Sarah Waters, Ross Raisin, Adam Foulds, Andrew Cowan, Helen Simpson share writing tips, favourite books by young writers

Sarah Waters, Ross Raisin, Adam Foulds, Andrew Cowan, Helen Simpson share writing tips, favourite books by young writers

The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writers of the Year Award has relaunched in 2015, and will recognise the best literary work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish writer of 35 and under.

Here, past winners of the prize share their favourite books written by writers aged 35 and under, and their writing tips.

Sarah Waters - winner in 2000 for Affinity (Virago)

Writing tips

1. While you’re writing, read like mad – but read analytically. You will never be able to put a book together without an understanding of how other books work. I suspect that this is more a matter of instinct than anything else – but you can nurture that instinct by looking at other texts and thinking, ‘What’s successful here? What’s failing? And why?’

2. Don’t write for the market. Clue yourself up about what’s out there and what sells – and then forget it. The best novels are written with passion, not calculation. Your writing has to come from your heart, not from your desire to be the Next Big Thing.

3. When you submit to an agent, be professional about it. Do your research: there’s a lot of advice available online, for example, about writing synopses and covering letters. Approach agents whose lists are a good match with your work. And don’t be squeamish or apologetic! Agents need books to survive, as do publishers. There is no reason why they shouldn’t want yours.

Best books by writers aged 35 and under

1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was just 20 when she published this gothic masterpiece in 1818. It would prove to have an extraordinary impact on high and popular culture, tapping into enduring anxieties about life, death and science.

2. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

West began causing a splash with her journalism whilst still a teenager in the 1910s; by the 1940s she would be hailed as ‘the world’s number one woman writer’. This novel - her first, published in 1918 - is a slim but powerful meditation on the corrosive effects of militarism and snobbery.

3. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith published four novels by the age of 35, including the sublime lesbian classic The Price of Salt (later reissued as Carol). But my favourite of her books is this one, the first of the series of thrillers starring the worryingly likeable psychopath Tom Ripley.

4. A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

Loss, grief, frustration, unreliable narration: all the trademarks of Ishiguro’s fiction are in place in this brilliantly unsettling first novel, published while its author was still in his 20s.

5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Tartt’s debut is still my favourite of her novels: an engrossing, fantastically entertaining study of murder and guilt set among a group of Classics students at an elite American college.

Ross Raisin - winner in 2009 for God's Own Country (Penguin)

Writing tips

1. Make sure that you know why it is that you do want to break into publication. And not to ask yourself this until after you have finished your book. Publication does not turn you, as if by magic, into a writer. You are already a writer. It's important not to forget that.

2. Finish your book. This is the main piece of advice any author will give you. Whatever is your writing process, ensure that you have got to the very end of it - and are satisfied that you have honed each single word - before you begin to think about the whole other process of publication.

3. An agent who is prepared to represent you does not necessarily equate to the right agent. Even if only one shows any interest, the relationship has to be right for you, so make sure that you speak and meet with them until you are sure. And if you have an instinct that you do not fully trust their ability or desire to wholeheartedly invest their time and expertise in you and your book, then go back to point 1) and ask yourself again what it is that you are wanting to gain from publication.

Best books by writers aged 35 and under

1. The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
2. Dubliners by James Joyce
3. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
4. A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow
5. Young Skins by Colin Barrett

Adam Foulds - winner in 2008 for The Truth About These Strange Times (W&N)

Writing tips:

1. Think only about the work, about writing a book as good as you can make it. It helps to have the sensation that you are writing a book that doesn't exist and that you, as a reader, would like to exist.

2. Surround yourself with kind and supportive people. Be kind and supportive to yourself.  

3. Know your prerogatives as writer. Here's a lovely sentence from A N Wilson's biography of Tolstoy to remind you: "Tolstoy, like all true writers, carried his life about with him, created the very cocoon of observant detachment, indolence and sensuality in which a creative mind flourishes."

(and 4. Once the work is done, look for an agent.  There are plenty of guides to doing that online.)

Best books by writers aged 35 and under

Literature, particularly fiction writing, is an activity that rarely produces prodigies. It requires insights that come with time and that even the sharpest, most life-adapted minds can't truly grasp before they've been experienced. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of masterpieces written by people younger than 35. Here's a list to inspire and intimidate:

1. A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare
2. Dubliners by James Joyce
3. Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. Eliot
4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
5. Everything that Keats ever wrote

Andrew Cowan - winner in 1995 for Pig (Sceptre)

Writing tips

1. There’s no point in advising you to read because you wouldn’t be a writer unless you were already a reader, would you?  Just don’t go reading the latest prizewinners and bestsellers in the hope of discovering what publishers are looking for.  By the time your book is written, they’ll be looking for something else.  

2. Expect it to be hard.  Expect the achievement to fall short of the ambition, but stay true to your ambition: be dogged, keep going.   

3. Join a reputable MA programme.  You’ll not only find a community of readers - which is, as Bernard Malamud said, a miraculous thing - but access to agents and publishers, who are actively looking to recruit new writers from the best courses.

Best books by writers aged 35 and under

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

This was published in 1847, when Bronte was just 29.  In its intensity, it’s a young person’s book, though technically more sophisticated than it seems to get credit for.  She died the following year, so will remain forever a ‘young writer’.

2. A Room with a View by EM Forster

This was Forster’s third novel, and begun when he was just 21. It was published in 1908, when he was 29 - my age when I read it. I was beginning to despair of ever finishing Pig, and though it’s not his best book it made me feel I was already too old.  

3. Dubliners by James Joyce 

Astonishingly, Joyce submitted this to 15 publishers before it finally appeared in 1914. More astonishingly, he first submitted it in 1905, when he was just 23 years old. It’s a masterpiece, written when he was barely out of adolescence.  

4. Dusty Answer by Rosamund Lehmann

Lehmann was just 26 when this was published in 1927. I read it on holiday this summer. The creative writing teacher in me wanted to help her edit it, but if one of my students were ever to show me a first novel this absorbing, this brilliant, I hope I’d have the sense to leave well alone.   

5. The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

This was McEwan’s third book, published in 1978, when he was 30. It followed two collections of short stories, and collectively it was these three books that made me want to be a writer. They seemed to describe a world I also inhabited, though I underestimated how hard it would be to write this well.

Helen Simpson - winner in 1991 for Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories (Vintage)

Writing tips

1. Be brave, be honest and only write what you want to write, not what you think you ought to write.

2. Get used to your own company and to working on your own.

3. Keep at it!

Top five books by writers under 35:

1. John Milton wrote the masque of Comus (written and performed at Ludlow 1634, published 1637) when he was 26 - none too soon according to his sonnet of three years earlier:
“How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom showeth…”

2. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was 24 when he wrote his epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). His short novel of fatal love took Europe by storm and started a copycat craze among its young male readers for wearing blue coats and buff waistcoats in imitation of its hero.

3. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) was published under a male pseudonym when she was 29 to be greeted with general incomprehension and hostility. She died a year later of tuberculosis.

4. Katherine Mansfield died in 1923 at the age of 34, also of tuberculosis, leaving 40 or so short stories which are now famous throughout the world.

5. Edna O’Brien’s taboo-breaking The Country Girls (1960) was published when she was 30. “My novel was completed in three weeks. It had written itself and I was merely the messenger,” she writes in her recent memoir, Country Girl.  Banned in Ireland, the family’s parish priest burnt copies of it in public.  

The shortlist for The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writers of the Year Award is announced on Sunday 8th November.