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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.

Agent Jon Sternfeld On: A Handful of Writing ”Don’ts”

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hough there are a lot of “Don’t” lists out there, and I’m generally not a fan (there are always exceptions—though I think they’re rare), I’m taking this opportunity to run through a few. As someone who’s gone through his fair share of slush, here are the things that jump out at me in both queries and writing samples These are not my personal pet peeves, but basic red flags that all agents I know despise. Read more

How Writing About Loss Helps You Heal

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Just a few days before my 27th birthday, she had a severe heart attack. I returned to Ohio, never imagining I’d remain there for over a year—Mom spending that entire time in one hospital or another, battling congestive heart failure, stomach paralysis, ventilator dependency, and lung cancer (the thing that would ultimately claim her life). I didn’t write during those months. I didn’t have any time. I was too tired. There was too much other stuff to think about.

Guest column by Sean Manning, author of The Things That Need Doing (Dec. 2010, Broadway), a memoir that Publishers Weekly called “a universal story … tremendously moving.” Read more

What’s In A Title? Everything.

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The right name brings a person to life and allows you to see who they truly are and all the potential stretching out in front of them. The right title does the same for a novel.

For most of the many years it took me to write my novel, its working title was “Looking for Lenny.” I got points for alliteration, but the title didn’t accurately tell what the novel was about. Yes, brother Lenny in the story had disappeared, but the novel wasn’t so much about what had happened to him as it was about his family members’ struggle to come to terms with regrets of their own. The title set readers up to expect a mystery, and some were disappointed when instead they got a family drama.

Guest column by Heather Newton, author of Under the Mercy Trees (Harper; Jan 2011), a novel that received a starred review from Booklist and was called “a stirring debut” by Publishers Weekly. Read more

From Self-Published Success to Agented Author

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For a new writer, finding an agent sometimes feels like you’ve been sent on a snipe hunt. Other writers insist they are out there, tout the glories of bagging one, and share their wild adventure stories about when they got theirs. But are agents really out there? If so, how do you get one? I searched for an agent in the same way most people do—through trial and error querying. My queries improved over time. My book summaries got better. I learned more about how to get published as I went along. But after two finished books and hundreds of thanks-but-no-thanks letters, I adopted a new philosophy: “If you build it, he will come.”

Guest column by Colleen Houck, whose first book, Tiger’s Curse, claimed the #1 spot on Kindle’s children’s bestseller list for seven weeks. The book arrived in print in Jan. 2011. Read more

Utilizing Your Strengths To Realize Your Writing Dreams

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So in this time of reflection on the past year and looking forward to the new one, look closely at your strengths—what drives and energizes you—and don’t beat yourself up about perceived weaknesses when it comes to social media, accounting, promoting yourself, editing, book design, and so on. If your strength is writing, write. And write well. Work on the rest but not at the expense of the writing.

Guest column by Eleanor Van Natta, freelance author publicist who resides in the Portland, OR area. Read more

Write From Your Own Life Experiences

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It wasn’t always this way … I stared out trying to escape my life when all of sudden it hit me. Why not sit and write about it? Which was indeed the hardest thing I ever decided to do? You see, I never chose to be a writer; the writing came to me at a very young age, as a form of therapy at a dire time in my life. Unlike so many others who run from their pain, I embraced it and began this thing called writing.

Guest column by Suzanne Corso, author of Brooklyn Story, a young woman’s coming of age tale (Simon & Schuster, Dec. 2010). Suzanne is also a screenwriter, stage play and documentary producer. Read more

Agent Barbara Poelle Asks: What Titles Are You Looking Forward to in 2011?

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Ah! The New Year! Where the slate is wiped clean and the spines of the first new releases for 2011 are just about to be cracked, and I have yet to publicly embarrass myself or my good family name. All bet are off by noon today, but until then, 2011 has seen me dignified and refined. Read more

Takeaway: The Hunger Games, Tron Legacy, and The Lost City of Z

This is a new series starting in 2011 I’m calling “Takeaway.” In it, I examine books I’ve recently read or movies I’ve recently seen and try to take away one important storytelling lesson from it. When we writers enjoy books or movies, we can learn from them at the same time—taking away things big and small that helped make the story work. The goal here is to help myself learn and also start a small discussion with you from time to time. Read more

A Day in the Life of an Animal Author

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What in the world is an animal author anyway? We’re all animals, last I checked, and if you’re reading this, you are likely an author or someone who works closely with authors. But when you scan current book catalogs or walk into your local bookstore (that rare tactile moment of encounter with real bindings and pages), have you noticed how many books are about other-than-human animals?

Guest column by Laura Hobgood-Oster, author of The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals. Read more

The 7 Deadly Sins of Paranormal Romance

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SLOTH: Info Dumps. Nothing turns me off faster than a book that starts off with a long narrative explaining all the world building. Info dumps are lazy. They’re bad form. The details of your world should come to light slowly, layer upon layer, immersing the reader in the experience. For hints on how to do this, paranormal romance writers should study the best written fantasy.

LUST: Fetishism of the Supernatural. There’s a tendency for paranormal romance writers to fetishize the supernatural elements in the same way that science fiction writers sometimes fetishize the buttons and gadgets of their worlds. That your character is a werewolf isn’t all that interesting in and of itself. Read more

Find Writing Ideas All Around You

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People often ask me: “Where do you get your ideas?” Most of the time, I don’t know exactly how I came up with an entire book plot, but for someone who’s only been writing since May of 2009 (and yes, this is really true) lots of ideas have gone from my head to the computer in that timeframe. Some good and some kinda crappy.

Guest blog by Julie Cross, author of the YA novel, TEMPEST (Fall 2011; Thomas Dunne Books), the first in a trilogy about a 19-year-old time traveler who witnesses his girlfriend’s murder. Read more

Put Resilence In Your Writers Toolbox

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You’ve heard that writers must be resilient in order to bounce back from the internal and external obstacles of the writing life. But what if the optimistic attitude that underlies resilience doesn’t come naturally to you? What if you struggle with occasional or frequent periods of losing energy, focus, creativity and even hope? Your mood plummets. Your work pays the price. You may even become angry about that and then you’re in a complete funk, no longer the persistent writer you want to be. Still, being resilient may not be an option. But becoming resilient is.

Guest column by Carol Grannick, who offers consultation and workshops in creating resilience for individuals, groups, and conferences. Her children’s fiction has appeared in Cricket and Highlights For Children. Read more

Thriller Writing: The Dos, The Don’ts, and The Don’t Even Think About Its (and a Free Book Giveaway!)

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So Do #1: Don’t let all those years you’ve spent in workshops be an impediment. Use those “literary” skills. Good writing is good writing, regardless the label they’ll put on it in the library.

Which brings us to Do #2: Just like they told you in Writing 101, good fiction springs from good characters, not necessarily good ideas. It’s the characters that will carry your reader through plots and conspiracies, and just because the novel is “plot driven” doesn’t mean they can be shallow or mere stereotypes. Read more

Writer Interview: Ivy Pochoda, For Her Book ”The Art of Disappearing”

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I don’t post many author interviews on my blog, but when I recently had a chance to talk with Ivy Pochoda about her novel, The Art of Disappearing, I could not resist. Read some Q&A with Amy below to learn about her journey to publication (and see if you want to add her cool novel to your Christmas list!). Read more

5 Things Writers Should Do BEFORE Release Day

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1. Do the Website. Like, Now. Okay, you know you need a website. But release day is 18 months away. Do you really need one now? Short answer: yes.
Websites take a surprisingly long time to build, especially if you’re working from scratch with a designer. You can throw a holding place up on blogspot in a day, but if you want a quality, built-to-fit site with bells and whistles, START EARLY.

2. Contact Bloggers, Get Them ARCs, Plan Your Blog Tour Here’s the pre-release buzz thing again—you need to get on the radar of all those book bloggers before release day. You don’t know any book bloggers? Well, it’s time for some Internet research. Read more

Agent Irene Goodman On: 3 Great Gift Ideas for Writers

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1. Take part in one of my charity auctions, in which the winners receive a critique of a partial manuscript from yours truly. Each auction starts on the first of the month, but December is special because I am doing 15 auctions at once! Read more

Agent Regina Brooks On: The Publishing Process at a Glance

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1. Author writes the manuscript.
2. Author revises the manuscript.
3. Author gets critiques and implements necessary changes.
4. Author submits queries to agents. Read more

Living Life Makes You a Better Writer

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One thing that’s been on my mind, because I find it irritating like a grain of sand in an oyster, is the proliferation of what I call MFA novels. Setting is always a campus, characters are always professorial types, story lines are always midlife crises, interdepartmental affairs, sexual orientation challenges, etc. I think these are the products of MFA programs, which have sprung up like mushrooms all across the country, and I don’t think it’s a good trend for fictioneers.

Guest column by James M. Tabor, author of Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth (2010). The book has been called a “Great Read” by IndieBound and was named one of the best books of June 2010 by Amazon.
Read more

Agent Bob Silverstein On: Query Letter Tips

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First, let me tell you about query letters that immediately turn me off:

1. When they are typed on an old typewriter or, worse, handwritten and often illegible. The look of a query letter is important in making a good first impression. Use a computer!

Bob’s guest column is an excerpt from Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents. Read more

Agent Kimberly Shumate On: How to Create a Professional Submission

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What is the number one thing in a query that screams amateur? This question is oh-so-easy to answer, but it’s not one thing—but several. There is nothing more amateurish than someone who sends their material via hard copy, e-mails a gazillion Word attachments for a single book project, rambles on and on about their book that has yet to be requested by the agent, and who sends material that the agency or publishing house don’t even carry, thus wasting everyone’s time. Read more

Agent Mary Kole On: Putting In the Time to Become a Good Writer

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There are so many different iterations of this advice that I don’t quite know which genius began it all. I’ve heard it personally from Scott Westerfeld and Barry Lyga and Ally Carter and, hell, pretty much everyone. But the brunt of it is this: In order to get published or anywhere near publishable, you’ve got to write about a million bad words.

Mary Kole is an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She also runs the KidLit blog. Read more

Agent Michelle Brower On: 10 Tips for Attending Writers Conferences

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Editor’s note: I am declaring November 2010 to be “Agent Guest Column Month,” and therefore, every weekday, I will be posting a guest column by a literary agent. Day 16: Today’s guest agent is Michelle Brower of Folio Literary.

1. Go to get feedback on your work in a workshop or instructional setting. Sometimes writers forget that the first and most important step in starting a writing career is actually, you know, writing. If you’re a genre or commercial writer, find out how your work fits the field you’re writing in, find out if anyone is bored, find out the pages where your reader just couldn’t put the manuscript down. Read more

Agent Donald Maass On: Your Tools for Character Building

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Step 1: Is your protagonist an ordinary person? Find in him any kind of strength.

Step 2: Work out a way for that strength to be demonstrated within your protagonist’s first five pages.

Donald Maass is the founder of Donald Maass Literary Agency. Read more

Agent Scott Hoffman On: Making Sense of a Rejection Letter

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1. THE FORM REJECTION The most common (and least valuable) type, a form rejection tells you only that someone—not necessarily even the agent herself—glanced over your manuscript and didn’t think it could be sold at a high enough price to justify signing you as a client. By itself, one form rejection tells you nothing. Twenty in a row, however, may serve as a pretty convincing sign that your book, or at least the beginning of it, isn’t ready to hit the shelves quite yet.

2. THE PERSONALIZED REJECTION This can be either a form letter with a personal note added or a letter obviously written directly to you. If you receive one of these, it means your manuscript is head and shoulders above the majority of submissions an agent has read. Read more

Agent Katharine Sands On: 4 Agent Pet Peeves

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1. CONFUSING REJECTION LETTER FEEDBACK FOR BLURB COPY
Here is a relatively new nettle: writers posting comments on a website from a letter of rejection to create the impression of a blurb. This is false advertising since, the agent is, in fact, declining to represent the work, not extolling it. This is fast becoming a big no-no, plus editors know these are probably from rejection letters, so it really does not serve a writer to claim a host of agents is championing their work, when they are merely being polite and encouraging.
2. A LACK OF PROFESSIONALISM
Red flags wave when a writer starts to huff and chuff for any reason. You want to always behave professionally and purposely and positively. Remember how you interact is important indicator of how you will work with your publisher. An agent is an author advocate, but functions a bit like an officer of the court. We do not swear oaths, but we are bound to represent to each side honestly. Read more

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