When you’re learning anything new, it’s always a good idea to speak to the experts first. So, when former Arvon Centre Director Liz Flanagan started her PhD in creative writing – young adult fiction (YA) – she spoke to four of the UK’s top YA authors to find out how they write.
I knew chatting to the likes of Melvin Burgess, Celia Rees, David Almond and Sally Green would be a wonderful experience. After all, they’re a group of hugely talented, multi-award-winning writers who’ve each developed their own approach to writing over the years.
However, I hadn’t guessed how transformative their tips and advice would be for my own writing. So, after a month of talking – and quite a bit of tea drinking! – here’s what I learned.
1. Plot it your way
Whilst the four writers I spoke to all have different approaches to planning, they’ve all found the processes and methods that suit them and they’ve all learned along the way.
For example, for David Almond it’s all about having a regular habit. “The routine is very important,” he said. “Setting aside time, sitting down and dedicating hours to it, even when nothing much seems to be happening.”
Once his routine is there, however, he works in a loose and playful way, “I don’t plot. It’s a mixture of being in control of what you’re doing and allowing the subconscious to take some control as well.”
“The routine is very important – setting aside time, sitting down and dedicating hours to it.” – David Almond
With two books in the bag and the final part of her trilogy underway, Sally Green’s process has adapted over time. “This will make you laugh!” she says, as she shows me a sheaf of papers – a kind of planning spreadsheet with rows for each chapter – “I’m doing a lot of planning beforehand. I’m doing it a completely different way.”
Celia Rees on the other hand, plans quite loosely. “I’ll make a plan but it’s not very detailed – it’s like a very big spider diagram. I’m seeing really where the story can go and where it’ll take me and if it’ll work.”
Melvin Burgess finds his method changes each time and is entirely dictated by the story: “If you’re doing stuff with a strong story it’s probably not a good idea to do the seat-of-pants thing… I also find that by going over what I’ve done either yesterday or the past few days, it really tightens it up and the ideas get much more focused.”
2. Persist, persist, persist
We don’t get to hear about the writers who throw in the towel – and we’ll never have the joy of reading their work. By definition, the characteristic that marks out the professional published writer is persistence – and slog. No one gets anything right first time, but talking to these four writers it’s clear that how you take rejection and critique is key to your future writing career.
Even a hugely successful debut author like Sally Green experienced early setbacks. Sally describes sending her first manuscript out. Amongst all the rejections, her now agent, Claire Wilson, at Rogers, Coleridge and White, was the only one who sent feedback. Sally explains: “Claire said, I like it but it’s not really there. I like the voice but the story doesn’t have enough edge for today’s market. And I was actually delighted because I’d only just started writing.”
Galvanised by this feedback, Sally went on to rework the manuscript. It became her first novel, Half Bad, which has now sold into over fifty countries.
Celia Rees has decades of experience and is the author of more than twenty novels, but she still has to handle critique. She tells developing writers, “You cannot give up. You have to be resilient. If people don’t like the work or criticise it or reject it, you’ve got to be prepared to take that. And it’s tough, but you have to do it. It gets easier as you get more experienced.”
3. All writing is rewriting
The novelists I spoke to all emphasise the importance of editing – but for most it isn’t a separate process or something that comes much later. Editing and redrafting can be essential to parts of the writing process – right from the start.
“I’ll write and edit at the same time,” says Celia Rees, “I work at it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, working through. I revise as I go along.” A process similar to David Almond’s – he also redrafts his work constantly: “I’m not a writer who writes one draft and then another. I’m constantly rewriting, redrafting, chucking stuff out and putting new stuff in – all the way through.”
Melvin Burgess says, “I start new drafts, and I save bits I’ve cut in a separate file in case I need them. It’s handy because it allows you to shed stuff without too much grieving. With this one, I’m on file number seven, but I haven’t even finished the first draft. Some people do about 20 drafts from beginning to end. Some people charge all the way through and then they go over it afterwards very carefully. I do a mixture of the two.”
“Even if it’s painful, it’s still satisfying. I love re-writing.”Sally Green
Celia ReesSally Green really enjoys writing and rewriting – even when the going gets tough. She says; “I love the whole thing. That’s the joy. It’s great when you think of something good – for me there’s even satisfaction in just slogging through something. Even if it’s painful, it’s still satisfying. I love re-writing.”
“You might be able to write; you might write brilliantly, but if you don’t like redrafting, you’re not a writer.” – Celia Rees
Celia Rees goes even further and suggests that it is editing and redrafting that mark out the true writer. “I never mind redrafting. Some books of mine need two, three or four drafts. Others will be eight, nine or ten. I think that’s the thing that will mark you out as a writer, nothing else. Anyone who finds redrafting boring or tedious is not really a writer. You might be able to write; you might write brilliantly, but if you don’t like redrafting, you’re not a writer.”
4. It’s never too late
Another surprising connection between these very different but all very successful writers is the age at which they began taking writing seriously – something I certainly find comforting to hear!
“It wasn’t until I was 35 that I thought I’d better really find out if I can do this.” – Melvin Burgess
Sally Green was in her forties when she started writing fiction – one day while her son was at school. She says: “As a writer you need a huge amount of time and a huge amount of different life experience.” By starting to write after a previous successful career, it would seem she found she had both elements she needed.
Melvin Burgess didn’t begin writing seriously until his mid-thirties despite admitting his writing ambitions started at the tender age of 13. “I took a very long view,” says Melvin, “I felt it wasn’t a question of writing a book, it was becoming someone who writes books. The first fictional creation is yourself. It wasn’t until I was 35 that I thought I’d better really find out if I can do this.” And the rest, so they say, is history.
Celia Rees also started taking her writing career seriously in her mid-thirties. She took a sabbatical from her teaching day job and started writing during an MA course: “I really enjoyed it and my tutor said my writing was publishable,” she said: “I got excited about the idea of writing with my students, and when I went back to school, that’s what I did.”
Learning from the best
I’m very grateful to these writers for taking the time to speak to me. My own writing process has been re-ignited by their inspirational and practical advice.
They’ve helped me see that:
- all life experience feeds into fiction
- playfulness and persistence work well together
- commitment to a writing practice is crucial – even in the face of rejection
- and most of all, to embrace the edit!
I’m taking my novel forward, editing as I go, making time for scribbling and playing with ideas along the way, and saving some energy for the rewriting marathon that is still to come!
If you have a dream to write, there’s no better way to get started than writing a piece of flash fiction. Developed by novelist, radio dramatist and creative writing lecturer Rachel Connor, this amazing 5-step course gives you the support and structure you need to get writing. Sign up today half price through this link.