Thursday 27 February 2020

#writingishard5 - you never stop learning

Imogen Cooper & my best friend
It doesn’t matter where you are in this writing malarkey you never stop learning. I have an MA in Writing for Children, a creative writing PhD which looked at the representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in young adult fiction and included writing a piece of young adult fiction; I was lucky enough to be mentored by Imogen Cooper while I worked for the Golden Egg Academy. Yet I still learn something new about writing on a regular basis and can look at a blank screen starting a new novel, thinking: ‘How do I do this again?’ I have also heard of many a famous and successful author say they feel a similar thing when faced with that blank paper or screen.

You never stop learning. It is important that you keep reading about writing. Not only do you need to keep reading fiction, watching films, going to art galleries and the theatre but continue to research into the subject. Understand what it means to write. 

People often ask me whether it is worth taking a degree in creative writing or undertaking a course. My answer is simple, it depends on what you want. You will hear plenty of people saying that they
got published without them. But taking them shows you are serious about your writing. A degree allows you to experiment with a variety of different voices and enables you to find your voice. To work out who you are as a writer. That is certainly what happened to me. I was doing a degree in English, but it had strands of Creative Writing, which is why I did it. I had a very set idea of what sort of writer I thought I was and that was certainly not a children's writer. I'd never even considered it. One of the modules gave me the opportunity to have a go at writing for children with Judy Waite. It felt like coming home. My voice felt natural and my writing flowed. If I hadn’t taken that degree, I’d never have experimented like that. You hone your craft in an academic situation.

Working with organisations like the Golden Egg Academy means you can hone your manuscript and your craft while working with professionals, who have their finger on the publishing pulse. By the end of it, you really understand the editing process and how to apply that to any future projects. It also means you are not daunted by any potential editing undertaken by an agent or publisher.

By taking either an MA or working with an organisation such as GEA you learn not to too precious about your work. I’ve heard stories of writers who’ve refused to make any changes to their work because it is their ‘baby’ and it is perfect. I can’t imagine feeling like that about my work. I know a lot of writers, including myself, who won’t look at their work once it is published as they will see areas they want to improve as they don’t consider it good enough. All that happens to those who won’t make any changes is that they don’t get a publishing contract as they are deemed impossible to work with.

Personally, I love listening to writers talking about their writing processes. I always learn something or find an affirmation because they write the same way as me – such a good feeling. As a lecturer and workshop leader, I always find these inspirational as it is so good to hear the students and writers talking about their work. Again, I quite often learn something from these sessions.  The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is a great organisation where you can meet like-minded people. They run socials, masterclasses and wonderful conferences. 

Writers are invariably generous of heart and very willing to share. They are happy to talk to a certain extent BUT don’t take advantage. Don’t keep asking them to read your work. They are busy people. They have their own writing to do. Don’t assume you are the only person that asks them to look at their work. Don’t keep asking for tips. Also, if you don’t have anything nice to say about their book, don’t say anything. Writers have feelings you know.

I’ve listed some resources that I’ve found useful but there are many, many more. Feel free to add to them in the comments. This is not an exhaustive list and this is a personal list.



Janelle Adsit ed. Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft

Amanda Boulter, Writing Fiction

Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer

Kevin Brophy, Explorations in Creative Writing

Andrew Cowan, The Art of Writing Fiction

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

James Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway on Writing 

Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction’, Longman’s Magazine

Colum McCann, Letters to A Young Writer

Robert McKee Dialogue

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Andrew Melrose, Writing for Children

Orson Scott Card, Characters and Viewpoint

Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

William Storr The Science of Storytelling


Anne Bernays & Pamela Painter, What If Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Neil Gaiman, The View from the Cheap Seats

Martin Griffith & Jon Mayhew, Storycraft: How to teach Creative Writing

Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation

Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife

Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling

Katherine Rundell, Why you should read Children’s Books

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Judy Waite, Wordtamer: Activities to Inspire Creative Thinking and Writing

Jen Webb, Researching Creative Writing

J. Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

John Yorke, Into the Woods


Media & Organisations

Society of Children’s Book Writers and illustrators (including Words & Pictures)

Golden Egg Academy (Sign up to receive their free newsletter) also follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to see their writing tips and prompts.

Thursday 13 February 2020

#writingishard4 - Tenacity

Matt Haig
Notes on a Nervous Planet

If you are a writer, tenacity is certainly a prerequisite. Writing is hard. Also, it is very enjoyable and the best job ever a lot of the time, otherwise why would we do it? Whatever stage in your writing career you will need tenacity. Everyone’s journey, as an aspiring writer and/or as a published writer, is going to be different and personal to you. Consequently, it is important, as Matt Haig says, that you ‘Do not compare yourselves to others.’

It is worth also remembering that writing is a marathon, it is not a sprint. You might hear odd stories about people writing fast and being published very quickly. For a start, I’d say I bet they have done a whole lot of prewriting and that is why they could write fast, but they are just not counting it because it sounds so much better if you can say you wrote a book in a couple of months. Being published quickly is often the case of being in the right place at the right time (or being a celebrity!) The reality for most of us is very different. Writing takes time. A tweet I circulated recently said that according to Paul Graham, ‘The easy, conversational tone of good writing comes only on the eighth rewrite.’ To be honest I thought eight was a bit optimistic. More like twelve plus at least! Be prepared as well that it might take more than one novel. You may write several before you find the right one that really works. Flight was my fourth novel. The other three are unlikely to ever see the light of day, but I see them as my practice

novels. I learnt so much writing each one of them. When Flight was picked up, I had been writing seriously for over twelve years. (the photo shows a meeting where it was decided I should start submitting Flight. I was lucky I not only worked with Golden Egg Academy, but I was also mentored by Imogen Cooper)

Rewriting and editing can take a very long time and luxuriate in that first book when you do have time to dedicate to it. It’ll be a different situation after you have been picked up by a publisher. The deadlines will be a whole lot tighter and the chances are you won’t have so much time to write any subsequent books once you are published.

Once you have got a deal and a book out there, tenacity is still necessary. It might be linked to other elements of your life as a writer. Obviously, you will be writing your next book, but you are also going to be publicising/marketing your current book. Having a presence on social media, cultivating new audiences, potentially presenting at schools, literary festivals or undertaking library visits. It is all about juggling and ensuring you don’t become overwhelmed. See a recent post I did for the AwfullyBigBlogAdventure blog on remembering to enjoy your work.

Be kind to yourself. Writing’s hard, as I said, and the ‘journey’ can be a long and bumpy one, particularly if you are getting lots of rejections from agents and publishers. We’ve all been there, and it is really bruising. Allow yourself to grieve briefly each rejection. Then remind yourself it’s one person’s opinion and it only takes one person to say ‘Yes!’ Don’t be hard on yourself, see the rejection as part of the journey and something constructive. If you find in the rejection feedback that they all mention the same element as an issue/concern, then you know you need to address it. If, however, the feedback is all different, read it. Take it on board. Work on what you think is fair and relevant then move on to the next submission. One day you might be the one talking to aspiring writers about the number of rejections you got, as a badge of honour, and how you eventually got published. This photo is over a rejection letter I got a long time ago for a novel that when I look back
it is was nowhere near ready for submission. It is from my greatest friend, even though at the time we hadn’t met. That came later and that same person, Imogen Cooper, changed my life and the direction of my writing. 

Importantly, don’t give up. You can do this. The writing community is amazing and supportive. Find your tribe and talk to them. Understand that getting a book published is hard, but if you believe in your story, build that tenacity up

 Ness x