Compass Points: Handy Hints for Writers

Compass Points: Handy Hints for Writers

by Lynn Hackles


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781846948459
Publisher: Compass Books
Publication date: 08/16/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 103
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Lynne Hackles is a butterfly writer, flitting from short stories and articles to writing for children and writing about writing. She has regular columns in Writing Magazine. She lives in Malvern, UK.

Read an Excerpt

Compass Points

Handy Hints for Writers

By Lynne Hackles

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2012 Lynne Hackles
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84694-845-9


In the beginning

Need an intro? Here's mine.

'I wish I knew then what I know now.' Have you ever said that? If so I'm here to help.

I'm going to pass on what I've learned over thirty years of writing.

Some of these tips and snippets of advice may not work for you. Or they may work but only some of the time. Many contradict each other because that's the way writing goes – there are no hard and fast rules in writing. What works for one person will do nothing for another. What works one day may not work the next.

Every time we sit down to write the process may be different.

If there is one Golden Rule it is not to beat yourself up about your work.

A lifetime ago I read an article on how to write a best-seller. The author of this piece gave advice which included always using green ink, standing on your head in the shower to write and to be sure to commit suicide a week before their book came out. (Not advised here.)

Now, fancy me remembering that! It could be proof that my daftest tips will stick with you. Forever. It may be that the silliest will work for you. Often. All I can say is that they've all worked for me, even if it was only the once.

Coming out

At some point you will want or feel the need to tell others what you are doing. 'I want to be a writer.' Or 'I am a writer.'

One of my all-time favourite quotes comes from Molière who said,

'Writing is like prostitution.
First you do it for the love of it,
Then you do it for a few friends
And finally you do it for money.'

Some people write in secret simply because they love the act of writing and they want to put their thoughts and ideas down on paper or up on screen. That's doing it for love but how long can you spend locked away on your own before a family member wants to know what you are up to? At some point, unless you live alone and can keep Big Secrets, you will want to come out and admit that you are writing. This is when you begin sharing your work with a few friends and we all know friends will tell you how good you are and how you should get published. This is the stage when you might join other writers at a club or group or class and, when you are good enough, they might encourage you to write for money.

So the stages of writing are:

1. for Love

2. for Friends

3. for Money

We all need to hold on to stage one. Lots are happy with stage two. Many dream of stage three. Some reach it and end up happy, earning money by doing something they love.

There's nothing wrong with any of the above as long as you are happy being at whatever stage you've reached.

The best advice ever

Find the market first. Write the product next.

Write about what you know

It's what all new writers are told and it does make life easier. If you know a subject then you don't need to do any/as much research.

Work out what you actually do know. Try making a list. Add hobbies, interests, jobs ... in fact you know such a lot because it's all down to personal experience and the longer you've lived the more personal experience you've had.

I bet you don't realise how wise and clever you are.

Write about what you don't know

Learn by exploring unfamiliar areas. Check out the non-fiction section of the local library. Take up a new sport or hobby. Learn and write about it. Use your imagination and invent a whole new world.

Try to learn something new every day. Visit a new place. Make a new friend. Try out a new word. Have a new experience. (Make it a legal one.)

Not in your head

Many people write books in their heads. Make sure yours is written on screen or paper.

Kissing babies

I always did it discreetly. Kissing.

Standing near the post box I would take a good look around to make sure no-one was watching. Non-writers wouldn't understand if they saw me plant my lips on the large envelope before dropping it into the post box. They'd think I was mad. Kissing lottery tickets is okay but members of the non-writing community don't understand about manuscripts.

I often wondered if any eagle-eyed receptionist, whose job it was to open the post in the mornings, wondered what the Peach Crush smudge on the envelope was. It's not a good way to blot one's lippie. But my babies were always kissed before being sent out into that big wide world. Why? Because that's what I did with the very first piece I submitted and it was accepted so it stands to reason, doesn't it, that every one after that needed to be kissed to stand any chance of success.

Now, when most work is delivered via email, I still pucker up before pressing SEND, and blow a good luck kiss into the ether.

Superstitious? Moi? Probably, but if it works then why not do it? It's a bit like a footballer always putting his left sock on first, or a cyclist eating the same meal before every big race.

Writers know how important that envelope, or email attachment, is to them. If they could cast spells then they probably would. If you had a magic wand wouldn't you wave it over each and every piece of work you sent out? But these things are best performed in the privacy of one's own home so kiss your baby before leaving the house.

Don't expect to sell the film rights

It's what new writers think will happen. And it may, so do keep the intention firmly in mind.

Letting go

Many writers never send their work out and I can sympathise. Many years ago my knees would knock at the thought of sending a story, article or whatever out into the world.

Letting go (posting or emailing) means that your work is finally on its way to be judged. Will it be good enough for publication? Or is it not up to scratch? Dropping it through that slot means that sooner or later you will find out. It's not an easy thing to do and I have known a few good writers who sadly never reached that stage. Threats to break into their houses at night, steal their work and send it out on their behalf didn't work either.

When my first piece of work was submitted I consoled myself with the fact that my chosen editor would not know me from Adam, or Eve. He wouldn't see my name and picture me as he read my work. Yet why shouldn't he see me? Realisation dawned that I could see him.

He was stout and balding. I saw him going home from the office, letting himself into his house. He sat down to dinner with his wife and made a grab for the Merlot. Pouring himself a large glass he took a swig and, over the sausage and chips said, 'Am I glad to be home, dear. You'd never believe the rubbish I've read today. An illiterate housewife sent me pages and pages of ****. (Sorry dear. I'll put a pound in the swear box.) It was so **** boring. (Sorry, sweetie, two pounds.) I should write and tell her to sell the computer and buy a knitting machine.'

But the more I sent out the more my confidence grew, and so will yours. That editor might love your offering. It could be, 'Wow, darling, have I got news for you. Give the sausages to the dog. We're going out to celebrate. Today I discovered a genius.'

Hang on to that thought.

Who to trust

When you show your work to someone and ask them what they think, make sure that particular someone can be trusted.

Would you show a broken tooth to a hairdresser? No. Would you take your ingrowing toe-nail to a television repair man? No. So why would you ask for an opinion on your work from your favourite aunt who's won prizes for cake-making, or a neighbour whose gift is growing the largest carrots in the county? Instead, hand it over to someone who knows about writing, who knows about the business, and who can give you some unbiased advice. You may have to pay for an expert's opinion but it will be worth it.

Rich and famous

Non-writers believe writers are rich. This is because they read newspaper reports about yet another waitress who has penned a masterpiece and had more zeros on the end of their advance than hot dinners they've delivered to tables.

The truth is that these stories make the headline simply because they are so unusual.

Worse is the fact that many would-be writers believe the same thing, that all you need to do is write one half-decent novel and you'll never need to work again.

Real writers know all this is complete nonsense and that writing is a job and can actually be hard work. Those who still have big dreams know that it's not impossible to get those huge advances; nevertheless most of us have to learn our craft and work hard for years in order to become an overnight success.

What do you do?

A non-writer will ask what you do for a profession and, on being told you write, will immediately ask if they should have heard of you. Non-writers (and even non-readers) think they should know your name if you are a halfway decent author.

Don't let them put you down. What you need to remember is that these non-writers, when asked to name ten authors, will struggle and, if they do manage it, half the list will be deceased. If you don't believe me, try it next time you're asked that dreaded question.

I'm a writer

I must be. Look at me. I'm wearing a hat with a veil and my cigarette is in a long holder.

That's a true description of a writer from the 1950s.

What does a writer look like anyway? We can wear silly hats and ridiculous waistcoats – it's expected of us (especially poets). The public expect us to be a little on the eccentric side. You can have a trade-mark, like Jane Wenham-Jones's multi-coloured hair. But don't overdo it. Dressing like the public's conception of a writer is probably not a good look.

Invent an aunt

I don't understand what genetic engineers or astrophysicists do. The jobs sound very grand and these people are undoubtedly left alone to carry on their work in peace. As are dustmen, secretaries and bus-drivers. Have you ever suggested to your bin-man that he might like to leave the rubbish and go out for lunch with you? Of course not. Do you ever phone a friend and suggest she forgets the invoices she's supposed to be sending out and accompanies you on a day's shopping instead? Rarely.

So, why do non-writers expect us to dump our work and join them for an afternoon matinee or a jaunt into town? Isn't our work important? The answer is yes, it is to us, but non-writers cannot get their heads around us not being able to go out because we have a story/article/chapter to finish.

'I'm sorry I can't come for coffee because my heroine's sitting on an upturned tombstone and I can't possibly leave her there,' will mean nothing to them.

'My deadline for this article is tomorrow,' will get a response such as, 'You can do it tonight then, can't you?'

How do you escape this dilemma without losing friends?

Invent an aunt. Make her an aged, non-driving invalid. Give her a chronic illness, something which requires regular hospital appointments. She could also have unexpected ailments at times to suit you.

Doesn't this sound better? 'I'd love to come with you but unfortunately Great-Auntie Mabel's got to see the bunion specialist and needs me to take her.'

To non-writing friends, a sick aunt is a valid excuse. Writing isn't.


You need passion in this job. Be passionate about your writing whether it's a 25-word letter to the local paper or a 500,000-word novel.

Will they steal my idea?

It's a new writer's fear. Ideas have no copyright. Just because you have a brilliant idea it doesn't mean that no-one else has thought of it.

Keep that wonderful idea for a story/poem/article to yourself. If you're afraid that someone will steal it do write it sooner rather than later. Ideas often come from what is happening in the world around us so you won't be the only one concentrating on a plane crash or a child abduction. Get writing and hope you'll be the first to get your idea out there.

I'd like to think that writers' moral standards were high enough that no-one stole ideas from others but I'm not that naïve. It may happen sometimes.

Will they steal my story?

One of my early stories was called Sunday Tea – a girl taking her boyfriend home for the first time was worried how he might react to her zany mother. Two months after publication I saw my story in another teen magazine. This time it was set at Bonfire Night. My immediate reaction was to shout, 'She's stolen my idea.' And I did. I also allowed this 'crime' to play on my mind for ages until I finally realised that the gap between the stories appearing wasn't long enough for my idea to have been stolen. Two writers had chosen the same subject. Let's face it, how many mothers are out there with teenage daughters? Any one of them could have written it or recounted the experience to a friend who wrote.

Silence and solitude?

If you love silence and solitude then you are in the right business when it comes to writing. Most writers need both. Some work best when the house is silent and empty. Others can put up with noise and interruptions but they are either parents of young children or they have worked in a noisy newspaper office.

Party animal?

If you like noise, music, drink and partying then you're in the right business when it comes to selling your books. You'll need to get out there and socialise, chat and sell, sell, sell.

Train yourself

Train yourself to look for ideas and to ask what if?

See the baby in the buggy? What's he going to do over the next eighty years?

See the old lady getting on the bus? What's she been doing for the past eighty years?

See the couple holding hands? See the couple arguing? Who are they? What's going to happen to them?

Witnessed an accident? Note the details in case you ever need to write about one, or need to write about witnessing one.

Every person you meet is a potential character. Every place you visit is a potential location. Every problem you hear is a potential plot.

EXERCISE – New words

Every morning pick up a dictionary and leaf through it until you find a new word. Use that word several times during the day.

Instead of a dictionary try a Thesaurus or Foyle's Philavery, a treasury of unusual words. (Philavery – an idiosyncratic collection of uncommon and pleasing words.)

Words are the tools of a writer so we need to keep adding to our collection though we do not need to show off by using long and complicated words that our readers won't understand.

A leg up

When I began writing I was so grateful for any little tip, any scrap of praise or the slightest bit of encouragement from other writers who were further along the writing path than I was. Thank you R. T. Plumb. Roy told me I had a passion for words and encouraged me. We all need encouragement.

Remember what it felt like when you first started out on the writing path? You probably felt lost and needed that guidance, wherever or whoever it came from. Now, perhaps you have some published work to your name, a few competition successes, or a book contract in your hand. Don't forget what those early days were like and remember to always help someone who is behind you on the writing path.

Starving in a garret

Don't give up the day job. It will sustain you until you can live by your writing. Starving in a garret isn't really romantic, and even garrets cost a small fortune in rent these days.

The other books

When you begin to make money, keep receipts for absolutely everything. You'll be able to claim them as expenses against your tax bill.


The clock is ticking

I don't have time

How many times have you said this? So many wannabe writers complain about lack of time but we can all glean a few minutes here and there.

I'm not good at waiting for things – people, appointments, buses, taxis ... Find the waiting time in your life and fill it with writing. Doctors and dentists' waiting rooms offer ancient magazines with which to pass the time. You could write instead. Get out a pen and paper and make notes. Add a few sentences to your work in progress. Grab those waiting minutes that seem like hours when you are leaning against a bus stop or perched on a bench on a railway station. Once you're writing the time will appear to pass more quickly. In fact you may become unaware of time passing altogether.

Use that waiting time wisely. I knew an elderly lady who had beautiful upper arms. When asked how she managed to keep her arms like that she told me that every time she switched on the kettle she would do arm-tightening exercises while she waited for the water to boil. If waiting for a kettle to boil can do that for her imagine what it could do for your output.

In future, whenever you are waiting, whatever it is for, pick up a pen and get writing instead.

Write, right now

When I tell anyone that I am a writer they inevitably say they want to write/are going to write one day and then the excuses for not having written get rolled out.

Too busy

Never think you are too busy to write. Learn to delegate jobs, gardening, shopping and housework. Or forget housework completely. I am assured that four days and four weeks of dust looks exactly the same. If it bothers you pay someone to dust for you. Delegate any work you don't want to do. If you really want to write you'll make the time. Real writers do.

Excerpted from Compass Points by Lynne Hackles. Copyright © 2012 Lynne Hackles. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 In the beginning 1

2 The clock is ticking 11

3 Growing confidence 17

4 Good ideas 27

5 Working methods 39

6 When the going gets tough 49

7 Sound advice 57

8 Learning from others 67

9 Boomerangs (rejections) 77

10 Pen to paper 81

11 Like minds 87

12 Set yourself on fire 93

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