Writing tips from our bestselling authors

Trying to crack that opening line? Got a first novel lingering in a drawer? This year, on penguin.co.uk and the Penguin Podcast, we've chatted to lots of authors about their craft. Here's some highlights to give you a helping hand.

Tips from the pros: writing advice from bestsellers
Tips from the pros: writing advice from bestsellers. Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

Ah, writing. For things we use every day, words can be quite the pesky little things. Whether you’ve got ambitions of landing on the bestseller’s chart or simply want to improve on what you’re already working on, a little insight and advice from those authors who have learned the hard way never hurts.

Lucky, on penguin.co.uk we spend a lot of time talking to writers about just that. So here we’ve rounded up some of our favourite insights into the craft from our interviews, events and podcast in 2020 so far.

Bernardine Evaristo
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

Write any story you want, and deal with the consequences later

I’m very ambitious and I want the best for my books. But that doesn’t shape my writing at all. I want to stay true to the story I want to tell. So I have to push sort of all of ambition out of my head, and just get on with writing the story that I want to write. I have to be inside the work and also looking at it from the outside as much as you can when you’re creating it yourself. So I’m a very ruthless critic of my own work as I’m developing it. I re write pretty much every paragraph as I’m writing the book. You know, my background was as a poet. And I still pay a poet’s attention to language, as a novelist. 

Many of my characters are completely beyond my experience, but that’s what we do as writers, we write beyond our experience…I feel entitled to write any story I want, in whatever way I want, and if there are consequences to that, I will deal with them. I am not going to be scared off. But obviously if you’re writing a Muslim Saudi Arabian woman, there are things you need to research, and if you get things wrong maybe to do with the religion, then I think that’s valid. But I think with the interior life of the character, you can play with it and have fun with it, and do what you like, and I think we need to do that. 

Embrace ambiguity

I’ve discovered over the years that it’s got harder to tease people as a writer. They don’t quite hear the tense the way they once did. They’re a bit more deaf to irony. And people are finding it harder and harder to understand the idea of the dramatic voice. We’re not all out there in the business of saying what we mean. And a novelist will not say, what he means, that’s assuming he knows what he means. This world of the imagination is light years away from the world of Thumbs up or Thumbs down. There ain’t no emoji for what a novel does.

Rip it up and start again

I’m a bit stubborn and I don’t like to admit when I’m wrong. The negative side of that is that even when I’m working on a draft, I’ll be reluctant to give the draft up. I would try and salvage what I had written. And it was only many years into writing that I realised that I needed to throw everything away and start from the beginning, and that’s just the way I have to write. There’s nothing that can be salvaged. When I throw away a draft the whole thing has to go. And that took me a long time to come to terms with. But once I started doing that, it still took me a long time and I still had many terrible drafts that I threw away, but I could see that I was getting closer to what I wanted.

Keep it simple

I think one should differentiate between the complexity of the writing and work it took to put it all together. I’ve never been able to read a book like War and Peace, simply because I get fed up with the number of characters and can never remember who they all are. So when I’m writing a book like [Moonflower Murders], I’m on the side of simplicity. I’m on the side of easy exposition. Simplicity is the key and yet at the same time I do love the hours and hours that I spend on my own, concocting it and putting it all together. I think the analogy is of a watch: I like the mechanism of the book to be as complicated as a watch, but with a watch at the end of the day everybody can tell the time. 

Give yourself space

Kill Your Friends, I tried to write just after I left the music industry and I didn’t get very far with it. Because I think the experience was too recent. Experience, it kinda needs to distil down through you for a few years, I think, until you’re able to deal with it in fiction with the perspective you need. 

You definitely need space between the first and second draft. I’d recommend a couple of months. Between finishing the first draft and starting [the second]. Because if you start the second draft when you’ve immediately finished the first one, it’s all still buzzing around in your head… I have to put it away for a while so it feels like someone else work, you come back to it with fresh eyes. I find after a two-month period you don’t really recognise the manuscript. You’ve got the distance to sort of judge it properly.

Sophie Mackintosh
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

You can’t rush a book

I do a lot of whittling, a lot of drafting, every sentence I’ve gone over a lot of times. I know there are some writers who can just write perfectly off the bat, but that’s so not me. I’m very messy and I’m very careful with everything, I’ve gone over and over and over it. I had a really specific idea of what I want it to be, and what I want an image to be, and so I’m quite careful about it. My first drafts are so baggy and so messy.

Sometimes you can’t rush a book. If it takes two years, it takes two years, and suddenly because I have more time doesn’t mean I can spend that extra time making words. When you know how much time goes into thinking about a book, and processing. Often an important part of writing the book.\\

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