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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.

3 Things Screenwriting Taught Me That I Applied to Fiction


1. Structure. Screenplays follow a rigorous three-act structure with a strong midpoint and an inciting incident somewhere in the first 10-15 pages. For fiction, I take this basic structure and emphasize the inciting incident and the midpoint. I think of them as smaller turning points—almost like adding “mini-acts” to the traditional beginning, middle, and end set-up of a screenplay. For me, this has been a great way to break up the plot into manageable chunks so I can orchestrate the pace of the story before I even start writing.

2. Beats. Once I have an outline for the plot that follows this modified three-act structure I break it down even further into beats, just like a screenwriter. Read more

The Value of Reading Your Book Aloud


At long last your book is finished. It’s been revised and revamped, you’ve sought the best feedback you can find, and the manuscript has been polished and edited within an inch of its life. May I suggest one more step before you go out looking for an agent or a market? Read the whole book … out loud. You’re probably thinking “That will take forever.” It will, and that’s the point.

Kim Wright’s debut novel Love in Mid Air (March 2010) received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Read more

8 Badass Books That Were Rejected by Publishers


The first (and perhaps) best piece of advice you’ll ever get when you decide to become a published author is this: Get ready to be rejected. A lot. Like, a way lot. And then, just when you think things are about to turn around and some obscure nobody publisher is really super pumped up about your awesome, mind-destroyingly brilliant work of epic modern literature, they’ll turn around and reject you again.

Guest column by Ben Thompson, who runs the website badassoftheweek.com since 2004, and has written humorous history-related columns for outlets such as Cracked, Fangoria, and the American Mustache Institute. Read more

The Characters Must Come First (in Any Genre)


Each of my novels features a protagonist undertaking a difficult personal journey. On the way, each of these characters—mostly female—discovers something about herself and at the same time makes an impact on other people’s lives. Each eventually finds her inner courage and proves she is able to learn from all her experiences, even the painful and frightening. Facing a similar journey, full of challenges and unknowns, I feel obliged to delve inside myself and find the same combination of wisdom and warrior spirit.

Guest column by Juliet Marillier. Her historical fantasy novels, including the best-selling Sevenwaters series, have been translated into many languages and have won a number of awards including the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Prix Imaginales. Read more

The Revision Process: How I Prepared My Book for Publication


1. Create a revision plan. I created a revision plan based on my publisher’s and first reader’s notes. Once I buy-in from my publisher to this plan, I was ready to get to work.

2. Don’t edit as you write. Write, wait a while, then edit. Leave your work alone for as long a time as you can before sitting down to edit it. While I spent over two years querying agents and small presses, my manuscript laid dormant. So when I finally got my book contract, I read it front to back, chapter by chapter, with my revision plan in hand. I marked up a hard copy with a red pen. Read more

3 Reasons Why Personally Visiting a Source (or Location) Will Better Your Writing


1. You can ask your own questions. If you use only written resources, you can miss out on key information that could help bring your subject alive to your readers.

2. You can get the personal viewpoint of the people involved in your subject matter. I learned this many years ago, while writing a book about different breeds of horses. I had written to the official organizations representing various breeds for information, and each of them strove to convince me that their breed was the ultimate “all purpose horse.” I couldn’t figure out what to write about for each breed that made it unique and special. Read more

Is the Second Novel Really Easier?


Of all of the myths I’ve heard about writing and getting published, this one has always intrigued me. After finally nailing my butt to the chair and grinding out the novel that had been floating around in my mind for decades, and after finally getting it published, how can doing it a second time be any more difficult than falling off a log? Or so I thought.

Guest column by Douglas W. Jacobson, author of The Katyn Order (March 2011, McBooks Press). Doug’s first book, Night of Flames: A Novel of World War II, won the 2008 “Outstanding Achievement Award” from the Wisconsin Library Association. Read more

Does Your Story Have a Hook or Merely a Gimmick?


Agents are always looking for something different inside their massive slush piles. Something unique and original—a “hook.” I became especially aware of this last summer, while querying agents I was invited by one agent to revise and re-submit my novel. Her main suggestion? A stronger hook.

I’ll be honest—the word “hook” has always bothered me. Sure, I understand what it entails—giving your work that extra punch, that unique story idea in order to get the reader interested, and to stand out from the thousands of other trying-to-get-published writers. Read more

How to Find Your Niche in Urban Fantasy


spent 17 years trying to get published in various genres before I discovered urban fantasy at the bookstore. The basic premise was a revelation to me: pick a critter from mythology or folklore, drop it into a contemporary setting amongst clueless humans, and hang on for the ride. When one considers the breadth of human belief and the staggering number of places those old gods and creatures can get into trouble in the modern world, the possibilities are endless—but if you look at the shelves, you’ll see that only a fraction of the territory has been explored so far. Most everything is happening in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, and most of it concerns vampires, werewolves, demons, or faeries.

Guest column by Kevin Hearne, author of The Iron Druid Chronicles, an urban fantasy series being released this year back-to-back from Del Rey Books. Hounded, which got a starred review in Publishers Weekly, was released May 3, followed by Hexed on June 7 and Hammered on June 28. Read more

The Art of the Query, Humor Style


But something felt off in those early letters. I realized that rather than showing an agent my sense of humor, I was standing there saying the equivalent of “I’m funny.”

That’s not funny.

My solution? Approach my query letter as a piece of creative writing itself, one that reflected my style while still giving the reader all the pertinent details about my project. This wasn’t an easy proposition, as I could end up coming across as a jackass who didn’t take his work seriously if I went too far the other way. Read more

The Value of Creating Your Own Book Tour


If you’re a New Yorker, you grow up with Yogi Berra-isms. They’re delivered in utero like collective memories, and this one has been coming back to me lately as I hear over and over again that authors “aren’t touring” because “it never pays for itself” and the publishers are only touring “bestselling authors who don’t need it.” I say hogwash. People are touring, they’re just defining it differently.

Guest column by Rosemary Harris, Anthony and Agatha-Award nominated author of Pushing Up Daisies, The Big Dirt Nap, Dead Head andSlugfest. Read more

Contests: The Writer’s Fairy Godmother


With the exception of shoe size and the fact that I don’t do floors, Cinderella and I are basically twins separated at birth. My stepsisters, Query and Rejection, had been hounding me for months and I was starting to lose hope, when one magical day I received a phone call from an editor—suddenly my editor—telling me that I’d won the St. Martin’s Minotaur/ Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition and that my manuscript was going to be published. It was the greatest day of my life—with the possible, though not absolute, exception of the births of my kids (and please don’t tell them I said that).

Guest column by Janice Hamrick, author of Death on Tour (2011, Minotaur), the winner of the 2010 St. Martin’s Minotaur/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition. Read more

How I Came to Write ”The Floor of Heaven”


The more I read, and the more I thought about all that I was reading, I became fixated not so much on the taming of the American West as I was by what happened after the West was won. Like my childhood “West” that came to an abrupt end at the hands of the developers, I became intrigued by an Wild West that had suddenly grown civilized. In the 1890s the vanquished Indian tribes had settled with dour resignation on government reservations, the wheels of steam engines now clicked and clacked against the metal tracks stretching across the plains where short generations ago herds of buffalo had thundered, and homesteaders pounded sturdy fence posts and plowed the rich brown earth. Read more

Getting to Know All About: Agent Barbara Poelle


Agent Barbara Poelle interviews writer/client Lauren DeStefano Read more

5 Pieces of Well-Meaning Writing Advice That I’m Glad I Didn’t Take


Honestly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the advice of others in the publishing industry. Nevertheless, there’re several bits of counsel that I’m glad I ignored. Does this mean that you should ignore them, too? Not necessarily, as my grandpa said, “There’s more than one way to skin a rabbit.” Or to put it another way, your journey may be completely different from mine. However, below are five pieces of well-meaning advice that wouldn’t have worked in my favor. Read more

Notes From the Nervous Breakdown Lane: Book Launch Week and What a Writer Should Expect


Just recently, it was launch week for my new novel, The Albuquerque Turkey. I was on the road promoting it when a friend calls to ask how it’s going. “It must be very exciting,” she says, and I have to reply, “Well, yeah, but not jumping-up-and-down-on-the-hotel-bed exciting. ”After all, I’ve launched books before—a dozen or more—and while it’s fun and gratifying to see them in print and see them in stores, I know how quickly this part of the ride ends, and how important it is to keep doing the things that matter most: 1) promoting the books and 2) writing new ones. All of which requires a certain eyes-on-the-prize hard-headedness, even during launch week. Read more

How Deadlines Can Help Your Writing


As a mom with a full-time job, I’ve always had to squeeze time out of my busy schedule for writing. I’ve been writing steadily for more than 15 years, but for the first few years it was hit and miss, a little writing here, a little writing there. No pressure or time constraints and no real goals, other than to finish the manuscript I was working on … at some point.

Guest column by Lexi George, appellate lawyer by day and a romance writer by night. Her debut, Demon Hunting in Dixie. Read more

A Book’s Timeline: How My Nonfiction Project Came to Life


You need a clear understanding of the scope of your inquiry, how you’ll access the material you need—archives, letters, libraries, interviews, firsthand reporting—and how much time, money and travel this will require. Once you’ve defined your trajectory, and can describe your book in a sentence, all you have to do is write it! Here’s how my second nonfiction book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, took shape. Read more

How $1 Could Make You a Bestselling Author


One thing has remained consistent about my approach to writing, from a seven-year-old in love with stories and Care Bears to a 32-year old full-time writer with publishing contracts in 18 languages—I always, always carry a notebook. Spiral-bound flipbooks in my back pocket. A jotter in the glove box of my car. One of my kids’ discarded drawing pads in my bathroom (yes, my bathroom). And, where possible, beautiful hardback notebooks in my office, handbag, and bedside table.

Guest column by Carolyn Jess-Cooke, author of the award-winning poetry collection Inroads (Seren, Wales: 2010). Read more

How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Group


I currently belong to two writing groups and have belonged to several in my career, and although the Leopardi Circle, the group in The Writing Circle, isn’t about any of them, I’ve certainly drawn on my experiences to shape the scenes where the characters meet and discuss their work.

Guest column by Corinne Demas, award-winning author of numerous books for children and adults, including two short story collections, four novels, a memoir, Eleven Stories High: Growing up in Stuyvesant Town, 1948—1968, and a collection of poetry. Read more

What Writing Is to Me: Finding a Strange Thing and Examining It


When physicist John Wheeler was asked if he had any advice for young people considering the study of that science he said, “Yes, tell them to find something strange and thoroughly explore it.” I think that’s what we writers do. We pay attention to an oddity that leaps out at us and wonder why that is.

Guest column by Jane Kirkpatrick, author of 17 historical novels and three nonfiction titles, all based on the lives of actual historical people. Read more

A Look at Literary Assistants (Part 2): Kristy King of Writers House

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Guest column by Jude Tulli. He has written for several recent editions of the Writer’s Market and the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market.

The title “assistant” never does anyone justice. It conjures images of the inexperienced, the temporary hire, the noob. Yet just as the magician’s sequined accomplice is responsible for meticulously timed moments of audience misdirection, so too will a writer never truly know what percentage of that surprise acceptance was bestowed by the magic wand of an agent’s assistant. Read more

I Have a Publishing Deal But I Still Want an Agent. Here’s Why…


The publisher itself was never an issue—Dragon Moon Press was on my list of publishers with great reputations and good books. The need to reflect was personal: Did I want to publish my first novel with no agent? Could I do all the work that is inherent in being an author with a small press?

Guest column by J.M. Frey, author of Triptych (April 2011, Dragon Moon Press), a science fiction YA novel that Publishers Weekly called “a deeply satisfying debut.” Read more

Picture Books Aren’t Just For Kids…


Children don’t buy children’s books. And children don’t read children’s books. Parents do both of those things. If you ignore the people with the money and who are spending their time reading the book aloud, you’re ignoring 50% of your target market. And that’s not smart.

Guest column by Alex Latimer, writer & illustrator. After illustrating in his spare time as a freelancer, when he was finally ready, he spent a rainy winter creating his first children’s book: The Boy Who Cried Ninja (April 2011, Peachtree). Read more

Want to Sell Your Story? Peel Away the Layers to Create Memorable Characters


In writing, characters should be like artichokes. You don’t get to the heart until you do some serious work peeling away the layers. What the reader sees, as well as what other characters see when they meet a character, be it protagonist or a secondary character, will be superficial at first. Perhaps the character was too good to be true, and as time goes on, faults are revealed. Or maybe it’s the other way around. An unlikeable character turns out to be golden inside.

Terry Odell is an author of several romantic suspense books. Her next book out is Where Danger Hides (June). Read more

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