Writing advice from Sheila O'Flanagan


21 May 2021
The bestselling novelist offers her top tips on how to write and get published
Writing advice from Sheila O'Flanagan Images

Write the book you want to write

There are fashions in books, just like everything else. Some years crime is popular, other years it’s all about the psychological thriller, another time it’s romance. And it’s hard, when you see one particular category of book doing well, not to think that that’s the sort of book you should write. The truth is, the only book you should write is the book you want to write. The one that’s in your heart and that you simply must get down on the page. This is the book that you’ll write with belief and with passion. And when that passion comes across on the page it will be a book that people want to read, no matter what the genre.

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Believe in your characters

You will be with them for a long time as you craft their story so it’s important that they matter to you. You don’t necessarily have to like them very much, or approve of their behaviour, but you have to see them as real people with good points and bad points.

Researching your book and talking about your book isn’t writing your book

OK, that’s a long sentence for a top tip but it’s something that writers sometimes forget. Research is important but you still have to write your book afterwards. And tweeting about writing is fun, but you still have to write your book afterwards. I’ve met writers who’ve spent months on research and just as much time talking about their book but not actually writing it. Yet they say that they’re ‘writing’ a book. Truthfully, a lot of this is displacement activity and it’s very understandable because writing is hard work. Factual things have to be accurate, but if you’re writing a work of fiction nobody needs to know every single step in, for example, the process of baking bread. You’re not writing a cookery book but you are trying to set a scene where the reader can smell the bread baking. I’ve come a long way around to telling you that writing is hard work and there is no simple way of making it quicker and easier no matter how much research and chatting about it you do!

Trust yourself

Lots of writers give early drafts to family and friends for comments and advice. And much as it’s good to have a fresh pair of eyes look at your work, the cliche of ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ comes to mind when I hear of authors sending out manuscripts to lots of ‘beta readers’. The trouble is that everyone has an opinion and will want to make suggestions for changes. Not all of these suggestions will be good ones. If someone, particularly a close family member, thinks you should change a part of your novel, and you don’t agree, it can be quite difficult. Essentially you have to believe in your own work. I’d recommend paying for a professional editor to look over a completed draft rather than giving it to a well-meaning friend.

Be professional when you’re looking for an agent

My late agent, Carole Blake, used to tell a story of being followed in to the ladies' loo by an author who pushed the manuscript under the cubicle door. Carole pushed it back! Agents have submission details on their websites and you will have a much better chance of having your book read if you follow the procedure they’ve outlined. Sending cake, flowers, novelty items and other bits and pieces along with your submission won’t make them any more disposed towards reading it. Sending a rude letter saying that they’re fools if they don’t take you on almost guarantees they won’t read your manuscript. Agents and publishers are professional people who are always on the lookout for new writers, but it’s much easier for them to work with authors they know take both writing and publishing seriously. If you want to become a full-time writer you have to realise that this will be a job. And therefore take it, and the people who work in the industry, as seriously as you would in any other walk of life.

Three Weddings and a Proposal by Sheila O’Flanagan is out now in hardback, priced £20.00 (Headline Review)


What are the top ten qualities every writer needs? How many of these do you possess?