Questions From New Writers

I met an aspiring write yesterday, who asked lots of questions about the craft of writing, and wondered whether beginning a novel was a viable option after quitting a high-flying city job. I remember asking similar questions, back in 2007, when I moved abroad and gave up a teaching job that I loved. Moving from London to Vienna stirred up all sorts of ideas in my mind and, as I said to the person yesterday, there is something about moving to a different place, and living in a different culture, that somehow frees your mind and inspires lots of creative ideas. There are lots of questions from the writing community on Twitter today and, if you follow the hashtag #WritingCommunity, you’ll see many of these. There are so many questions and so many good books to you to get you started, and to help hone your craft.

  1. My first piece of advice to anyone wanting to begin writing is to read widely, both within and outside your genre, especially outside your genre – it’s easy to just focus on what you want to write – and read as much as you write, spend as much time reading as you do writing.
  2. Read as many books on the craft of writing that you can get your hands on. Find your local library, as there are lots of useful books that you can borrow. You don’t need to buy them all, or do a book swap with another writer. I’ll add some of the books that I’ve found helpful at the end of the post. It’s by no means an exhaustive list.
  3. Sign up for writing courses. The Avon Foundation have lots of wonderful writing courses and many authors offer course, as well. Learn as much as you can.
  4. Don’t be afraid to experiment. You may be fiction writer – a poet, a novelist or a short story writer – or you might prefer creative non-fiction writing (memoir, autobiography/biography, essays, literary journalism, journaling, or topics like food or travel writing, self-development, art or history). Within fiction there are so many genres; read as widely as you can.
  5. Don’t give up. You will have hard days were you want to quit. It will get hard. If writing was easy, there would be many more authors with published work. Even the most gifted writers hit a wall at some point. Push through it.
  6. Set yourself targets, if this works for you. When I began, I sat down to write from 9am – 6pm (with breaks) and gave myself 3 months to get around 35,000 down on paper. After this length of time, I would assess whether or not I had enough to continue and a good enough story to write a whole novel. It worked, I kept going, and I finally finished my first book.
  7. Find a writing partner or a writing group. If you can’t, or it doesn’t suit you, tap into the writing community online. Twitter is a good place to start and will be really helpful, in terms of keeping up to speed with the industry. It’s a great way of networking, finding support, and following publishing trends. I have been contacted by authors, readers, editors, agents and publishers this way. It’s invaluable.

These are some of the books that have helped me along the way, although, Meander, Spiral, Explode is a new acquisition, so I’ll write a review when I’ve read it. Which books have helped you? Can you recommend any others?

Fact and Fiction: How to Weave Both Elements into a Good Book

English: A panorama of a research room taken a...

While the general categories of fiction and non-fiction are distinct book categories in the publishing world, there is good reason to tie the two together in your novels. It will technically still be classed as fiction, but a combination of the two can be really powerful. My debut novel, Take Me to the Castle,  was a fictional story, written within the framework of communist Eastern Europe, and the resulting secret police activity and fractured family relationships. I wanted to use my research skills to bring the facts to life through the eyes of a young girl, Jana.

Mixing fact and fiction is no easy task because, while you have all the facts to hand after months or maybe years of research, you have to be careful not run the risk of any of the following temptations:

Information dump. Too many facts and the reader will switch off.

Twisting the facts. Inaccuracies will water down your plot and make the story less believable.

Lose your creativity. If you feel the need to stick too tightly to the facts, the plot risks being underdeveloped. You don’t want to become fenced in by tight constraints if you are writing fiction.

What is the best way to weave the two together?

It is important to make outlines after your research so that you have a clear idea of where you are going with the plot. If you begin to write before entering into the research you will end up doing a lot of painful rewrites. It’s best to avoid unnecessary rewriting if possible.

Strike a balance between the two, erring on the side of fiction rather than fact. Too much factual information, and you will end up writing non-fiction, which is fine as long as you are clear about defining your work.

Be creative and don’t be afraid to play with the facts. Use your imagination to fill in the gaps and show the reader your interpretation of the events from a unique angle.

Why will this work?

Given the constraints, you may wonder whether it is worth bringing fact into the arena of fiction at all. I would argue that there are many periods throughout history, and many key events in life, which need to be recorded and written down, and I believe this can be done really effectively through fiction.

Think of The Paris Wife and it’s subject, the first wife of Ernest Hemmingway. What has made the book so successful has been the fact that it gives you a window into the life a famous writer at at time that we know little about.

Magda has just been released in March, and tells the story of Magda Goebells in chilling reality but it is, in part, a fictional representation of the facts. It’s fascination lies in the fact that it covers the difficulties of mother/daughter relationships and the horrific period that was Nazi Germany. It gives an inside view into the life of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebells.

Two of my blog readers and fellow writers also wrote their books based on periods in history:

Tom Gething wrote Under a False Flag based on the overthrow of Marxist president, Salvador Allende, in Chile in 1973. The books is based on a series of recently declassified documents from the period and includes a wealth of historical research.

Marianne Wheelaghan published The Blue Suitcase in 2011, telling the story of her Grandmother, Antonia, through her diary as she grows up in Germany during and in the aftermath of World War II. 

Have you read any other good examples that you can add to the list? Many of these are political. Can you think of other examples?