Category Archives: Tips for Writers

Writing Tips from Yangsze Choo

Choo, YangszeYangsze Choo’s debut novel THE GHOST BRIDE is an intricately woven tale of seventeen year old Li Lan, weaving together traditional Malayan folklore and superstition with ghostly happenings. With so many different layers to the story, we thought who better to run the #WritingClinic this week? Here are a pick of Yangsze’s top writing tips and answers to some of your questions that came in on Twitter  – catch up with the whole conversation here on Storify!

The best writing advice I can give you is to write what interests you. If you’re feeling ‘meh’ about your subject, it will show.

Do you have a target word count each day?
Graham Greene wrote 300 words a day, so that’s my minimum, but I try to shoot for 1000 – but there are many days when i don’t make it to 100 words. 500 is more realistic!

What do you prefer: writing on a computer or paper (or maybe even a typewriter)?
Having a computer has spoiled me for paper, though I didn’t get one until uni. Now I can barely write without it – I think it’s something to do with how words look visually on the screen. Plus you can move them around!

The bad part about writing on the fly is getting stuck… I really admire people who can plan out their entire books!

How do you conceptualise everything involving the afterlife? What research did you do?
It was very fun “research ” – I read a lot of Chinese ghost stories when I was young, and also historic traveller’s accounts of British Malaya. Most of it came from listening and group up in Malaysia!

Who is your favourite character in your book?
There are lots of old grumpy Chinese people in my book – I’d have to say the Hainanese cook! I liked him so much that I want to put him into another (unrelated) book.

Listen to music. Certain pieces of music will put me in the right place/ setting. I listened to a lots of classic Chinese erhu music when writing THE GHOST BRIDE – it immediately puts you in a certain time and era.  The music creates a backstory for some scenes that weren’t even in the book, but I imagined as part of the character’s lives.

Which Chinese ghost stories did you enjoy the most?
My favourite Chinese ghost story is “The Painted Skin” about this demon who wears a woman’s skin. She takes the skin off at night – totally creepy and addictive!

Do you have any writing tips for budding teenage writers?
Yes! Keep writing, and take your writing seriously. Don’t dismiss your own work because you’re young.

Read good writers, but only those who appeal to you. Don’t force yourself to read ‘classics’, look out for books that you adore and can’t help reading. And feel free to write fan fiction or create similar worlds. I loved Isak Dinesen when I was young an I wrote many stories in her vein. Later I developed my own style but studying Dinesen’s (and authors like Yukio Mishima and Haruki Murakami) prose helped me grow as a writer.


Thanks everyone that joined in yesterday! Follow Yangsze @YangszeChoo and find out more about THE GHOST BRIDE on her blog!


Writing advice from YOU: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

All over the world, young writers are sitting down in front of their computers, preparing their submissions for our Young Writers Prize (or at least we hope they are!). So, in order to support all these bright young minds across the globe, we asked you for your best writing advice! Here’s what you said:

Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 12.18.43Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 12.22.38Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 12.23.18Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 12.23.49Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 12.23.37If you want to add anything, please post it below! And best of luck to all you YWP hopefuls out there!

Writing Advice from Dawn O’Porter

How do you start writing fiction when you’ve been writing short non-fiction your whole career? Dawn O’Porter had to wrestle with this when she sat down to write her first novel, PAPER AEROPLANES. For all you writers out there (and especially those who are working on their Young Writers Prize submissions right now), here’s her advice for breaking through the writing barriers and getting your ideas out:

Paper Aeroplanes

Do you have a writing routine? Share yours below!

Writing Advice from Julie Mayhew

Today’s writing advice comes from RED INK author Julie Mayhew. Below, she talks about the importance of setting deadlines.

Fortunately, if you’re hoping to enter the Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize competition, we’ve set the deadline for you! Your first 4000 words plus 1-page synopsis is due to us on July 22nd. Get writing!


Do you set your own deadlines? How do you keep track of your work? Leave your advice in the comments below!

Writing advice from Nigel McDowell

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? We posed this question to a few of our authors, and we’ll be posting their video responses this week to help all the Young Writers Prize entrants get their writing in top shape!

Today’s advice is from Nigel McDowell, author of TALL TALES FROM PITCH END. Click on the book cover below to learn more about Nigel and his amazing work!


How to Win a Writing Contest

This advice should be good for any writing contest, but is specifically in celebration of our Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize, supported by Kobo. We’re hoping to find talented writers from 18 to 25 writing fiction for children 9+ and all we need to start is the first 4,000 words of a novel. So, they have to be the best 4,000 words you’ve got!

If you want to win the contest, it’s simple, really:

1. Have a great opening line.
2. Have a great opening page.
3. Have a great opening chapter.

Okay, I admit, that is easier said than done. So I’ve put together some tips and examples that might help inspire you.

1. Have a great opening line.
First impressions do count, so give us something interesting to open. Don’t start with people being bored, just waking up or with unimportant or non-essential details. Be specific to create something vivid. Try to hint at the whole book in your first line. Show what’s different about your book from the very first moment.

Some of my favourites:
“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.”
Dogs learning to talk? I’m intrigued. There is also a touch of character here, learning that the narrator has a dog but isn’t all mushy about it. Plues the subtle but effective “yer” and “don’t got nothing” give a great sense of the voice.

Cover of Maggot Moon by Sally GardnerMAGGOT MOON by Sally Gardner
“I’m wondering what if.”
This is a great example of hinting at the whole book in one line. “What if?” is one of the central ideas of the story and something so essential to the main character. It draws me because, as a reader, I’m also wondering about this book and what it could be.

TALL STORY by Candy Gourlay.
“Rush hour. So many armpits, so little deodorant.”
Speaks for itself, really! It sets up the tone of this charming but funny book.

Peter Pan book coverPETER PAN by J M Barrie
“All children, except one, grow up.”
An iconic first line, that encapsulates the core of the book. Right away, I’m desperate to know all about the exception to the rule – and also kind of want to be the exception to the rule.

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
I read somewhere (deliberately forgot where), how could a series with such a boring opening line do so well. Ridiculous! This opening line is bursting with character. I don’t need one single other detail about the Dursley’s to know who they are – their surname, their street name and “thank you very much” creates such a strong feeling about them.

HOLES by Louis Sachar
“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”
(This is my favourite book ever, so I had to include it, even though this list is getting long.)

2. Have a great opening page
My advice for the best opening page is to introduce us to a great character – preferably by what they do/are doing, rather than what they look like or what the setting looks like. We shouldn’t meet them by being told what is happening TO them, but by seeing what they are making happen, be it good or bad.

Some of my favourites:
MILLIONS by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a great place to start looking at character introduction. We get a glimpse of Damian’s brother, but also such a charming introduction to quirky Damian and his obsession with the saints.

We first meet the terrifying Jack, but an even better character introduction is to Bod. The pages of him as a baby is one of my favourite character introductions ever, as he ingeniously and adorably escapes. I love him so much from that opening that I will go anywhere he goes from then on.

VIVIAN VERSUS THE APOCALYPSEIn one of last year’s winners, VIVAN VERSUS THE APOCALYPSE, by Katie Coyle, there is a delicious sense of controversy in the prologue. It reads like an official statement, but the deliberate wording “a kingdom called Florida” and “listened to rap music” makes a mockery of it and the character behind it. As I read it, I already knew that I wanted someone to rebel against him.

(Note: For the non-Hot Key books, you can “search inside” on Amazon to peek at the opening pages, if you don’t own the book. And for Hot Key Books, you can download the opening chapter on our website!

3.Have a great opening chapter.
The first two points are quite narrowly focused, but this is big picture thinking. For a great opening chapter, make something really interesting happen in chapter one. DON’T save it for chapter two or three. The essential “arrive late, leave early” rule should apply. Come to the scene as late as you can to make sense and get out as quickly as you can when your point is made.

In THE WIND SINGER by William Nicholson, the fabulous opening chapter has the main character’s littler sister, PinPin, failing her “testing” spectacularly by weeing on the Chief Examiner. I can see the world without it everbeing described with lengthy set up. I know exactly what I need to know to understand at the moment I need to know it.

CLOCKWISE TO TITANCLOCKWISE TO TITAN has the such a sense of movement and action, with the three friends escaping the Institute, along with great characterisation. It sweeps you along the opening scene, hinting at the past and the future of the story. Read the opening page in this PDF sample.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
The opening chapter brilliantly sets up everything that Katniss is about to lose. It has such a great last line, too, when she loses it. We see how strong Katniss is (the lynx!) and how tough she has it.

BOONIE PaperbackBOONIE by Richard MassonA winner of a different contest (Undiscovered Voices), the opening scene is simply stunning. You immediately feel for JD and hate those who he must fight against. With a strong voice and wonderful visuals, reading this sample will definitely inspire you!

Do you have any tips to share? What has really helped you focus on a great first 4,000 words? Or what are some of your favourite opening lines?

And GOOD LUCK if you’re entering. Take your time and make it awesome.

Writing advice from YOU: Getting that story out of your head…

It all started with a tweet from @MsEmmaWinter:

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And we thought, wow, that’s a great question! We bet our talented Twitter followers have some great advice about that.

Sure enough, we got a few fantastic tips for busting through that brainstorming block:

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 12.29.01Jesselle said:

I suggest you write down keywords first. Make an outline. How do you see the story in your head?

Who are your characters? What do they do? How does the setting look like?

As you build the world of your story, listen to music that will help set its mood. Good luck! 🙂

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 12.31.44Cethan said:

Watch a good movie! I find it helpful to watch a great story to inspire and construct your own.  I stole this tip from Don Draper and was surprised how well it works for unclogging the brain.

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 12.33.47Sara O’Connor (our Editorial Director) said:

If the project feels too big, I love the tip to keep a 1 inch photo frame by your writing space and say all I need to do right now is write the words to fill that space. Breaks the process into easy chunks.

Pretty great advice! Do you have any other tips for getting that story out of your head and onto the page? Please post below!