Six Top Tips on Writing A Book

I love those posts you see on Twitter, promising to show you ‘5 Ways to Become Super-Wealthy’ or ‘Ten Top Tips to become Irresistibly Gorgeous.’ I know they don’t actually deliver, but I can’t resist clicking on them anyway. So here are my top tips on writing a book. There’s really only one way to write a book: sit down and write it. But we won’t let that stop us…

  1. Make a safe space. Virginia Woolf famously insisted on ‘a room of one’s own’, but Jane Austen made do with a desk in the family sitting room. Both did rather well. I used to have a lovely study but now I write in the (slightly mouldy) kitchen at home, usually with a cat or two draped across the keyboard for luck.

  2. Set aside a time. Again, Jane Austen pulled off six extraordinary novels while being interrupted constantly by genteel callers. Some writers like to work into the night, some are early birds. I wait until everyone else has left the house and then get on with it, as though I have a guilty secret…

  3. Give yourself a word limit. Margaret Forster wrote for two hours a day. Graham Greene used to knock out exactly 500 words a day, and then stop. Just imagine, if you were writing the most beautiful sentence in the world, and hit your 500 word limit, and came to an abrup

  4. Plan every word – or don’t. Brian Aldiss insisted that Dame Agatha Christie revealed over lunch that she waited until the last chapter before deciding on her culprit in each book, then picked the least likely suspect. But she let little get in the way of a good story, and even if this was true of some of the books, there are notable exceptions which must have been planned. I like to know the direction we are all taking in my books, but I will sometimes let a character choose the scenic route if they want to.

  5. Get it down on paper – or not. Ian McEwan once told me (loving that name drop!) that he wrote all his novels in a certain type of notebook, that the stationers that produced them had closed, so he only had a few to go and would have to stop. Well, that was about 15 years ago so it looks like he’s moved on to WHSmiths. Barbara Cartland famously didn’t write at all, but simply dictated her breathless romances for hours at a time to secretaries. I type away on my trusty Mac, trying to remember to back everything up as I go. Not as romantic as longhand, but it’s quicker.

  6. Write about what you know – or don’t. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte wrote about being a governess, which she knew and hated, and also about a mad, passionate love affair, which she completely made up. If you ground your story somewhere you know (Dulwich) then when you write about something you don’t have direct experience of (murdering people) it will seem convincing. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. Seems to be working.

Death in Dulwich and The Girl in the Gallery are available from Village Books, Dulwich Books, Herne Hill Books, Clapham Books, Kindle and Amazon, at and


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