is saturated with stories. In the contemporary writing and publishing landscape, the way you choose to tell your story will be the difference between it standing out or fading into obscurity.

Finding an original voice is challenging. It might take time and trial and error, but the struggle is worth it: when you hit your stride and settle into your voice, you’ll find that it unlocks the story.

I’ve heard from many in the publishing industry that they were drawn to a novel because of the voice. I’ve heard of novels being picked up after initially being rejected because the editor couldn’t forget the voice. I’m not just talking about first or third person narrative, present or past tense, I’m talking about sitting in a voice so comfortably that every word and aspect of narrative structure supports the way you have chosen to tell the story. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s vital to storytelling success.

I recently heard a 19 year old called Hoang talking about his eco business making edible cutlery, and he mentioned that he’d got through initial funding rejections by reminding himself he was just talking to the wrong person. This advice works so well for those pesky book rejection letters too! However, I think we can also add ‘wrong time’ into the mix: it’s either the wrong time for the publisher – too many books on their list, not enough resources, etc. – or the wrong time for the author. For example, perhaps our work isn’t developed enough yet, or the idea isn’t quite right, or there’s something else going on in life that needs attention. But if we can approach those rejection slips thinking they just mean ‘wrong person, wrong time’ and then consider our next practical steps forward, it takes a lot of the sting out of them.

Write for yourself, because
1. writing a book is looooong process, and it’s a lot more fun if you enjoy it.
2. you’re going to have to edit and talk about your work a lot so you and your book need a healthy long-term relationship.
3. if your own work doesn’t give you the feels then you can’t expect anyone else to laugh, cry or care.

So write your heart out, and don’t pay too much attention to what’s hot (because the same genres won’t be trending by the time you publish, unless you’re one of those amazing, super-quick indie writers ).

But when you come to editing, switch seats and edit for your reader, because
1. you want them to have the best reading experience – so kill your darlings and be merciless about it.
2. in all the fun you’ve had writing you might have got carried away and written ten pages about your passion for line dancing, which may not best serve the pace and plot. Pull all that out and save it for specialist pieces!
3. all published writing becomes a dialogue between writer and reader, so you want to edit your book paying attention to what your readers will most appreciate.

Just remember not to edit for all readers – edit for YOUR readers. The ones who love your genre and get excited about your storylines. Don’t try to please everyone: focus on someone or a group you know will love your book at its best, and edit for them.

This is a simple but important tip for when you’ve already read your work-in-progress a thousand times, and you know it still needs a good edit but you’re struggling to stay focused! I always find that reading sections out loud helps me slow down and figure out what I need to do next, whether that’s cutting, adding more, or adjusting the tempo of the scene.
Bonus tip: pets make excellent audiences for early drafts.

I’ve been watching my two young daughters working on their storytelling lately (pause for a happy mum-writer moment as they’re both keen at the moment and full of ideas!) … and what I’ve noticed is how much enthusiasm they start off with, and how quickly it fades when they get bogged down in the stories. Usually this is because they are trying to tell their readers about every moment of a character’s adventure – and it comes as a surprise to them that I’m encouraging them to write less, and to instead to think about the key moments in the story. I’m seven novels into my writing career now and I can still get carried away by an extraneous scene, so it’s a good reminder to all of us that we don’t need to know everything about a character or situation – but we do need to decide on which moments matter, and make sure they shine in our stories.

Walking away for a while is an undervalued piece of writing advice IMHO. If it feels like things are getting too much between you and your work in progress then, like any intense relationship, you will always benefit from a bit of space from each other. Taking a breather doesn’t mean you’re getting nothing done – time away allows new ideas to form, and rest promotes creativity. Sometimes you might only need an hour or two; other times an extended hiatus is more in order. It doesn’t mean you’re giving up, but if you feel like giving up it might be even more important to take a break. So do yourself a favour and step away when you need to! Good things will happen because of it, I promise.
NB If you have a really pressing deadline that cannot be shifted then you may have to ignore everything I just said, and for you I recommend caffeine, carbs and/or alcohol :)

I’ve decided it’s about time I chat about a few of the things I’ve learned over the past 20 years as an editor and author, so here is my very first and most important tip:

1. Make all writing tips work for YOU and your circumstances.

A few years ago I read a post by a very famous author who described her typical writing day. From what I remember (and this may now be distorted by jealous bias), it involved her gazing serenely at the ocean, supping divine herbal teas while taking her time to bathe in the golden glow of creativity as she steadily worked towards her daily word count.

Around the same sort of time I went to a talk by another very famous author who described taking a spontaneous road trip for 5 days while in utter despair over the state of his manuscript.

On both occasions I discussed these visions with author friends who also had kids, and we had a good chuckle and tried to imagine a life where we could do such things!

Writing routines are important. Writing goals are important. But so are many other things – health, family, etc. etc. – and life is always changing and challenging in different ways for everyone. So work to your own goals, assess and reassess your own timeframes, and don’t be put off by the perceived luxuries of time and the beautiful writing rooms belonging to other writers. These might make life a little smoother, but you don’t need any of it in order to make regular progress on your own writing dreams.