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How to write a novel – top writing tips from crime fiction author Liz Mistry

Posted by. Liz Mistry
Posted on 17 April 2018


​​​Novelist, Leeds Trinity PhD candidate and published author Liz Mistry has just released her fourth crime-fiction book, Uncommon Cruelty. In this blog, she talks about her writing process, with some inspirational advice for aspiring authors. 

For months (sometimes even years), ideas swill around in my mind like a glurging urn of over brewed thick scorched coffee. Then, at some point, one of them takes the form of a frothy flavoursome cappuccino. It is then, I know I've struck gold and I'm on my way. I don't start writing then though. I need to wait for the Cappuccino to cool down a bit. I savour the aroma, lick the chocolate topping off to see what's underneath and then scoop up the foam before savouring each mouthful. By then I can see what's at the bottom of the cup. At that point, I know I've got a beginning, a few plot hints and an ending in sight. It's then that I knuckle down in front of my laptop and begin to write.

When I first start writing, I keep a notebook, with a chapter by chapter outline (filled in after I write the chapter).​

I'm one of those writers that likes the plot and the characters to direct me and, invariably, they take me on a circuitous route. Occasionally, the characters I've created force me into a corner and I have to back track. Sometimes, they even take me to unexpected places. The one thing I can be 100% certain of though, is that they will always, at some point, keep me awake or waken me in the middle of the night with their shenanigans… and I love that. When they do that, it means they've taken hold, taken on a life of their own and are determined for their story to be heard.

I'm not a plotter. I never have been. I take the bare bones of the story and just go with it. When I first start writing, I keep a notebook, with a chapter by chapter outline (filled in after I write the chapter). This is purely, for chronological reasons and it's never written in stone. Having spent years faffing about at the 50,000-word mark and then spending months fine tuning those, I've changed. When I started the MA in Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity, Martyn Bedford, my lecturer (pictured with me below), told me to get the first draft of Unquiet Souls written before I started the course. I did just that and the feeling of having finished a whole novel made me realise that, for me that was the way forward. Now, I write to the last 10,000 words before embarking on my first edit. 

If I have a bit of a block, I leave a space and write past it. This approach works for me. It gives me the chance to develop my characters and immerse myself totally in their stories.

When I'm in full swing, I aim for around 3,000 words a day. Sometimes I do more, sometimes less. However, I don't write creatively every day. I need time to ponder, to let the thoughts come to me, to allow them to mature. So, on those days I tend to do research work for my PHD (which I'm also doing here at Leeds Trinity University). I've written, on average, a book every six month and find that exhilarating. Researching for my PHD has slowed the process down a little but has impacted beneficially on my writing. The synergy between the academic and the creative works for me.

So, my advice for would-be writers:

  1. Keep writing. The act of finishing your first draft will make you realise you can do it!
  2. Find a creative writing circle that will help you with your work in progress (workshopping each other's work is the best way to learn)
  3. Find a way to relax your brain so that your creative thoughts can mature – mine is a combination of reading, playing Candy Crush, academic research and day dreaming.
  4. Above all, be kind to yourself.