Top writing tips

I once heard a very good author say “there are as many ways of writing as there are people out there doing it”. What he meant was, we all have a unique style – or “voice”. No amount of writing tips will help you discover what kind of writer you truly are, but some of the following thoughts and observations might encourage you to try out new things and avoid some of the common pitfalls.

Related: The Unicorne Files: A Dark Inheritance by Chris D’Lacey – review

1. First things first. To be a writer, you have to write. Often. With genuine desire. From the heart. Write a little every day if you can. A little soon becomes a lot. Write what moves you, not what appears to be currently in fashion.

2. Aim for a killer first line. Go for a sentence that gives the reader some idea of what the story is about. The best short story I ever wrote began with the line: “I was standing at a urinal when the sniffer dog walked in”.

Related: How to write a book – top tips for National Novel Writing Month

3. Beware the “alarm clock” opening. We don’t want to read about Fred waking up, switching off the alarm, yawning, scratching his bum, putting his slippers on, going to the bathroom, etc. Just GET HIM DOWNSTAIRS to find out what the heck is clawing at those windows…

4. Don’t over-describe things. Part of the enjoyment of stories is building your own picture from the clues the author provides. One interesting bit of detail is worth far more than ten bland ones.

5. I use plenty of speech in my stories, but the balance between dialogue and prose is a matter of personal style. If your stories are all dialogue, think about writing screenplays. Writing good dialogue is an art. You’re unlikely to learn much about it by listening to two people talking on a bus (though you might get some useful character insights). But if you listen to two people on a bus in EastEnders, for instance, that’s different. Fictional dialogue is engineered to move a story along. Quick tips: Keep it crisp. Try not to repeat what the last person has said. Don’t use an assignation if it’s obvious who’s speaking. Any character who blusters, chirrups, exclaims or declares, etc. more than once on a page should be shown a red card.

Related: Guess the dragon in children’s books – quiz!

6. A few words about fantasy. I once went into a bookshop where I was met by a young lady who was a huge fan of my series The Last Dragon Chronicles. “You must have done SO much research on dragon mythology,” she gushed. She was deeply disappointed to hear me reply, “No, I made it all up.” Truth is, you can’t research a fantasy novel, because you’re basically describing an invented world. So be as adventurous as you like. The only advice I would give is to keep things in context. I like to write the kind of fantasy where extraordinary things happen to ordinary people (Michael Malone in The UNICORNE Files, for example). But if you’re going to step into another world entirely, then stay in that world and live by its rules.

7. Stuck? Don’t burn, shred or feed your manuscript to the hamster. Take a break from the story and listen to your subconscious. Follow up any peculiar ideas it’s urging you to explore. If all else fails, try talking the story through with a friend. Even if your friend isn’t listening this STILL WORKS. All you really need is a wall to bounce your thoughts off. You’ll get going again.

Related: Sophie McKenzie’s top tips for writing tight plots and building suspense

8. To make characters convincing, you have to get right inside their heads and experience the world as they do. You have to be them and use their SENSES accordingly, whether they are human, animal or alien. One of the best bits of praise I ever had came from a fan who asked, “Were you a polar bear in a previous life…?”

9. We’re often told to “write what we know”. But don’t be afraid to write what you don’t know. Years ago, I collaborated on a YA novel with the author Linda Newbery. She wanted to write a story told entirely in email messages. The protagonists were two teens, a boy and a girl. Imagine my surprise when Linda asked me to write the girl’s messages, not the boy’s. If you’ve never written from the point of view of the opposite sex, I strongly suggest you try.

10. Finally, always believe in yourself and don’t give up. If you genuinely think your story is good, there’s every chance someone else will too.

THE UNICORNE FILES: A Crown of Dragons by Chris D’Lacey is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Buy it at the Guardian bookshop.