Advice for Writers from Writers – Part Two

Gollancz Fest Banner 1Welcome to the second of our #gollanczfest collection of advice and hints from authors. This time around we have pieces from Jaine Fenn, Simon Morden, Tom Lloyd and Steph Swainston, all of whom are lovely people and you should buy their books. And if you missed part one, click here.


jaine fennJaine Fenn:

Learn the rules. Then you can break them.

There are no rules. But there’s plenty of advice. Decide carefully which bits to ignore.

Don’t get stuck in the revision loop: finish the damn thing and then revise it.

Plotter vs Pantser: plotters end up to spoilering themselves; pantsers end up rewriting. You chose.*
*Re-reading that now it sounds kinda rude…


Simon Morden:simonmordencol-225x300

Morden’s Three Laws of Writing

Firstly, write what you love. It’s usually write what you know, but unless you’ve led a very exciting life which involves aliens, Giant! Fighting! Robots! and engineered nanobot plagues, writing what you know will only get you so far. So write what you love – that way at least one person’s going to enjoy it.

Secondly, nothing is ever wasted. All those words you’ve got tucked away in a drawer that you’ll never let anyone see because you think they’re really not very good? That’s fine – that’s your apprenticeship right there. Every word you’ve written is a word closer to being a decent writer. And when the time comes, you –and only you – get to recycle all that work into stuff that’s fit for publication.

Thirdly, marry someone rich. In older times, we’d have patrons with fancy sounding names like the Grand Duke of Lower Saxony or the Earl of Northumberland. These days, there just aren’t enough Arts Council grants to go around, and it’s rarely SF writers who get them anyway. As well as being somewhat tongue-in-cheek advice, it’s also a warning: it’s really, really hard to make a full-time living writing books. An alternative income is a must, I’m afraid.


Tom LloydTom Lloyd:

#ProTipsForWriters 1: Give reviewers feedback, they’re honing their skills like the rest of us & welcome detailed criticism in the long run

#ProTipsForWriters 2: Readers find quick comparisons useful. Keep a list handy of all the authors you’re better than. “Like X but witty” etc

#ProTipsForWriters 3: Before earning out your advance you must first swear fealty to the Queen. No one ever earned “republicies”

#ProTipsForWriters 4: When signing books, make sure to include your phone number in case the reader has any questions

#ProTipsForWriters 5: Elevator pitches are vital. If there are no elevators in your medieval fantasy, add some for fuck’s sake. Amateur.

#ProTipsForWriters 6: Keep to your designated genre, fraternising isn’t allowed. And for God’s sake never accept a lift from a crime writer.

#ProTipsForWriters 7: Your successes are your own, your failings are entirely the fault of your bloody editor for allowing such a thing.

#ProTipsForWriters 8: Reboots are all the rage so add more sex & violence into your early novels then watch the cash roll in.

#ProTipsForWriters 9: Summoning spells add that little extra value to a signed first edition. Kids in particular get a real buzz out of them.

#ProTipsForWriters 10: settle all scores with cruel fictional portrayals, it shows your superior intellect & the law can’t touch you.

#ProTipsForWriters 11: describing your editor as a wise mentor & wizard is fine. Grabbing his beard & yelling “Wotcha Gandalf!” is less popular.


Steph Swainston:Steph_Swainston

1. Improving pace
In your later drafts, read through and concentrate on where you want the attention of the reader to be. Add words to slow their reading pace, remove words to speed it up. The words you add may not necessarily be at the point where you want them to concentrate, the part you want to ‘flag up’ and for the reader to ‘take in’. They may well be in the next sentence or two – more rarely, in the previous paragraph.

Be aware of the pace of your reading, and try to match the scansion of words to how you are reading naturally. You know when something should read faster. Don’t slow down, but strip words out!

However, in your first draft don’t think of ‘the reader’ at all, but get your impressions down. Sometimes you’ll want to keep the first draft of a passage – at its most natural.

2. ‘Cramming’
Know when you can add relevant background detail, and when you can’t. When reading over, you will ‘see’ slack areas in pace. These are where background detail can be filled in, without it seeming unnatural. If you have a lot of background, you can break it up into short chunks to insert in ‘slack’ places – where it won’t break the flow.

Be as elegant as possible in the way you impart background information. The reader will take it in, without feeling lectured… then: on with the story!

3. Patchworking
So your book can be like the patches of a quilt: you have certain good passages you want to stitch together. Sometimes you want the seams to show, sometimes smooth them. I think of a novel as like one of those old panel slide puzzles. You slide around passages of text until they ‘fit’.

Don’t be afraid of lifting and moving passages or sentences. They are very mutable. Writing is most like sculpting clay. Read Catch-22 for this technique at its best.

4. Topping and Tailing
If you have a passage you want to fit in, but can’t see how, cut off the first few lines, or the first paragraph, and the last paragraph. Then read through from a few chapters ahead, and you will naturally ‘read into’ the new material, and will know what lines should be added to lead into it. And out of it, into the next sequence.

Topping and tailing (like cutting vegetables!) is a good technique for cleaning up material. You may find your first paragraph is preamble or ‘warming up’. Your last paragraph could be fatigued droning on. Cut them out. They don’t have to be wasted. Maybe you could use them elsewhere.

5. Method writing
Put yourself in the place and attitude of your characters. Use your past experiences. Use everybody else’s! Use a mirror to observe your expressions. If your character is in a forest, go and sit in a forest. Use all your senses. Note your unique observations.

Use your past emotions. We can draw on a wealth of emotional memory: angst, triumph, scorn, love, bereavement… What details were around you when you felt them? What details specific to you? Was your whole body affected by an emotion? Notice that emotions never occur singly, but as a blend. Mourning with a touch of relief?

This way you can add variations and unique details that no other novel has. They will make your writing live. You will create more moving images in the mind’s eye of the reader. In writing, you’ll be able to pass over details subtly, and include or allude to much more than you actually say.

Better still, the reader will recognise such details and emotions from his own experience, and you will have spoken to him touchingly.

Read Thursbitch by Alan Garner, for this technique at its best.

6. The ‘Three line drop’

You can do anything in a ‘three line drop’: that has the rhythm ‘da da da / da da / da’. But try not to, because it’s too easy! Try five line changes. Study ways to move between sections while keeping the flow.

7. New eyes

Leave three days between drafts. That’s enough for your memory to clear, so you come to the manuscript clean. Read it until you start to ‘drift off’ – i.e. until you lose attention. That’s the point you have to change. You could cut material, quicken the pace, add a trick, split it into a new chapter. Then, next time you read it, you’ll pass straight over the join and keep going. Success! You’ve kept the reader’s attention.

8. From a manuscript to a book

On screen, it’s easier to read a non-serif font. In print, a serif font is easier on the eyes. I switch between the two.

For your last draft before submitting, shrink the manuscript to the size and shape it would be on the page of a paperback. That way you see it as the reader will see it – and you’ll be surprised at the number of things you spot and want to change.

9. Punk!

Your punctuation does as great a job as your text. Use punctuation to convey meaning.

‘What!’ you say. ‘They are merely dots.’

‘…Ye-es…’ she said, slyly. ‘But a dot in the right place can be extreeemely pleasurable.’


Check back on the blog later today for more writing advice.

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