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Advice for Authors from Authors

By Katie Farr, Ayman Sabir, Iona Fleming, Jess Scaffidi Saggio and Lucy Powell

 

Every author approaches their writing process slightly differently, finding their own ways through the myriad of challenges authors face in the creation of their work. For aspiring authors, or authors further along in their careers, it can be refreshing to hear other writers’ perspectives, processes and advice. Here are some of the best pieces of advice for authors from authors, from finding time for creativity to dealing with sensitive topics in fiction.


Advice for children’s authors and illustrators


One challenge that children’s authors and illustrators face is ensuring that the text and illustrations work together seamlessly. Dr El-Rouby, author of the Misty Mole series, emphasised the importance of “finding an illustrator who shares your vision and believes in the message you are trying to relate.” In addition to depicting the characters and scenes “beautifully,” the illustrations by Ishy Walters helped Dr El-Rouby to “convey the message while ensuring the books flow smoothly.”


Author and illustrator Genevieve Aspinall had a different experience, in that she produced both the text and illustrations for her book, Percy the Post Penguin. Aspinall shared that “it’s important not to have text that explains something that can already be seen in the illustrations.” Working on the text and illustrations simultaneously allowed Aspinall “to take out parts of the text if [she] felt it wasn’t necessary after creating the illustrations, add text, or move it around.”


Whether you’re working with an illustrator or acting as author and illustrator, making sure both elements work in harmony is essential to creating a successful picture book.

 

Advice when struggling to write


Angie Kim, author of Happiness Falls, spoke of her unexpected but successful plan when writing her second novel. The writer explains how the events in her second book began to naturally fall together without any particular intention. As a result of this free reign, she felt as though she continuously wanted to “go off on a tangent,” which led her to speak about her characters and topics in more depth through the use of footnotes. Kim purposefully leaves these footnotes in for her readers in order to allow them to focus more on these topics instead of skipping forward. If losing focus is a problem you face, then maybe you should allow your thoughts to reach the paper anyway; your first attempts at writing may be the most effective, like Kim’s!


Writing characters that are too similar to yourself, as Sairish Hussain suggests, is quite uncomfortable. When interviewed about her second novel, Hidden Fires, Hussain establishes that she was better at “writing characters that are different” from herself. She felt as though writing Zara (the main female protagonist) was like writing a “diary entry” that she felt awkward with others reading. Don’t be afraid to portray characters that are polar opposites to yourself, and don’t feel as though you have to involve personal experiences.

 

Advice on finding creativity


To find creativity, many authors draw on real events for inspiration. In a story of the conflict between the dying Earth and the search for eternal life, Stephanie Feldman’s Saturnalia places itself within the discussion on the climate crisis. While Feldman explains that she had already wanted to write about “fortune telling and alchemy (but without a plot or character arc in mind),” it was after seeing a performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (depicting elite society engaging in debauchery while ignoring an epidemic) that the plot began to take shape around a “looming sense of catastrophe.” In character-driven stories, character and theme can come first and the plot forms around them.


To maintain creativity throughout the writing process, author Claire Daverley highlights the benefits of discovering plot while drafting. Although the ultimate question of her novel, Talking at Night, is whether Rosie and Will end up together, she “actually didn’t know” the fate of their relationship and was open to where the story would lead her.

 

Advice when writing about personal experiences


“Write what you know” is common advice for authors, but how do you incorporate personal experiences into writing?


Jennifer Lane documents the disconnect that she felt growing up reading books such as Harry Potter and how she used this as inspiration for the settings in her novel, The Black Air. Growing up in northern England, Lane wanted to reflect on her own experiences to challenge the usual southern settings of mainstream novels to give a “voice to northern, working-class women” like herself.


A sense of relief appears to arise from reflecting on difficult experiences when writing. Susan Lewis, author of I Know It’s YOU, states that her therapist advised her to write her memoir, which Lewis claims “really was a cathartic experience.” Similarly, Lane reflects on her struggles with mental health: The Black Air’s protagonist suffers with disordered eating, something that Lane herself grappled with in her twenties. Lane’s advice to those writing about their struggles with mental health is to “give your characters the ending you wish you could have.”


Whilst writing about personal experiences is often difficult, it can provide a sense of catharsis and, ultimately, help others who have had similar experiences.

 

Advice when dealing with sensitive or complex topics 


On writing about sensitive topics in their work, author advice varies depending on the subject matter. One piece of advice is that writers should be mindful to undertake research when approaching these topics.

 

This is best highlighted by Charli Clement’s book, All Tangled Up, which focuses on the intersection between autism and chronic illness. They conducted interviews with other autistic and chronically ill individuals to “better understand how they [the author] communicate” and ways in which “they could communicate better.” Understanding this allowed them to “include a variety of intersectional experiences,” which proved essential for bringing forth “myriad” different anecdotes from people with similar yet unique experiences.

 

Writers can also steer these sensitive topics and utilise them as vehicles for education. Robyn Gigl’s By Way of Sorrow, with its focus on trans rights and battling transphobic attitudes, is one example. Her protagonist's correction of misused pronouns was “definitely an attempt to educate.” Writing from the point of view of the antagonists proved to be more of a challenge, in that it was difficult to avoid “turning them into cartoon villains,” but it was necessary in order to drive the educational point – about the realities of transphobic attitudes – home.

 

 

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