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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.

Story Problems? Maybe You Need a Good Piece of Device

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Find your device early in your planning or drafting process. Laura Whitcomb included devices in a book about first drafts for a reason. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby puts the device fourth in a twenty-two step process. He uses the term “designing principle,” and while we can debate whether he means a precise synonym for “device,” it’s clear from the word “designing” and from its early appearance in the process that this element should be groundwork for your story.

Remember Aaron Sorkin: Once he had his “recent past” device, he undoubtedly knew his next step was to choose the time period. That decided, he had a wealth of material where he previously had a gaping hole. A strong device guides you, first draft to last. Read more

Are You Ready To Be Published? Here Are 5 Things You Need

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Create a pitch. When I spent my years writing novels before I published my first medieval mystery, I also spent a lot of time planning what would happen when one finally was published. And part of that planning was, of course, the nuts and bolts of completing a manuscript. Not only do you need to have it finished, but once it is, you need to sit down and complete the business aspect of the writing and write a synopsis. You’ll need the 25-word pitch, the paragraph, the one page, and then the full. All of these are handy to have. The pitch is for queries and for networking when you answer that inevitable question, “What’s your book about?” Know it. Memorize it. Use it. Read more

Why You Should Reach Out to Successful Authors For Advice

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Need the advice of a master? Have you tried asking? You wouldn’t listen to a record by Bob Dylan and then drop him a note, tell him what a fine record it is, and that you, too, write songs and are wondering if he has any advice for a struggling musician.

It’s preposterous, of course. But you can write to writers. There’s even a fair chance—and what more can you ask than a fair chance?—they’ll read your notes and write back. They’ll look over your scars and show you theirs, and in that way spur you on like no one else could. Read more

9 Things That Will Help Get Your Novel Published

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1: The Elevator Pitch. As I write this post, my first novel, The Promise of Stardust, is about to find its way into the world. It’s about a woman who suffers a devastating brain injury, and just as they are about to take her off life-support, they realize she’s pregnant. Oh yes, there’s more. The story spans twenty years. It’s a love story. It’s a family saga. It’s many things. But for an elevator pitch, it important to know what your story is about and to refine it down to a sentence or two. Read more

5 Tips on Writing First Drafts

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Set a deadline. A Violet Season was written over four summers—each summer, another draft. This was a crazy schedule, I know, but in some ways it was perfect. There was a clear end to the summers (sadly), and to my drafts. If you don’t have a deadline, you run the risk of one draft spilling into the next, and you may never feel a sense of closure or accomplishment. This is really important in a business in which we often work alone and without recognition. When you finish your draft, celebrate! Then start the next one.

GIVEAWAY:Kathy 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: Edwina won.) Read more

Write Like a Lawyer: 5 Tips for Fiction Writers

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I often tell people that being a lawyer isn’t so different from being a fiction writer. The comment always elicits some laughs, maybe a suspicious squint or two, but I couldn’t be more serious. As a junior and mid-level corporate litigator, much of my day was spent writing briefs, witness statements and other court documents. Over the years, I developed writing skills and strategies that helped me finish my debut novel, THE HOUSE GIRL (Feb. 2012) while also holding down a day job. Here are the top five. Read more

5 Simple Things Agents Can Do To Make Writers’ Lives Easier (and 3 Things Writers Should Do Regardless)

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1. Set up an auto-responder email letting writers know that their query letter was received. By doing this, agents will cut down on the number of repeat queries they receive from writers unsure if their e-mail went through correctly. For those agents whose policy it is to only respond if interested, writers won’t wonder if their queries were received in the first place or send a follow-up e-mail just in case. Read more

How Far Should Writers Go to Sell Themselves?

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Recently, I put on an event called The Literary Gong Show at an infamous watering hole in Portland, Oregon called Dante’s Inferno. I was the host of the event, and had dressed myself in a tuxedo and a floppy-collared, bright yellow, pleated tuxedo shirt that I unbuttoned to the navel. This was intended as an impersonation of Chuck Barris, the host who fronted the 70s TV program “The Gong Show,” but I think I just looked like an aging writer in a cheap, untailored tuxedo who didn’t know how to button his shirt and couldn’t afford a bowtie.

The Gong Show event was the end of a string of such events. In a bookstore in Portland, I orchestrated a doughnut ring toss. In San Francisco, I ran a game of Jeopardy. In Santa Fe, I reenacted a scene from my book. Sometimes I simply read, but at odd venues: cafes, bars, even a high school. At one point I found myself on top of a safe, sandwiched between an Elvira pinball machine and a vintage photo booth, reading to a crowd of people turned the other direction, as they waited to order pastries… Read more

Is Your Book Your Baby?

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If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard how a book is the writer’s baby, I wonder if it would take the sting out of having written for all these years for nothing but hope and heartburn? Probably not. But no matter, the question is: is it true? Is each story a spawn?

In a word, or three – not at all. Not for me, at any rate.

This has less do to with what I think of my writing than it does with how I think of my children. From the moment I knew they were there, they were never mine. Even earlier than that, before I had any symptoms and before I realized that everything was about to change, the DNA had already merged; the match was in the tinder.

GIVEAWAY: Jamie 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: Laura won.) Read more

How to Write While Managing a Full-Time Job: 5 Ways to Maximize Your Time

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2. Take advantage of small moments. Let’s be realistic. If you work a full-time job and have any kind of life, sometimes small moments are all you’re going to get out of a day. If you’re in the doctor’s office (okay, that may be a large moment), or waiting for your kid to finish his/her oboe lesson, or chilling during halftime of your NFL team’s latest victory, you have time to write. Remember: It’s like eating an elephant. Case in point: I’m writing this in the lobby of the high school where my son is trying out for the mid-state orchestra. Read more

How to Bring Subjects to Life in Your Nonfiction Writing

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When you write nonfiction characters, you have to be vigilant and observant (this leads to good fiction writing, as well). People consist, for other people, of four things:

1.what they look like
2. where they are
3. what they say
4. and what they do.

Ask any actor. It’s all about: costume; setting; dialogue, and movement or action. It’s also about “business,” as actors call it. Business is the daily buzz and thrum of a person’s activity, the little things a character does: picks up a bottle, drums a finger, turns on a light, fiddles with the phone, slides her shoe on and off. Read more

Agent Mary Kole Teaches “Picture Book Craft Intensive for Selling in Today’s Market” — Feb. 21, 2013 Webinar

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If you are writing and/or illustrating picture books for kids, then this updated webinar with literary agent Mary Kole is for you. This updated webinar (one of our most popular of all time!) teaches writers winning practices for composing books, explains how to pitch your work to agents/editors, and reveals where many submissions go wrong. Mary will also devote a portion of this session to answering attendees’ candid questions in a Town Hall-style format! The event happens at 1 p.m. EST, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, and lasts 90 minutes. Read more

Originality Isn’t Everything: Write What You Know

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My Tips: 1. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about what you enjoy writing. 2. If what you love is genre, learn more. Study the origins, read criticism, read books about it. 3. Take the pressure off, and just practice. You don’t always have to be original.

I don’t say that I write what I know, but I do say that I write what I feel, I write what I think is beautiful, and I write what I enjoy. And so should you. Read more

Harnessing Mythic Power in Your Writing: The Storytelling Masters and Their Lessons

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The word adventure a student once told me after she’d studied the word’s etymology, means something that is about to happen to someone. I’ve never forgotten that definition because it means that anyone of us anywhere can experience extraordinary things. Our oldest storytellers understood this, a truth as ancient as Anglo Saxon scops singing for an audience in the meal hall, but your own call to adventure happens when you pick up the pen and hazard the blank page. Read more

Writing Effective Grief In Fiction: 5 Ideas For Writers

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Grief alone is not enough to make a novel. It can be the backdrop, sometimes the obstacle, but novels must be flavored with other focuses, obstacles, and emotions in order to draw in their readers. Here are 5 ways to use grief more effectively in fiction: 1. Make Them Care. When starting to write your book about a character’s loss, you may be tempted to dive right into their grief on page one, thinking that this is your inciting incident…

GIVEAWAY: Denise is giving away the e-book for free on the 3 days of Feb. 8-10. Read more

Marathon Training to Finish Your Book

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Let’s Start Training. The bulk of marathon training consists of longer runs interspersed with rest and recovery days. Your writing schedule should follow the same premise: A few short writing stints, followed with a longer write on Saturday or Sunday (your Long Writing Day, or LWD). A good beginning might be 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and two hours on your LWD. Use this time to refine your voice and familiarize yourself with characters and motives. You may feel “sore” after these sessions, but no matter: You’re building up your writing muscles. Read more

The Top 10 Worst Types of Critique Partners

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4. The Distractor. She wants to talk about anything and everything but writing. Her children started swim lessons last week, her mother-in-law is visiting Paris next month, it’s windy (cold, hot, rainy, etc.) outside, her favorite hairstylist is moving salons… you get the idea. She often has to leave the group session to take phone calls or return text messages. While I love the fact I’m more than just writing to my wonderful writing group, when we get down to business it’s ALL about the writing and that time is precious.

GIVEAWAY: Donna 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: Sprunty won.) Read more

Writing Historical Fiction Based On A Family Story

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1. Research Comes First. Because I new little about tuberculosis or life on a farm in the 1920’s, I began reading novels set in that time period, North Carolina history books, memoirs written from sanatoriums, and doctors’ accounts of the disease. I consulted experts at the North Carolina Museum of History and the Swannanoa Valley Museum. It took about six months of dedicated research before I was ready to write.

GIVEAWAY: Shannon 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: madeline40 won.) Read more

Storyboarding For Success: Plotters vs. Pantsers

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Where writers are concerned, there are plotters and there are pantsers. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants when they write a story. They start off with no more than a kernel of an idea or a first sentence or a character, and away they go. They have no idea where they are going, but somehow the story takes over, and they make it—I would say, miraculously—to the end with a complete book.

Writing a book this way gives plotters hives. I’m a plotter and thinking about writing a book pantser-style puts me into a panic and gives me an irresistible craving for a pitcher of margaritas or a package of Oreos. Read more

5 Reasons to Set Your Novel in a Famous Place

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3. A Receptive Audience Will Await. Since Islandport Press released Strangers in October 2012, I’ve realized the extent to which people who love Old Orchard Beach (Maine) love the idea of a book set there. The town has only about 8,000 year-round residents, but the population swells to more than 100,000 in the summer. Since Strangers was released, I’ve been getting emails and Facebook messages from people who were previously … umm … strangers to me … saying they feel as though reading the book has allowed them to vicariously visit a place they love. Read more

6 Reasons Being a Pirate is Like Being a Writer

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Here are 6 things I learned from a pirate about writing. It turns out pirates and writers need the same things in their arsenal. Every pirate (and writer) needs:

1. A hook: Hooks grab the reader in the first few sentences or can be found at the end of a chapter to keep the pages turning. EXAMPLE: “Captain Hook stood on the edge of the plank. Below swam a wide-mouthed crocodile chomp-chomp-chomping at the air between Captain Hook and the sloshing sea…” Read more

How to Research a Novel: 7 Tips

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1) You can’t do too much research. In the military, we often say time spent gathering intelligence is seldom wasted. The same concept applies in writing a novel. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity. In a college creative writing class, I wrote about how a scuba diver got cut underwater, and in the filtered light at depth, the blood appeared green. Though the professor didn’t think much of that particular story, he did concede he liked that detail. In fact, he said, “The author must have seen that.” And indeed, I had. Read more

A Literary Agent True or False Quiz

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3. Your agent works for you. True. Your agent is your employee. She offers you a service—selling your writing to editors—in exchange for a fee. I highlight this because many writers, especially young writers, get this relationship backwards; they feel that the agent is the employer and they are the ones looking for a job. No, you’re hoping to hire someone. That said, notice that in the second paragraph of this post I wrote that my agent and I have been “working together ever since.” While it’s true that my agent works for me, it’s truer to say that we work together for both of us. We have the same goal—to launch my stories and novels into the world, to see them published with care and enthusiasm, and to help my books find their largest audiences possible. I trust her opinion—she knows the publishing world much better than I do—but she also trusts mine. She makes no decisions without me, and I make none—other than those related to the writing itself—without her. It’s a partnership. Read more

Getting Perspective in Your Writing Journey

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Most writers write in the hopes that they will sell their book, connect with a readership, and make money from the sales. Their priorities may not be in that order, but it’s usually the goal when writing a novel or nonfiction manuscript. And that’s expected and reasonable.

Yet, often, upon completing her first novel, an author’s engulfing joy of writing becomes infiltrated with a subtle, growing anxiety. Soon to join that is a cocktail mix of emotions: trepidation, fear, self-doubt, worry, despair, frustration. Whether these come flooding into the writer’s mind and heart full force or just niggle at the back of her mind—they come. Read more

8 Things Every Blogging Writer Should Know

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1. Headlines Matter Most. If your goal is to get people to click on something, you need a killer headline. It has to be interesting, short, and hopefully provocative without being linkbait. The headline (and blog post) I’m most proud of is “He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died.” That headline poses multiple questions — Why did he take a photo every day? How did he die? Who is he? — but it also gives you a big “spoiler” by revealing that whoever this post is about died at the end of his project. I would argue that the spoiler is the biggest hook of the whole thing. It’s also short enough to be forwarded via Twitter with room for added commentary. Read more

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