01 June 2020

Ten authors share their best writing advice

by Hannah Mary McKinnon From Our Students, Writing Tips

Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favour of writing. Hannah took our Six-Month Online Novel-Writing in 2014, and is now the author of four novels. Sister Dear is Hannah Mary’s fourth novel. She lives in Oakville, ON, Canada, with her husband and three sons.

Most authors will tell you; writing is hard. It’s a solitary occupation, often filled with self-doubt and trepidation. Hours are spent drafting, editing and polishing before feedback arrives and you start all over again. But while it’s generally accepted that writing is tough, there are certain things an author can do to make it easier. For example, I was advised to read my manuscript out loud. Every. Single. Word. Doing so helps avoid repetition, improves cadence, and zaps stilted dialogue. Someone else suggested I skip ahead if I couldn’t get a grasp on a chapter or scene, that I should focus on another part of the manuscript and trust myself enough to backfill later. It was revolutionary to me, and sure beat the hell out of staring at a blank page or shoving my hand in the cookie jar again. After all, who said a novel has to be written in sequential order? That guidance got me wondering what tips my author friends have received, and so I went on a mission to find out…

Samantha M. Bailey author of Woman on the Edge

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve gotten is from my agent, Jenny Bent, who suggested I print a hard copy of my manuscript in a different font to make it easier to catch errors and read it as though I hadn’t written it. Brilliant tip! I also read somewhere, and I wish I could remember where, to use Comic Sans as the font. I did this for my last few months of revisions on Woman on the Edge, and it helped immensely. I could see things that needed fixing from the sentence and structural level to continuity and development. A game changer for me.

Kimberly Belle author of The Marriage Lie, Dear Wife and Stranger in the Lake

The best writing advice I ever received was from JT Ellison. We were talking about her fabulous Good Girls Lie, and I was raving about the story’s structure, how she bounced around in time and points of view, breaking more than a few rules along the way. I wondered how she did it, and she said, ‘The only rules are those you create, page by page.’ It’s brilliant advice she’d once received from Stuart Woods, and I’m taking it to heart. I’m currently a quarter into a new story, and thanks to JT, I’m creating my own rules.

Samantha Downing author of My Lovely Wife and He Started It

My advice is simple, but crucial: Read your genre. You should know what’s out there, how the genre is evolving, and who your comps will be. I know this seems like it’s rudimentary and obvious … but you would be surprised how many writers don’t do this! I used to be in a public writer’s group and it’s amazing how writers didn’t do this out of fear of being ‘influenced.’ If and when you get to the point of submitting your work to an agent, you should be well-versed in your genre and be able to discuss it.

Heather Gudenkauf author of Before She was Found and This Is How I Lied

The best piece of advice that I can give a writer is to write the novel that you want to read. Before I begin a project I spend a lot of time brainstorming possible storylines in search of the one that sends a spark of excitement through me. Writing a novel is such an all-consuming endeavor that can take a year or more to complete, so if your story doesn’t excite, scare, anger, or move you, then it will reflect in your final project. Every time you sit down to write, you want to feel like you are reuniting with dear friends (and maybe a few enemies).

Mary Kubica author of The Good Girl, Pretty Baby and The Other Mrs.

The best writing advice I ever received comes from my editor, Erika Imranyi, who said to end each chapter on some sort of cliff-hanger that propels the reader onto the next page. As an author, I want my readers to forget all about their bookmarks and keep reading late into the night. By leaving something hanging at the end of each chapter, something unresolved, some compelling mystery that urges readers onto the next page with the need to know, it hopefully keeps readers fully immersed. I never want my readers to reach the end of a chapter and feel as if they’ve had their fill.

Catherine McKenzie author of I’ll Never Tell and You Can’t Catch Me

My best writing advice is to read. Read, read, read and read some more. Read in your genre. Read books from the past. Read this moment’s books too. If you’re not a big reader then you’re never going to be a great writer.

Roz Nay author of Our Little Secret and Hurry Home

The best advice on writing I ever got was from the inimitable Chevy Stevens (Never Let You Go). She taught me the catchphrase BLINDERS. Whenever I have days where I totally panic because every other writer is doing better than me (which is most days, let’s be honest), I think of Blinders—put them on and stop looking—and I stay in my lane. All we ever have is the book we’re writing, Chevy told me, so just concentrate on that. The industry is often shaky underfoot, but the book is all we have. So the blinders are the best thing ever.

Laurie Petrou author of Sister or Mine and Love, Heather

My favourite writing tips are a bit of a combination. The first is that it is worth always putting something down, anything – because it’s easier to edit something than nothing. This is so true. My other favourite is part of Stephen King’s advice to writers. On his list is: finish your draft in three months. That is exactly what I do. And the first draft, I might add, is usually a dog’s breakfast. But now I have something I can work with (refer to advice #1). I might add that the best advice I always give is to read. Read, read, read.

Erin Ruddy author of Tell Me My Name

The best writing advice I ever got was to hammer out the first draft of a manuscript to its conclusion before entering the editing abyss. In other words, save the fussing and word-tweaking for later. This may sound obvious to some, but for writers (like me) with a tendency to get hung up on rhythm and cadence, fiddling and overthinking sentence structure until an entire morning has been squandered on one insignificant paragraph, it takes a concerted effort. So keep on writing, keep on writing, and don’t look back until you’ve reached ‘The End.’

Kelly S. Thompson author of Girls Need Not Apply: Field Notes from the Forces

I had a university professor encourage me to trust my reader. I wasn’t sure what that meant at the time, but I’ve come to learn how vital it is to allow my reader’s brain to do some of the heavy lifting in my books. I have a tendency to go ‘over the top,’ to keep explaining, even when I’ve already made my point (I want to make sure the reader gets it!). But the effect is watered down metaphors, language, and plot. So, trust your reader, trust your writing, trust that they will understand, and that their own interpretation of your meaning can be part of the beauty of the written word.

Writing might be hard, but with these ten insights, it may have become a little bit easier. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Get your hands on a copy of Sister Dear.

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