Many of you write to me and ask if I can give you any tips on writing stories or getting a book published. So here you go. They might not all be as practical as you imagine, but this is what I really think.
- Believe in yourself. If you're not excited by your stories, why would anyone else be? This doesn't mean to imply that just because you think your story is brilliant, it is, everyone has to work at their craft, but confidence and a desire to succeed will keep you wanting to do it.
- Keep at it. Try to write a little every day. The more you do it, the better you'll get. Many well-known authors set themselves a modest word limit, e.g. 500 words per day. That may not sound like much but when you tot it up that's 30,000 words in two months - and that's a short novel.
- Read. I don't agree with people who say that reading won't help you to write. That's tosh. You don't have to read to be a good writer, but for young people particularly I can't think of any better aid to developing your writing skills than by studying how others have done it. When we read, we tend not to think about how the story was put together, we just take pleasure in the journey. But if you set aside half an hour to think about a book you've just enjoyed you might learn a lot. Think about how the book was structured and paced. Usually you will find that only one significant thing happened in any one chapter. Most young people end up stuck because they pile a dozen incidents into the space of two pages. Take your time.
- Length. A lot of people ask me how I can write books of 80,000 words or more. Just how does one keep it going? Well here's a very simple trick: when you're trying to write a long story, adopt point 3 for a start, but end your session halfway through a sentence. You'll find that when you come back to the story you can easily complete that sentence and you're straight back into the groove.
- Characters. Everybody says, start by describing a character. There's nothing wrong with doing this, but it's actually a bit boring. I think it can be better to start with a scene and let the characters drift into it, because interesting people (or animals, or aliens etc.) turn up that way. Perhaps the most essential thing you need to learn is that a character needs to go on a journey of some sort. By this, I mean that they need to have been changed in some way by the events of the story. Of course we need to know their names, what they look like, what problems, wishes, ambitions or secrets they have, but hopefully this will all come out as the story develops.
- Dialogue. Nothing describes a character better than the words they say. Someone once criticised me for writing too much dialogue and not enough prose. Fair enough. The reason I use a lot of speech is that it's so much easier to move a story forward when characters are discussing a problem or a need to act. You try it. Give your main girl or boy a friend - or an enemy for that matter - and get them talking. If you stay in one person's head too long it becomes tedious for the reader. Remember this, particularly if you're writing in the first person tense.
- Writers block. If you think you're suffering from this old chestnut you usually have a structural problem with the plot. You'll be amazed how reluctant a character can be to go forwards from that place where you consider yourself stuck (usually the last chapter you've written). My suggestion is as follows. Trawl backwards through the story from the place of 'stuckness' to a point where you're certain the plot is working, then think about going forwards from there - but in a different way. Don't be afraid to try anything, especially any peculiar idea your conscious and subconscious is at odds about (your conscious mind will be saying 'that can't possibly work'; your subconscious will be arguing that you've tried everything else and failed, so why not try this?). Writers will often say, 'stories have a life of their own'. This is never more apparent than when working your way out of a block. Also try reading the story aloud to yourself. You will spot all sorts of mistakes. You may find that the story doesn't quite make sense and that you have to rewrite it a little. Another trick is to put it away for a month. Sometimes writers say they are 'too close' to a story. What they mean is they have been thinking about the story so long that their minds are boggled and they can't think straight. If you put the story in a drawer for a while and come back to it with a fresh mind, things will start to suggest themselves. Have your pen ready when you do this. The ideas come fast! If all else fails, try talking the story through with a friend. Even if your friend isn't listening this STILL WORKS. All you really need is a 'wall' to bounce your thoughts off. And finally...
- Don't give up. If you want to be a writer, you've got to write. You've also got to be prepared for some rejection. Not everyone is going to like your work. Many famous authors have had stories turned down by a publisher. 'I can paper my wall with rejection slips,' they say. If you really want to be in this business, grow a skin as thick as a rhinoceros. You're going to need it.