Writers, pick up these tips from published authors

Writers and avid readers flocked to the literary fest, Le Livre sur les Quais, in Morges, Switzerland in early September. The 2017 English-language program brought more than a dozen storytellers together for discussions on their works and their craft.

The panelists included winners of the Pulitzer Prize and Booker Prize, best-selling authors with a dozen books to their name as well as debut novels taking the literary world by storm. I pulled together some points I found inspiring. Hopefully you will, too!

Read on for story inspiration and tips on research, editing and characters as well as some gems on love and life, the source material for writers’ work.

Moderator Ed Girardet, Hisham Matar, Melissa Fleming, Jason Donald

Where writers get their stories

The bits of story that are closest to our truths are the most interesting, the most real, the most raw, said Sara Baume (A Line Made By Walking).

Kevin Barry (Beatlebone) hoped the nagging idea for his book would be appeased if he wrote a short story. But it kept at him and kept at him until he gave in and wrote the book.

Jason Donald (Dalila) said a good story needs a gray area. He found his teaching English to asylum seekers and refugees. He watched them, in fleeting moments, as they navigated the system that would decide if they would stay or be returned. He wanted to explore the gray area between morality and legality.

Ruth Ware (The Lying Game) noticed that when we build a group of friends, we are also building a wall. That wall can keep others out, but it can also trap its members in. She wanted to explore what happened when friendships become more than we bargain for.

Kit de Waal (My Name is Leon) worked as a magistrate in the legal system with foster children and sits on adoption panels. Her inspiration came from that work, from noticing that children who go through the foster care and adoption systems often don’t get a chance to speak for themselves. Her story attempts to let a child speak.

Melissa Fleming (A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea) Also took inspiration from her work. As head of communications for the UNHCR, her job was to show the world that there is hope for the 65 million people forcibly displaced people in the world. She found one woman’s story and wrote a nonfiction book that reads like a novel. Fleming said, for her, it was really important to show the resilience of the human spirit.

Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) is a stunning backdrop for the lit fest

Thoughts on research

There were as many approaches to research as there were writers. I won’t put the authors names here because I’m just going to summarize several points. Also, at points my mind became a bit overwhelmed by the environment that I forgot to jot the names down next to who said what. Lit fest weekends are mentally taxing.

  • The over-researcher: Do way too much of it, throw it out then start writing. Research can be a procrastination tool.
  • The passive researcher: Don’t focus on how to research, just do the research that you don’t know is research. Tap into the jobs you did that brought you in touch with humans who made choices and faced consequences.
  • The after-researcher: Write the story first so that you don’t get dragged in too many different directions. Once you have the story, go back and see if your ideas made sense.
  • Types of research:
    • Watch YouTube videos to learn voice and speaking rhythms
    • Spend time with people in situations that relate to your book (consider some for early readers)

Hisham Matar (The Return) said something that indirectly related to research, so I’ll include it here. He said, no book is an authority on a subject. It’s them imagined by the writer at a singular moment.

Kit de Waal reading the tender, heartbreaking opening of My Name is Leon.


On editing

Kevin Barry (Beatlebone) discovered, when he looked over his drafts, that he’d written about 400,000 words to get to the 50,000 he kept.

I think it was also Barry who said new writers circle for a while around the thing in their story that makes them cringe, the thing that is so real they almost turn away. But that is where the story is. Keep that and cut the rest.

John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) averages 10-12 drafts. 

On race and gender in writing

Kit de Waal (My Name is Leon) She said she had, until school years, only known herself as Irish and then she got to school and learned she was black. Her book centers on a mixed race family, from the perspective of a boy. She said she didn’t want to write a political book, she just wanted to write a story that wasn’t boring.

Jason Donald (Dalila) chose a woman’s perspective because of the gray area for Kenyan asylum seekers. Women face great risks in Kenya, he said, but it’s also seen as a safe country, a tourist destination. A woman escaping the particular situation Donald chose to write about would face a lot of issues within the legal framework of asylum in the U.K. It’s in this gray area he wanted to explore legality versus morality. He said he reached out for help making sure he got his protagonist’s voice right.

Melissa Fleming (A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea) said she’s been questioned, why is a white woman telling the story of a Syrian refugee, why isn’t this woman telling her own story. She couldn’t, Fleming said. The woman couldn’t even read the book, it was too traumatizing. The subject’s mother did and she approved. Fleming said sometimes we need another person to build a bridge between the source of our story and the rest of the world.

Anne Enright

How to write and work at the same time

Kit de Waal (My Name is Leon), who began writing at 45, with two small kids at home, used to stay up all through the night, from 10 pm to 4 am and be a wreck in the morning. She was able to pull this off a couple of days a week. It’s hard as heck, she admitted, but it was worth it to have that quiet time.

Paul McVeigh (The Good Son) said get up at 4:45 and don’t drink your coffee yet. Scribble ideas from that gooey, dreamy place of still half asleep. Stay in your pyjamas, be as close to naked as possible. Before you put on “the armor of you.” Then, slowly awaken, sip your caffeine and see what it is you’ve been creating.

I believe it was Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Herald Fry) who said she didn’t have a set writing routine. She takes whatever moments she can, on the plane, on the train, on a lunch break.

Sara Baume

On characters

Writers have to love their characters enough to let them be human, to make mistakes, sometimes very big mistakes.

Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Herald Fry) said we are rarely the person on the outside that we think we are on the inside. When she comes to events, she said she is so unsure of what to say, she doesn’t rush up to other writers, hand outstretched and say “Hello, I’m Rachel.” She said she may come off a bit cold. We have to love our characters enough to allow them to have flaws, to look flawed on the outside, to make bad choices and face bad experiences.

Paul McVeigh (The Good Son) said his writing turned around when he learned every character in the book has to go on their own journey. Some journeys are small, some large, but every character needs its own arc.

On Comparing yourself to other writers

Kit de Waal (My Name is Leon) said you’d never write a word if you thought you had to live up to writers like Sara Baume (A Line Made by Walking) and Kevin Barry (Beatlebone).

John Boyne and Emanuel Bergmann

On love and other gems

Anne Enright (The Green Road): We’re always in the process of leaving our mother. There’s a very good reason we’re annoyed by our family. We’re entrapped in this unchosen, slightly fractious love.

Donal Ryan (The Thing About December): Love is an amazing weapon, it’s a sword and a shield. You can walk into a room full of people you love and they can cut you and you will never be the same.

Emanuel Bergmann (The Trick): Maybe home is a group of moments, a staircase in the rain in Frankfurt, the sunset in California.

Kevin Barry (Beatlebone): We’re trying to step out of the shadow of our own past.

I hope you’ve found a little gem to keep for yourself in your writing life. Add your favorite tips from authors in the comments below!