How do I develop something special in my writing?

special in writingI’ve had this great question from Lindsey Maguire:

I’m a 15-year-old high school student whose biggest dream is to be a writer. I’m a good writer, but there’s nothing special about my writing. I was wondering how I could start to practise my skills and to become better over time? How did you start off? Also, I have absolutely no idea how to start a novel, even though I’ve tried for years 🙂

What a lovely question. Let’s tackle it in stages.

It can’t be rushed

First of all, don’t be in a hurry. Styles don’t develop overnight. They soak into you from your reading. Which leads me to…

What are you reading?

You also mentioned in your email that you read a lot, but how varied is your diet? Are you sticking to just a few genres, eras, styles of writing? These will colour the way you express yourself and may limit you if you don’t cast the net as wide as possible.

As well as fiction, read poetry, and notice how words are more than just their literal meaning. Become fussy about nuance, moods, resonances, flavours; the mischief in ‘twinkle’ versus the hard edge of its cousin ‘glitter’. Relish the variety our language gives you.

Learn what you are made of

So how will you be distinctive?

Like analysing a compound in a chemistry lab, we learn what we’re made of from the things we react to.

What are the styles you like and why do you like them? Ditto for themes, characters, settings. Do you like the unconventional? Is there a genre that pushes your buttons (I’ll include literary fiction here for the sake of argument)? These will become part of your writerly signature.

When you’re with friends, notice what’s distinctive about the way they talk and think. How is that different from you?

Here’s another point. What do you want to do to readers? Unsettle them, amuse them, tie their brains in knots, awaken their political awareness, warm their hearts, chill their marrow, stir them with ambiguities, distil the human experience, resolve their troubles? All of these? These intentions – whether in an article, short story or a book – will be a hallmark of your style.

Try lots of ideas

Every now and again you’ll discover someone who blows a hole through your idea of what good writing is. Let it tenderise you to new influences; soak it up and see what it shows you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. It doesn’t mean you were wrong until this moment. Mimic their rhythms, their sentence structure, the types of things they would notice. Enjoy the workout. After a while your new passion will wear off and you’ll regain a sense of proportion. That doesn’t mean you’re lost again. You’ll have added a few genes to your writerly DNA.

How long does it take?

Our style develops through our lives. Some writers become distinctive early. Others blossom later.

Most of us don’t stop wishing we were a bit more special, or perfect. Every year, we might think we’ve finally ‘found it’ and chafe at the work we can’t undo.  Evelyn Waugh often said he thought Brideshead Revisited was gluttonously overwrought.

le moulin 286Yours truly: how did I start off?

I started by apeing other writers I adored. As a teenager, any good book would send me scurrying to my room to try a new voice or story style. My typewriter got a lot of exercise. After college, I began to try novels and I went through a very visible (to me) Graham Greene phase, then Vita Sackville West, then Jack Vance, then Gavin Maxwell. When I read those writers I could think of no more perfect way to express a story.

One day I realised I didn’t feel I had to imitate any more. I could write as me and that was okay. That doesn’t mean I am no longer poleaxed by Graham, Gavin, Jack or Vita, or all the other thousands of writers in whose company I take pleasure. I still learn from them, all the time. But I no longer feel the need to eradicate and start again.


This is personal, but for me, special writers have a quality of honesty on the page. It makes me comfortable in their company; willing to travel with them, to accept their voice as the companion to my own thoughts. Read good non-fiction and notice how authors do this, how they burrow for the truth even while they amplify, assert or exaggerate. Three of my favourites for this are Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Sedaris and Gavin Maxwell (I told you I liked him). Aim for that candid quality in your own work, even when you’re trying on other tics and techniques.

nyn soloAnd finally… how do you start a novel?

Some people just plunge in and write, muddle their way along. Clearly that hasn’t worked for you. In which case, are you looking to prepare material before you write? I have a book that will guide you through… (all together now…): Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence… (now recommended by university creative writing departments, which is nice)


What would you tell Lindsey? Let’s discuss!


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  1. #1 by 100greatnovels on November 24, 2013 - 11:41 pm

    Another wonderful blog, Roz. Thank you. I really struggle with style. It’s such a difficult skill to develop and I find it very hard to be genuine in my writing (whatever that means) when I try to adopt a particular voice. I will definitely try the exercises you suggest above and see how I go. Thanks again.

  2. #3 by Gerber Ink on November 25, 2013 - 12:22 am

    Reblogged this on Charlotte Gerber.

  3. #5 by Joe Niemczura, RN, MS on November 25, 2013 - 2:00 am

    What I would say?

    You need a story to tell. If you have led a normal life – well, then “normal is boring.”

    Run away and join the circus. Have an adventure. Suck the marrow out of life, as Thorough once advised.

    • #6 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 25, 2013 - 9:23 pm

      Joe, yes the other secret ingredient is content – well said. Although I must admit, I never quite managed to join the circus, though I did have a go at trapeze once. An overactive imagination can make up for the lack of actual adventure, and passionate interests can lead you up some fascinating alleyways without ever leaving your chair, much less getting into danger.
      But if you’ve been there, done that and got the scars, good for you. You’re braver than I am.
      Thanks for a good comment!

  4. #7 by tomburkhalter on November 25, 2013 - 3:25 am

    You know, I wrote a lot of wordy, eloquent stuff about writing when I should be doing something else (wink wink, nudge nudge) — but I started writing at 14 myself, and I got to thinking, what was the best advice someone could have given me at that age?


    That’s all, I think. Don’t worry about it, just do it. As much as you can, whenever you can.

    Also, read. A lot! Don’t worry about never being as good as someone else, though. There’s only ever going to be one of you. Be you.

    Learn to listen to yourself. You can be your own best critic; just don’t become your own worst enemy in the process. Warning: there’s a nuance to that you’ll have to puzzle over.

    Good luck! Remember there are a lot of people who wish you well, and most of them are other writers!

    • #8 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 25, 2013 - 9:26 pm

      Tom – good to see you here. I feel I’m stealing you from Nanowrimo 🙂
      What a lovely comment. Especially the last paragraph. The writing community – especially the bloggers – are among the most constructive, helpful people you could find online. We’ve all struggled at some stage – in fact, many of us are still wondering if we’re good enough. Particularly in the early stages of a book, while we’re floundering around.

  5. #9 by Jessica Baverstock (@JessBaverstock) on November 25, 2013 - 8:45 am

    I was just thinking about how I would answer a similar question over the weekend. I really enjoyed reading your answer, Roz! 🙂

    I also think that to find who you are as a writer you first need to find out who you are as a person. What are your passions? What are your interests? What subjects get you talking? Are you witty? Are you a deep thinker?

    I didn’t know these things about myself when I was 15, but they were all in development. Growth as a person and finding a voice in your life give you the traction you need to find your voice as a writer. When passion for a subject and the ability to put it on the page collide, that’s where stories are made.

    Find your passion, hone your craft (by reading books like Nail Your Novel and writing whatever comes into your head) and when the two finally mix you’ll be on your way!

    • #10 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 25, 2013 - 9:29 pm

      Hi Jessica – thanks!
      That’s a great point about following your passion. And also about age! I used to think that at 15 I should already be making meaningful art – mainly because I thought that was about the only worthwhile occupation a human could have. If someone had told me at that time that you have to be a bit more fully formed before you can mine profundities I wouldn’t have believed them 🙂 So I’m glad you thought to say it. And in the meantime, Lindsey, you have to keep striving. That’s what has got us all where we are.

      • #11 by Jessica Baverstock (@JessBaverstock) on November 26, 2013 - 1:25 am

        Exactly. I wasn’t turning out interesting writing at 15. I was writing stuff that sounded almost exactly like what I was reading (just like mentioned in the above post) but what I wrote in my teens was building me into the writer I am now. It wasn’t great writing but it was *essential* writing – without it I wouldn’t be at the stage I am now.

        So don’t judge what you’re writing at this stage in your life. View it as an apprenticeship for the rest of your writing life.

  6. #12 by Addy Rae on November 25, 2013 - 3:00 pm

    Novels have always come easiest to me, but that’s not true for everyone. I’d suggest working your way up. Aim for 5,000 words, then 10,000, then 15,000. Work on learning to structure your story (or let it flow if you’re a pantser, and see if you can get things to germinate into full stories. I’m totally a plotter.), and work on learning to revise. Revision for me has been the hardest thing of all, but it’s also been the most valuable.

    Good luck, and remember that it takes years to master your craft. If it’s taking a long time, that’s okay so long as you’re working at writing. 🙂

    • #13 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 25, 2013 - 9:31 pm

      All good points, Addy. Especially about revision. One of the biggest surprises for writers is the fact that novels don’t come out perfect first time. That revision is often a complete stripdown, even if a novel was well-planned before the drafting. But it’s also a very creative process, so learn to enjoy it too.

  7. #14 by philipparees on November 25, 2013 - 9:31 pm

    An excellent answer Roz, compassionate and lucid and succinct. For Lindsay Macquire I have only a personal anecdote. When I sent a script to a very high flying editor who worked at Alfred Knopf she read every word and we started a correspondence over years. I then sent her what I was sure would be my masterpiece. She read that too and wrote back to say ‘Please don’t publish this. It is not yet your best and anything less than your best ( which won’t happen quickly) will become a source of regret. No writer can afford regret, so don’t go that way.

    I was devastated, and she was right.

    But it took me thirty years to fully see what she saw as the gulf between my potential and what I was capable of , and I doubt I have reached it yet, only I took too much time out so what I would add for Lindsay is what all have said above write and read as though your life depended on it, because there is never enough time to waste any of it.

    • #15 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 25, 2013 - 9:34 pm

      Philippa, you snuck in as I was answering other replies!
      What excellent advice. We’re often in a big hurry to get our work out to the world. I know if selfpublishing had been so easy when I was starting, I’d probably have been flinging books out, sure that I’d done my best, and not knowing that I needed to develop. I’d add that we all need to find a mentor character who will put the brakes on when necessary – like you had here, Philippa.

  8. #16 by Hugh on November 26, 2013 - 10:20 am

    Very good advice from everybody, but especially Roz. And I’d add this: as a writer, you need to create interest; unless your readers are interested, they won’t keep turning the pages. So I’d echo what Joe says above about story and what, as a long-time hack, I – not at all originally – call the ‘Hey Mum’ factor. What would once have persuaded you to run home, and cry ‘Hey Mum’? A novel can be regarded as one big ‘Hey Mum’, built up of a lot of smaller ones. So you need to access the Hey-Mums, either as Joe suggests, by experience, or alternatively by imagination, or by some combination of the two – which actually can be remarkably true to life: as a hack I hypothesised in my imagination many stories which when I investigated them turned out to be true…

    • #17 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 27, 2013 - 8:09 am

      Hugh, I love that point! I’m sure it probably has an official name, but ‘hey mum’ is a good way to think of it. And most writers don’t need high-octane lives to conjure up such ideas. We’re soused in them from our reading, already unconsciously training our minds to create them.

  9. #18 by Frank Marcopolos on December 1, 2013 - 8:25 pm

    Everyone already said it, but… it’s keep writing, read as widely as possible, and live as interesting and exciting a life as you possibly can. My 2 cents.

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