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How to write a book

How to write a book

If you've ever fantasised about writing a book, you certainly won't be alone. But, obviously, dreaming about it and actually getting down to do it are two very different things. So how do you take that leap and start putting words down on the page? Where do you find your inspiration? And how do you get published? 

Here, from some of our favourite authors, are top tips for aspiring writers over 40.

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Make time to write

It sounds simple, but so often life gets in the way and it's all too easy to think you'll get round to it tomorrow. Or the next day...

Sarra Manning: 'Be absolutely ruthless about carving out your own time to write each week, whether it's fifteen minutes a day, your commute home (I know so many writers who've written novels on trains and buses) or two hours on a Sunday after lunch.

'When, where and how often isn't important, what's important is that your family and YOU understand and respect that this is your writing time. When I was working full-time, I had an hour to write when I got home and because I knew that I only had this hour, it made me so focused and productive.  

Liz Fenwick: 'You can write a rough draft of a novel in twenty minutes a day. Set a timer, shut the door, unplug the WiFi. We can all find twenty minutes and you might be surprised how many words can be written in such a short space of time. But note, that will give you the rough draft...the final draft comes from finding the story as you edit...think of the rough draft as the block of stone you carve the final story from.'

Sarra Manning: 'Yes, be ruthless about weeding out distractions as Liz has said. I lock myself out of my own WiFi so I don't fritter away my writing time on Facebook. I use a free app called SelfControl on my laptop and my phone. It can't be hacked and Lord knows, I've tried!'

Sarah Vaughan: 'Find the shard of glass in your heart (think that's Graham Greene) that means you prioritise your writing and say no to some of the myriad of things that will prevent you from getting this done. It's ok to be selfish about it, in other words.'

Every little helps

Fanny Blake: 'Make yourself sit down and advance your story even if only by a couple of hundred words at a time. That way you will stay connected to your characters and won’t forget what you’re writing about. The novel will gradually gain momentum until you’re writing more and more each time.' 

What should I write?

Lissa Evans: 'Write the sort of book that you enjoy reading; if you're not entertained by what you're writing, it's no good hoping vaguely that someone else will be.'

Sarah Vaughan: 'Work on an idea you feel passionate about. I wrote Anatomy of A Scandal far faster than anything else I'd written because I cared so deeply about entitlement, the abuse of power, and, as it turned out, my various #metoo moments.

'Also, your characters don't have to be likeable but you have to be prepared to spend time with them for a year, or maybe more.'

And although 'write what you know' is not always an essential or appropriate adage (especially for crime writers), it can sometimes be helpful nonetheless.

Liz Fenwick: 'You’ve banked life experience...mine it for story.'

How important are the characters?

Sarah Morgan: 'Fiction is often memorable because of the characters eg Elizabeth Bennett, Bridget Jones, Jack Reacher. Think of your favourites and analyse what it is that makes you care about that character (or hate them!). You want your reader to be invested in the story, and whatever you're writing, from contemporary women’s fiction to crime, a story is enriched by having believable, relatable characters.

'Give them depth, and individuality. Give them clear motivation so that the reader understands why they make the choices they make, even if they disagree. Don't let them play a passive role in your story. A great character should make active choices and decisions (even bad ones that may make the reader gasp in horror) based on their personality, beliefs, values and the situation they find themselves in. Don't ask yourself 'what would I do if...', ask yourself 'what would this person do'. Your character's decisions should move the story forward and keep the reader turning the pages.'

How long should my book be?

Fanny Blake: 'Your novel will almost certainly dictate its own length but most published novels average between about 80 – 110,000 words.'


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Do I need to do a course? 

Emma Curtis: 'Writing courses are undeniably helpful and fun, but not the be all and end all. They can be expensive and are no guarantee that you'll progress to publication. My advice to anyone starting out is to find a way of accumulating writing credentials. Coming from nowhere, the way I did it was through entering short story competitions.'

Should I join a writers' group?

Emma Curtis: 'Writing groups are a personal thing. They help some people thrive and make others wither. They weren't for me because I prefer writing in a bubble. I went to one once and hated every minute! It felt unnatural.' 

When approaching agents/publishers...

...be as business-like as you can. 

Liz Fenwick: 'Although your heart may be on the page, remember that writing is a job in an industry and it is vital to be professional at all times. Although, as an industry publishing is like a small village in the way information moves. It's wise to remember this at all times.

'Learn that there is such a thing as a positive rejection. There is no requirement for the person to say more than no. If a person has taken time to add a positive comment treat it as gold dust. It means you are making progress.' 

And hang on in there...

Janet Ellis: 'If there's one sure-fire way to feel young again, it's submitting work to an agent or publisher. The only trouble is, it's feeling all the aspects of youth you've been happy to leave behind, e.g. crippling nerves, self-doubt, fear of peer group judgement (ANY judgement) and a dread that you're about to be publicly humiliated. Relax. Remind yourself you have the maturity to deal with this. You're bound to have been through worse , you know that one person's judgement isn't EVERYONE'S opinion and you're going to use any rejection as a spur, not a lifestyle definition, because you've probably been there before. And you survived.

'Comfort yourself with the fine fact that you're taking on a challenge at a time when it would be all too easy to take the safer path. You know yourself better than you ever did and you're ready to show the world this new, writer side. That's not anxiety you're feeling, it's the privilege of pursuing exciting possibilities!'

Don't give up!

Lissa Evans: 'I had a mantra, that I'd mutter to myself whenever I was flagging: 'If I don't write it, nobody's going to write it for me'.'

And however much you might wish otherwise, this is the absolute truth. Keep at it!


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