Writing advice and all that jazz…

impulseThe lovely team at HarperImpulse, HarperCollins’ newest romance imprint, asked me to provide my Top 5 tips for writing fantasy, which I happily provided. The 5 headlines were:

5. Create a believable world
4. Create conflict
3. Drive plot
2. Characters
1. Learn from the best!

(You can read the actual tips here: on.fb.me/16Veku8) But as several people commented, my writing advice can really apply to ALL aspects of fiction, not just fantasy. That’s very true! Writing a great genre story isn’t any different to writing a great modern or historical or literary story.

I always hesitate when giving writing advice, because really I’m still so new to the game. I think that the best way to learn is to learn from the best. That’s why I’m a big fan of the Reddit AMA’s (“Ask me anything”). I especially enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest AMA, for the publication of River of Stars. If you scroll through the questions, you can find some great insight into Guy Kay’s writing process. This is usually far more useful to an aspiring author than any other writing advice. Even if his methods don’t work for you exactly, there is always so much to be gleaned from a master of the trade.


The promise of fan fiction, Wattpad, Nanowrimo… oh, and RPGs

Today, I was doing my normal morning commute, picking up a stray copy of Metro left behind by a prior passenger. But unlike every other day, I was surprised to see my name in the paper! I’d done the interview a good few weeks back, and since I hate talking on the phone, the fact that I’d done it had sunk right to the farthest reaches of my memory.

Read the article here: “How Fan Fiction is Conquering the Internet and Shooting up the Charts”

((Of course, they got my name wrong, but that’s a hazard of having a name with multiple accepted spellings. So this came from “Amy McCullough, HarperFiction’s commissioning editor”. I should have known better than to not clarify the spelling after CityTV in Ottawa once interviewed my dad and said his name was ‘Angus Mugulack’. Note: not an accepted spelling.))

The topic of the interview is a hot one at the moment: the rise of Fan Fiction. Since I recently published Abigail Gibbs’ amazing book The Dark Heroine, the Metro wanted to talk to me about how fan fiction is becoming a bit of a publishing phenomenon – kicked off by Fifty Shades, followed swiftly by Gabriel’s Inferno, Loving the Band, and – of course – The Dark Heroine.

I don’t actually see The Dark Heroine as fan fiction. Yes, Abbie is very open about the fact that she was inspired by Twilight, but none of her character’s started out life as Edward and Bella in the way that Christian Grey and Ana Steele did. Instead, what first piqued my interested as an *editor* about Abbie’s book was the fact that she’d amassed this incredible following – 17 million hits and tens of thousands of fans – through her writing on Wattpad, over the course of three years. She was no flash in the pan; she instead did what I consider to be a very brave thing: she learned to write in front of an audience. She took in their feedback, absorbed it, and learned how to become a better storyteller. That is what I meant by saying that it’s almost a Dickensian way of publishing – by serializing her work, she was able to respond to her audience demand (although not be dictated by them) and adjust accordingly. Of course, then it helped that the book was great too, and that she’d put a lot of hard work in to editing the book since its draft stage on Wattpad, so it was a no-brainer for me! You can learn more about her editing process from this amazing guest blog by Abbie on the Huffington Post website.

Every writer needs to learn to write. And the best way to do that? Why, to just do it of course. Just as Neil Gaiman reminded the audience in the Cambridge Theatre of the old writing adage that you’ve got to write a million words before you write a good one, practice really is the only way to improve. Some authors end up with loads of ‘trunk novels’ that will never see the light of day. Some fill notepad after notepad with stream-of-consciousness writing. But fan fiction websites give that opportunity too. So do websites like Wattpad, and Movellas, and Authonomy. So do events like Nanowrimo. That’s why I never think any of those sites or events should be disparaged, because if people are writing, then good for them – that’s the way to achieve that dream, and to find a community of like-minded others in the meantime. (If you wrote your first novel and every word was perfect and you landed a deal straight away and no one has ever criticized your work then go away, we’re not talking to you :P)

That some of that writing ends up being developed and polished enough to be considered for publication is inevitable. And publishers would be silly to ignore someone that has arrived with a built-in audience – although there’s no guarantee that an audience used to getting something for free, will suddenly pay for it. But if the writing is of significant enough quality, they will – like in Abbie’s case.

In my case, I didn’t use fan fiction or Wattpad or even Nanowrimo to develop my writing. But I did write my million words. My method was *nerd alert* PbP roleplaying. Yep, all through high school I was writing page after page of horrendous purple prose on message boards scattered in dark corners of the internet. No, I won’t go into detail about what kind of RPGing it was. Still, it didn’t bear any relation to my novels except for the fact that I was writing every. single. day. Without fail – or else I wouldn’t be able to participate in the game. Simple as that. And let me tell you, some of the other players were about as brutal critics as you can get! Still, when I left RPGing, I felt almost bereft. I didn’t have my outlet any more. I realized that I’d grown to need to write as much as I needed to breathe. And so, instead, I turned to novels.

Whatever your outlet, whether it’s as private as a notebook or as public as a phone app, every word is getting you one step closer to your writing goal. Practice makes perfect. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, practice will make a book deal.


Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman (impersonators)

Last night, I was lucky enough to secure tickets to see Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman in conversation at the Cambridge Theatre in Soho, London (normally the home of Matilda – the musical – a fitting place for two children’s authors to be talking if ever there was one!).

Unfortunately though, earlier on that day Philip was taken to hospital, and you could sense the whole theatre sending good vibes and well wishes his way. Luckily Neil had managed to round up some “Pullman impersonators” in the form of Meg Rosoff and Audrey Niffenegger! If we couldn’t have Pullman, then we couldn’t get much better as far as replacements go. Audrey kicked the evening off by reading one of the fairy tales from Pullman’s Grimm Tales, “The Three Snake-Leaves”, which gave the audience a perfect taster of fairy tale-style justice.

Neil Gaiman, Rosie Boycott, Meg Rosoff and Audrey Niffenegger on stage at the Cambridge Theatre

For any aspiring writers out there, there were some great tips from Neil and Meg. Meg’s major advice was to “not be in such a rush”. I think this is a pretty important point, and later on they brought up the old adage that you have to write a million words before you write a good one. Neil’s advice was simple, and effective: if you want to be a writer, just write. Wise words!

The Lucky 13s might find it interesting to know that they talked about superstitions too! Neil Gaiman’s superstition had to do with having to use a different colour ink for each writing day, while Meg turned out to be inclined towards all sorts of superstitions – especially new ones she hadn’t heard of yet! (One new one for the night: don’t bring lilac into the house… I wonder why, lilac is really pretty!)

Neil then ended the show with a reading of his new scary short story ‘Click-Clack the Rattlebag’. It’s not easy to terrify a huge audience in a theatre decorated with scrabble tiles, but somehow he managed it! And if you’re curious, just in time for Hallowe’en, you can download your very own copy of Neil’s recording of ‘Click-Clack the Rattlebag’ for FREE from Audible.co.uk for only 36 hours more, so go go go now (or Audible.com for anyone outside UK). Even better, for every free download, Audible will donate 50p to Booktrust, which is just amazing.

Afterwards I was extraordinarily privileged to hang out with some amazing writers, late into the night. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me… I’d just delivered my line edits to my editor and was feeling, quite frankly, like crap. The line edits themselves were not at all the problem – they were spot on, and a piece of cake after the structural edit! – but as I was reading through the manuscript for the umpteenth time, I couldn’t shake this creeping, pervasive feeling that the book was just plain bad – I couldn’t stand the sight of those words, I couldn’t tell if they made any sense any more, whether the book had any sort of structure or pace or characterization… Thankfully, as I said, I was among those who knew exactly how I felt. In fact, as I shared my anxieties with the other writers, and as I could see them recognize exactly what I was going through, it made me feel a lot better. I was well assured that these feelings were normal, even necessary, and maybe even a good sign. And thank god for that, because I thought I was going crazy.

It just goes to prove what I think is the most valuable writing advice: don’t do it alone. Find other writers, whether its in person or online, and share this crazy journey together. And meet your heroes. Because luckily in this business, they tend to be really friggin awesome.