Learning from our mentors helps us to improve and evolve in our chosen field, and I still recall the advice given to me at the start of my writing journey.
To help the next generation of writers’ young and old, I started a Top 10 Writing Tips feature whereby established authors shared their words of wisdom and favourite writing tips. Back by popular demand, I’m delighted to share more inspiration and insights for season two.
Meet Tony Forder
Tony J Forder is the author of the bestselling DI Bliss crime thriller series. The first seven books, Bad to the Bone, The Scent of Guilt, If Fear Wins, The Reach of Shadows, The Death of Justice, Endless Silent Scream, and Slow Slicing, were joined in December 2020 by a prequel novella, Bliss Uncovered. The series continued with The Autumn Tree in May 2021.
Tony’s other early series – two action-adventure novels featuring Mike Lynch – comprises both Scream Blue Murder and Cold Winter Sun. These books were republished in April 2021, and will be joined in 2022 by The Dark Division.
In addition, Tony has written two standalone novels: a dark, psychological crime thriller, Degrees of Darkness, and a suspense thriller set in California, called Fifteen Coffins. The Huntsmen, released on 4 October 2021, is the first book in a new crime series, set in Wiltshire. It features DS Royston Chase, DC Claire Laney, and PCSO Alison May.
Tony lives with his wife in Peterborough, UK, and is now a full-time author. He is currently working on the next book in the DI Bliss series.
Tony’s Top 10 Writing Tips
Tip 1: First Draft
When it comes to writing the first draft of your book, there is no right or wrong way to go about it. What counts most of all is the destination, not the route you took to get there. I know of writers who plan their novels to the nth degree, producing perhaps a page per chapter of plotting taking the story step by step all the way to the end. I also know of writers who have only a germ of an idea to begin with and simply begin the process by writing it – Stephen King is one of the more famous (or perhaps that ought to be infamous) ‘pantsters’, which perhaps explains why he’s also known for weak endings. There’s no reason not to be both, depending on how the mood strikes. I wrote one book with nothing more to go on than its title (Fifteen Coffins), I’ve struggled to find my way through the middle third and emerged still not knowing who my bad guy was, and I’ve also written a couple knowing precisely how I’m going to get from A-Z. A number of authors adopt the pantster method, and many of them are hugely successful at it. It can be extremely invigorating (not to mention terrifying) to find yourself 60,000 words in and still not know how or why your book will end. Ultimately, you must write in a way that suits you and your personality best. It’s like any art or craft – it takes patience, and it takes practice. Extra tip: do as much research as you can before you write, and don’t stop writing to spend half an hour on the internet to confirm some specific detail – I usually enter [research this and enter here] as I write so that I can maintain my momentum.
Tip 2 – Edits
Don’t be afraid of edits. They are your friend. In fact, it’s where the magic really happens. I’d advise you to leave your finished novel for 4-6 weeks before returning to it. However, I warn you that in many cases – if not all – you will read your first draft with a heavy heart. You’ll most likely think every line is awful, that your grammar stinks and your spelling is atrocious. Neil Gaiman said ‘Nobody cares about your first draft,’ while Terry Pratchett believed ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.’ I’m not the first to liken it to piecing together a skeletal frame to which you will later add the flesh, muscle, arteries and veins, but it is essentially the framework on which you build your final piece of work. I used to write and edit as I went along, but that can dull the inspiration. Now I tend to write the story I want to tell, and if along the way things change then I make notes for my first edit. That edit I refer to as ‘structural’ because it’s where I add or remove scenes, change character names, add characters perhaps who appear later on, and generally set the scene for how I now know the book ends. With this done I do another edit primarily to focus on the characters and, especially, the dialogue; I try to develop the character and put over some of their characteristics by what they say and the way they say it. I’ll then do my ‘pruning’ edit in which I try to eliminate anything I feel doesn’t belong; this can be a few words or even a few scenes. My final edit concentrates on the grammar, after which I send the file to my Kindle and do a final read through. You can under edit, but you can also over edit – you can edit out the good stuff if you’re not careful. Extra tip: you never truly know when you’re done, but you have to give it over to others at some point.
Tip 3 – Every page is crucial
No part of the book is more important than any other. You need to open well in order to hook your readers in, and you then need to build momentum in those early chapters. You need to end well; you want your readers not only satisfied with what they’ve read, but also eager to read more of your work. But you also need readers to move along with you from that hook of an opening to that killer denouement. I call this the difficult middle third. Some readers enjoy a wild ride and a rapid read, others like to take their time with the story you’re telling. Generally, though, readers want to be entertained and to feel they are a part of the story, that they actually know these characters you’ve put before them. To me, this means spending a little bit of time not progressing the story, but instead developing the characters and adding life to the setting. I don’t believe a book should be a flat line taking you from A-Z, rather a fun ride on a pleasant roller-coaster with peaks and valleys. I think of it as giving the reader time to pause and reflect, to take a breath, before plunging in again. But this should not be padding, it should have relevance. There’s nothing wrong with revealing a bit of character introspection, but you have to get the balance right. That’s why every page is crucial; some would go further and insist every word is, but I think you can allow yourself a bit of room to take a breath yourself. Extra tip: try making the final sentence or paragraph of each chapter compel the reader not to want to put the book down.
Tip 4 – Get to know your characters
I’m of the opinion that great characters can save a flagging storyline, but I don’t believe it works the other way around. A great storyline might get the reader through that particular book, but if they are not able to invest in your characters, the book is unlikely to be memorable or compel them to want more. Stephen King’s The Shining is little more than a haunted hotel novel without Jack Torrance, his wife and their son – plus Grady the ‘caretaker’ and Hallorann the cook. And without Starling and Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs is just a clever psycho book. Clearly the intention is to give the reader the perfect combination of both – storyline and characters. But always, always give them characters they can believe in. To do that you have to know them. I don’t mean what they look like necessarily, more their characteristics, mannerisms, way of speaking, emotional triggers, opinions, likes, dislikes, and general deportment. Feel them out as you write them, put yourself inside their heads in every scene, think about how they might react, what they might say, what they might do in the scene and as a result of it. What quirks do they have? Are they quick to anger or are they laid back, stoical even? Wear your characters like a second skin, and get them working hard for you. Extra tip: above all else, make your characters real enough to have your readers care about them. This is just as critical for your bad guys – there’s nothing better than having readers love your protagonist and hate your antagonist.
Tip 5 – Do your research – but don’t stress, it’s fiction
One of the oldest pieces of advice is to write what you know, but if that was ever appropriate it seldom is these days. I’m a great believer in what you don’t know you can learn – enough to write a book about it, anyway. Research adds authenticity to your work, and in my crime and thriller genre it’s particularly crucial. I’ve liaised with London’s Met police, the National Crime Agency, RAF, I’ve researched the FBI, county lines drugs movement, British Transport Police, and a host of awful subjects I’d rather not dwell upon but which were critical to my work. Use Google, by all means, but where possible try to gain insights from people who do the kind of work you’re writing about. Same with places: if you can’t actually visit, take a virtual trip. For a book largely set in New Mexico I watched some TV shows filmed there and used Google Maps/Earth to take a closer look more specifically. I even discovered a place called Acme, which allowed one of my characters to deliver an ‘anvil’ quip shortly afterwards, and I also discovered that the Roswell incident ought to have been called the Corona incident (and no, I don’t mean either the virus or the beer). The trick when writing is to limit the inclusion of facts you have learned so that you’re proving just enough to be able to write with some authority. Extra tip: it’s fiction at the end of the day, so if you have to make stuff up, then go ahead – provided it’s feasible. I’ve used a number of fictional settings simply because what happens there is so bad I didn’t want to set the events in real places. It’s all about balance, but it’s worth its weight in printer ink.
Tip 6 – Learn from others
If you’re interested in writing within a specific genre, then read some of the best work from that genre. But once you’ve read the book as a reader, immediately make notes referring to aspects of the book that really stood out, that worked for you, or perhaps didn’t work so well. What did you enjoy, what satisfied you? What annoyed you or made you want to stop reading? Then go back and read the book again, only this time break it down with your writer’s head on: are the chapters generally short or long? What’s the approximate mix of dialogue to narrative? Where are the peaks and the troughs – the top of the roller-coaster and the pause for breath before the next climb? How is the story arc formed? What is the objective, how is that objective successfully attained, and how did the story take you from one to the other? Knowing how a good book is constructed can be helpful in piecing together your own. Extra tip: learn from but do not copy. Easier said than done sometimes, because while it’s perfectly acceptable to be influenced by another’s work, you should never attempt to replicate their work. You must find your own voice, not imitate theirs.
Tip 7 – Keep writing – but don’t rush
Write as often as you can, wherever and whenever you can. My usual place of work is at my desk in my office, but I’ll often write scenes on various notepads I have lying around the house. As I said before, do anything to get the story written. Then take your time to hone it, to polish it, to make it the best version you are capable of writing at that point in time. It’s not a race; it’s more important to get it right than to get it published by a specified date. Extra tip: don’t worry if you end up removing chunks of your first draft and rewriting and editing for longer than it took you to create the work in the first place – believe me, this is far from unusual, and your instincts are almost always right when it comes to your work.
Tip 8 – Get eyes on your book
You write to please yourself, but unless you’re happy keeping it to yourself then it also has to pass the reader test. Early on, when the work in is in what we call ‘beta’ form, you need to put your finished product in the hands of people who will provide you with honest opinions. Yes, you want their gut feeling, but you also want them to point out gaping holes in your plot, timeline errors, feedback on your characters, the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Beta readers can steer you in the right direction, but here’s the caveat: they must be the right type of beta reader. Gathering together the right small team can take time, but you may get lucky right away. I currently have three who do this for me. One will give their overall impression and make specific notes, one will do the same but also provide an editorial, while the third will add the proofreading component. Invariably they will spot several different errors and typos, and hopefully they will all make different suggestions. Provided they all agree on the book’s merits, you can work with that. When it comes to your own work, your brain will start to scan the words the more you read it, replacing missing words and swapping the correct spellings for those misspelled. Extra tip: always remember you are the author, and irrespective of their suggestions, it’s you who puts your name to your book, not them. You’re entitled to disagree. They are offering their advice based on their opinion, but you have the final say – always.
Tip 9 – Learn how to assess criticism
Some of what your readers tell you will sting. There is no author in the world who has not received a bad review. If you don’t already have a thick skin, then you must acquire one – and rapidly. But above all you must learn to assess these reviews, including those from your beta and, later on, editor, ARC readers and bloggers, too. Typically, if they are all saying different things, then you can pretty much ignore them unless any chime specifically with your own inner feelings towards your work. Readers don’t all come with the same mind or thought processes, they are individuals and will see different things in your writing – some appreciative, some not. However, if a decent amount of them all say the same thing, then you must consider their words carefully, even if at first you fundamentally disagree with them. Chances are, they are right and you are wrong – because as the author, with your author’s bias, you can be mistaken. On the other hand, you also have to remember that individuals sometimes have a group mentality, enjoy ‘groupthink’, so something they insist is wrong with your work might arise out of pure bias or ideology as opposed to truly reflecting your work. This is why I say it’s a learning curve, as it calls for judgement because it’s all about opinion rather than fact. Extra tip: never react to criticism of your work. It can only ever be counter-productive, and you have to accept the fact that you cannot please all of the people all of the time. Sadly, some reviews will be out of spite, because that’s just human nature. Some observations will be incorrect, because reviewers can also be wrong. But you have to deal with it and move on.
Tip 10 – Now what? Your book is written, what’s next?
I cannot stress this enough: have your work edited. And edited by the best you can afford. Ideally that will be an experienced, qualified editor who knows how to do the job and has experience in your genre. Many people out there consider themselves to be editors, but believe me when I say the bad ones can ruin your work. Agree the baseline before they begin: all editorial changes must be tracked so that you can simply choose to accept or not accept them at the click of a button, and suggested changes or opinions on scenes must be made in comments which can be read and acted upon or not. What you must not allow them to do is make any changes that are not tracked – and yes, this can happen. What kind of edit you purchase depends on your own experience, but to begin with a general copy edit and proofread will suffice, because hopefully between you and your beta readers you will have got the structure right.
With your edit back and changes made, your book is finally ready. So what next? The fact is, it depends on you and the work. There are five main ways to be published these days: the first is the method that has been around for many a year, which is known as ‘traditional’. Time was when a large publishing house allowed authors to send them unsolicited manuscripts, which all dropped into the slush pile and were read by people paid to do precisely that. Sadly, those days are gone and the biggies accept submissions only from agents. Acquiring an agent isn’t as easy as it used to be, either. They generally have long lists of clients, and of course 15% of nothing is nothing, so before they take you on they have to be pretty certain of finding you a publisher. Always seen as the gold standard, this route can lead to fame and glory, but in a fickle world it can also lead to obscurity. Compared to the number of manuscripts floating around, there are few certainties when it comes to debut authors.
Then there are independent publishers to consider. They will often accept submissions, and if they contract you they will provide everything you need at their cost. They don’t have the finances or the status to follow the prescribed routes travelled by the traditional publishers, but they can get your work out there.
Next up are two ways towards publication that I would urge you to avoid: vanity publishing, which is essentially you paying for everything upfront while they do the work necessary to make your book available; and also the half-and-half deals, where you stump up half the costs and they then do the work, which invariably stops at publishing without any promotion or support.
Finally, there’s what I consider to be a perfectly acceptable method, and that is self-publishing. This can be a perilous path, and the costs can mount up, but it can also potentially be all the more rewarding for that. You have to fork out for an editor, a good cover, a typesetter if you’re not handy with software and can format the book yourself to be uploaded for both eBooks and paperbacks/hardbacks, promotions and advertising. But for this you get to give the book a title of your own choosing, to select the cover, to work with an editor you can trust, to set your own publication date, your own pricing, your own promotions… and of course you reap all the financial rewards if your work sells. If you choose this option, make friends in the online book communities, with book bloggers, with other authors, and learn from them. Those are your potential readers, your potential supporters, your potential providers of advice and encouragement. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, embrace it; you’ll be all the better for it, believe me. Final extra tip: there are no guarantees, so go into this with reasonable expectations. If you achieve a bestseller with your first book you’ll be the exception, not the rule. But who decides what represents success for you? What you’ll actually find is your expectations will change; first all you want is to be published, so when that happens you’ve succeeded, and everything positive that occurs afterwards leads you to moving your personal goalposts. If the trend is downward, don’t be discouraged. You will be, because most writers are at some point. But work hard, learn, try to improve with every book. And understand that a break can come along at any time, provided you knuckle down and do the hard graft.
The Huntsmen Blurb
When DS Royston Chase is called to the scene of a fatal road collision, his task is to identify the girl who died alongside the ex-Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police. Paired with the bold and strident DC Claire Laney, Chase is given the task of closing the case quickly and quietly.
But when the girl’s DNA provides a familial link to a child who vanished from her home twenty years earlier, Chase and Laney refuse to accept the coincidence. The pair start looking harder at the ex-cop’s life, at which point they encounter serious opposition. Perhaps deadly serious.
Because the establishment looks after its own, and soon it’s not only their bosses getting in the way of a thorough investigation. Chase and Laney find themselves seemingly at odds with everyone, fighting to save their own reputations as well as the case. But neither will rest until they identify their young victim, no matter what the cost…
Connect with Tony here
All of Tony’s links can be found on Linktree