Tips from a writing festival

Black Valley Farm crime fiction Writing tips

On Saturday 24 June, I attended an event at beautiful Manor House Gardens in south London. I was part of a panel of crime writers made up of myself, Nadine Matheson, Claire Seeber and Katherine Black. Taking part in a panel event is always great fun and yesterday’s discussion was no exception.

Plus, being back in Manor House Gardens was wonderful. Before moving to Eastbourne, I lived very close to the park and spent a LOT of time there with my two young kids.

Manor House Gardens holds a special place in my heart for another reason too. It was in this park that I first decided to start writing. I was walking through the park one hot, summer’s afternoon with my baby daughter and four year-old son. As I was contemplating life in general, I had a sudden, light bulb moment. I realised that if I didn’t find time to do this ‘thing’ I’d always wanted to do – write fiction – I’d one day be lying on my death bed thinking ‘why didn’t I give it a go?’

That evening, after my kids were in bed, I started writing. And I kept going. It took a long time to learn how to do it properly, but I persevered. My daughter is now seventeen and I’ve published nine novels so far. It’s been tough – very, very tough indeed – but I know now that I’ll never stop writing. Being a writer is who I am, and I’m so incredibly lucky I discovered this about myself before it was too late.

Anyway, back to yesterday’s event. At the end of our hour-long chat, a member of the audience asked what advice we authors would give to an aspiring writer. I thought it might be helpful to share those tips with you, so here they are.

Keep going with your first draft

If you’re trying to write a novel, it can be tempting to keep going back and revising sections. Nadine’s advice (which we all concurred with) was not to do that. Instead, she said you must keep going. You should write until your first draft is finished and not worry if the writing is rubbish. Why? Because once you’ve got a completed first draft, you’ve got something to work on.

Nadine also said that you should never send the first draft to an agent – this is a working draft of what will, one day, be your completed novel. As many writers have said before, writing a novel is mostly about re-writing…

Set yourself a weekly word count, and stick to it

We all agreed that setting a weekly word target is important, especially when you’re starting out. It gives you something to aim for, and it also is a great way of seeing how much progress you’re making. Writing can be a tough, lonely business but seeing your word count rising week after week can really help you to keep going!

Be prepared for rejection

This was a piece of advice we all put forward. Writing a novel, and getting published, is very hard indeed. You need determination and a thick skin. You need to be ready for many agents to reject your novel for all sorts of reasons. And you cannot let yourself be put off by this. You have to keep believing in yourself, even when it seems that no one else does!

Kill your darlings

A great piece of advice from Claire Seeber, who pointed out that once you’ve got your novel into pretty good shape, you then need to start cutting. All of us have written pieces of prose we think are lovely, but if the prose adds nothing to your plot it needs to go. This is very difficult, but also hugely important. Look at every sentence you write, and ask yourself ‘how does this add to the story?’ If you can’t answer the question, then get rid of the sentence.

Don’t give up

As I’ve said several times already, writing is difficult. Finding the time to sit down, day after day, to write is a challenge. Keeping faith as you churn out bad writing on your bad days can be extremely disheartening. Losing the sense of where your plot is going, or realising you’ll have to cut half of what you’re written because it’s taken your novel in the wrong direction, can make you want to stop altogether.

Then there’s the whole, painful process of trying to find an agent and a publisher, then trying to get your book noticed in a world where there are SO many books… it can all feel too much.

But if you feel that you need to write, that this is the reason you were put on this earth, then you must keep going my friends. The alternative is to give up and one day be lying on your death bed filled with regrets.

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