10 Creative Writing Tips to Improve your Writing Skills

Need help writing a book?

My latest video offers the creative writing tips that I consider the most valuable. It’s not just about how to write a book more easily, its what I’ve learnt over the years that’s improved my writing skills and helps me write a better book.

These 10 writing tips are a distillation of what keeps me earning money and writing fiction that people seem to want to read. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

I hope you enjoy watching.

Outlining is Good: How To Outline

How to outline is one of the best skills a commercial novelist can learn. Pretty much every author who craves success will choose to create some kind of outline before they start writing. That’s got to tell you something.

Norman Mailer's outline for Harlot's Ghost

Writing bestselling novels and high grossing screenplays is all about telling a great story. The latest Bond movie is admired because “It had me on the edge of my seat, how on earth did Bond manage to outwit SPECTRE?” and not because “I loved the scene where Bond and M talked about the nature of colonialism.” Story is everything. People don’t watch thrillers on Netflix because they like the costumes or read a crime & mystery novel because they’re a fan of descriptions.

Great stories sell. More importantly, they have the power to wash away other imperfections. Just look at the work of James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Dan Brown. Not one of them would win a literary prize, but when it comes to enthralling readers and keeping them on the edge of their seats, these guys are faultless.

Outline Your Books or Die! cover

Why outline your novel?

There are two types of authors of commercial fiction. Those who know how to outline, and those who don’t. Writers who sit down to a blank page and try and make it up as they go along are called ‘pantsers’, not because their fiction is ‘pants’, but because they write ‘by the seat of their pants’. Believe me, this makes it sound more exciting than it is.

The main advantages of outlining are:The ability to see the overall story: does it work? If not, you can easily change it without having to throw away tons of writing.

Knowing exactly what you’re going to write speeds up the writing process and makes it more enjoyable.

If you research during the outlining process, it means you’re not wasting writing time.

Writing an outline gives you a clearer idea of the overall story, and so helps keep you focussed.

Why I believe in outlining

I’ve ghostwritten quite a few thrillers and detective stories in my time, and even more erotica. I’ve always worked from an outline. Usually the ‘author’ — that’s the person whose name will appear on the finished work, not the person who’s actually doing the writing — will have some kind of outline already formulated. It can be as simple as:

Danny McTavish is a private detective working in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, Scotland. He is an ex-policeman in his mid-forties, divorced and alcoholic. He is unsuccessful and is on the verge of giving up. Danny’s motivation is that he is desperate to be allowed to see his children, who have moved with their mother to Australia. Danny is offered a simple case that leads to him being framed for murder. Against all the odds, Danny proves his innocence, finds the real killers and uncovers a plot to blow up The Houses of Parliament in London. Danny may have succeeded but he does not get to share the glory. At the end of the novel, he is no closer to seeing his children.

It’s then up to the ghostwriter to fill in the gaps and write a detailed outline for the ‘author’ and the publisher to approve.

More About Ghostwriting

I’m told the more usual way it happens is for the ghostwriter to be presented with a complete and detailed outline. This will often be in the form of chapters. The outline for a single chapter may read something like this:

Chapter 22: Danny awakes to find himself smelling of whisky and urine, in a strange room. Hung-over and barely able to function, he is lying on the floor, fully dressed. The sun is shining in through boarded-up windows. He realises he is in a derelict building, and it is some time in the morning. A male voice says, “So, you’re back with us, eh?” It is Dominic, leader of the Business Centre gang. They have a conversation that reveals that Dominic is looking for information about Sam. Danny realises the gang know nothing of Tracy’s involvement. After their conversation, Dominic leaves Danny with a warning not to interfere with the gang’s plans. Danny goes back to sleep.

The author James Patterson

That’s how James Patterson does it.

How James Patterson writes a novel

Although he doesn’t work with ghostwriters as such, Patterson co-writes most of his novels with people who are really credited ‘ghosters’. I signed on for the James Patterson Masterclass to get some ideas for a series of novels I was thinking of writing. After all, he is the biggest-selling author in the world today and his books, co-written and otherwise, sell in their squillions. Although I couldn’t claim to be a major fan, I’d read a couple of the early Alex Cross novels and enjoyed them. I like his short snappy chapters, and I liked the way he adds twists and turns to keep the reader guessing.

The Honeymoon Period…

Patterson is a big fan of outlining. He says the biggest mistake new authors make is not using one. During the Masterclass, you’re given his own outline to Honeymoon (written with Howard Roughan) to look at. Here’s a typical chapter:

On a Friday at dusk, a Lincoln Town Car pulls into Gordon’s Belgium block driveway. The hired driver steps out to open the door for Nora but it’s Gordon who gets there first. He’s that anxious to see her. And by the way Nora jumps into his arms and straddles him with her legs, the feeling would appear to be mutual. As the driver shakes his head and grabs Nora’s luggage from the trunk, the two lovebirds are all over each other. “You’re insatiable,” Gordon says. “And aren’t you the lucky one,” retorts Nora.

Take Note…

You’ll notice that Patterson advocates writing the chapter outline in almost the same way he’d write the finished novel. He even adds notes to himself, such as for chapter seventy-seven:

The suspense doesn’t let up. O’Hara looks around outside the cabin. Her car is gone. Then the police arrive. O’Hara’s cell phone rings. “You fucked with the wrong girl, O’Hara! Now I’m going to hurt you where you live . . . for real. Can you say New Canaan?”

During the Masterclass, James comes across as a nice guy, and very open about how he works. If I saw him on the street, I’d be tempted to rush over and say, ‘Hi,’ even though I know he doesn’t know me from Adam.

Reading To Learn

I picked up an armful of his more recent novels (he’s very prolific, especially now that he only works with co-writers), and started to read them, looking for guidance on straight-ahead plotting. It pains me to admit this, but I was amazed by how awful they were.

You’ll probably say I have a cheek criticizing the biggest-selling author in the world, and I probably have. Even so, I genuinely couldn’t read Step on a Crack without grimacing, which can get you some very odd looks when you’re reading it on a train.

The main character of Step on a Crack is a New York detective who, for reasons known only to himself and to the authors, has adopted ten (deliberately cute) children. Christmas is fast approaching, his wife is dying of cancer, and Michael Bennett s put in charge of a major hostage situation at St Patrick’s Cathedral. The action alternates between the schmaltzy wife dying/ cute kids set-up, and the brutal actions of the hostage-takers.

James Patterson’s Big Secret: How To Outline A Bestseller

Cover of Step on a Crack by James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge

Using Step on a Crack as an example, I could see how James Patterson (and co-author Michael Ledwidge) set about constructing the story. In the Masterclass, he revealed he starts off by setting the scene, introducing the central plot point before asking himself, ‘What could happen here?’ As you’d expect, he piles on the pressure (conflict!) and the twists and turns in the plot are mostly unique.

All the way through, he repeatedly asks himself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen here?” All well and good, I thought, but I had a nagging feeling that something was missing…

Patterson revealed the answer almost in passing. At one point, he said he worked out who his reader was going to be and he wrote for them. Straight afterwards, he casually mentions that most of his books are bought by women. Although taking up less than a minute of the entire Masterclass that, for me, was the big Eureka! moment.

The Reveal…

In Step on a Crack, you can tell the novel was written for a certain type of woman reader. I’d guess, someone aged between 35 and 65, who maybe likes to read a lot of Romances and Mysteries. When Patterson was plotting this book, I’ll bet he was writing for his target woman, so let’s call her Madge.

He was asking himself, “Would Madge want Michael’s wife to die or be miraculously cured?” “Would Madge prefer it if Michael’s humanity be punished or rewarded?” And so on…

Obviously, there’s more than to plotting a bestseller, James Patterson-style, than imagining what a Madge (or a Jeffrey, or even a Scarlet) would expect and like, but it’s a good place to start. You can adapt it to fit any commercial author. Who was Tom Clancy writing for? Ken Follett? Dan Brown? JK Rowling? James Elroy?

How I Outline

My newfound interest in outlining arrived when I came to plan a mystery series of my own. It’ll be centred around a medical detective called Dr Lucian Gentle and his assistant, Professor Harold Wise. Their first outing will be a trilogy of linked novels, which I’m intending to publish myself on Amazon Kindle. I’m expecting each book to be around 80,000 words, containing a standalone mystery as well as a continuing plot concerning events from Gentle’s past that will progress through each book, before being solved/explained in the final volume.

catch22 outline

I’ve spent time inventing and developing my central characters and I’ve worked out three individual mysteries I think will baffle the reader, as well as the bigger puzzle. Working on a complicated plot means you have to think differently. My poor little brain couldn’t cope, especially with all the other things I’ve got on the go.

Look at the photograph at the top of this page showing Norman Mailer’s outline for Harlot’s Ghost. Similarly, the example (right) is what Joseph Heller used to write Catch 22. This proves outlining is a very complicated business. Before you end up with James Patterson’s neat chapter by chapter outline, there’s a lot of working out and timeline planning to do.

How James Patterson Helped Me

To help me work out how best to create a workable outline for my Lucian Gentle books, I decided to research the subject. What began as a weekend project has occupied me, off and on, for the best part of a year. Taking the James Patterson Masterclass was just one avenue. I decided to write a guide to Outlining Fiction, to share what I’ve discovered. It’s fair to say that the methods I use have radically altered.

Outlining for Fiction is a subject worthy of an entire book, so there’s only room here for a very basic overview. The first step in the process is to break down what story you already have. For most people, this will be a basic idea: for example, a detective operating during World War II. That’s an idea, not a story. We need to put flesh on its bones.

I’ll stress at this point that I have no idea where this is going: I’m working out the options as I go along…

After you’ve got you When?, the next question to ask is, Where? There are plenty of places to choose from: likely candidates might include Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, Paris, London, Casablanca (sound familiar?), New York, Singapore, Jersey (under Nazi occupation), Cairo, neutral Lisbon or Geneva? For the sake of argument, let’s say Ramsgate in Kent. I chose this partly because I live there, and partly because it’s less than 30 miles from what was then Occupied France. Plenty of scope for spies and intrigue.

How a Mystery is Outlined

Mystery thrives on murder (fiction is always better when the stakes are high), so our detective will be assigned a seemingly straightforward homicide. It’s not straightforward, of course, but he doesn’t know that when he arrives at the murder scene. Before we start work on the characters, perhaps we should fix the time more precisely. Ramsgate was an exciting place to be just before the D-Day Landings, and Hitler would have considered sending in spies. Of course, no one outside of the top brass in the military and government would have been aware the invasion was imminent, and we can use that to our advantage.

Digging defences for World War II in Ramsgate, Kent

We need to make our central characters believable and lifelike. We need to decide on a scenario the hero is presented with. Two German spies come ashore from a submarine and are taken to a house owned by a Nazi sympathizer in Ramsgate.

The murder victim could be a neighbour who heard German being spoken, or maybe a fisherman who saw the spies arrive? Perhaps even the sympathizer, who wasn’t quite as sympathetic as the Germans were expecting? In this scenario, I think it would help to make the spies sympathetic. Villains must always come in shades of grey and they have to be at least as accomplished as the hero. If the reader thinks it’s going to be a pushover for the detective, what’s the point in reading on?

You’ve got to tease out your story, adding embellishments as you go. As we’ve discussed, pick your target reader and ask yourself at every turn how you might be able to surprise them. Keep expanding on your original idea until you have enough to make a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline.


That, in a nutshell, is how to plot and outline a novel. There’s obviously more to it than that. For example, you’ve got to ask questions about how you’re going to structure your story. In this case, it might be fun to alternate chapters between the detective’s viewpoint and that of the spies. List the questions that are raised in the course of the outline (eg, Who murdered the fisherman and why? Why did the vicar leave the church door open? How did the spies know it was Inspector Wells who was knocking on the door?), and make sure you answer them.

Cover of Outline Your Books or Die!

I’ve finally finished my Outlining/Plotting ebook. Outline Your Books Or Die! (not at all over the top) is available exclusively available for Kindle at Amazon. I aim to add a print version soon, but that’s still in the pipeline, and I wanted to get my system working 100% before I published. Finally, I  managed to get it right!

To be honest, what I’ve been learning has helped me improve plotting my own stories immeasurably. Sign up to my email list and you’ll get my tips on how to outline, plus get the chance to buy all my books for a big discount.

Story Is Everything

The bestseller lists have always been dominated by tellers of good stories. From Dickens and Poe to Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling, nothing sells better than a book with a brilliant story. In fact, as the title of this article states: story is everything.

cinderella poster from 1950

Truly great stories endure for thousands of years. The fairy tales of Cinderella, Aladin and Red Riding Hood have their roots in the spoken word of ancient cultures, going back to times before people could even read or write.

Look at television. The most-watched programmes on TV tend to be the ones with the best, most original stories: HomelandBreaking BadHeroesLost, the soaps. People love to be taken out of their drab, everyday lives and propelled into worlds beyond their experience. The same goes for movies and, of course, novels.

Dan Brown is often derided for his writing skills, but it doesn’t matter: he has the gift of storytelling. Once you start one of his novels, be it The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons, you simply have to turn the page and find out what happens next. I agree that his style can be a little irritating and his use of adjectives slightly grating, but who cares? Dan Brown sells books.

It’s possible to create a really good novel or movie set in the most unlikely of settings. Provided you provide enough twists and turns, you can set it in a dark house, an underground cell, wherever… It doesn’t matter what the setting is – whether it’s Hollywood, Hawaii or the next street to where you live – the most important factor is the story.

And for a successful story, you need structure. You have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. You have to have a protagonist who experiences conflict when he strives to achieve his (or her) goal.

For more about story structure and plotting, check out my inexpensive Kindle eBook: Million Dollar Story


Originality Sells

Many would-be writers attempt to copy a winning formula. Some get away with it, but everyone involved from their publisher to their readers and even themselves know they are following rather than leading. There’s an old publishing saying: Originality Sells.

They also miss the point. To write a blockbuster, a true bestseller, it helps to be original. Though maybe not totally original.

Before Joanne Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, there was no tradition of books about schoolboy wizards. If there had been, her efforts would almost certainly have been lost in the crowd.

J.K. Rowling didn’t invent stories about wizards and she didn’t invent stories set in public schools, as we call “private” fee-paying schools in the UK. What she did was to combine the two into a situation that offered a wealth of dramatic possibilities. The result was a series of fantastically successful stories about a schoolboy wizard called Harry Potter and his friends.

Needless to say, there have been dozens and dozen of books published since then trying to emulate J.K. Rowling’s success, but very few, if any, of them have made their authors millionaires.

Dan Brown didn’t so much invent the genre of “code mysteries” as resurrect it and give it new life. Back in 2003, the thriller genre was in decline. Stale novels containing serial characters who had run out of plots and the demise of the Soviet Union combined to deflate the genre. The Da Vinci Code woke everyone up with its great story, full of original aspects.

As a reviewer, I’ve lost track of the dozens of copycat novels that have plopped onto my mat since then. One even managed to top the New York Times bestseller lists. But the bottom line is that none of these clones made the impact or gave their authors the money that Dan Brown has earned from his original idea.

To make it really big, you’ve got to be original first.

Having said that, plenty of authors have used successful novels to guide them into giving readers what they know they want. For example, it’s OK to look at books that are already selling and see how they are constructed and built. This isn’t what they teach at Creative Writing class, but it’s a formula that works.

For instance, there may be a reason why novels in which Aliens solve murder cases have not troubled the bestseller lists. Or it may be that no one has thought of writing it.For more help writing your novel, check out my new eBook, click here

Plot Is The Engine Of Your Novel

As you will already know, the plot is the main story of a novel. The question is whether you should work out a detailed plot before you start to write or not.

If you are aiming to write a blockbuster, then the answer is a resounding YES. You will remember the first tip: “The Story is Everything” and how without a properly worked out story, you have nothing. Working out that story is called plotting.

Whether or not you plot in advance, once you have written your novel, it will have a storyline. The difference between a novel that’s written “on the hoof” without detailed planning and one that’s closely-plotted, could well be the difference between one that will never be published and one that sells a million copies.

Bestsellers, especially in the fields of thrillers, suspense, mystery, adventure and so on, are invariably carefully plotted. Their authors spent a long time working out stories that will please and excite their readers.

I’m always amazed at writers who would not set out on a fifty mile journey without an up-to-date road map and yet think nothing of embarking on a novel without any idea as to their eventual destination. And there are a thousand more chances of getting lost in a novel as there are in a fifty mile road trip!

Remember the old saying: “Fail to plan, plan to fail”

In my view, having a plot is crucial. It doesn’t have to be detailed, at least to start with. Something as simple as “During World War II the German High Command parachute an elite group of stormtroopers into England to assassinate Churchill” (The Eagle Has Landed  by Jack Higgins).

The Thriller writer Ken Follett uses a similar technique to plot his books. He starts with a single phrase and keeps building on it until he ends up with a multi-page synopsis he can write from. He turns the sentence into a paragraph, then into two paragraphs, and so on…

All the time you have to ask yourself, “What can happen now?” To add an extra dimension, make this a two-stage process. Think of the most obvious outcome, ignore that, then think of something else. Avoid making your story predictable or boring in every way you can.For detailed plotting advice, check out my book, Million Dollar Story