30 January 2019
The best tips to improve your writing, from saga author and Writing Magazine subscriber Mary Gibson
We love a good success story. And what better than one of our very own subscribers, saga author Mary Gibson who has shared some of her very own top writing tips to inspire others...
1. Whatever stage you’re at with your writing, it’s always important to have a ‘beginner’s mind’.
I never get tired of learning new ways to tackle all the conundrums that writing a novel throws up. As a long-term subscriber to Writing Magazine my favourite features are still the author tips. I find the simple, oft repeated ones most helpful. For example:
• Turn up at the desk. Otherwise inspiration might come knocking and find nobody home.
• Persist. Don’t give up until you have finished something. Or, in the words of Elmore Leonard, ‘If you write a thousand words a day you can’t not have a novel in seven months.’
• A bad first draft is your best hope of creating a wonderful final draft.
• Enjoy your writing. Make room for those moments when the words seem to flow from somewhere outside of yourself and you can almost observe the magic happening.
2. I love to glean from other writers’ methods, analysis, struggles and solutions.
Books which have helped me include Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering The Craft; Robert McKee’s Story; Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots; Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. One of my latest discoveries has been Philip Pullman’s marvellous collection, Daemon Voices. Especially useful is his metaphor of path and woods in storytelling – the path being your storyline and the woods your setting or background research. His advice? Stay on the path! Never spend so long admiring the beautiful woods of your created world that you lose sight of your story. He was speaking to an audience of science fiction and fantasy writers, but it’s advice equally applicable to saga or historical fiction writers – all the ‘world builders’ can sometimes love their worlds too much.
3. Start writing now!
I had my first novel published when I was sixty and I’m often asked if I regret not starting to write earlier. I did write earlier, but I was practising! Still, I do think you have to wait until you recognize the story you want to tell. Find the subject matter that excites, intrigues, or moves you. Something that you connect with on a deep level. Then you won’t get bored and, hopefully, neither will the reader.
4. Write what you know
My subject turned out to be the place I was born and brought up, the vanished world of Bermondsey in the early twentieth century, a tightly knit working class community dominated by docks and factories, situated at the geographical heart of London. Doris Lessing observed: ‘Every writer has a myth country. Myth does not mean something untrue, but a concentration of truth.’ Bermondsey is my ‘myth country’, one I recreate in fiction from real life stories, reminiscences, anecdotes, archive material and my own memories, but hopefully in a way that’s true to the spirit of the place and time.
One of the ways I anchor my stories in reality is to always use real street and place names. The one exception being a pub featured in Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts which I called The Land of Green Ginger but which was in fact The Rising Sun in Jamaica Road. (A discrepancy quickly picked up by an eagle-eyed reader!) The fictional pub name was a nod to my great grandfather who cycled from Hull to London on a penny farthing in order to find work and passed on to us the myth that our family had once owned all the Land of Green Ginger! Which as a child sounded to me like a magical, fairy-tale place. And it very probably was a fairy tale! A myth country of a different kind.
5. Absorb all the help and advice about writing and the publishing process that you can.
Read books, do a course, join a class, find an agent - an invaluable guide along the path to publication, and do listen to editorial feedback. But it’s also important to balance all of the above with faith. Believe in your own writing. It’s yours. Only when it feels true to you can it ever be true for the reader.