Writing Tips from an Award-Winning Novelist

by Miri Aung, Cedar Girls' Secondary School

As children, we all get popped the question - What do you want to be when you grow up, sweetie?” Perhaps you drooled, “an astronaut!”, or maybe “a fairy princess!”, or in my older sister’s case, “a doughnut!” as your excited, four year-old response. But in my case, although I briefly flirted with the idea of being a DJ, my response was always, “a writer.”

So when the time came for me to attend the esteemed Young Writer’s Festival, now fifteen and even with my childhood Hannah Montana bedsheets long replaced, that same four-year old excitement awakened at the thought of getting to meet some of Singapore’s most respected authors, playwrights and perhaps the most exhilarating, getting to attend a small-group writing workshop with Australian Young Adult (YA) novelist Pip Harry.

At the time, my only connection to Harry had been through briefly looking her profile up on Goodreads. Her debut YA novel I’ll Tell You Mine, the witty tale of gothic teenager being sent away to a stiffy boarding school, had won the Australian Family Therapists Children’s Literature award in 2013, while her latest book Head of the River had been just as well-received, a feat which awarded her a shortlist in the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature 2016 in the Young Adult Fiction category. A freelance writer and editor, she had also dabbled in journalism, published in magazine titles such as Woman’s Day, TV Week, New Idea and more while juggling a family of her own in Singapore.

It goes without saying I suppose, my expectations of her workshop, Writing for Youths and Youths at Heart, that promised to aid aspiring writers in crafting stories intended for the YA market, were high to say the least.

And yet, Pip blew them out of the water.

The workshop was small-group and focused, set in the quiet natural light of the Media Hub in Scape and nothing fancier than an audience of perhaps 12 enthralled aspiring novelists sat eagerly around Mrs Harry. From her modest introduction she promised the workshop would not be a lecture. Instead, she wanted it to be attendee-centric, focused on inspiring our own work under her encouraging guidance, leaving with perhaps a beginning chapter or two written of our own novels, or at the very least a new idea that could set off something great.

She was right. Under her careful advice and welcoming grin, we all felt a little spark of inspiration start to flicker in our chests. “Bit by the writing bug,” as Pip cleverly called the feeling.

And so, at their boldest, here are 10 top writing tips from the award-winning novelist, Pip Harry.

Read, read, and read more.

Pip opened her workshop in the simplest, but most welcoming way - talking about her own love of books. As a child, I internalised books with a certain sense of awe, as if these worlds had been created just for me, just so I could feel this particular tide of emotions, and I could feel that Pip shared that same wonder as she discussed her own all-time favourites and advised us all to never give up our shared love of the written word. As she said herself, “You can learn so much from reading others’ work.” Writing, as she suggested, is about sharing your deepest emotions, and hearing someone else share theirs can both inspire you and expand the horizons of your world. You can learn more about yourself from someone else’s story than you may think possible, and that will translate into your writing.

Have a personal connection to your story.

As Pip declared, Young Adult is not a genre, but a target relationship with your reader. You can write about anything you feel connected to, be it romance, fantasy, magic realism or more, but ensure you feel a connection to that story. “Ask yourself, why you? Why now?” she advised. “What is it about your story that only you can tell, and not the person sitting next to you?” Ensure your story is precious and personal, and focus on your ability to write the story, Pip encouraged. Write from your experiences, and draw inspiration from the emotions you feel in your life, that way those same emotions will translate to your reader.

Know every part of your story.

The most important part of making your world feel real, Pip expressed, is knowing every detail. Make your setting feel real by “stealing” from real life, she joked, steal ideas and inspiration from what you observe on the streets, take notes and translate those same senses and observations into your writing. “Be in your setting,” Pip urged. “Notice every detail.”  Know your characters down to the bone. Ask yourself, “What did she have for breakfast? What’s her favourite item of clothing?”, and make sure you know everything about them. The more you know about the world you create, and the more you are able to express, she claimed, and the more real it will feel to the reader.

Feel the fear, and do it anyway.

As Pip recalled, “Everything aside, just write. Even if you’re not sure you have the skills, do it anyway. Just about every book I’ve written, I’ve thought to myself, what if I can’t pull it off? And anyway still, I’ve sat down and tried.” Embrace the fear and the doubt, but keep writing through it all. As Pip advised, “write beyond your comfort zone. Try something new, mess up and try again.” Keep experimenting, and never be caught short by failure - remember writing is never about what you end up with, but what you learn as you go through it all, so take risks!

Remember that first drafts never end up published.

Pip said it best -  “First drafts are meant to suck. But that’s okay, just get your story out, get your story into the world, and then you can edit the hell out of it.” Writing is about re-writing - just write your story, write it through to the end, never stop until it’s out of your system and then go back to edit it. Don’t be discouraged if your first draft isn’t the best - no first draft ever made it to the bookstores.

Write creatively.

There are a million different ways to write a story, Pip declared. The best books are written uniquely, in their own distinct ways, be it in verse like One by Sarah Crossan, as a collection of files like Illuminae by Amie Kaufman, or just a classic narrative. Choose the best way to write your story, and be bold and creative in your choice.

Start your story with a bang.

Pip introduced the three best ways to begin a hit novel - 1) Highlight conflict or mystery, 2) Highlight voice, or 3) Highlight place. Depending on your story, your first few pages should introduce the atmosphere of your story - whether it is shrouded in darkness in mystery, told by a sassy narrator, or set in a fantastical Harry Potter-esque world. Your first page should add tension and intrigue for the reader to wonder about, so don’t give too much away. Instead, introduce a compelling voice or character for them to root for or loathe, and set the scene to orient the reader in your tale. Make your hook memorable!

Get critique-ing.

Once you’ve written your story to its fullest, it’s time to start editing! Pip suggested joining a writing group - whether you join a well-established group or you start one with your friends, have a platform where you can share your story and get critiques and editing help. On groups like Singapore Writers’ Group, writers can collaborate to improve their work and get inspirations from other works, helping to give suggestions and feedback. Pip advised to read your story or your story’s pitch aloud to someone - in introducing your story to someone else and hearing yourself, you can notice plot holes and mistakes you might have missed before. Although, Pip advised, don’t have your best friend or your mother critique your story - some of the best editors are unbiased, complete strangers.

Get published!

Pip suggested finding a publishing house to get you started, be it a famous publisher like Penguin or, if you’re a freelance writer, self-publish. You can start by writing for magazines, interning at small writing companies, or even writing on Wattpad -  just get yourself known and out there. (Fun Fact: Many international writers got noticed and published because their novels were popular on Wattpad!) Pip brought up one of her favourite ways to get published, through the annual #PitMad on Twitter, where writers tweet pitches for their finished stories in 140 characters for publishers to review and choose the ones they find interesting. Use what resources you have -  the Internet can come in handier than you might think!

Don’t give up.

After the workshop, I approached Pip and asked her how she rose to become the successful writer that she was. Was there a clear cut path? Were there steps to take, like medical school for doctors? No, was Pip’s response. Unlike many writers, she didn’t study writing at university, having been rejected from her application to major in journalism. And yet, she kept going, earning her degrees and getting her first work experience on a sports magazine. As a struggling writer, she wrote letters to publishers across Australia until she finally got a reply and a job interview. Around her mid-3os, she finally returned to writing, going back to college to major in Creative Writing and found a literary agent. A few years later, she finally published her first novel. “Pursuing something you love… it’s difficult, and you will struggle,” she reminisced. “But, I also believe, in the end, it is the most fulfilling thing you could do.” Writing is never an easy feat, and pursuing it as a career is that much harder. To really make it as a writer, a little faith and a lot of resilience is key.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Whatever your answer may be, as a four year- old, or however old you may be now, there will be struggle, there will be pain, and there will be failure. But success is born from failure, beauty is born from struggle, and there is no other way to achieve your dreams than to embrace the struggle and live your dreams to the fullest. The workshop with Pip Harry was short, but it gave me hope, perspective and a taste of how my lifelong dream could become a reality. Sometimes, a little faith is all you need.