Five quick and dirty writing tips

Writing friend Keith Dixon asked me in one of those round robins on Facebook to share five writing tips, but without copying his (curses!).

After nine, soon to be ten, books you’d think it would be easy, but the problem is that over that time, I’ve gathered a jumble of writing dos and don’ts. It probably did me a lot of good to sit down and write down some of the essential ones! Here are my five:

1. Bash your story out. We know that editing, refining, honing, etc. are crucial for a good story, but you have to have something to work on. First drafts are always crap, to use a technical term, but give you an initial framework. And it can be fatal if you stop to edit as you go as you can easily lose the flow of your story. and it’s the story that always counts.

2. Research round your subject, period and environment but don’t get caught in research thrall. When you have a good general grasp of these three, start writing. You will inevitably need to look up specific things (how different is a Glock 17 from a Glock 26 and does it matter?) but just mark the place in your text with something (asterisks, emojis, different coloured text, whatever) and go back at the end of your writing session to fill these in.

3. Avoid long passages of description. Readers are not daft and half the pleasure of reading is forming your own picture in your mind of what the author is writing. The convention these days is to start right your story in the middle of the action – ‘in media res‘ if you want it in Latin. I have to confess that having to wade through a lot of verdant forest or dull city streetscape for two or three pages before anything starts or a character pops up does put me off a book these days.

4. Get your money’s worth out of your characters. I have a lot of characters, but none of them is there without a purpose and I often bring them back later in the story or in another story in the series. Doing this with secondary characters (e.g. Lurio, Flavius, Paula Servla in the Roma Nova series) reinforces interactions with the main ones, and the world they live in. As a reader, I love glimpses of such ‘old friends’.

5.Give your characters food, rest and a loo break. They need to wash themselves and their clothes, change shoes, put on a warm jacket. Readers like characters who, however clever or courageous, do stuff they do. Habits help define and reinforce characters and their emotional reactions; Aurelia reaches for French brandy, Carina for coffee or Castra Lucillan white wine, Conrad for whisky. But be very sparing; you can use these actions as beats, pauses or in place of dialogue tags. But no cups of tea every chapter, please.

So, do you have any favourite ‘quick ‘n’ dirty’ writing tips?


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, will be out on 12 September 2019.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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