7 authors share their top writing tips

PUBLISHED: 12:20 23 July 2018 | UPDATED: 12:20 23 July 2018

PATCHARIN SIMALHEK/Getty Images/iStockphoto

PATCHARIN SIMALHEK/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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As the closing date for our Readers’ Short Story competition edges nearer, we get some last minute tips from those who know best

Click here for full details on how to enter the Surrey Life Short Story competition!


Ally Sherrick

Ally SherrickAlly Sherrick

Ally Sherrick lives in Farnham with her husband and assorted garden wildlife. Her debut, Black Powder, published by Chicken House Books, won the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award in 2017. Her second, wartime-set adventure, The Buried Crown, was published in April 2018 and she is hard at work on ideas for a third story, this time set at the Tudor court.

“Revel in reading: There are so many amazing books out there already, all waiting to teach you something about your own creativity and craft. Push the boundaries too. Try things you’re not sure are for you. Usually read sci-fi? Then why not try historical instead?

“The ‘P’ word: Ideas, research, the ability to craft strong plots and compelling characters – these are some of the key ingredients involved in spinning a great story. But they are nothing without a liberal dose of the ‘P’ word – otherwise known as perseverance.

“Practice your craft: If you are just starting out, try writing in different voices (first person, third person etc), styles and genres. It can often take a while to find your own author voice, but while you’re developing it, make sure you take advantage of at least some of the fantastic writers’ resources out there: self-help titles, writing courses, author blogs and websites to name but a few.

“Learn how to take criticism (and grow a thick skin): If you are serious about getting published, you’ll need to be open to critical feedback from agents and editors. Get into the habit from the outset by joining a creative writing group. You’ll almost always find that your work is the better for listening to what (impartial) others have to say about it.

“But above all… have fun, that way your enjoyment will shine from the page and give your story the best ever chance of spreading its wings and taking flight.”


Sharon Wright

Sharon WrightSharon Wright

Sharon Wright, author of Balloonomania Belles: Daredevil Divas Who First Took to the Sky (Pen&Sword), will be speaking on Tuesday 9 October 2018 as part of Guildford Book Festival.

“For me, non-fiction is just good journalism but with a better word count. I apply the same skills that came with a long career in newspapers and magazines, seeking out good stories and telling them honestly and well. You already know if you are a writer. I’m from Bradford and my favourite quote is from Yorkshirewoman Charlotte Brontë: “I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.” If that’s you (it’s definitely me) what are you waiting for?”


S J Parris

S J ParrisS J Parris

Farnham’s S J Parris’ (Stephanie Merritt) latest book, While You Sleep (HarperCollins) is out now.

“The best advice I can give any would-be writer is to just sit down and write. It’s so easy to procrastinate, thinking you need lots more research or preparation. The most effective way is to set yourself a target word count each day. Start with something small and manageable, like 300 words, you can always build it up if it’s going well.

“Then make time to stick to it – that’s the hardest part. It may not seem like much, but if you do that every day for a year, you’ll have a novel. And read as widely as possible!”


Henry Hemming

Henry Hemming (c) Jeff OversHenry Hemming (c) Jeff Overs

Henry Hemming is the author of M: Maxwell Knight – MI5’s Greatest Spymaster and will be appearing at The Guildhall on 10 October 2018 as part of Guildford Book Festival.

“Perhaps the best advice I was ever given came from my editor shortly before he agreed to publish my first book. I’d been working on the manuscript for at least three years, and for most of that time it was an unreadable, pretentious mess.

“I was far too hung up on the little things, and overwhelmed, I think, by the need to produce a manuscript which felt like a serious book. Only when I began to relax and have fun with it did the manuscript start to resemble a book that I would actually want to read.

“On the advice of my publisher I also cut 50,000 words, keeping only the parts that I needed for my plot. So to sum up - have fun with it, don’t be afraid of reading a book about the craft of writing, (I am evangelical about John Yorke’s Into the Woods), and remember that shorter is usually better.”


Rob Lloyd Jones

Rob Lloyd JonesRob Lloyd Jones

Rob Lloyd Jones is author of Jake Atlas and the Hunt for the Feathered God (Walker Books).

“My first tip is this: finish your story. I’m often asked by people how they can get their book or story published, only to discover that they haven’t actually written the book or story.

“Writing is hard. Often I wish there was a way around it. But the main difference between an author and someone who wanted to be an author, is that the author kept at it.

“Another tip: always carry a notebook. You have so many great ideas, every day, but you’ll forget them if you don’t write them down. Carry a notepad or use an app on your phone – just don’t let them escape. The idea for my new children’s series about an adventurer called Jake came to me as I was buying nappies in a supermarket. I dropped the nappies, wrote the idea down, and it changed my life. I hope one of your next ideas changes yours, too.”


Adele Parks

A post shared by Adele Parks (@adele_parks) on

Adele Parks is one of the judges for our short story competition and will be speaking about ther latest release I Invited her in (HarperCollins), alongside Tasmina Perry at the Harbour Hotel on Thursday 11 October 2018.

“My first big tip for writing a short story (or even a novel) is ‘get writing’. So many people say to me that they want to write but in fact never write anything longer than a shopping list! Harsh but true. Try to write something every day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes and even if you’re not in the mood. If you’re stuck for something to write about, set yourself tasks, such as describing what you can see if you look out of the window, or your earliest memory or how a new dish tastes. It doesn’t matter what you write, or even if you ever use the exercises in your story, it simply develops discipline.

“Read newspapers and magazines and browse news websites for inspiration. Short stories are the ideal medium to explore those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories.

“Read a lot of short stories because understanding the genre and form you are working in is essential for all good writers.

“Short stories are different from novels, (although they share a fundamental similarity: the need to have a coherent beginning, middle, and end). If your story lacks these, it’s most likely a vignette, or something experimental. Tell a whole story.”


Miranda Seymour

Miranda SeymourMiranda Seymour

Miranda Seymour, who will be speaking about Ada Lovelace, the subject of her latest book, In Byron’s Wake, at Watts Gallery as part of Guildford Book Festival on Wednesday 17 October 2018, gives her tips on writing a biography.

“First of all, try to find if there is a centenary or birthdate or some such to which publication could be connected. Second, don’t be shy. Tell everybody what you plan to do. It’s amazing where new information and contacts can come from. Make a point of visiting the places that were important to your subject (this is the fun bit). Be sure to make a time chart. Put in a few external events to keep the larger perspective in your mind. After you’ve done your research for a year, start to write. It’s so easy to procrastinate. Don’t. Good luck!

In Byron’s Wake by Miranda Seymour is published by Simon & Schuster

Click here for full details on how to enter the Surrey Life Short Story competition!

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