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Guest Columns

How to get published — read hundreds of helpful Writer’s Digest guest columns from published writers teaching the craft and business of writing.

11 Steps to Finding the Agent Who’ll Love Your Book

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I was ready. I had an edited manuscript. I had a tiered list of agents. I had a spreadsheet. I’d read every scrap of information about getting an agent, and I was prepared, at last, to submit my novel. The process could take months, maybe years, I’d heard. I was in for the long haul, baby. The good news is it didn’t take years to get an offer of representation. The even better news: That offer came in the form of four magic words, words I’d been told to wait for by all the experts: I love your book.

Not just a Facebook-worthy thumbs up, not a “I think I can sell this.” Love. The reason you wait for true love in publishing is because publishing requires it, and not just from the author. Remember the feverish crush that helped fuel your first draft? Your agent needs that same big-eyed reverence for your book to take it out to editors, hoping for another love connection. So how do you snag one of these lovey-doveys for yourself?

GIVEAWAY: Lori is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. Read more

Self-Editing Advice: How to Tackle Character Consistency

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Keeping your character(’s) traits consistent is very a important step in polishing your manuscript, especially if it’s written from multiple points of view (POVs). For example, if you have one character who constantly swears, and has a tendency to lose his/her temper at the drop of a hat, you do not want your other characters behaving in the same way. If this happens, your characters will blend together, and your readers will have trouble being able to tell them apart. You don’t want your readers having to back track to be sure they have understood who is speaking/narrating. They should just know. And readers know by identifying your characters from the way they speak, move, and behave. For instance, if you are familiar with The Lord of the Rings, you definitely know when Sam’s talking, and you never confuse him with Pippin or Merry even though they’re all Hobbits…

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her latest guide to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. Read more

From Solitary Writing to Low-Cost Book Release Party — The Story of My Book Launch

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You’ve written a book. You know what it is to work with the elements, to muster something slippery and intangible into something with form. Likely, you’ve sweated on it and dreamt it.

Finishing my first novel, The Untold, felt to me like crawling out of a dark room after a winter that lasted too many seasons. Draft after draft, revision after revision, I had remained in that dark room determined that what was on the page would eventually match the vision I held for it. These things take time, as it happens, so much time. And it must be a solo process. I don’t know any writers that work well with their legs or arms twisted around another. So, aside from the inherent challenges of actually writing a novel, you must also get very good at spending long periods of time with yourself. For better or worse. There are times when I felt that I had aged a year in a day and that the book might actually bury me. But it didn’t. I finished it. The winter ended… Read more

Genesis of a Memoir: How I Came to Write My Story

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In the fall of 1986, I was ten years old, and I found myself sleeping on the muddy ground of a temperate rainforest on an island in Washington State. The muddy bed was supposed to be temporary. My alcoholic Salvadoran stepfather was building a wooden pyramid for us to live in, one that would channel the occult magic of ancient Egypt. My mother was convinced he was the messianic revolutionary hero she had foretold in clairvoyant visions.

Before the pyramid could reach its glorious completion, however, my stepfather threatened to kill the neighbors in a drunken rage. We had to break camp hurriedly, before the cops arrived, struggling down the trail with our most prized possessions. The first thing I evacuated out of the mud was my crate of journals, the repositories for my creative writing and poetry. My correspondence with myself was often my only form of friendship, my only mechanism for processing the chaos and violence around me, and, most fundamentally, the only proof that I ever existed. I wrote to live… Read more

You Should Write From Multiple POVs if Your Story Demands It

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When I first got the idea to bring Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow back to life in a young adult novel, I was faced with multiple dilemmas:

• Write it in a modern day or historic setting?
• Portray the outlaw couple as monsters…or humans who made mistakes?
• Create a love triangle, a love ‘em and leave ‘em story, or skip romance altogether?
• Who should tell this story––Bonnie, Clyde, or someone else?
• Do modern teens even know who Bonnie & Clyde are?

GIVEAWAY: Kym is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Maureen A. won.) Read more

Author John Searles Proves Nice Guys Finish First

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Someone once told me, “You can’t get by on just being nice.” But in the publishing world, if you’re nice to readers they will adore you and you’ll sell more books. Here’s proof.

I had no intention of buying John Searles’ novel Help for the Haunted when he visited Colorado recently. I have two shelves full of books by local authors I want to support. But I haven’t read them all. (You’re a reader and writer, so you own these lonely books, too. Admit it.) Read more

5 Things to Look For in a Critique Partner

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Writing can be a very solitary profession. And most of us like it that way – huddled at our vintage desks or curled up on our couches, muttering to ourselves while our coffee grows cold.

But once that draft is finished…then what? Well, I suggest you don’t run a quick spell check, type up a query and then send that puppy to agents the next day. What I do suggest is you find yourself some critique partners, other writers with whom you can trade manuscripts and feedback. I can say, without a doubt, that my critique partners were a key ingredient to my success at landing an agent and a book deal. Without them, my chocolate cookies would be hard. My cake wouldn’t rise. My soufflé would be flat. My…well, you get the idea, right? But not all critique partners are created equal. Here are the top five things you should look for in a critique partner.

GIVEAWAY: Megan is excited to give away TWO free ebooks of her novel to random commenters. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: rampmg and meetmilena won.) Read more

How to Overcome the Sophomore Novel Slump: 5 Ways

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1. Know your quality-writing speed and stick to it. Though it took six months to write and edit my debut, The Outcast, I often worked eight-hour weekdays. I had an agent’s interest in the manuscript; this, combined with the fact that I was expecting our first child, let me know that I needed to strike while the writing iron was hot. My daughter was twelve weeks old when I began crafting the first draft of my sophomore novel, The Midwife, and I simply could not write full-time now that I was also a full-time mom. Read more

“Don’t Let Your Hurt Stop You” = The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received

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Some people don’t place a lot of weight in zodiac signs; they think they’re arbitrary and pointless. But as a typical Leo, I measure my very worth by my sign: we’re generous, loyal and proud. Most of the time, the last trait serves me well; it bolsters my confidence and provides me with an innate sense of ability and optimism. But there’s a reason that pride is one of the deadly sins, often proving more hurtful than helpful.

My first job out of college was as a junior copywriter at an advertising agency. In this entry-level position, I was relegated to the status of a newborn, having to learn everything with a fresh set of eyes, even if I had been told I was a great writer… Read more

4 Reasons You’re Procrastinating Instead of Writing

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You have ideas for stories, but when you launch your word processor, you stare helplessly at a blank page. Every time you try to write, you end up spending the evening watching videos of cats on YouTube instead. Why is this happening? We’ve all been there. Here are a few things that might be getting in your way:

1: You don’t know which story to pick. You don’t just have one idea, you have several. Writing a book is a big commitment. You want to take time to carefully consider what you’ll be spending the next year slaving over. No sense rushing in to things, right? Read more

How to Critique Friends’ Writing

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When friends know that we’re writers, they sometimes ask us to read and critique their works-in-progress. Handling these requests can be awkward. As friends, we want to help; as writers, we want to protect our own writing time. If we offer professional critiquing services, as many of us do, we also want to protect our earning time. Here I offer several perspectives, from rather delicate situations, on how to handle friends’ requests.

When You’re a Fellow Writer: Pearl told me a truly horrendous story about helping a colleague. She had met Lydia (names changed for protection) in a local coffee shop. They bonded over a mutual devotion to mystery novels, respective blocks, and laptop frustrations, and started meeting monthly… Read more

How to Write Middle Grade Horror: 7 Tips

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I scare children for a living.

As the author of a middle grade horror series, my job is to deliver stories that frighten and thrill my readers. Those readers tend to range in age from ten to fourteen, which makes delivering on that task more difficult than you might imagine. My readership is growing up in the age when video games are rife with monsters and violence, when YouTube offers limitless access to scary independent films and, of course, when “The Walking Dead” is the number one show on television. So, if I want to inspire some good old fashioned fright in my fans, I need to do more than yell “Boo!” Here, then, are seven tips for scaring the pants off of young readers:

GIVEAWAY: Ty is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Lisa won.) Read more

Re-Vision? Easier Said Than Seen

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The most difficult aspect of revision is that the process requires seeing our own mistakes. That speck of dust in our neighbor’s eye is a lot easier to see than the log in our own. I learned most about sentence-level revision from Richard Lanham, distinguished scholar, writer, and UCLA professor, who has written a number of books, including Revising Prose, in which he develops the “Paramedic Method” (PM), a series of steps that help writers find both the sound and the sense of each sentence. Sound and sense: that’s what I like most about the PM. Aside from pushing us to see the ethics of writing, Lanham’s method reinforces the impossibility of separating structure from idea. The PM helps us see the axis of the sentence—both the actual main subject and verb, as well as the unacknowledged subject and verb. If we can see a difference between the actual and the unacknowledged in any sentence, it’s time to revise, to look again. Read more

The Gospel of Combat: How Fight Scenes Feed Your Story

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So you’re working on a story, and there comes a point where it really ought to have a fight scene. But you’re sitting there thinking, “I’m not a martial artist! I have no idea how to fight!” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Fight scenes are so boring. I’d rather just skip over this and get back to the actual story.” Or something else that makes you dread writing that scene, rather than looking forward to it with anticipation.

To the first group, I say: the details of how to fight are possibly the least important component of a fight scene. The crucial components are the same ones you’re already grappling with in the rest of your writing—namely, description, pacing, characterization, and all that good stuff. To the second group, I say: it’s only boring if the author does it wrong.

GIVEAWAY: Marie is excited to give away a free copy of her e-book [mobi or epub formats] to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Debbie won.) Read more

How I Sold My Supernatural Thriller, By Matt Manochio

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Every aspiring author dreams of that first book contract. I landed one in April 2010 when Dorchester Publishing bought my crime thriller, The Highwayman, for a small advance. Success! I began writing it in 2007, finished it in 2008, queried, and got the usual round of rejections. Rather than believing all of those agents and editors were crazy, I figured there must be something wrong with what I was doing.

I attended the Deadly Ink mystery writers conference in New Jersey and met panelist Chris Roerden, a manuscript editor, and I purchased her book, Don’t Sabotage Your Submission. Her panel discussion and insightful book crystallized why I was being rejected. I used boring words—in addition to using too many! I larded my manuscript with adjectives and adverbs (which have since been largely culled) to amaze my readers with my descriptive prowess. I explained stuff in bulky blocks of text that the late Elmore Leonard advises to keep to a minimum because readers tend to skip over them…

GIVEAWAY: Matt is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal. Also note that Matt’s novel comes out later this year, so he will mail the winner’s book once his author copies come in.) (UPDATE: Reynard won.) Read more

Happily Ever After: Romances Aren’t Meant to Be Reality TV

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Some people love reality TV. Some people hate it. Not everyone reads Romance. But there is a covenant in a Romance, a true Romance, that can never be broken: The Happily Ever After.

Did I call HEA a covenant? Yes, but also a promise. It’s the reason I began reading Romances, it’s the reason I write them. These days couples don’t have to get married. These days, three is no longer a crowd. There are no more unwritten rules. The expectations have changed. But one thing has not. The main characters have to fall in love by the end of the book.

So, then, exactly what is a Happily Ever After? Read more

6 Rules for Writing a Medical Thriller

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So you’ve decided to write a medical thriller. Your hopes are high. If Robin Cook, Michael Palmer, and Tess Gerritsen could do it, why can’t you? The answer is: you can. Medical thrillers appeal to a wide audience, and many literary agents and editors are looking for the next fresh voice in the genre. So go for it! See if you’ve got what it takes. But first, here are six helpful rules to keep in mind…

GIVEAWAY: John is excited to give away 2 free copies of his novel to random commenters. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: carolee1968 won.) Read more

3 Good Things About Disturbing Fiction

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I did not at any point request that my teacher refer to me as “the most happily disturbed writer” he’s ever known, nor did I request this quote be emblazoned across the top of my first book. And, yet, there it is.

I wasn’t at first comfortable with this. My wife and children don’t really think of me as a “disturbed” person, and as people who care about the world my wife and I don’t really relish the suggestion that I might be compounding the world’s troubles by adding to its many disturbing stories with even more “disturbed” stories of my own.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized being “happily disturbed” didn’t have to be the identity problem I’d first feared. The fact is, I am disturbed. The world and its many problems do disturb me. If the world didn’t disturb me, I’m not sure I would be a writer of fiction. Read more

Ask Not What Your Readers Can Do For You…

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I’ve been seeing a lot of posts recently, listing different ways readers can support authors. Most of them are pretty good ideas: buy their books, give them reviews, etc. I’m all about supporting authors; my book budget alone could support an army in one of those countries you’ve never heard of. (Assuming said army liked to read middle grade and YA.)

But when I read these lists, I can’t help wondering if the authors who post them spend as much time thinking about what they can do for their readers as they do about what readers can do for them. I know, I know, you spent years slaving over your manuscript. Isn’t that enough? Read more

3 Ways Military Service Has Made Me a Better Writer

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Since I first saw Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I’m not alone in that. Lots of folks dream of getting a book deal someday. They chase the dream in a lot of ways. Reading obsessively. Going to writing conferences. Signing up for English Literature or Creative Writing MFA programs.

Me? I joined the military.

My third novel hits shelves in just two weeks, coming out from the biggest publisher in the world. I’ve got three more under contract after that. Sure, joining the military maybe wasn’t the most obvious route, but I sure am glad I did it. Here’s what it taught me… Read more

6 Steps to Seeing Your Book Published

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Step Five: Breathe. Take time to walk away from your masterpiece and breath. Get a fresh perspective from a trusted adviser. Take time to vent about your long writing journey. And take time to walk away for entire days, hell maybe a week or two. Time when you have left your thoughts on writing to the birds. Free your mind, meditate on life and it’s beauty, but what ever you do, remember that stepping away and thinking of other things can help you re-evaluate what you are putting on each digital or physical page. Read more

Stretching the Facts in Historical Fiction

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My novel GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN is based on Frances Stuart, who posed as Britannia on England’s coins three hundred years ago. As soon as I started writing, I felt a sense of responsibility to make her story as accurate as possible. Scouring sources for facts about her life revealed many unanswered questions. I ended up using as many facts as I could and just fictionalized the gaps. The first draft was done before I realized there are opposing opinions out there as to how the fact-fiction balance should be handled in this genre.

Many stress the importance of accuracy in historical fiction. Others think too many historical details sink the story. Still more believe it isn’t possible to achieve total historical accuracy in storytelling. Almost all agree that the author’s choices should be explained in an author’s note. The degree of emphasis an author places on fact versus fictionalization might be considered a matter of writing style. Read more

How to Write a Fast-Draft Novel

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If you’ve ever tried to write a fast draft during NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) and been unable to complete it, you’re not alone. Plenty of people attempt to get that important first draft down on paper, so they can move to revisions with an eye for deepening characters and motivations, and finessing the plot. But more often than not, writers end their month of drafting with a partially-written draft that they’ll never look at again.

It doesn’t have to be this way! Don’t go into fast-drafting alone and without a plan. Find some camaraderie, some writer friends who will hold you accountable, and then make a solid plan for the book you’d like to not only finish, but market one day. Here are a few suggestions to help you put a plan into place before you start drafting, so you have a better chance of success…

GIVEAWAY: Denise is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Ron Estrada won.) Read more

How I Got My Romance Novel Published, by Julie Shackman

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Christmas 2013 was approaching fast. Tinsel and lights were everywhere but my festive cheer had taken another blow. I had just received yet another rejection for my debut contemporary romance novel “Rock My World”. I had received positive comments but ultimately, it was another “Not for us thanks.” I’d been firing it out to agents and publishers for months and although I had received some great feedback, there was no offer of representation or publication.

I remember trailing round the local supermarket the next morning, trying not to frighten small children with my glum expression. The faint strains of “Ding Dong Merrily On High” were crackling through the PA system yet I wasn’t feeling that merry. Read more

3 Things to Set You on the Path to Publishing Success

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There are a lot of items that mark a successful entry into the publishing world. As a long-time book editor, and now a writer, I’ve encountered most of them. Here are two must-do’s, as well as one should-do to keep momentum going.

1. WRITE WHAT YOU WANT, NOT WHAT YOU KNOW. Unless they are one and the same. If you’ve got the itch to write, you’re going to have at least a vague subject in mind. If not initially, then eventually. It may be what you know or not. But whatever the case, focus on what you’re passionate about. That takes priority. If it’s a topic with which you are already conversant, then dive right in. If not, learn what you need to know, then take the plunge. Better yet, jump in first and learn as you go.

GIVEAWAY: Barry is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: sharonminer won.) Read more

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