Creative writing is a skill. It’s a craft that takes time and effort to learn a set of skills and to hone those skills. Some folks choose to learn by studying creative writing: maybe a Master’s degree or by doing a general writing course. In my case, I have learned ‘on the job’ so to speak; I don’t have any formal writing qualifications, but I have worked hard to teach myself everything from the basics to beyond, over the past fifteen years of writing short stories and poetry for publication in literary magazines and through the novels I’ve had released.
Learning point of view:
I learned from studying books as I read them. I decided that I didn’t like omniscient pov as much as first or third person, as I prefer to follow a character closely and really get inside their thoughts, rather than the cinematic view of following everyone and switching between characters, yet not delving deeper into what makes them tick. For my debut, Gods of Avalon Road, I chose third person for my two main characters, Kerry and Gavin to show how each reacted to the supernatural events happening. For The Buddha’s Bone, I chose first person to give it more of a personal, travel-diary feel especially as the story deals with sensitive issues.
Again, I learned this from studying the books I bought or borrowed from libraries and by reading widely in the genre in which I was currently writing. I decided that I like my main characters to be flawed, but ultimately likeable as I very rarely finish books if I don’t like or can’t relate to the main character. I also found that depending on the genre, character growth follows certain rules: for me personally, my characters go through a crisis of identity and by the end of the story, create a new sense of self. It’s the central theme in all of my books, regardless of the genre.
How to work out your plot:
From reading widely I noticed that regardless of whether a story is a standalone book or part of a series, all plot points that occur throughout should be resolved by the end of the novel. Personally, I use a checklist when drafting my own manuscripts to make sure my characters deal with any crises or react to the major storyline as I can’t stand it as a reader when anything is left unresolved. Happens rarely, but there have been one or two books that I’ve thrown across the room in frustration for leading me down the garden path in terms of build-up and expectations – and I don’t want my own readers to ever feel that frustration with anything I write.
What genre to write:
I tend to write what I read: mostly psychological literary fiction and character driven stories. My advice is to read widely and figure out what you like or don’t like in a story. No point writing fantasy if you’ve never picked up Lord of the Rings, for example. It took me several years of trying different genres to figure out what worked for me and what I liked to read. I was reading the Harry Potter series, the Hobbit and Inkspell, etc. when I was writing my YA fantasy novel, but ultimately decided that my writing is too dark for kids and so I archived that manuscript and started writing adult fiction novels.
Writing devices – how, when and what to include:
I’m not a fan of red herrings in stories as I find them frustrating, so I don’t tend to use them myself in my writing. I like cliffhangers at the end of chapters, and I’m happy to use this as a device myself, but never at the end of a book. I really can’t stand a cliffhanger at the end of a novel; instead of making me want to read the next book, it will put me off a series. Thankfully I haven’t come across this much at the end of a novel. As for literary devices, every writer knows not to use many adverbs and to show not tell. But how about writing no-nos? I dislike reading about ‘flashing eyes’, as nobody’s eyes blink on and off like a siren on an emergency vehicle. I’m also not a fan of exclamation marks in stories; too many and the writing strikes me as amateurish. I could say the same for characters stuttering too much when nervous, or using other characters’ names repeatedly in dialogue – in real life, how many times do we address the person we are having a conversation with by name? To me, if I read this in a book it makes the novel appear clunky and not properly edited. All of these no-nos are things that I make sure not to do in my own writing.
Developing a thick skin – getting feedback from beta readers and editors:
If a writer wants to improve their craft, they need to get outside feedback; there’s no other way around it. In the early stages of my writing, I asked friends and family for feedback, with mixed results. Not everyone has a good eye for literary criticism, after all. Nowadays, I have an editor and suitably qualified beta-readers: two of the three beta readers I use have PhDs in English Literature.
How to know when a writing project is finished:
A tough call! Is a book ever finished? You could argue not. I don’t read through my published backlist much as I find myself nitpicking and thinking, ‘ah, I should have done this’ or ‘I could have added in that’. Admittedly, I have rustled up ideas for sequels to both of my published novels by re-reading them, although these are just in the outline stage at present; other more pressing ideas have kept me busy for forthcoming novels.
Finding and approaching publishers:
Twenty years ago when I was first submitting my finished YA Sci-fi novel to publishers, I used the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for a starting point. I’d say this resource is still a good starting point for authors beginning their publishing journey, but over the past five years I have turned to Google searches for lists of publishers open to unsolicited submissions by non-agented writers as a starting point. In the past year I have stopped searching altogether as I am happy writing and publishing as an Indie author now, at this stage of my career.
If you are approaching a publisher, you’ll need to have a polished cover letter, a catchy one page synopsis of your book including all spoilers and three chapters prepared in whatever size and font your chosen publisher wants, along with word count and personal details on the first page and usually your surname, key word from your book title and page number in the top right of the header.
Going it alone – learning how to self-publish:
Last year in summer 2021 I hadn’t a clue where to begin on my Indie author journey. I felt very overwhelmed by the options and didn’t know what would be best for me. I am lucky that my day job in a grammar school gives me eight weeks of annual leave over July and August as the pupils are off for the summer; I used this time to educate myself through watching YouTube tutorials by successful self-published authors and reading articles to find out which platform I wanted to use to publish my book. As a starting point I decided on a few things: I wanted to publish Ebook, Paperback and Hardcover versions of my book; I wanted to ‘go wide’ with all of my books (not exclusive to only one marketing platform); I wanted to own the ISBN for my books rather than use a free one provided by, say, Amazon or Lulu so that I could control the metadata of my book and have my own publishing imprint; I wanted to design my own cover rather than use a graphic designer and I wanted to set my book to pre-order so that I could start building up ARC reviews and generate publicity. I used Amazon’s KDP to typeset and distribute my paperback, KDP and Draft2Digital to format and distribute my Ebook and Ingramspark to typeset and distribute my Hardcover. Through these distributors, my book is available to buy via Amazon, Waterstones and all other major online retailers.
Marketing a book – skills as an Indie author:
This is another skill that I had to learn once I had figured out how to format, design and publish my book myself. I decided to run sponsored ads on Amazon, buy one-off print ads in the Ingramspark advance catalogue and Myslexia magazine and run occasional promotions on Bargain Booksy as these were all within my budget. All have been a worthwhile investment in terms of helping my book to reach a wider audience. I’ve also advertised my book on social media – Twitter and Instagram have been good to find interested ARC readers and keyword searches on the WordPress reader has helped me to find book bloggers.
Read widely, not only in your genre but in others as there’s something to be learned from everything. Carry a pocket notebook with you in case inspiration strikes while you’re on the go. Try to write regularly; even a few sentences everyday is better than nothing as it keeps the story fresh in your mind. These are all things that work for me. Hope they help you too.