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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.

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. 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.) 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

Method Writing for Historical Fiction Writers

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When I was in high school drama, I was intrigued by method actors. I thought they were a little reckless, a bit more edgy than the average actor. I was impressed by their dedication, by their ability to fully embrace the life of their character. While I didn’t end up being an actress, I satisfied that desire—of inhabiting an entirely different life and set of experiences (with the added bonus of time travel)—with writing (and reading). When I started working on my historical novel I Shall Be Near To You, about a young woman who disguises herself as a man and follows her new husband into the Union Army, I found that merely looking at pictures of soldiers and battlefields or reading descriptions of life on farms and or in the ranks just wasn’t enough for me. I needed to feel like I was truly bringing my characters to life.

GIVEAWAY: Erin 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: lionetravail won.) Read more

The Best Piece of Writing Advice I Ever Got — And The Worst

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One of the surprises, for me, of finishing a first novel was discovering just how many of the most hackneyed pieces of writing advice actually turn out to be true. For example: Nearly every interview with every writer will include some reference to how important it is to just sit your butt in the chair—meaning, the best way to get writing done is simply to get it done. This is true.

And then there’s the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten. Spoiler alert: You’ve probably heard it before. Here goes: Write the book you want to read.

GIVEAWAY: Adam 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: burrowswrite won.) Read more

Don’t Give Up Until You’ve Queried 80 Agents or More

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The other day, a writer friend asked for my advice in dealing with all pesky rejections in the query stage. I asked how many agents she had queried. “Forty,” she said.

“Well, then you’re halfway there.”

I wasn’t trying to be flippant, but if you are serious about getting published, then don’t even think about giving up until you’ve queried at least one hundred agents. Really. But there are a lot of caveats attached to that advice… Read more

7 Tips for Pitching to an Agent or Editor at a Conference

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Tip #1: If you can get a pitch session with an agent/editor, do it! Agents get tons of queries every single day, and a good 90% of them come from people who haven’t worked very hard to perfect their craft. Agents know that if you go to conferences, you’re likely in the 10% who have. If you go to a conference and pitch, you’re likely a top 10% writer who has a book close to being worthy of representation. It also gives both of you a chance to meet each other, and that’s invaluable.

GIVEAWAY: Peggy 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: MikeHays won.) Read more

You Still Have to Lift

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My barista and I have an ongoing conversation. Every morning, we pick up where we left off the day before, talking about writing while she pulls espresso shots. While she’s never tried to write a book, she told me one day that she’s often thought about doing NaNoWriMo, and we discussed how getting through the very first first draft is often the greatest challenge.

“If I keep telling myself I’ll do it one day, maybe that’ll work,” she joked.

I shrugged. “Hey, positive thought is an important part of the process. You have to believe you’re going to do it, right?”

“True,” she said. “But sometimes I think that’s the problem.” Read more

Conferencing for Introverts

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You’ve decided this is it, the year to attend a writer’s conference. Forms are filled, hotel and plane tickets are booked, and a satisfied warmth fills you at pulling the trigger on this writing milestone.

But as the day approaches, your brain buzzes. What to wear? What to bring? You look in your closet and suddenly forget what looks good together, what fits, and what shoes work with which pants. The jeans you love seem too run down. That skirt you wanted to bring is too dressy. Or is it? Maybe you could wear it to the pitch you scheduled. And then it hits: FULL BLOWN PANIC. You forgot about the pitch you booked while high on the glow of finally taking the leap. Read more

Got Rejection Dejection?

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Are you singing the rejection blues because your book (or poem or screenplay) has been rejected by a publisher (or magazine or production company)? Here are some things to consider when your writing project has been rejected.

1. Are you being realistic enough about the quality of your writing? Giving your essay or play or whatever you’ve written to your mother to read and having her hand it back to you with a gold star doesn’t cut it. You need an objective critique from someone reasonably knowledgeable about the genre in which you’re writing. Is there someone you trust to give you open and honest feedback? Is there a writing group you can join? If not, think about forming one yourself. One hundred percent open, honest comments may sting, but they’re invaluable in helping you become a better writer. Read more

Why Dogs Make Fun Writing Partners

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A little less than four years ago, around the same time our youngest child was toilet-trained and sleeping (mostly) through the night, my husband and I took a bold step and decided to add to our family. Almost everyone told us we were crazy to do it, but we were determined. There was something missing from our lives—we just knew it.

So we got a dog.

GIVEAWAY: Jennifer is excited to give away a free copy of her novel (hard copy or digital) 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: Cathy won.) Read more

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Writing a Memoir

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1. We must build a shelter with our truth. Other writers working on memoirs often ask me, “But why would anyone care about my story?” When I was struggling to write Unremarried Widow, I asked a memoirist friend the same thing. She said, “We must build a structure with our truth so that other people can shelter there.” We often forget that by offering up our stories we help others understand their own. In this way, memoir is not self-indulgent but a road map for the human experience. Read more

The Pros and Cons of Getting a Creative Writing MFA

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If you’ve been writing long enough, you’ve probably considered getting a Masters in Fine Arts degree. Perhaps you checked the tuition costs, choked, and wondered: Is it really worth it? That’s a tough call. Plenty of successful writers do not have advanced degrees. And plenty of MFA grads never publish a book. If you’re on the fence, here are a few pros and cons to consider.

1) Community: Writing is a solitary pursuit, and after spending hours alone with your thoughts, you might crave a tribe of writers. MFA programs offer exactly that: total immersion in a culture of books and writing to the exclusion of all else. (Call us fanatics. Call us bores. Guilty.) Read more

Make a New Year’s Power Grab

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We all know writing is hard. But most of us also know that it isn’t really the writing that’s hard—it’s writing in the face of all the psychological crap around being a writer that’s hard. Multiply these everyday difficulties by the profound sense of powerlessness that comes with feeling like your writing career is in everyone’s hands but your own, and it’s a wonder anyone pursues a writing career at all. Sound familiar? If so, there’s a good chance you’re giving your power away as a writer.

This year is the year to take your power back. What do I mean by “giving your power away” as a writer? I’ll show you. Here’s a sampling of people and things to whom I have served my power on a silver platter…

GIVEAWAY: Alison 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: TJay91259 won.) Read more

Between Acceptance and Final Product: What Happens After You Sell Your Book

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Back in 2007, midway through querying my first novel and drafting my second, I attended the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop in Martha’s Vineyard. During the course of one intensive week, I attended a workshop by Jumper author Stephen Gould designed to help our select group of aspiring Science Fiction and Fantasy writers understand what life was like after publication.

At the time, this workshop seemed a waste of important writing time. Weren’t we all there because we were unpublished newbies? We just wanted to know how to write good queries, network, and get somebody—anybody—to read and love our little word-babies. A year and a half later, when my acceptance letter came, I wished I’d listened better to that lecture… Read more

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