Lessons from authors that can help you develop your unique writing style

There’s something magical about reading. A writer puts words on a page, we read them and we see an image of a real event unfolding before us like a film in which we get to choose our own cast.

‘Reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing… you saw the word castle and it was there, seen from some distance with woods in high summer.’

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Good writers help us to get lost in this story.

Excellent writers don’t just take us on a journey, they also make us marvel at their skill and surprise us with their ingenuity.

It’s the difference between eating a perfectly good shop bought cake– it does the job and it’s even quite nice and something homemade that is full of pockets of flavour and sets off a riot in your mouth.

Different authors have different ways of making us see. Some write elegantly in long sentences, others with tumbling phrases. Some authors want to be experimental, they want to challenge us. Some have clear goals: it’s about social commentary, it’s about depth and importance.

And if you’re a writer, you’re left with this tricky question: what type of writer do I want to be? Do I want to be good at characterisation? Would I prefer to focus on the story? Do I want to be able to perfect sigh-inducingly good prose?

Recently, with the question of ‘who do I want to write like?’ in my head, I tried to set out a list of the qualities I want to have in my writing based on some authors that have really inspired me.

So, here’s five lessons I would like to learn from five writers. Learning them is going to be difficult, if not impossible, but this is the type of writer I’d like to be.

Lesson #1: Playing with punctuation can be rewarding. Your sentences don’t even always have to make sense: what’s important is the image that they create in your head. (Virginia Woolf) 

I don’t think there is anyone who can write in the same way as Virginia Woolf. Her sentence formation is so good. Let’s look at one of her sentences.

It was the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window panes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world revealed and yet soon to perish (here I pushed into the garden, for, unwisely, the door was left open and no beadles seemed about), the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder. (A Room Of One’s Own.) 

For starters, her sentences are long. Incredibly long, actually. Virginia Woolf is also very liberal with her semicolons, so much so that she has her own style. At first, when we write, punctuation is a means to an end. As we go on, however, we can moderate the reading experience by how we punctuate, by the length of our sentences. Some writers use lots of dashes– there’s lots of afterthoughts in the narration. Some barely use any punctuation. This is still stylistic. We get to choose: what is distinctive of us as writers?

Woolf also uses images. Think about this sentence. We can imagine a heart beating, a heart being cut into. But Woolf isn’t talking about hearts, not at all. She’s talking about the atmosphere, sunlight. From how she writes about it, we can both connect with her thoughts (this feeling of contemplating beauty and pain) and what’s actually happening. 

Oh, to be able to write like Virginia Woolf!

Lesson #2: the structure of a novel, or even a series, is a chance to experiment. You don’t have to follow traditional ideas. (Toni Morrison)

I recently read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and afterwards, I don’t think I wanted to read anything for at least a week. I don’t cry in books as a general rule, but wow, was this terribly sad. I was left with the most overbearing feeling of despair (why do such bad things happen?) but also marvelled at Morrison’s skill.

Something clever that she does in this book is that the chapter titles stem from a short story at the beginning of the book which presents the life of a happy, well-off family. Each chapter starkly contrasts with this false reality, accentuating the sadness of what happens to the poor main character, Pecola. Honestly, I wanted to give her a big hug for most of the book.

I’ve learnt from this that as writers, we have a completely blank canvas. We don’t need traditional chapter titles– we can have books inside books or multiple framing devices. Experimentation is exciting. I’m currently reading The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz who puts himself as a character in the book– again, this is completely genius and original.

Sometimes, a story isn’t ‘let’s get from A to B as quickly as possible.’ It can also be, let’s get from A to B but let’s take momentary diversions and skip all over the alphabet.

If you know what I mean.

Lesson #3: your setting is more than just the place your characters inhabit, sometimes it’s what makes the book really sing. (Thomas Hardy.)

I absolutely love Far From The Madding Crowd. It’s just… wonderful. And every time I think of it, my mind is filled up with green fields and cliffs and the beauty of Weatherbury in the story. Thomas Hardy doesn’t just tell us a story based around agriculture, he makes it so everything about the book is hinged on the setting. Good characters have good relationships with nature. Storms bring people together. Two fires bring the love interest and the protagonist together, each helping the other. Whilst two characters place flowers at someone’s grave, those from the one that truly cared for survive, the others are dissolved by mud.

The setting isn’t an added extra to this story: it’s pivotal.

Lesson #4: so called ‘gappiness’ is good (William Shakespeare.)

Okay, so ‘gappiness’ isn’t necessarily a proper word but it’s a concept that I’ve been reading about in Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare. Here, she argues that Shakespeare is so good because we can interpret his writing however we want to. Is the ‘shrew’ in The Taming of The Shrew actually a shrew? It’s anyone’s guess. Does she fall in love with her husband? It probably depends on the lens that you’re reading through. Is Shakespeare a feminist? Is he racist? Is he anti-Semitic?

There’s a thousand questions. Now, when it comes to readers interpreting your work you definitely do not want them to think that you are racist, for example. That’s not what I’m suggesting here. What I am saying though, is that little ambiguities are good. Don’t tell your reader if they should like a character– Shakespeare certainly doesn’t sometimes. Are two characters actually in love or is their relationship deeply flawed? Let the reader work it out. For example, in my current WIP, it’s in your hands about some characters– are they morally gray, really damaged, are they villains? Sometimes this ambiguity is actually good. But only in the right places.

Lesson #5: writing about simple issues doesn’t mean your writing is less worthwhile. By writing about what you know, you can make your work even more immersive. (Louisa May Alcott.)

Little Women. It’s brilliant (I just watched the 2019 film again and I’m still in love with it.) And it’s a classic. It doesn’t have thousands of characters, it’s not terribly complicated. It talks about simple issues and that’s absolutely okay. Even better, though, it does it so convincingly.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about children’s books (a post will probably come out of this.) I’ve been remembering reading and thinking that, wow, I literally felt like I was alive within these stories when I first read them. I could imagine what the food tasted like, I saw the characters, the stories didn’t leave me. I’m beginning to think that, perhaps, that’s down to being a child at the time but also because these books are so descriptive of small things– food, drink, setting. Little Women is a classic example of this, as with many similar books, like Anne of Green Gables or A Little Princess.

Bonus: everything can come good in the end and a redemptive arc can be so satisfying. (Victor Hugo, William Thackeray & Francine Rivers.)

Don’t you just love books with redemptive arcs? I do, at least. These are the books where redemption seems impossible and then through some masterful stroke, we have a happy enough ending where everything is made beautiful in its time. I recently noticed this by reading some Francine Rivers books (if you’ve ever read any, you’d understand me.) I’ve definitely learnt that these are the types of books I love: they’re uplifting but understanding of the human condition. They can still talk of human fallenness (Hugo and Thackeray are great at this) but there’s often a way out.

Jean Valjean was a criminal, but by the end he’s a role model. Becky Sharp is absolutely horrible, but by the end, she’s done some good. Characters should be allowed to change.

So, if I were to sum everything up, this is the type of writer I’d like to be able to be: someone who can write with dense descriptiveness, uniqueness and lyricism in ways that are experimental, redemptive and poignant.

Of course, that’s not an easy task but I’d like to try it.

Here’s to great writers who teach us great lessons!

What kind of writer would you like to be? Was this helpful? Have you read books or plays by these authors before?

What a 19th century poet taught me about novel writing

I’ve been studying a collection of poems by Keats recently. I was initially uncertain about whether I would enjoy them, though my enthusiasm has grown to the point where he and his Romantic friends inspired me to write a Contemporary YA book related to their lives.

Related Post: I wrote a book over lockdown: here’s my takeaways

The Romantic poets have become a real source of interest for me. Their friendships were strong, their lifestyles often strange if not completely wacky– anybody who assumes canonical authors had dull lives may need to do some further reasearch– and they often stood up for what they believed in, whether that was vegetarianism or abolition. 

For me, however, I also found myself drawn to Keats for other reasons. As a poet, he’s taught me a lot about my own writing both due to how he lived his life and how his work was received by others. 

I believe that these lessons could help you as a writer too. 

So, without further ado, here are four things that John Keats has taught me about writing.

  1. Writing is for everyone: there shouldn’t be a glass ceiling

Keats shouldn’t have been a poet. He wasn’t a member of the aristocracy like his contemporaries, or even rich. In reality, he was trained in medicine and was, to all extensive purposes, meant to follow in this career path. Due to his low station, he was known as one of the ‘cockney school’ of poetry, removed from the Lake poets, such as Wordsworth who were revered by critics. Solely due to his class, he wasn’t taken seriously. But still, Keats, like many other poets from poorer backgrounds was determined: he didn’t let this stand in his way.

Writing is for everyone: there shouldn’t be a glass ceiling.

‘Of all the manias of this mad age, the most incurable, as well as the most common, seems to be no other than the metromanie. The just celebrity of Robert Burns and Miss Baillie has had the melancholy effect of turning the heads of we know not how many farm-servants and unmarried ladies; our very footmen compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island who does not leave a roll of lyrics behind her in her bandbox.’

John Gibson Lockhart writing as ‘Z’ in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (August 1818)

Surely, if anything, this can teach us that writing shouldn’t rule out anybody. If you are interested in writing, shaping stories, putting together stanzas, etc. then there shouldn’t be an obstacle too insurmountable to stop you.

  1. You will receive criticism, but that’s okay

When Keats died at the young age of 25, there were many (mostly Percy Bysshe Shelley) who believed that his death wasn’t as a result of his tuberculosis but because he had been so mortally wounded by the onslaught of criticism he received about his work. It is true that he was treated badly. Coupled with his lack of the right social background to be a poet, some felt his writing was supposedly too ‘effeminate’, or lacking the necessary skill. Byron, in particular, was disdainful of his work: it was ‘trash’ and he should have been ‘flay[ed] alive’ for it, according to his uncharitable letters to John Murray. 

Keats easily could have given up with such criticism and yet, nowadays people revere his work and he has surpassed many of the poets that then were lauded. As a result, his work is studied today and unlike what he thought in his grave’s inscription, his name was not ‘writ in water.’ 

Criticism is important for us to hone our work but it shouldn’t stop us from doing what we love. Keats’ life is very much a testament for this. 

  1. You will doubt yourself but that doesn’t discredit you 

Many authors very much doubt their abilities. Is their writing good enough? Are their characters well-rounded enough? Keats must have felt the same. With such criticism as he received from the newspapers and the impact of this, some of his poetry does bear the marks of a man who wasn’t sure about his writing. In his Isabella; or the Pot of Basil, Keats apologises to the author of the original story that it was based on, Boccaccio, for the way he has turned it into verse. Whilst this may have been out of poetic respect for an ancient writer not genuine insecurity, Keats also complained about his poems to friends, showing markers of uncertainty. So, it is normal, Keats proves, to doubt yourself when you’re writing.

That’s why it’s important to have a fresh lens to see you work from. Don’t see it through your own clouded perception that may be affected by insecurity: simple joy can still be found in your writing.  

That’s why it’s important to have a fresh lens to see you work from. Don’t see it through your own clouded perception that may be affected by insecurity: simple joy can still be found in your writing.  

  1. Often, we can benefit from letting our readers work things out for themselves

A lot of Keats’ poems, like much verse, really, are ambiguous. What happens at the end of The Eve of St Agnes? Who is the lady in La Belle Dame sans Merci? We never learn. Keats relies very much on us thinking about what he is writing and he suspends our disbelief at the strange plot twists that he brings us through his use of medieval, fairy like settings. In some of his poems, there is no definite location to them. We are given vague indications of where the narrations are set but no formality. And so, as readers, we are forced to think.

Perhaps, this is something that we can build into our writing: do we need to spell everything out? Maybe, just maybe, it is okay to let our readers think for themselves. 

In summary then, the writing process is difficult. We may be challenged by our own backgrounds, our relative obscurity and how people receive our work but that does not mean that there is no merit to it. Like Keats, perhaps to move forward and to progress in our writing, we need to keep on trying, to not give up. 

Like Keats, we need to just get pen to paper.

Have you read any Keats? What are the biggest obstacles you face in your writing? Do you think that we should spell things out for readers or that we should explore them in detail?

Why Reading Reviews Can Make You A Better Author

As a person, I’d say that many of my hobbies would be classed as writing-related: blogging, reading voraciously (I’m 30/60 books through my Goodreads challenge already) and reading book reviews. The last may sound something of an irregularity, or at least a more boring pursuit but I always find it particularly enjoyable to understand the market that I’m writing for. Why?

Because I firmly believe that understanding your target audience can make you a better writer.

What does this look like?

I usually tend to keep up with what books are coming out at the moment and what people think about them. What were the common parts that they disliked? What did they find particularly refreshing? Original? 

How do I do this?

By following publishing houses and editors on relevant social media pages.

As a Twitter and (recent) Instagram user, I’ve found myself gravitating towards following writers, publishers, agents and book bloggers, something which has grown my knowledge of the market. It’s brilliant as you can find out about new books which are being released and you can also glean a lot of information about how the writing process works for authors you admire. An as of yet unpublished writer, I’ve been able to learn a lot about how querying agents and getting published works, something which has shown that it does help to know what else is selling in your field. If you’ve ever seen books marketed creatively as something like a twist between The Hunger Games and Nancy Drew, then this is evidence of a writer understanding how to reach their readership. I’ve also been checking out people’s pitches for ‘Pit Mad’ on Twitter to see how they market their book and how my current WIP would fit into this.

By reading reviews for books you have (and haven’t) read.

Using Goodreads or particular blogs, I like to read reviews for books of different genres, often those that I’m writing in. Let’s take the example of YA Contemporary novels. The last book that I worked on before my current WIP was The Romantic Poets’ Club, which broadly fits into this genre. Up until recently, I hadn’t read widely in the area (though more and more I find myself resorting to it) so I had to read a good selection of reviews for similar novels, looking at the one star and five star reviews. It’s always interesting to see the variation in opinions and more often than not, I find myself fiercely disagreeing with some reviews and finding others particularly accurate: it becomes abundantly clear that you can’t please everyone as a writer.

Related Post: Should We Write For The Many Or The Few?

I believe that this is really important to understand– if as an author you understand your readership, that’s good. If they become the focus of who you’re pleasing on every minute detail, less so. On this topic, I recently listened to an episode of ‘The Happy Writer Podcast’ which is hosted by Marissa Meyer and featured Sandhya Menon, author of When Dimple Met Rishi. In the episode, Menon said that she often writes just for herself on the first draft of a novel and then for her readership on the second– to focus solely on their interests would be a burden but to ignore them altogether would stop her novels selling.

Nonetheless, negative and positive reviews can teach us a lot. Sticking with the example of YA Contemporary, I’ve learnt a lot recently about what hooks readers and what makes them dismiss a book altogether. For example, diversity is essential in books (something I agree with strongly) but it has to be executed right. It’s easy to see reviews for the same book and to realise that whilst it was amazing for some people because it gave a voice to second generation immigrants, at the same time it marginalised a particular group because of its lack of correct representation. For me, this serves as a reminder to have high standards in writing about often underrepresented groups but also to ask readers of all backgrounds to help you during the process.

Related Post:  Diversifying Your Bookshelf: A Challenge For The Summer

Of course, if unlike me you find reading book reviews incredibly dull or a waste of time given that they don’t affect your writing at all, then it’s probably not worth skimming through them just for the sake of it. Still, I’d recommend finding other ways to understand the market that you’re writing for. Maybe talk to other avid readers or get beta readers that are hooked to the genre you’re writing for.

Writing should be about getting your thoughts on the page, enjoying yourself and honing your craft as well as meeting a reader’s needs. This is a hard balance to reach– after all, they are the ones that you’re essentially going to be relying on for your income– but I think that once you find it, your writing can improve exponentially.

Do you enjoy reading book reviews? Has your writing improved by knowing your target audience?

4 Lessons I’ve Learnt From Editing My Book

So, you’ve written the first draft of your book. What next?

That innocent, two-word long question is actually incredibly intimidating. Recently, as you may know, I finished writing the first draft of my Contemporary YA novel, The Romantic Poets Club. The process was long and at points arduous, but overall, quite enjoyable. When I’d finished writing, however, and was faced with the ‘what next’ question, I found myself racking my brain for ideas of what to do with the imperfect, limp, skeleton-like manuscript in front of me.

I don’t have the whole process of editing sussed out- after all, I’m sure there are published authors out there who are still getting their heads around it. What I have found out though, is four lessons which I think could be helpful for you.

  1. It won’t be as bad as you think

Well… this one is quite self explanatory 🙂 I’ve heard a lot that you should leave several weeks between completing the first draft of your book and then editing it. I’d definitely second this advice handed down by many authors, especially because having fresh eyes on something is incredibly helpful.

After four weeks of leaving my manuscript untouched, I was nervous. I’d internalised all of the problems with my book when I’d written the last line. Why was that scene so cringy? Why is she using her phone when supposedly she was banned from using it a page ago, etc. To be honest, I really wasn’t looking forward to sorting out all these problems.

In my nervousness, I created a list for myself of things to remember if I read over my book and really hated it. I didn’t want this book to be another to end up in the metaphorical dump. To counter this, I created a list of inspirational things to remember for when it got difficult.

Some of the points on my ten point to success list were good. Don’t rush, pace yourself. Others were desperate. You’re still young, if it’s really rubbish then you’ll laugh about it in time. I did take the time to find some good advice though, which I’d recommend and I especially liked an article that I read on Charis Rae’s blog about finding joy in draft one of your book.

Soon however, as I began to edit, motivated by a plethora of tables and systems (more below), I found that it wasn’t actually that bad.

I wrote the last scene of my book that evening, wondering what it would feel like to be finally finished with it. Okay, it wasn’t exactly as exhilarating as I thought it would be. After having seen the skeleton that was the first draft, I knew that there was so much that I had to do. I needed to continue editing it, send it out to beta readers and then prep it for possible publishing.

So, not that much to do, after all.

The Romantic Poets Club, Elizabeth Sond

Lesson One: even if you think you’re going to hate your writing when you look back on it, honestly, it probably won’t be as bad as you think.

2. Ideas come first

You probably already know this, but there’s no point in editing spelling, punctuation or word choice if your plot is riddled with holes. When you decide what you want to edit first, I recommend categorising things into what is high maintenance work and what is low maintenance.

For me, editing character motivations, changes of time frame and occasional inconsistencies were high maintenance work which I had to do first. Deleting overused words, correcting bad punctuation and even dealing with poorly worded phrases were low maintenance.

By categorising the tasks that I had to do, I didn’t feel overly overwhelmed or like I needed to do everything all at once.

Lesson Two: break up the workload into bite size chunks so that you don’t have to everything all at once.

3. Tables are actually your biggest friends, even if you hate them

Genuinely, I cannot overemphasise how useful I have found making tables throughout this project. I’m not usually someone who likes to plan everything meticulously (although I confess, I’m becoming more so daily) and I certainly don’t enjoy using tables/ graphs etc. But, in editing I found them incredibly useful.

Firstly, I filled out a table with the chapter number and narrative voice (I have 6), a summary of what happens, a note of any problems I noticed and an extra column with what changes I was going to make that would impact on the rest of the book.

Whenever I fixed a problem, I highlighted this, meaning that I could keep a track. Any outstanding issues, I put in a separate table with a column for ‘problems’ and another for ‘solutions.’

This really kept me on track. If you would find it useful, you can steal my template shown in the picture here and have a go :).

A basic example of my table.

So, lesson three. You can never overstate being organised. Like anything, this takes time and concentration!

4. Beta reading is difficult, but you’ll survive…

Guys, beta reading is a gruelling process. When I finished writing my book, I couldn’t wait for people to read it – that’s what it’s all about, right? Soon, however, I was plagued with doubts. What if I was showing embarrassing ignorance about that topic I only researched for a few moments? What if my characters were misinterpreted?

With four of my beta readers in my own house, every question can sometimes make you doubt yourself. All in all, I’ve got some good feedback (it made me cry, I love your poem!) but also some…. that is hard to swallow. Now, I’m not complaining about my beta readers (some of who are probably reading.) Even the last comment really helped me. To be honest, more than anything, I need honesty to improve my book.

Lesson Four: Don’t be afraid of harsh criticism. It’s the only way you’ll improve! But, brace yourself. When you ask people to be honest, they’ll be honest. And if they’re not, you probably need new beta readers 🙂

All in all, editing is a rollercoaster of a process. If you stay positive, organised, prepared and pre-planned, however, I’d say it’s definitely a rewarding one. It’s a process I’m still on, but I hope that my advice has helped you.

If it has, I’d love if you could tell me how in the comments and if you don’t already, subscribe to my blog for regular content! Have a great week 🙂

Do you think you’ll take any of my advice? Have you ever done an editing project? And do you have any advice for me?

The Art Of Storytelling

You must have done it before- the fervent searching, the plot forming, the story starting. You must have walked in a town-square, eyes open to the most minuscule details, the insignificant ones. The peeling ugly paint that is in need of detailing becomes uncannily artistic; the bustle of overly rude pedestrians who push you out of the way become protagonists in their own stories full of clandestine adventures; the normal smell of chocolate (Cadbury’s £1) is as rich as can be, jewell filled capsules bursting with goodness and your own life becomes a fusion of paint splatters and loud eclectic music, not a drab montage of grey. It’s not always like this, but sometimes, sometimes, life speeds up- slows… down- runs- jumps- hula-hoops and a story is born.

Storytelling. It’s a soundtrack, a mural, a jigsaw puzzle- whatever you want it to be. It’s a poem, it’s a play- it’s a novel, we could do this all day. It’s a voiceless answer to a nameless phenomenon- the familiar strangers that you bump into on the streets. It’s tying art to what we can’t understand or explain. It’s a ballad, an experience journal. It’s every little irrelevant happening, every big exciting one. It’s your hopes and dreams bottled into jam jars, tied with strings. It’s nothing- it’s everything- it’s both.

Perhaps for you, that story is art: glorious murals- all dots and swirls. Or music- classical, romantic, all sharps and flats or hip hop with words that rap- no wrap- their arms around emotions.

But for me, storytelling is born from words. A veritable explosion of words that tint life with a jewell coloured pink or rusty grey tinge.

Because when you’re storytelling, nothing is as it was before. The wardrobe in your bedroom becomes your Narnia- a closet to another world. The books on your shelves whisper to you, Isaac Newton’s coin-worthy phrase echoing in your ear. I can’t remember it quite- isn’t it something about standing on the shoulders of giants? A stranger you pass is preoccupied- is it overly romanticised to make up a story, spin in villains and heroes, make her an unwilling anti-hero?

And there’s nothing to it really, is there, to this story spinning from real life events? It would be better, wouldn’t it, if there was a hero or a car wreck or a contemporary fairytale story just beginning? But that’s not life- not real life anyway, as superbly rich as these stories are.

Do the small stories matter, you may wonder, in amongst the leafy forest of epics and odysseys?

Yes, you realise. Those big stories come from somewhere– surely there is bounty in the everyday, whispering to us ‘that COULD happen,’ ‘that MIGHT happen.’ And maybe then, the absent-minded shop assistants in the shop you’ve walked into are stuck in everyday Groundhog day and the book shops you window-shop from are secret homes to invisible ink characters.

Because, how would we know otherwise?

Let the music making, art painting, life changing, boring and fascinating begin.

Because storytelling is an art and even the smallest stories count.