Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Few of us who were children in the nineties made it through childhood without consuming at least one of Anthony Horowitz’s action-packed YA spy thrillers. His Alex Rider series was (and remains) incredibly popular, but that’s not to forget his The Gatekeepers series, his Sherlock Holmes novels, his TV and film writing, or the dozens of standalone works he’s produced.
Horowitz’s work has long appealed to both children and adults (particularly as his characters mature from book to book), and his mastery of action, mystery, and suspense makes him someone worth paying attention to. Thankfully, he’s been quite vocal about his own methods and literary ideologies, meaning we don’t have to look far to learn something useful. Continuing with our series of writers’ advice columns (we’ve done J.K. Rowling, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, and Neil Gaiman already), here’s how Anthony Horowitz can help improve your writing, even if you’re not writing children’s or YA literature.
1. Work hard, but don’t torture yourself
For many frustrated writers, writing is something to fit around your day job. Not many people have a choice in this – you’ve got to earn money, after all. However, according to Horowitz, you’ve got to treat writing as if it’s your job. This means putting in the hours and taking it seriously. Horowitz claims to work ‘about ten hours a day, often seven days a week.’ Obviously, this isn’t practical for people in other full-time employment, but it shows that you can’t just sit around waiting for inspiration – you’ve got to get stuck in.
That said, if you hit a wall, amble around rather than pushing through – Horowitz insists that a willingness to get up and take a breather makes for more productive writing:
Taking a short break can help you work through writer’s block.Click To Tweet
If the words aren’t coming, I go out for a walk, visit a museum, see a film. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never worried about writer’s block that I’ve never suffered from it.
2. Pace, adventure, and surprise equal sales
Perhaps this is a cynical point, but despite what the chain-smoking, beret-wearing, Baudrillard-quoting literati tell you, it’s best to actually sell some books. Unsurprisingly, the trick to selling things is to ensure that what you’re selling appeals to as wide an audience as possible, and Horowitz’s books certainly do that – his James Bond-esque action plots and Arthur Conan Doyle-inspired mysteries take many of their tricks from these two hugely popular franchises, and their easy-to-follow plots and clear style help ensure that anyone can pick up and enjoy a Horowitz book.Pace and energy will send your books flying off the shelves.Click To Tweet
Horowitz himself thinks it’s his emphasis on energetic plots that keeps his books flying off the shelves. He compares children’s fiction to TV, and this is telling – after all, many more people watch TV than read books.
It is probably the love of story that has led me to children’s books. It’s a genre that allows me to concentrate on pace, adventure, and surprise, all of which excite me, rather than description, philosophy, or profound character analysis, which largely don’t. I have always found television writing and children’s books very similar in this respect. If you’re writing for a primetime, mainstream audience, pace and energy have to be your first considerations.
3. Plan, but don’t be afraid to deviate
It’s always interesting to see which side successful writers stand on when it comes to the ‘to plan or not to plan’ debate. Horowitz is firmly in the ‘plan’ camp, joining such commercial fiction superstars as J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. Interestingly, Horowitz stresses that flexibility is the key to successful planning – if, when writing, you find yourself deviating from your plan in a way that feels organic, don’t fight it – go with the flow.
Every book I write is planned very carefully indeed. But that doesn’t mean I always follow the plan.
Thorough planning helps ensure your structure and narrative pace remain consistent and effective. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of your book’s structure. As Horowitz said:
The structure is the street map that will guide you round the city that is your novel. It doesn’t force you to go in one direction, but it makes sure you always know where you are.
4. Find ideas and inspiration all around you
One of the many difficult parts of writing a good novel is thinking of a good idea in the first place. You’ve got to come up with something original, entertaining, and intelligent, and you’ve got to express it in an engaging enough manner that people actually want to finish the damn thing.
Thankfully, according to Horowitz, good ideas are never far away. Stories, he says, are everywhere – in every object, behind every interaction, between every two people.
There isn’t a single thing in the world that doesn’t have a story attached to it, and all you have to do is ask the right questions. An example: there’s a black telephone box outside my house that’s never actually had a telephone installed. What’s it doing there? Who paid for it? This could be the beginning of a sci-fi novel (it’s a portal to another university [sic]), a spy story (it’s an MI6 dead letter box) or a satire (it’s a costly mistake by an incompetent council… possibly true).
In an interview with Scope, Horowitz goes into detail about how you can glean ideas from even the most mundane situations. Here’s his guide to pulling adventures from your office desk:
STEP 1: Write a paragraph describing the room where you are now sitting.
STEP 2: Now rewrite your paragraph, but make the room dangerous. Be imaginative! Try to avoid easy choices, like a ticking bomb or a scorpion on the shelf.
STEP 3: Now write another paragraph describing how you get out of the room without being harmed.
STEP 4: Take your two paragraphs and flesh them out in a two-page action-adventure story!
So next time you’re stuck for a story, give Horowitz’s method a go yourself! Maybe this simple writing exercise will result in something brilliant.Basic writing exercises can reawaken the writing instinct. Click To Tweet
5. Write for the right reasons
While I’ve talked about Horowitz’s advice for making money and selling books, that’s not to say that riches should be the prime motivation for writing books. After all, there are many easier, more reliable ways to make money.
Instead, you have to love what you do. If you’re not passionate about your story, you’re not going to make it the best it can be. If you’re going to write, you should be writing for a better reason than simply making money. As Horowitz said:
Don’t worry about publishers, agents, critics, partners, friends or even readers. Believe me that deals and bestseller lists are the part of writing that I enjoy least. Immerse yourself in your work. Believe in yourself and enjoy what you’re doing. There is nothing quite as fulfilling as the act of writing. The rest can look after itself.
Wise words indeed. Writing can be a frustrating and lonely profession, and in the dark moments it’s important to remind yourself why you’re doing it in the first place. Trust in your decisions, know when to take a break, and push ever onward. Finish that book!
For more great advice on YA literature, check out The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Young Adult Novel, or for more great advice from a bestselling author, check out 5 Ways J.K. Rowling Can Help You Improve Your Writing. What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever heard or seen another writer share? Let me know in the comments.