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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.

Open Your Eyes and Ears, Inspiration is all Around You.

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My friends who know me, I mean really know me, keep asking where I got the idea to start writing picture books. “Where did you get the idea for a monster needing a costume?” They would ask. In a bit of a condescending way I might add, which I kind of deserve. Like I said they really know me. And I would tell them; I stole it.

It’s true. From the mouths of babes, like candy from a baby, I plagiarized my 4 yr old daughter. Plagiarized might actually be a bit strong she can barely write her own name. But to be honest the idea came from my daughter.

GIVEAWAY: Paul is excited to give away a free copy of his book 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: nrtomasheski won.) Read more

Why Tough Love is Crucial For Writers

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Hope is a powerful word. It’s also a dangerous one. When it comes to the aspiring writer community a premium is put on positivity, the old pat on the back with kind words of encouragement, keep your chin up, stay the course, that sort of thing. This support system has merits, and undoubtedly aids you in many ways, but what most could truly benefit from is a hard kick in the ass. Tough love, it hurts like hell and can help you more than anything.

I’ll be straight with you. I’m the kind of guy who learns best by getting punched in the gut. Hit me hard, or enough times, and I’ll stop fighting and get the point. Tiptoe around a subject and it will take me longer to understand what you’re trying to say. As writers, getting to the point is imperative. If we don’t, we end up getting lost. Read more

How I Learned to Kill My Darlings


William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” When I first heard that from my mentor, the late Andre Dubus Jr., I knew what he meant. Don’t show off! It’s about the story, not about you, the author. But this was easier said than done.

I’ve always been a pretty good story teller, the sort of person who can hold the attention of a group of people at a dinner table for four or five minutes spinning out one of my favorite tales. Perhaps that’s what led me to believe I could be a writer — the belief that all I had to do was to get these stories down on paper. But I quickly learned it isn’t as simple as that. First of all, good stories told to a group of friends don’t always hold up well as a standalone piece someone might read at bedtime or riding on the commuter train. Sometimes it’s the spirit of the gathering that makes these stories work best, a few bottles of wine and the inflected voice of the storyteller. By the same token, the story may be a stand-alone piece that falls flat or becomes an abstraction if it’s put into a the larger context of a novel. Let me give you an example… Read more

Voluntary Masochism: Writing with Emotion

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Readers expect emotion. Oh, they love humor as well but they expect and really want characters they can identify with deeply, who go through pain and learn and heal and come out on the other side changed and triumphant!

Writer Sharon Sala teaches a workshop on how to express emotion. Her advice sounded easy but opened a new world to me: to convey the emotions your characters feel, dig deep inside yourself, find those emotions you may not have allowed yourself to show before. Remember the time you were saddest or deeply devastated or very happy and imbue your characters with what you felt.

GIVEAWAY: Jane 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: writeandtravel won.) Read more

Literary Agents Explain Why They Attend Conferences (and It’s Not What You Think)

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Every week literary agents receive hundreds of query letters from aspiring writers who are hoping to interest the agent in their project. Why then, would agents take time from their busy schedules to go to a writers conference and meet yet more writers in person?

I’ve worked with over a hundred literary agents during the 9 years I’ve been organizing the Backspace Writers Conferences held twice-annually in New York City, as well as the newly minted Salt Cay Writers Retreat taking place this October on a private island in the Bahamas. So I asked a few of my favorite agents why they attend writers conferences. Read more

What Happens When Your Agent Doesn’t Like Your Newest Book?


“I love it!” That’s what I hoped my agent (let’s call her Agent A) would say when she read the manuscript of what is now my book, LOYALTY. After all, I’d spent a year writing the manuscript based on her feedback of the first fifty pages. I loved Fina Ludlow, the Boston private investigator I’d created, and felt confident it was the best thing I’d ever written. But Agent A didn’t love it. In fact, she told me, “I can’t sell this.”

A couple of years earlier, I’d signed with Agent A based on an amateur sleuth series I’d written. She loved that protagonist and worked hard to sell the manuscript, but publishers weren’t biting. When it became clear to me that that the series was going nowhere fast, I decided to flex my writing muscles and create a new character; Fina Ludlow and her family of ambulance chasing attorneys were born. So what happens when you love the work, but your agent doesn’t? I faced a dilemma that writers and other creative types encounter routinely. How do you decide which advice to incorporate into your writing and which to relegate to the “thanks, but no thanks” folder? Read more

10 Dos & Don’ts For the Aspiring Novelist


1. DO Start small. Writing short stories is a great way to do that. Many novelists have started this way, including me. Writing a good short story forces you to create and develop a character and take a plot from beginning to end in a limited number of pages. It also prepares you for writing a novel, because each chapter is basically a short story. Writing a short story is also much less intimidating than writing a novel.

GIVEAWAY: Mary 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: emilyjjs won.) Read more

8 Rules For Writing in Bed

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4. Turn on the light to get down your thoughts. I’ve often grabbed my clipboard and pen in the dark, cavalier and overconfident, brimming with creative bounty, and started writing like mad. In the morning, I look and the words, completely unintelligible, are splattered over the page like a drunken sonnet.

5. Sit up to write. An effort, I know. Sometimes, fatigue creeping back, I’ve compromised by reclining. I scribble like a demon and, sated, slide down again. Next day’s result: see #4. Read more

The Writer’s Promise: How to Craft a Book’s Pitch


I was in the ad biz back in the post-Mad Men days and rather than quaffing martinis and playing office politics, we spent a lot of time focusing on the “promise” of a product: it’s emotional payoff rather than its efficacy. Sure, Spongy paper towels absorb liquids just as fast as its competitors at half the cost, but how does that make the housekeeper feel? It’s the difference between mere description and going beyond it to add an emotional dimension… Read more

How to Maximize a Book Festival Appearance: 9 Tips


This past weekend, I had the honor of signing books at my local (awesome) book festival: Cincinnati’s Books by the Banks Book Fair. It happens every year in the fall, and this was my third appearance. Every time I sign books at a regional fair in Ohio or Kentucky, I seem to get better at interacting with readers. If you’ll be appearing at a future book fair to promote your traditional or self-published book, here are some quick tips that may help you.

1. If possible, stand. I’ve read multiple places that you make a better first impression if you’re standing when people first meet you. So stand if your health allows it. Read more

5 Ways To Be a Good Literary Citizen


A term I’ve heard with increasing frequency is “literary citizen.” It is usually spoken of along with an admonition to be a good one. But how exactly are we supposed to be good literary citizens, and why should we try?

Writing is often thought of as a solitary occupation, and it’s true we writers spend a lot of time alone. However, we write so people can read our writing—a writer is inherently part of a group. Yet even in graduate school, surrounded by other emerging writers, I didn’t think of myself as part of a literary community. Of course, community meant something different in the pre-social-networking nineties, but the idea that I was a writer within a larger writing community didn’t dawn on me until I was well established in New York. But if you’re writing, you’re a literary citizen, so you should make the society a nicer place to live.

GIVEAWAY: Allison 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: rmonk won.) Read more

Make the Most of your Indie Bookstore Event


It’s important to realize that the speaking/reading/signing engagement is the tip of an iceberg, promotionally. Whether you have dozens of people lined up for you, or you fight off the despair that creeps in when the seats are empty, your event should yield more publicity and generate more sales than what hits the register while you’re there. How is this possible? By maximizing the likelihood that the bookstore staff will like you, remember you, and hand-sell your book to their patrons long after you’re gone. Sure, step one in this plan is to write a great book, but there are a number of steps you should take after that.

GIVEAWAY: Nathan is excited to give away a free copy of his latest 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: vrundell won.) Read more

How to Start a New Novel in 22 Easy Steps


1. Open a new Word document.
2. Save it as tentative book title.
3. Wonder if any other books have this title
4. Check Twitter.
5. Google tentative book title.
6. Feel relieved that you’re somewhat original… Read more

If You Build It, They Will Come: Letting Agents Come to You


I didn’t get my agent the traditional way. I found agent Michelle Brower of Folio Literary through a different route.

I tried the traditional way, of course. I sent queries, I sent chapters, I sent samples and stories and clever letters, but they didn’t work. In the end, an agent approached me. You could say this was an accident or a gift of chance, but you’d be wrong. The fact is, I concentrated on getting my work published in smaller markets, and it got noticed. You can make this work for you, too.

Here’s how I made the “getting published in smaller markets” part happen… Read more

5 Easy Steps to Conquer the Heartache of Rejection

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There is no writer, no matter how famous and fabulous, who doesn’t deal with rejection. One might say that the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is that one of them was persistent in the face of rejection and the other one simply folded. I say, don’t let rejection bury you! Instead, take these simple steps that will lead you gracefully and quickly out of the boggy-bottomed swamp of rejection-based self-pity.

1. Accept the simple fact that rejection is part of your writing life. Accept that you will not get special treatment. Ever. The bigger your ego, the bigger the self-image explosion will be when those first few rejections start appearing in your inbox or mailbox. Each time you are rejected, be sure to look out at the night sky and recognize your insignificance. Let that idea of insignificance keep your ego in check.

GIVEAWAY: Jessica 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: Alison D won.) Read more

Working with a Publishing House Editor


Prior to working with Susan Swinwood, senior editor of Mira Books, my only experience with editors dated back to my college days. A short story called “ The Sand Castle” was picked up for our college literary magazine. The editor said he loved my story, but added that it could use “a spot of editing.” I didn’t really know what editing entailed, but was amazed at how changes he made to my story altered the flavor completely, not wholly to my liking. For example, he replaced a simple sentence like “He slipped out of the apartment” with “The urge in him wound itself around the door knob.” Many such robust edits later, the story still had my byline, but frankly I felt like it had been written by someone else. This unfortunate experience gave me a jaundiced view of an editor’s job, which I believed was to bully writers and mess up good writing (or at least my definition of “good.”)

GIVEAWAY: Shona 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: bendwriter won.) Read more

6 Keys to Revising Your Fiction


1) Make sure you’re in love. I’m not a genius, my stories are not born lovely and perfect, their language strong, their plot lean and exciting. I have to work at it—a lot. And I don’t mind, because I enjoy editing. But I know there’s a big difference between revising a story I love and revising one I’m just fond of.

Perhaps this is obvious but to me the most important factor in ensuring successful revising is to be working on a piece that has legs or emotional resonance for you. If not, you’ll probably give up long before it’s in the best shape possible. So what’s the key to knowing if it’s love or just infatuation? I once listed all of the stories, screenplays and plays I’d written—over 30—and looked at the themes, characters and plot, and I was able to see certain patterns. Not surprisingly, whenever I loved a story and its themes and characters, I ended up revising it enough that it was perfect—or as perfect as I could make it. And that story usually resonated with others. Read more

11 Ways to Write More Authentic Historical Novels, by A. Historian

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As a historical fiction writer, you will, of course, read up on your chosen era in textbooks, encyclopedias, and other basic sources. That alone, however, will not bring authenticity to your work. Please allow me to offer 11 ideas for your consideration.

1. Watch out for anachronistic words and phrases. The best place to find out when and how a word was first used is the massive Oxford English Dictionary, available at university libraries. Easier to find (or buy a copy!) is Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, which sometimes gives dates as well. English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh organizes words by decade. Check a good slang dictionary (Jonathon Green’s is my favorite) before allowing your colonial character to indulge in phrases like “don’t flip your wig,” a quip dating from the 1950s. Read more

Balancing Act: How to Live Life as a Wife, Mother & Writer

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I wear many hats. I am a wife, a mother, a teacher, an editor, a writer and a friend. How do I achieve success? Through a careful balance of discipline, prioritizing, self-motivation and mercy. I have 24 in a day and usually allocate eight for sleeping. In order to take care of myself, my family, and my career I must consciously discipline myself by 1) Being a boss—As a boss, I set schedules for myself. These include how many pages I will edit or write in a day and what chores I must accomplish that day…

GIVEAWAY: Jaimie 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: GSMarlene won.) Read more

Need Ideas or a Writing Boost? Read Your Newspaper’s Obituaries

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For an author, obituaries provide a wealth of story material. I’ve gotten character names from reading obituaries and story ideas. I’ve learned things I didn’t know and came across connections I would have never made otherwise. Try these on for size:

– Donald Doutrich raced against Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough.
– Jeanne Recht loved to drive, too. She liked getting lost. She’d choose a road she had never been down and keep making turns to see where she’d end up. Sometimes, she’d drive for days. Alone.
– George Wise’s favorite pastime was sitting on his backyard swing, and Edward Etzweiler loved to boogie board at the shore with his granddaughters, their families said. Read more

How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity


2. Let the characters engage with the historical details. This goes along with that “show don’t tell” truism writers are told all the time. Rather than just dumping a bunch of facts on the poor reader, let your characters interact with these details with all these senses. Let them smell the offal dumped onto the cobblestone streets. Let them squint in the fading light of the tallow candles. Let them feel the tingling sensation as the physician places a leech on their bare skin. Read more

Tackling Tough Topics in YA


When I started working on my young adult novel My Life After Now, which is about a teenage girl who learns she is HIV-positive, the only thing I was thinking about was telling a good story.

Okay, I knew I specifically wanted to tackle the subject of HIV/AIDS because not only has teen literature largely skirted the issue, but society as a whole has become somewhat complacent about the virus, now that people aren’t dying from it at the rate they were twenty and thirty years ago. I also knew I wanted my character to contract HIV throughout the course of the book, as a direct result of her own actions, since that is how most people acquire it.

GIVEAWAY: Jessica 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: juliette19 won.) Read more

5 Networking Tips for Writers


1. Don’t go to Networking Events. Any time I attended a networking event – you know, pay $15 and get one crappy drink – I never made a useful connection. And that’s probably because these events were open to anyone. The lack of focus meant I probably wasn’t going to meet anyone who needed my services – and I didn’t. At a recent writers conference, I spoke on a Networking. The panelists – myself, a literary journal editor, and a writer – all had the same success stories: attending cocktail parties and literary events (like readings) worked for us. So that’s where I tend to hang out and meet writers.

GIVEAWAY: Mare is excited to give away a free copy of her Kindle e-book 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: rachel613 won.) Read more

How to Write a Page Turner: 5 Steps For Writers


1. Create a question in the reader’s mind right at the beginning. This might seem like a cheap trick, but even a literary writer like Marquez uses it at the beginning of a novel: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” What? The Colonel is facing a firing squad? How did he get there? Will he survive? And notice the secondary information: ice in this world is a novelty. Where is this place? How long ago is it? In my own first novel, the beginning is tighter: “The Senator’s wife was late. Very late.” Hopefully the reader is intrigued: Who is this woman? Why is she late? Will she show up? And as the protagonist of my novel waits for the Senator’s wife, the reader waits, too, and gets sucked into the story. Read more

My First 400 Queries Were Rejected: How I Persevered and Got an Agent & Book Deal


Before I learned to ride my own motorcycle, I rode a hundred thousand miles on the back of my husband’s. I’d prop a book on his back and read during the boring stretches. One day, outside Kernville, California, a dog ran in front of the bike. After a gut-clenching scare, he trotted back the way he came. But it gave me a germ of an idea for a story that wouldn’t leave me alone.

I debated for over a year. Who was I to write a book? Authors were way smarter than I. One day, while staring at a blank Word doc, I looked down. Hey, I had a ‘delete’ key! I could write the book, and no one would ever have to see it. So that’s what I did. But a year and a half later, when I finished, I had a new goal. I wanted to hold a book in my hand with my name on the cover.

So I sent queries to agents — 170 of them. I had a few requests for full manuscripts, but ultimately, everyone turned me down. Read more

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