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Writing Tips from Sabaa Tahir, author of An Ember in the Ashes

Jun 12, 2015 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so twice a month, we’ll feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! 

What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?

I don’t have any specific techniques I employ on a daily basis. But there are some tips I’ve found useful over the years. In particular, an article that Zadie Smith wrote back in 2010 is one I think every writer should emblazon on the inside of his/her brain. The entire list is here.

My two favorite rules from it, No. 7 and No. 8, are:

  • “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.”
  •  “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”

How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?

I find character summaries useful—a few pages where I write out character history, likes, dislikes and personality quirks. But I learned the most about my characters when I “interviewed” them. I got a friend to ask me questions, and took on the personalities of my characters as I attempted to answer those questions. The interviews made me really consider who these characters were and what they wanted. It was weird, but it was also a revelation.

After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?

I stare at a blank laptop screen thinking, “Oh no, what now?”

Kidding! It depends on what I’m writing, but when working with a book idea, I try to sketch out a few paragraphs worth of action—just to see if the idea has legs or if it falls apart. Once all my thoughts are down—and if I feel like the idea is still solid—I try to organize what I’ve got into a few coherent chapters

Sabaa Tahir
Sabaa Tahir

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

Music and coffee. Without either of those, I’m no good. The coffee wakes me up, and the music gets my brain moving—it’s basically the fastest way into whatever scene I’m working on that day.

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?

I always wanted to write, but never admitted it to myself. I’ve told stories since I was a little girl, and began writing them down as soon as I figured out how. But for my parents, who are South Asian and were quite traditional, writing wasn’t a legitimate career because it offered no security. I spent years assuming I’d become a doctor. Eventually, I went into journalism and used that as a springboard into fiction.

What’s the best piece of advice you have heard?

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” —Winston Churchill.

What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?

Off the top of my head, I can think of three.

  1. Don’t waste inordinate amounts of time polishing small sections of your writing. Figure out your story first. Polish later.
  2. Show your work to people. Recently, I fell into an old (bad) pattern. I’d written 50 pages of something and was certain it was horrible, but hadn’t actually shown pages to anyone. Don’t do that! Find trusted readers amongst writer friends, and get feedback.
  3. Don’t make excuses for yourself. You can waste years that way. If you find yourself repeatedly saying you haven’t written because you’re too tired/busy/blocked etc., then rethink how badly you want to be a writer.

Describe your writing style in 5 words or less.

Tell it like it is.

Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?

I sometimes borrow certain quirks or characteristics from people I know, but no, I never wholly base characters off of people I know. It’s way more fun to make them up.

Read more about An Ember in the Ashes here.

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