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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.

5 Tips for Writing Suspense

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1) Structure Scenes like Mini-Novels: Each one should contain its own narrative arc, with rising action and a climactic moment that signals the end of the chapter. It’s good form to finish most chapters on a cliffhanger—especially the first one. A major dramatic question should be raised in the opening scene, and then resolved in an unexpected or unfavorable way to hurl the main character further into the conflict (and thus drag your readers into the story). Get your protagonist in trouble as soon as possible and never let her get too comfortable or too safe. As far as chapter length, I’ve found that an average of five pages (double-spaced, size 12) works well for keeping up the pace.

GIVEAWAY: Kira 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

The Writer’s Journey: How Much Can Someone Possibly Stand?

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Above your desk is a bulletin board, crammed with outlines, assorted index cards with character descriptions, fliers from places you went for research, cards from agents and editors you met at assorted writers conferences, a postcard from a favorite book (note to self: next query don’t forget to mention your story is just like this one!), yellowed movie stubs from Crazy Stupid Love and Pride and Prejudice, a calendar indicating all the dates from sent queries, and a plethora of erratically stuck Post-it notes of varying colors and sizes holding minutiae ranging from brilliant snippets of dialogue to the color of the suit your villain will wear when he jumps the hero behind the warehouse. Read more

Empowered by Embarrassment: The Value of Adding Humor to Your Manuscript

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You know those times when you wish you were completely alone? Not because you wish for peace and quiet, but because you hate the fact that others witnessed what just happened to you? I’m talking about those embarrassing moments, the ones when your face burns so hot that you feel like you might just melt down into the ground – and you wouldn’t mind if you did! You know, those moments!

Here’s my advice for what to do next time you have a mortifying moment: harness it. Use it to fuel your writing. Allow yourself to be empowered by embarrassment. It can add humor to your writing and boost audience appeal. Trust me, humiliation is hot. It is!

GIVEAWAY: Kami 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

Examining the Wonderful World of Steampunk: Maritime Terrorists, Time Travelers, and Mad Science

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We have been writing Steampunk since 2009; and even after five years, we still face the question of the ages: What is steampunk? Perhaps a lazy, shallow way to look at the genre is to simply call it “Victorian Science Fiction” and that be the end of it. Truth be told, this is merely your first step.

While history looks at the 19th Century as the Industrial Age and the late-20th century as the Computer Age, the concept of computing devices were realized by mathematician, inventor, and engineer Charles Babbage as early as 1812. His mechanical computation devices at the time were considered more of a curiosity rather than innovation, but Babbage’s theories served as inspiration for The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Best known for their offerings in cyberpunk, Gibson and Sterling created an alternative Industrial Revolution where Babbage’s inventions were the norm, creating a struggle between the working class Luddites (who fear technology) and an “enhanced” elite that wanted as much integration with these technological wonders as possible. Read more

Research Before You Send a Query Letter

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Now, there are really two different types of rejection letters. The first one I don’t have a big problem with. These are the letters for projects that might not be quite right for what I am looking for, or for stories that might not be ready for publishing yet. With stories like this, we can often take the time to provide a few suggestions for improvement, or to discuss why the story is not right for us. Yes, writing the letters takes time, but when I hit “send” I feel as if this author might be one step closer to publishing. Read more

5 Mistakes Writers Make (and How to Avoid Them)

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1. Thinking that your book will sell itself. I have five books published with Simon & Schuster and let me tell you: They do not walk off the shelves. I made the mistake of becoming complacent and thinking that because I had a huge publisher behind me that I didn’t need to do much PR work to promote myself. In the words of Julia Roberts: “Big mistake. Huge.”

I watched my friend and author Becky Wicks work like a demon to promote her indie book Before He Was Famous and within 12 hours of it going live on Amazon it had sold nearly 500 copies. She worked her BUTT off for months prior building an audience, interacting on Twitter and Facebook and building a fan base from scratch. She rocks. It’s totally inspired me to do the same. Read more

5 Essential Tips for Writing Killer Fight Scenes

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Fight scenes are dangerous territory for writers. On the surface, they seem as if they’re guaranteed to keep the reader glued to the action in the same way as they often do at the movies. In reality, though, readers tend to skip over fight scenes – skimming the long, tedious, blow-by-blow descriptions in favour of getting back to the dialogue and character-driven drama that truly engages them in the story.

My novel, Traitor’s Blade, is a swashbuckling fantasy in which fight scenes are a crucial part of the storytelling. This means having to ensure that every piece of action is vital and engaging; it means that every duel must draw the reader in and not let them go until the end. So how do you keep the pacing, flow, and more importantly, the drama moving forward with so many fights?

GIVEAWAY: Sebastien 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: Mutineer won.) Read more

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. (UPDATE: Christa4F won.) 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 … 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

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