Francis Cottam: On Writing

F.G. Cottam – author of the spine-tingling Colony Trilogy – shares with us his top tips for writing fiction.


There are no hard and fast rules in writing fiction. That’s one of the most liberating and exciting aspects of doing it. There are writers who map out their story with a meticulously prepared synopsis. And then there are those, liked me, who start off with only the vaguest idea of where and how matters will conclude. No rules, then, but certain practicalities. Since the publication of my first novel almost 20 years ago, I’ve learned things about the process I’m happy to pass on to aspiring writers as tips. Here are ten of them, in no particular order of importance.


  1. Develop a routine. This will minimise distraction and enable concentration. And you do need focus in order to write well. Plausibility and continuity only come when you’re wholly focussed on the story.
  2. Write in comfort. You need a forgiving chair and plenty of light and a significant degree of seclusion. And because writing fiction is done in the abstract, a window is important. A view of fields, trees, the sea or the sky will inspire rather than distract you. A nice garden will do the trick.
  3. Make notes. I’d go further and say, carry a notebook and pen. That brilliant scene or line of dialogue that occurs to you in the pub won’t recur to you the following day regardless of how confident you are that it will. Ideas are ephemeral, like dreams. The only sure way to stop any really good detail from vanishing from your mind is to record it straight away.
  4. Write at least one character you really like. If you don’t like them, then no one else will care for them either. And if they’re your protagonist and you’re writing a full-length novel, you’ll be spending an awful lot of time in their company.
  5. Don’t dictate to your characters. It’s when they start to rebel against the moves you had planned for them at the outset, that characters properly evolve. They become rounded and they develop in reaction to their experiences. This process isn’t implausible – it exactly mirrors what happens in life.
  6. Don’t prevaricate. Don’t put it off until tomorrow. Sit down and begin your story today. My written output since I started 18 years ago is a novel a year and three novellas. Hardly vegetating, but my greatest regret is that I didn’t start writing fiction earlier than I did. I think I’m improving as a novelist because every book has made me progressively more practiced at the craft. But I’m damn sure I’d be better now if I’d begun writing sooner.
  7. Stop when it’s going well. That’s not one of mine, It’s one of Ernest Hemingway’s. But the author of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms knew a thing or two. If you stop confident of your direction, you’ll pick up again for the next session full of impetus and confidence. Best tip I’ve ever heard, quite honestly.
  8. Play to your strengths. I write in different time periods. I’ve written a lot of stuff set in the 1920s. I went back to 1888 and the era of the Whitechapel murders. I set a novel in the London Blitz. History fascinates me and was the subject of my degree. I can write about the past without anachronisms and make the most of that.
  9. A sense of place is important. This isn’t just about physical detail providing authenticity. It’s about atmosphere too. And in the novels of Peter Ackroyd set in London, for example, the city assumes the status of a character in the stories. Anchor your fiction securely. Root it firmly in the ground. Stories that don’t do this feel incomplete.
  10. Never give up. Rejection isn’t the same thing as failure. I know that one definition of madness is repeating the same action and expecting a different outcome, but that doesn’t apply to fiction writing. You’ll be disappointed sometimes, that goes with the territory. But this is one area of human endeavour in which persistence really pays off.


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