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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 Opportunities to Increase Your Writing Productivity (Without Actually Writing)

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In an ideal world, you’d have many more hours to dedicate to writing.

In reality, you carve out what meager “free time” you can, sacrificing things like sleep, a social life, exercise, a clean house, and quality time with friends and family. When your laundry pile resembles a laundry mountain and you haven’t hit the gym in a month, it’s hard to justify spending extra time working on something that doesn’t pay the bills (yet!). Until you can add hours to the day, what’s the solution? Read more

Polish Your Work Before Submitting: 6 Revision Tips


1. Listen to your critique group. When I first began to write, I was fortunate to meet some wonderful writers who became fabulous friends. We met regularly to work on our manuscripts. We worked to give constructive feedback to one another and because we listened to each other, our writing got better. We listened when the group told us the funny parts weren’t really all that funny. We listened when the group thought our chapters were too long. We listened when the group couldn’t relate to our characters. Listening to the group’s honest feedback made us dig deeper into our stories, making them stronger and better. Read more

10 Keys to Becoming a Successful Writer: An Agent Spills Secrets


Now is the best time to be a writer, but technology is forcing writers to reinvent themselves. They need a new model for becoming successful. The goal of these ten keys is to provide the model.

1. Passion—your love for creating and communicating about your work
2. Purpose—personal, literary, publishing, and community goals that inspire you to achieve them

(This column written by prolific literary agent Michael Larsen of Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents.) Read more

Should Sex Be in Your Novel?


Should Sex Be in Your Novel? If you write romance or erotica, then, of course, the answer is yes. For children books, it’s a definite no and questionable in Y.A. and religious books. But what about the other genres like historical fiction, mystery, suspense/thriller, fantasy, science fiction, and even memoir? The fact is that no truer words were spoken than “sex sells.” A look at the longest running best sellers is proof. Fifty Shades of Gray didn’t make the list for the terrific writing, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while a great thriller, the readers talked about the violent rape and victim’s revenge that sent them in droves to buy the book. Read more

Character Development: Finding a Friend for Life

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Like all writers, my methods for building characters are a mix of mishmash and melting pot, drawn from both personal experience and academic study. Below is a short list of the ideas I’d like to cover.

1. A Character Who Refuses to Die
2. Know Your Archetype
3. The Great Man/Woman Theory
4. What MUST the Character Do (and What Does the Character Think He/She Must Do?

GIVEAWAY: Richard 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: Clae won.) Read more

Writing Across Gender: How I Learned to Write From a Female POV

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I write like a girl. More precisely, I write as a girl. My novel, Styx & Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery, features a main character/narrator who is a woman. A young woman. And a smart, resourceful, pretty young woman at that.

Ellie Stone is a self-described “modern girl” in 1960’s New York. In the days before feminism, she plays like a man, but make no mistake: she’s all woman. A Barnard graduate from a cultured family, she’s determined to have a career that doesn’t involve fetching coffee for a boss who pats her rear end when she’s done a good job. Or even when she hasn’t… Read more

How a Critique and Accountability Partner Can Help Your Writing and Career


Summer, 2008 at the Highlights Children’s Writers Conference in Chautauqua, Ohio, I was at a low point. I’d been writing and pursuing publication for ten+ years and had little to show for it except a handful of published short stories. Also, four unpublished “finished” novels, too many rejections to count, and a growing sense of despair that maybe this conference was it for me, a last ditch shot at following my dream.

Enter: Donna.

GIVEAWAY: Jody 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: kimkvp won.) Read more

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

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