Writing Tips #7: Real Life.


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This week, let’s talk about drawing from our own lives.


We all draw from our real lives in some way. Our characters are composites of people we know. Stories originate in moments around us. The novelist brain kicks in and says ‘I wonder what would happen next if…’ Sometimes we hear something so juicy and brilliant, we have to document it. Other times, we’re talking at a party, like talking A LOT, and someone, with vacant eyes, scanning the room, murmurs, ‘gosh, you’ve lead such an interesting life. Maybe you should write a book.’

We’ve all been there, right?

Okay, so drawing from your real life comes with complications. How do you ensure you don’t upset people? How do you balance truth and storytelling? How do you let go of the past?

Here are my top tips:

1) ‘And then this happened and then this happened and then this happened’ is boring. Find the emotional truth of what you’re trying to draw from. Emotional truth is more important than getting surface detail right. We’re not interested in the details of how exactly it happened. We want to know why it happened, to who and how it affected them. Tell us the truth. Remember at all times: what is the bigger story this is a cog in.

2) Think carefully about perspective. This can often mean narrowing your focus. You can only draw from your perspective and how that relates to the character on the page. Being clear on whose perspective the story is being told from will tell you everything you need to know about truth, and whose truth it is and in which moment the truth was revealed? Was it in hindsight or in the present moment?

3) Remain in the moment. This is different from ‘And then this happened and then this happened and then this happened’. This is about freeze-framing the moment you are capturing. Picture it in your head right now. SNAP/CLICK (whatever imaginary sound an imaginary camera makes in your head). Now hover around the moment like a drone. Drink in everything: what can you see, touch, smell, hear, feel. Think about how all these senses inform the moment. Which of these tell the story? Which of these convey emotion? Character? Drama?

4) People will see themselves in your work no matter what you do. It is your responsibility to ensure that it is your story to tell and that it is told from your perspective and your emotional truth and your narrative focus. For everything else, seek permission. Please.


Find an object that means something to you. For 15 minutes, do some free writing about it. Dive into your sense memories and associations surrounding the object. Anything goes, as long as it is sense-bound. Write freely. No rhythm, no rhyme. No need for complete sentences. Use all seven senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, organic, and kinesthetic.

After 15 minutes, write about the day the object came into their possession. Really hold on that day. Remember everything you can about it. Throw everything on to the page.


I was driving home from a school visit this week when I got a call from my editor. It was the dreaded notes call. The notes call that is basically the ‘you’re about to get a manuscript with a lot of track-changes and a seven page general overview of the structural work that  needs doing so I’m calling you first to tell you I love you, I believe in you, it’s all good, it’s not me telling you what you got wrong or that you’re terrible, but instead, I’m suggesting ways we can build on this work and get it to be the best possible version we both can before it’s released, because neither of us want to put out something we both know could have been better, and it may seem like a lot of red, a lot of work, a lot me questioning your intent and clarity, a lot of me telling you off and in some parts I may well be telling you off, but the main thing you need to remember is I love you, I believe you, it’s all good, we can make this the best possible version we can’ call. I was dreading it. My next book is a memoir. It’s kinda personal and it’s not something I’d necessarily planned to write when I was a 19-year-old imagining myself the next Hanif Kureishi.

And the call came. And I’m not going to tell you exactly what my editor and I discussed because you’ll have to get the book next year. But I cried (good tears) and we worked out a way forward and it was a reminder that editing is hard, it’s really fucking hard, but it’s the most important bit. And you thought finishing the first draft was the most important bit. Nah, you were just getting started. And a good editor (and I’ve been lucky to work with amazing editors) will always make you feel like this is all possible. And it is. You’ll get that call one day yourself. Hopefully you won’t cry as much as I did.

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Till next week!

Keep going.