Tim Bowler



Tim gets asked lots of questions and the following is a selection.









About Tim

Do you keep a diary?

No. I did for a while when I was at university but stopped.

Has anyone ever been your inspiration?

Lots of people have been my inspiration. If you look around you, you’ll find that most people have something in them that can inspire you. I certainly have cause to be grateful to many people, especially people from my family. One such person was my Nan. She died at the age of 98 and she was just the most incredible person. I was so lucky to know her and she was certainly a massive inspiration to me all my life.

Has being a writer ever caused you any hassle?

Not so far!

Has writing always been your dream?


Have any of your family been writers?

None of my family are professional writers, but my dad has written his memoirs of the Second World War. It’s a fascinating account and he’s produced a few bound editions just for the family.

How old were you when you first got published?

Forty. And I started writing when I was five so I guess you could call that a long apprenticeship!

I heard you once mention that you drew pictures for your stories when you were a boy. Do you still like to draw them?

Not any more. I’m so terrible at drawing. You’d be seriously unimpressed if you saw my attempts at artwork.

I’m still at school. What books would you recommend I read and what did you like reading when you were at school?

Read whatever you like, whatever you find interesting. It’s hard for me to recommend things without knowing what you like. When I was at school, I was particularly fond of the Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome.

In your acceptance speech for the Carnegie Medal you talk about the magic, power and importance of words. Do you feel that books are becoming less popular and if so, is this important? How could this be addressed?

Children’s librarians would give you a better informed view on this than I can but personally I think books are becoming more popular, not less popular. I have no figures whatsoever to back that up. It’s just a gut feeling. All this talk of books being sidelined by sophisticated computer games etc seems unfounded to me. I travel all over the country visiting schools and everywhere I go I find young people reading. I also get stacks of e-mails every week from young readers, mostly through this website, and it’s clear there’s a huge enthusiasm for books out there. The great thing about books is that they’re so flexible. You can carry them around easily, pull them out at a moment’s notice and read for a few minutes, and it’s a lovely intimate experience, just you and the story with the rest of the world shut out. And they fit really well round other things. Books can co-exist with computer games and the like – no problem. It’s not a question of one ousting the other. I think books are booming and see no evidence that interest in them is on the decline.

Is Tim Bowler your real name or is it a pen-name/nom de plume?

It’s my real name.

What are your favourite sweets?

It’s a toss-up between Dolly Mixture and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. If I had to choose between them, I suppose it would be the eggs but it would be a tough decision.

What birth sign are you?


What books do you like reading?

Anything that grips me. It can be a thriller, a love story, a detective mystery, a weepy, a historical novel, whatever. I’m not fussy. As long as the story grips me and engages my emotions, I’ll read it.

What do you like to drink while writing?


What football team do you support?

Don’t really have a favourite football team but having been born not far from Southend, I always like it when Southend United do well. I’m more of a rugby fan really and sometimes drive up from Devon to watch Bath play when they’ve got a home match.

What inspired you to be an author?

Reading and writing. Reading authors like Enid Byton, Arthur Ransome, Rosemary Sutcliff and others, and then trying to write my own stories. It was such good fun I decided I wanted to carry on doing it.  And I still am.

What inspired you to become an author?

Reading other authors and then writing stories and finding out how much fun it was.

What is the first book you remember reading and how old were you?

I was five and the book was called Little Tim and The Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone. It’s still in print and I think it’s a beautiful story with lovely illustrations.

What is your favourite musician/band/composer and do you listen to music when you’re writing?

I like all kinds of music but especially classical music. I don’t have a favourite composer. I like lots. I don’t put music on when I’m writing because I end up listening to the music instead of listening to my imagination.

What is your idea of bliss?

An unlimited supply of coffee ice cream and an unlimited capacity to eat it.

What is your most precious possession?

My life.

What job would you do if you couldn’t write?

I’d be either a translator or a teacher.

What kind of book is your favourite?

Any book that grips and moves me.

What made you become an author?

Writing stories and finding it was fun.

What sports do you like?

Squash, rugby (union and league), swimming, sailing, basketball, football.

Who are your favourite novelists?

Too many to mention but I’m particularly fond of Patrick O’Brian.

Who are your favourite poets?

Shakespeare, Keats, Blake, Seamus Heaney.

Who is your favourite author?

Shakespeare. But I love and admire the work of lots of authors, too many to list.

Who was your favourite author as a child?

Arthur Ransome. I adored (and still adore) the Swallows and Amazons series and even now have all the twelve books on a shelf just above my writing desk.

Will you ever write an autobiography?


You once said your mum kept all the stories and poems you wrote as a kid. Why did she do that?

You know what mums are like – they just do that kind of thing!


Are any of your characters based on you?


Are you ever going to write a sequel to any of your stories?

I have no plans at present to write sequels to any of my novels. I’ve got too many other stories I want to write instead.

Did you base the beginning of Starseeker on a real place?

I initially thought of the Forest of Dean but as the story developed, I realised that my forest is not an actual forest that you’ll find on a map but a symbolic one that could be anywhere (like many of the locations in my books, e.g. the river in River Boy, the island in Apocalypse, Havensmouth in Bloodchild).

Did you choose the cover illustrator for the Blade series?

My publishers OUP chose the cover illustrator. The design team at OUP is fantastic. They produced lots of different drafts, gave me plenty of input, tested ideas on young readers, listened to comments, made adjustments, and the final jacket designs, I think, are brilliant.

Did you enjoy writing River Boy?

Yes, I loved writing River Boy. And because it has so many personal echoes from my own life and makes me think of my own dear old Grandpa who died when I was 14, it was also a very moving book to write.

Do I need to read your novels in a specific order?

No, it’s not necessary at all. Read them in any order you choose.

Have you put any of your family into any of your characters?

Not completely but I have used lots of references in my stories that only people in my family would recognise. For example, Sam’s little catchphrase in Storm Catchers (“I’ll do it myself”) is something my nephew used to say when he was about three. But it would be wrong to say that any of my characters are based on members of my family.

I find the ending of Midget heart-rending. Can you explain why the novel ends the way it does?

I don’t want to give away the ending because that will spoil the story for people who are reading the novel or are planning to read it, so excuse me if I just talk principles and am deliberately vague about details. The ending is heart-rending, I agree, and I found it very difficult to write. The thing is, you have to follow your instincts as a storyteller and by the time I reached the end of the novel, I was quite clear about what the outcome had to be. In fact, I knew it before I even started writing the novel. A picture of the ending flashed through my mind one day while I was out walking by the sea. Midget acts the way he does in order to save a life. It’s a positive action on his part. It’s not an act of despair. He also acts the way he does because he realises that the power he has acquired – after being so long in the power of another – has not fulfilled him or released him from his pain, but has actually corrupted him and made things worse. His final act of the novel both saves a life and releases him from this corruption.

I love River Boy, Shadows and Midget. What inspired them?

Firstly, thank you for your kind comments. What inspired the books? Well, they all came in different ways. River Boy was mostly inspired by my grandfather, who died when I was fourteen. He was a beautiful old man and he left a powerful impression on me that has remained to this day. He was a very calm man, nothing like the grandfather character in the novel, but he had tremendous mental and moral strength, though this is only something I really discovered after he died and I started to learn more about him from those who’d known him longer. Shadows was inspired by my love of squash. I’ve played it seriously for nearly thirty years and I have always felt that one-to-one sports are good things to write about. There is so much energy and passion and complex emotion in sport, so much elation, so much despair. Watching a tight encounter in any sport between two great rivals, especially when there’s a bit of needle, can be fascinating. Sports – especially fast sports – often reveal aspects of a person that would otherwise remain hidden. In sport things are sometimes happening so fast that you can find yourself reacting emotionally to something before you have time to think. Sport can reveal the most sportsmanlike and the most unsportsmanlike sides of a person and that can be both edifying and disturbing – and sometimes inspiring. The inspiration for Midget was different again. I was at Leigh-on–Sea, where I was born, and I was walking along the cinder path by the estuary one day and I looked out over the mudbanks and found myself picturing the final scene of a novel I hadn’t even started writing. It was such a compelling picture that I just had to go away and write the novel to find out how the story got there.

I understand the main symbolic significance of the boy in River Boy but is he also, with his sensual body and expressive face, his mysterious appearances and disappearances, and his urgent, repeated encouragement to Jess, a symbol of her awakening adolescent sexuality, with all its new and often strangely disturbing feelings?

As a fifteen-year-old girl, Jess will certainly be subject to such a sexual awakening and you are right, there is a sensual quality about the boy, which Jess would be aware of. However, I was very anxious for this not to be overemphasised in the book because it would have been a serious distraction from the central focus of the novel. I was very careful, for example, to make sure that at no point in the book do the boy and Jess actually touch. I wanted them to experience the link between themselves in a non-physical way. Bearing in mind who and what the boy represents, I felt that any sexual connection between him and Jess would have been inappropriate and misleading.

Is there any chance of your novels being turned into films?

I have signed film options for some of my books but there are no immediate plans for shooting yet.

Is there any reason why Blade is a series when your other books are standalone?

I’d never written a series before and I wanted the challenge. It didn’t, however, turn out to be very different as a writing experience from my stand-alone books since right from the start I found myself picturing the series not as several different books but as one great big story. I’m now right at the end of the series (writing Book 8) and I still see the Blade series as one big story rather than eight short ones.

Many of your books are set in isolated places. Why is this?

I love isolated places. I love wild places, places with a powerful atmosphere. A location is like another character in the story. It has its own personality and that personality impacts on the story just as the characters do. Isolated locations are particularly evocative because they place the characters in isolation, too, where they are often at their most vulnerable. Some people thrive in lonely spots; others fall to pieces. Isolation can bring out fear and it can also bring out courage. The surroundings are a vital element to the story and if well drawn can both reflect and deepen the conflict that the characters are acting out before us.

Midget took you 10 years to write. How could you go that long without giving up?

I’m just very stubborn!

Was the grandfather in River Boy based on your own grandfather?

To some extent. My own dear old Grandpa died when I was fourteen and I loved him to bits. River Boy certainly grew out of my feelings of love for him. But his character was very different from the crusty old codger in the novel. For that I thought of an old friend who lives locally and who is a bit stubborn and cantankerous. So you could say that the grandfather character in River Boy grew out of two people. Once the story got going, however, the character in the book developed and (as always happens) the original source characters became irrelevant.

What gave you the idea to write Midget?

The idea came to me when I was walking along the shore one day at Leigh-on–Sea. The tide was out and I was gazing over the mud banks and a picture suddenly came into my head of the final scene of the book. I didn’t know anything else about the story, just this ending. It haunted me so much I had to write the novel to find out how the story ended up the way it did. Sounds strange, but it’s true.

What inspired you to write the Blade series? Did you grow up in an area where there was knife crime?

I have always been frightened of knives and it horrifies me to think of people, especially children or teenagers, carrying such weapons. I wanted to write a story that highlighted the consequences of knife crime, not just for the victims but for the perpetrators

What is your favourite character in Dragon’s Rock, River Boy, Midget etc?

I don’t really have a favourite character in any of my books. They’re all very real to me as I write and I feel a bond with all of them, even the unpleasant ones.

What is your favourite scene in River Boy, Shadows, Midget etc?

I don’t really have a favourite scene, just as I don’t really have a favourite book. Each scene is just a stage in the story and it’s the story as a whole that counts most for me. I don’t look upon scenes as independent units but rather as moments in a bigger drama.

What made you choose the unique new covers for your books?

My publishers (Oxford University Press) chose them. They have a brilliant design team who came up with the idea of a white background and simple but extremely eye-catching images. I’m delighted with the result and the response from readers has been fantastic.

What was the most enjoyable book to write and what was the least enjoyable?

They were all good fun to write and they all had difficult moments, too. That’s how writing goes. One day it’s a sprint, the next day it’s a trudge. The hardest books were probably Midget and Storm Catchers, Midget because of the difficult subject matter and the fact that I wasn’t a full-time writer at the time and had to fit the writing in around other things, and Storm Catchers because I was in terrible physical pain when I wrote it due to a serious accident I’d had.

When I read Storm Catchers, I found that the tension and excitement made me unable to put it down until I came to the end. What made you decide to write about that subject and create such an emotional story?

The subject usually chooses itself with me. I start off stories with some image or person or situation and just follow my nose to begin with. I don’t see all the strands of the story right away. They reveal themselves in the course of the writing. With Storm Catchers I just started out with the image of a young girl in a house on a stormy night, and she hears a tapping sound that scares her and she goes down to investigate. When I started writing that chapter, I didn’t know any more than you did what was making the tapping noise. The content of a book, the emotional weight, the issues, the theme – all these things come, I find, in the course of writing the book. I don’t start with those things and then fashion the book around them. The story comes first and if your characters and places and situations are convincing and strong, then hopefully the themes and emotions in the story will be convincing and strong, too.

When you wrote Midget, what kind of mood were you in? Do you think moods change the book you’re writing very much?

Midget was written over a period of about 10 years so I was never in just one mood. I think when you’re writing something, your mood may well affect the particular passage you’re working on, but it would not be good for the book if that mood coloured the writing too much. Each story has its own requirements and the novelist must put those first rather than indulge his/her own moods. If you’re writing a scene which is meant to be happy and you’re feeling miserable because you’ve got a headache, then somehow you have to push the headache to the side and do your best to ensure that the scene in the novel comes out the way it should. My fifth novel, Storm Catchers, was mostly written in excruciating pain because I had a serious back injury at the time but I like to think that no one reading it would know that unless I told them. So yes, moods can affect things a bit (they’re bound to) but no writer should let them dictate the way the story as a whole is going to go.

Where did you get the idea for Starseeker?

It came from lots of sources, but mainly my love of music and certain personal experiences I’ve had in my life. I also found inspiration in a visit I made to a special school for children with learning difficulties where I met two amazing young girls who ended up being used in the creation of one of the main characters in the story.

Where is the town of Braymouth (in your novel River Boy)?

It’s an invented place, just as the river is an invented river. I didn’t want the location of the novel to be specific.

Which of your books is the best and which should I read first?

I let others decide on which is best. It’s a very personal choice. Same with which book to read first. Choose whichever one appeals most.

Which of your books is your favourite?

Haven’t got a favourite. It’s like asking a parent which is his/her favourite child. I feel differently about each book but there isn’t one I like best.

Why do you think that River Boy won the Carnegie Medal? Was it what the judges were looking for? Do you think it’s your best story? If not, which book do you think is your best?

I don’t know why River Boy won the Carnegie Medal. I was just dead chuffed that it did! I thought the other books on the shortlist were fantastic and any one of them would have been a worthy winner, in my opinion. You’d have to ask the judges why they chose River Boy. I don’t know which is my best book and I’m not sure how you decide. I leave other people to judge my books in that way. And it’s a very personal thing anyway, isn’t it? We all like different things in stories.

Would you like film versions of your novels to cover every detail of the book and would you be upset if they miss things out?

I’d like them to cover as much of the books as is cinematically possible and believable but most of all I’d like them to capture the essence of the books. That’s the most important thing.

Your novels Midget and Shadows both contain violence. How did you decide what level of violence was acceptable here and how did you go about choosing the subject matter of these books?

The level of violence isn’t something you choose as a writer. At least I don’t. When I’m writing a story, the characters and scenes and places start to form pictures and then the momentum builds up and it’s as though you find the direction the story wants to go. Each story has its own true north and you just have to cast around until the compass of your mind finds it. That may take you into violence or into a love story. If this sounds a fairly fumbling, intuitive sort of process, that’s because it is (for me, at any rate). Some writers don’t work that way at all. They plot and plan everything in advance. I can’t do that. The moment I start writing, I find myself getting new insights into the story and they’re often more interesting than any plans I might have had in mind before I started. It’s the writing itself for me that unlocks the story. Writing Midget scared the pants off me when the violent stuff started coming out. I started to wonder what was wrong with me and it took ten drafts to work the thing out. Shadows wasn’t exactly a stroll in the park either, though it didn’t hurt as much as Midget. Violence is always hard to come to terms with, whether in life or in fiction. But it exists, as we know all too well, and if you’re going to write a story about people in conflict, then sooner or later it’s going to appear. What doesn’t happen – with me anyway – is that I sit down in advance as though I’m about to follow a recipe and say to myself that I’ll take two teaspoons of violence and one of sex and a bit of this and a bit of that etc. Some writers may work to formulas like that but I can’t and don’t want to. For me writing is something that comes largely from the twilight regions of the mind, regions we don’t necessarily understand all that well. Fortunately, we don’t need to in order to put stories together. If we keep writing and staying calm and still and receptive within ourselves, then the story will eventually come out and if we’ve coaxed it along patiently enough, the levels of violence or sex or whatever should – however uncomfortable they may seem – be appropriate to the requirements of the story. And that’s what really matters.

Contacting Tim

I sent you a question and you didn’t post an answer here. Why not?

Either I didn’t receive it due to some technical hitch, or it’s a question that’s already been answered in this section or elsewhere on the site, or a question that I didn’t feel was appropriate for display.


Do you go to lots of schools to give talks?


I hear you do school visits. How can we get you to come to ours?

I need to be formally approached by a teacher or librarian or someone in authority from the school. The best way to approach me is via email (use the link on this site).

In a talk recently you told us your first ever story. Can you tell it again and say how old you were when you wrote it?

I was five years old and the story was called “The Story of Francis Drake and King Philip of Spain”. It’s so awful I’d be embarrassed repeating it here. You’ll just have to come to another talk if you want to hear it again!

Tim's Writing

Are any of your novels based on childhood experiences?

Many of the things I did as a child end up in my books but I then adapt the original experience to fit the story.

Are your novels autobiographical?

No, that would be seriously boring for the reader and not much fun for me either. None of the characters are me, but I think what happens when you write is that some part of you goes into all the characters (even the nasty ones, which is a bit of a frightening thought). You just can’t help getting inside the skin of them. But it’s not autobiography. You’re not becoming them and they’re not representing you. It’s just getting to know the characters and understanding what makes them tick. They’re not playing out dramas from my life. They’re playing out their own dramas in the context of the story.

Do you have a particular theme?

There are probably several themes that I focus on but I’m not particularly conscious of them and certainly don’t choose them as a starting-point. I just write what I feel moved to write and leave it to other people to analyse what the book is about.

Do you have a special place where you like to write?

I can write practically anywhere and I do lots of writing in hotel rooms when I’m travelling but when I’m at home, I have two places where I like to work. One is a converted upstairs bedroom that overlooks the churchyard and has a beautiful view of the green hills beyond. Mostly, however, I work in a small wooden hut on a secluded piece of land just outside the village. It’s a place that I use just for writing and thinking. There’s nothing in there except a desk, a chair, a light and a power socket for my computer and the electric fire. It’s a quiet little den and I love it. My family and friends call it Tim’s Bolthole. To read more about my bolthole, click here.  You may also like to watch some of the Bolthole Bulletin videos that I have recorded there.

Do you plan your stories?

No, I don’t really plan my stories very much but that doesn’t mean my way is the way you should do it. It’s the right way for me but it might not be the right way for you. There isn’t really a hard-and-fast rule about this. Some writers plan everything. Others plan nothing and just dive in. Some have a rough outline in their head and explore their way through the story, changing as they go along. I tend to build up some interesting characters and an interesting setting, and an interesting dilemma, then dive in and see where it all takes me. I usually have pictures in my head and some rough ideas, but I like to feel my way into the story and see what comes along. It probably sounds a bit of a vague way of working but I’m of the opinion that the imagination works best when not regimented too much. If you give it a decent amount of freedom, it will reward you by offering a wealth of ideas for stories. But you have to trust it. And you have to be able to throw away the ideas that are no good. What you’ll find, as you try this and then that and then something else, is that eventually the natural storyline will make itself known to you, and you’re away. Now, as I say, lots of writers don’t work this way and so you mustn’t feel you’ve got to do what I do. If you like to plan everything in advance, that’s fine. There are lots of top writers who plan and lots who don’t. Find the way that works best for you and then stick to that. Good luck!

Do you use a computer or do you write by hand?

I use a computer but up to the age of about twenty-seven I wrote by hand or on a typewriter.

Does the name of a character influence that character’s personality?

I think it can. Names carry a distinct ‘personality’ of their own. Not only do names have their own original meanings but the very sound of the name can often conjure an image by itself. Choosing the right name for a character is very important. It’s an instinctive thing for me. In the first draft of River Boy the main character was called Lucy. I’ve always liked the name Lucy and I was keen to use it in the book, but for some reason it didn’t fit the character and I couldn’t get myself into the story because the girl didn’t feel as though she was real. Then one night I suddenly woke up (it felt like the character herself had come into the room and prodded me awake) and realised that she wanted to be called Jess. So she became Jess. And the story took off from that moment.

Have you ever written a book that was not published?

Yes, after Dragon’s Rock I wrote a novel that was turned down. So I went away and wrote River Boy, which was accepted.

Have you got ideas for more novels after the one you’re working on at the moment?

Yes, I’ve got ideas for several novels swilling around in my head.

Have your life experiences influenced your work?

Yes, many times but I often don’t recognise the echoes from my own life until after I’ve finished a book.

How long does it take you to complete a novel?

It varies but it’s usually about a year.

There is a dark side to many of your books which is part of their attraction. Did you put this in deliberately or did it just happen?

It just happened but so many people have asked me why that I’ve been forced to ponder the matter. I write from instinct and follow what feels right to me but I think probably the answer to the question is that the stories I write are my way of facing evil. I write about the dark side not to glorify but to confront it.

What has influenced you the most in your stories? Is it the places you have lived or visited? Or people you are close to? Or something else?

Anything can influence you as a writer. It can be people or places or some incident you read about or heard about or experienced yourself. It can be a moral dilemma or a funny situation that tickles your imagination. There’s no rule to it. With me I usually find characters set me off but it can be anything, as I say. The main thing, if you want to be a writer, is that you have to be alive to the story potential in every situation, and every situation has story potential. It’s a question of sniffing it out.

What personal experience has helped you most with your writing?

Just being alive. Living, loving, thinking, feeling, willing, watching, caring, hurting. Enough there for several lifetimes of writing.

When you first started writing, did you believe you’d get published?

I hoped I would be but I wasn’t sure. So many people who submit work to publishers get turned down and I wasn’t convinced I’d be any different.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Sometimes you have to go looking for ideas, other times they creep up behind you and tap you on the shoulder and force you to write about them. Somebody once said that writers don’t have ideas – ideas have writers. In other words, the idea becomes so powerful it starts to possess the writer. There’s something in that. The main thing is to be alive to what’s going on around you and – more importantly – what’s going on inside you. Sometimes a picture in your head sets you off, or a character from real life, or a person you make up, or a melody, or a smell, or an invented situation. It can be anything that sets your mind racing. Storm Catchers started with a picture in my mind of a young girl at home on a stormy night, and she hears a tapping noise downstairs. I had no idea what the tapping noise was when I started the story and I had to write Chapter One to find out. So the novel started with a small idea but as I worked it, more ideas came and the bigger story unrolled. That’s another important thing to remember. It’s usually the process of writing that unlocks the story. You can start with what seems a small idea but the more you play about with it, the more you see its potential for development. You have to be patient and willing to go in wrong directions but if you persist and follow up the idea threads that your imagination will present to you, eventually you’ll end up with something really good.

Would you consider writing a poetry book?

I might do if any of my poetry was good enough but I just haven’t written enough decent poems.

Writing Advice

Can you give me some tips on how to become an author?

The main thing is just to keep writing as much as you can and refuse to give up if a story or a poem doesn’t come out right. It happens to everyone (me certainly). You just have to keep on writing and believing in yourself. You also have to develop critical ability. You have to be able to look at your own work and see where the good and bad parts are, and then sort out or get rid of the bad parts. That all takes practice but it’s well worth it for the end result.

Can you give some hints on how to write love stories?

They’re very difficult to write, in my opinion. I think the main thing is – and this applies to all stories, not just love stories – that the reader has to believe in the characters completely so you need to make sure they feel like flesh and blood to us. Try to avoid crude stereotypes. We have to be able to identify with the characters. If they’re going to fall in love, we have to see that as a natural outcome of the kinds of people that they are, even if we started the story thinking that the two of them were completely incompatible. By the time they fall in love, it’s got to feel right to us. We’ve got to see that as normal and believable. If we don’t believe in the characters, we won’t believe in their love either. Also, don’t feel you have to make them fall in love too smoothly. A good love story often sees the couple go through lots of ups and downs along the way. Final thought – look at some of the great love stories and study the way the author develops the relationship between the two people. Some examples: Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Far From the Madding Crowd and The African Queen (by CS Forester – an amazing story about two really incompatible people who “believably” get it together. You can watch a good film version if you can’t get hold of the book).

Do you know any good books on writing?

One excellent book on the writing process is Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. It was written back in the 1930s but is still in my opinion one of the best books on writing that I’ve come across.

Every time I start to write a story it all goes weird.

That’s OK. The imagination has lots of weird stuff in it. Stand back from your story, give it some space, think about it. Stay loose with your ideas. Examine alternative story threads. But keep writing. Keep the words coming. Don’t let weird ideas worry you. Sometimes you have to turn out lots of crazy stuff in order to find the good stuff. Don’t be afraid to throw things away if they’re no good. This is healthy. If there’s a good story inside you, it will come out if you’re patient and if you give it the time and care it requires.

How can I become a better writer?

By writing and by reading. Read as much as you can and write as much as you can. Do your best with every piece and don’t be discouraged if some days the writing goes badly. Writing is like playing a musical instrument. Some days you play well, some days you don’t. Either way, you have to practise regularly if you want to be any good. It’s the same thing with writing. Keep the stories flowing. Your imagination is like a muscle and the more you work it, the stronger it gets. You also need to learn to be self-critical. That’s the tough end of writing. The imagination can spin yarns all day long but some time or other, the critical part of you has to come in and examine the evidence. You have to be able to hold up what you’ve written in the heat of passion and look at it in a detached way. Unless you’re a genius (in which case you won’t be reading this anyway), you’ll find there are things in what you’ve written that need to be improved. Some bits you have to rewrite, some bits you have to throw away, some bits are just fine the way you first wrote them. Learning what bits to change and what bits to leave takes lots of practice but it will come if you’re patient. Try reading your work aloud. Often your ear will pick up things your eye missed while reading silently. But the most important thing about writing is to enjoy it. Write for fun – write because you love it. In the process of loving what you’re doing, you can hardly fail to become a better writer at the same time.

How can I believe in myself as a writer?

Remind yourself that you are unique. There’s nobody else remotely like you. There never has been and there never will be. Your view of the world is unlike anybody else’s. You have stories inside you that no one else can tell, thoughts that no one else can think, feelings that no one else can feel. And you have words inside you, thousands and thousands of little gems of power and beauty and magic, fighting each other to burst from you. Use them. Enjoy them. Dive into your imagination and watch the stories tumble out.

How can I get my novel/story/poem etc published?

The best thing is probably to go to your nearest decent bookshop and buy the latest edition of either The Writer’s Handbook or The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook. Both have a comprehensive list of all the main publishers in this country and all the reputable agents. If you want to approach a publisher direct, read through the blurb on each one and find one that appears to publish the kind of thing you have written. You can then approach them to see if they are interested. Personally I think the best procedure is to ring them first, explain what you have written and a little bit about it, and ask if they would like to see some or all of it. If they are interested, they will probably ask you to send a sample of your work (e.g. some chapters/sections/poems) and – if we’re talking about a novel – an outline of the rest of the book. Some people don’t like to ring and simply send their work direct to the publisher with a covering letter. You’ll notice in the blurbs that some publishers say ‘no unsolicited manuscripts’. This means they don’t want you just to send in your work without asking them first if they want to see it. In those cases, you’ll have to ring or send a letter of inquiry first. The other way to try and get published is through an agent and you approach this in exactly the same way. The agents are listed in both the publications mentioned above. An agent will take a percentage, of course, but the contacts and professional expertise a good agent brings make that well worth while, in my opinion. That’s how I first got published. I rang round and asked various agents if they were interested in Midget (my first book). Some didn’t want to see it, some saw it and didn’t want it, then it was taken on by the wonderful Gina Pollinger (now retired as an agent), who began to market it. Four or five publishers turned it down, then Ron Heapy of Oxford University Press accepted it and it took me ten days to come back down to the ground. It’s a tough and sometimes demoralising road trying to get published but all you can do is keep on believing in yourself and doing your best. The other thing I would advise is that you start a new writing project the moment you send something off. Don’t just sit around waiting for feedback on your book. Get a new piece of work going and keep busy.

How can I get my story read by a professional author like you? And when I’ve finished it, what do you suggest I do?

I can understand you wanting to have your story read by a professional author. The problem is that most authors are really busy with their own stories and don’t usually have much time to read other people’s work. They also tend to get people asking them to read manuscripts all the time! In my own case, I have had to make it a blanket rule to turn down all such offers, not because I don’t want to help but because I simply don’t have time. Obviously other authors may feel differently about this and you can always try them but don’t be upset if they say no. It will probably be for the same reasons as mine. What I would suggest is that you finish your story first, then get some opinions from people you trust. This might be family or friends but a good teacher might be an even better bet. You want someone whose opinion you respect. But remember that although the opinions of others are important, the toughest and most eagle-eyed critic of your work must always be yourself. When you’ve finished your story, you need to decide what you want to do with it. Unless you are very unusual, you will probably find it hard to get your early work accepted for publication. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s generally how things go. This shouldn’t discourage you, however. Just give each story your best shot and if you have the talent, then sooner or later it will be recognised. Above all, enjoy your writing. Whether your stories are published or not, they’re part of you and you alone, so they’re special for that reason.

How do you create suspense and a storyline yet at the same time keep the whole thing grounded in reality?

I think the most suspenseful stories are usually those that are also most grounded in reality.  If we can identify with the characters and situations, if they feel “real” to us, that will make the suspense even greater when events in the story start to become more dangerous. We can all identify, for example, with a character alone in a house at night who hears some unknown person moving about downstairs. We may not have actually had that experience ourselves but our imaginations will have no problem finding the situation both real and suspenseful. If the noise downstairs then turns out to be an intruder or perhaps the husband back early from a business trip, again we will have no problem accepting that. But if the noise turns out to be a rare form of dinosaur that’s just reincarnated and is about to take over the world, then we’ll have a problem because the story has now veered away from the real to the totally fanciful. The reader needs to feel grounded in reality for suspense to work. If you can put a character into a situation of danger that the reader could also picture himself/herself in, then you’ve created a story that’s both realistic and suspenseful. But remember: realism is not the same thing as real life. Realism is a sort of con trick; it’s making the reader believe this is real life. In story writing there’s no room for the random happenings that take place in real life. In real life you might be driving to the bank and on the way there you get stuck unexpectedly at some new road works that just started up five minutes ago and you get held up so long that by the time you reach the bank, it’s closed. That’s perfectly acceptable in real life because we’ve all had experiences like that. But in a story it won’t work. If your bank robbers are setting off to rob the bank and you decide suddenly to stick some new road works in the way so that they get there too late, or the driver suddenly gets cramp in his foot and can’t drive, or they get a flat tyre, or the blasted dinosaur turns up again and holds up the traffic, or whatever, then the reader just won’t buy that – unless you’re writing some kind of comedy. What I’m saying is this: a story needs to move through what feels to the reader to be a logical progression of scenes, each building on the one before, towards the final climax. Real life doesn’t work that way – it’s full of seemingly random events – but stories must. A story is not real life but if you build it skilfully enough and make us identify strongly enough with the characters and situations, then it will feel like real life, and that’s what you’re aiming for.

I can’t keep at the story. I keep giving up. Any tips?

It’s hard, I know. Sometimes the story just won’t flow. One thing that may help is to try writing in short bursts. Try working, say, for just 15 minutes at a time. Promise yourself that you’ll give the story 15 minutes of your very best effort. When the 15 minutes are over, you are free to stop if you want to. If you want to carry on, of course, do so. But if you stop after 15 minutes, make an agreement with yourself about when you’re going to do another 15 minutes, and make sure you jolly well turn up and do those 15 minutes when you said you would. It’s a question of getting yourself used to some kind of discipline. Try to do at least 15 minutes a day. It’s not a lot of time for the story but it’s better than nothing at all and it will at least keep you writing. By breaking the task of writing a story into lots of small time components, you may just be able to keep the thing going. Try it anyway and good luck

I enjoy writing my own stories but just can’t keep them going beyond a couple of pages. How can I lengthen them?

Don’t worry about the length of your stories. Each story has its own natural length. The more you write and really get into the subject of the story (especially the characters), the more you will learn what the natural length is. Don’t push the story. If you feel your stories are too short, it may be that you’re belting through the action at a rate of knots without really exploring everything that’s going on, e.g. what the characters are thinking and feeling, what the atmosphere is like. Try to make the reader see, hear, feel, taste and smell things through the senses of the characters. Don’t race through the action too fast. Get inside the characters, get inside the setting. Rather than just tell us a character is bolshie, for example, show us that person being bolshie and we’ll work it out for ourselves. By revealing characters more expansively, you will probably find that your story gathers weight and believability and maybe even length as well.

I love to write but I can’t make a decision between writing and acting. What should I do?

Both. Act and write. Shakespeare managed it. So can you.

I love writing and really want to write a book but the problem is I’m young (still at school) and I’m also scared my friends will make fun of me if they find out I’m writing.

Your age is no problem at all and you shouldn’t feel anxious about the writing you’re doing at the moment. Don’t expect to produce a masterpiece right away and don’t feel you need to show any of your work to your friends or even tell them what you’re doing if you don’t want to. Of course, writing is nothing to be ashamed of – quite the opposite, it’s something to be proud of – but I do understand how awkward you can feel about admitting to your friends that you’re trying to write a story or a poem or a book. I was just the same when I was at school. I kept pretty quiet about the writing I was doing, firstly because it wasn’t considered cool among my friends to like things like writing and secondly because, if I’m absolutely honest, the writing I was doing at the time wasn’t that good. It was full of promise, certainly, and some bits were excellent, but as a whole it wasn’t good enough to be published, and deep down I knew it. Unless you’re very unusual, your work, at this stage, probably won’t be good enough to be published either – yet. And that’s the point. The people who make it as writers are the ones who stick at it through thick and thin. If you’re like 99% of the writers I know, myself included, you probably won’t really hit your stride as a writer until you’re quite a bit older. Some people find their way in their twenties, some in their thirties, some in their forties, some later still. But, like the rest of us, you will need to serve your apprenticeship, build the foundations, discover your voice, develop self-discipline, toughen your powers of self-criticism. And that’s what you’re doing now with every word you write. Every piece of writing you do, whether it comes out well or not, can teach you something. Remember that much of the writing process involves writing stuff that isn’t usable. It’s a question of trying this, trying that, trying this again etc until you find the right words to express the stories that are singing in your heart. And the stories will come if you keep working, keep trying, keep picking yourself up when the plot falls apart or lurches off in the wrong direction or fizzles out altogether, all of which will happen to you many times in your writing career. Just don’t let those things stop you from writing. Write as much as you want and as much as you can and keep what you’re doing to yourself if you feel awkward telling your friends about it. They don’t need to know and there will be other areas of mutual interest (sport, music, whatever) that you can share with them. Make your writing a sacred part of yourself and enjoy it in the secure knowledge that the fictional world you’re creating belongs to you alone and that every day, as you roam through that world, you are becoming a better and more committed writer. So set aside time to devote to that special place, not your whole life (I’m not trying to turn you into a recluse!) but some time specially reserved for the fictional world you are creating. The more you do that, the more your imagination will reward you and if you can keep your critical Blade sharp as well, then sooner or later you will produce something you’re really proud of.

I really want to develop as a writer and get published. Can you give me some advice on how I can take my writing forward?

The main thing, if you want to be a writer, is just to keep writing and producing the best stories you can until you come up with something that you think is publishable. But it’s important to make sure you’ve got something you really think is special. It’s got to be your very best work. It can be hard to get published but that shouldn’t stop you trying, and it certainly shouldn’t stop you writing and working to develop your gift. And you do that by writing. Write, write, write. Be as critical of your own work as you can be without undermining your confidence. When you have something you think is worth submitting to a publisher or agent, be brave and go for it. And while it’s being considered, keep on writing. That’s how you grow and develop. There is a question in this section of the website about how to approach a publisher/agent that you may also like to check out.

I want to write and publish a book but every time I write a story I get bored and stop writing it altogether. Can you help me?

There’s no easy answer to your question except to say: stick with it. I think you need to get a complete draft of the story in front of you. Sometimes, it’s true, you have to ditch a story half-way through if you really find it’s not going the way you want it to, but in your case you say you stop because you’re bored, not necessarily because you think the story is going in the wrong direction. Unfortunately you have to be a bit stubborn and persistent to make it as a writer. Getting bored is a problem but the solution lies with you. If you genuinely want to write (you may need to ask yourself if you do), then you have to make yourself push on and finish the story, come what may. The question below this one may also be of use to you. Good luck.

I want to write but can’t even manage a short story. What can I do?

Firstly, don’t knock yourself. Just give writing your best shot. Not everyone is meant to be a storyteller so it may be you’re destined to do something different but just as rewarding and important. Some people are destined to be great writers but others are destined to be great doctors, great teachers, great whatevers. If story writing is what you want to have a go at, then you have to be very patient and persistent. Stories – good stories at least – don’t usually come in one go. You sometimes have to produce lots of drafts before you get it right. You need a good dollop of self-belief, too, and it’s sometimes hard to find that, especially when the story is going badly. You just have to keep telling yourself that there is a story inside you that’s worth waiting for and that you’re going to coax it out. Just sit down and start throwing ideas down on paper or on the computer screen. It’s often good to start with a couple of interesting characters. Add a place, then maybe an object or perhaps a quest of some kind. Try and think of a dilemma, a problem that has to be sorted out in the story. Juggle in your mind with different characters and places and see what pictures come. For example, what pictures do you get if you combine a bald, bad-tempered librarian, a cheeky schoolgirl and a strange photograph she finds in the pages of a book at the library? Try to visualise a scene involving some of these things. Or change the ingredients and play about until you get some new picture forming. Often this will spark off ideas for scenes that can lead to stories. When you sit down to write, remind yourself that you’re just exploring ideas. This is just a draft and no one need ever see it. Let your imagination take over and write what feels good. If you run out of steam half-way through, just close your eyes and try to visualise what could happen next. Or take a break from the story and then come back later and try again. Be patient with it. Start a new draft if you prefer to. Make the characters start off completely differently or change the ingredients again. Instead of having the girl find a photo, maybe she finds a small crucifix hidden behind a dusty old volume. Or some workmen find a skeleton under the library floor. Or some new character suddenly bursts in. If you keep working this way, trying different things out, some kind of story line will eventually emerge. But you still haven’t finished. When you’ve completed a draft that you feel covers the basic story, then the real work begins, i.e. checking it over for spellings, punctuation etc and also polishing the text so that it reads well. But the most important thing of all with story writing is to enjoy it. Have fun with it. You have more ideas inside you than you could ever exhaust in a lifetime of continuous writing. Your imagination is a gun and words are the bullets. So get shooting.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer but I’ve been rejected twice. What should I do?

Keep on! Don’t give up. If you truly believe you’ve got something to say in writing, then say it and don’t ever stop saying it. If you have the talent, then someone some day will recognise it. Practically all writers suffer rejection of their work. I’ve been rejected many times. It’s part of the writing business. Try to learn from the experience. If a reason has been given for the rejection, then consider it carefully. The person rejecting your manuscript may have a point, in which case they’re doing you a favour. You may disagree with the reason given, of course, but you can learn from that, too. It can strengthen your faith in what you’re trying to say. At all stages of your writing career you’re going to get people passing judgement on your work, whether it’s editors, agents, critics, whoever. Some will say insightful things, some will say nice things, some will say nasty things, some will say completely crass things. That’s just how it goes. You’ve got to learn to take whatever comes and not let it stop you in your tracks.

I’ve been working on a manuscript for some time and I really want to get it published but I’m still only at school. Do you think I’ve got any chance with it?

It’s great that you’re writing a manuscript and there’s no reason to think you won’t one day be published, if you’re prepared to work hard at it. To be blunt, there aren’t many writers who get their work published while they’re still at school but that shouldn’t discourage you. The main thing at this stage is to concentrate on learning the craft of writing. Most writers (myself included) don’t hit their stride until they’re a bit older, sometimes in their twenties, thirties or forties, or later. I started writing when I was five but I only first got published when I was forty. Again, don’t let this put you off. Just concentrate your efforts on writing the best stuff you can, whether it’s poetry, short stories or a novel, and try to hone your critical edge so that you can see where you need to improve your work. Every piece you ever write is a learning experience, and that applies just as much to me as it does to you. So write as much as you can, read as much as you can, enjoy the beauty of words, have fun with your imagination, and give every piece your best shot. If you do that, you’re bound to get the most from your work.

Is it hard becoming a writer?

Hard work, yes, and hard to get published for most people, yet it’s also the most wonderfully fulfilling activity. For all its difficulty, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What is the most important quality a writer should have?

Apart from writing ability, persistence, I suppose. Just sticking at it when the going gets tough, which it does now and then, I’m afraid. Sometimes you’re not writing well or you feel lousy or maybe you don’t believe in yourself or you’ve got some other problems in your life that make it hard to write – whatever the reason, you just have to be stubborn and keep going. Tell yourself you’re just going to keep doing your best and you’re never going to give up, ever, ever, ever.

When I write, I find so many ideas flooding through me that my spelling goes to pot. What can I do about that?

First of all, don’t worry about it. It’s good to have a vivid imagination and to have plenty of ideas flooding through you. If I were you, I would break the writing process down into two stages. Stage One is where you focus on getting down the story ideas. Don’t worry at this point about spellings, punctuation etc. Just write down the ideas as best you can. Let them flow and see where they take you. If they take the story off somewhere weird, that’s fine. Go ahead. See what happens. You may decide just to put a line through the whole thing and start again. That’s fine, too. Stay loose and just play around with your ideas until some kind of firm storyline emerges, which it will if you’re patient and persistent and keep the ideas flowing. When you’ve got a rough draft of what you think the story is, then move to Stage Two. This is where you go over the text with a fine tooth-comb, checking spellings, punctuation, paragraphing, grammar and all the basics. But that’s just part of Stage Two. You also look at the story as a whole and see whether it makes sense. Remember that revising literally means re-seeing. Try and do that here. See the story afresh. Cut away any characters or scenes that aren’t paying their way, or develop them until they are. You will almost certainly need to re-shape many (possibly all) of your sentences to make the text flow and read with more power and beauty. But make that a labour of love. You want your story to be good. The point is: don’t worry about the spellings etc in Stage One. Get the story out of you first. Then go through and check those things and make the text read well. If you attack the writing process that way, I think you’ll end up with a better story. Remember: Stage One is about creating. It’s a right-brain thing, a skill of the imagination. Stage Two is about criticising, about re-seeing, and that’s a left-brain thing, a skill of the intellect.  The imagination and the intellect are separate things and you’ll probably find they operate best when they’re split up and given their own space. Not all writers work this way but quite a few do (including myself) so give the method a try to see if it works for you.