3 Tips for April’s Poem-a-Day Challenge

2014 Poem-A-Day Challenge.

2014 Poem-A-Day Challenge.

April is National Poetry Month! Please welcome guest poet Bartholomew Barker with some tips on participating in Writer’s Digest’s Poem-a-Day Challenge.

I agree with T. S. Eliot, “April is the cruelest month.”

April is National Poetry Month. For the past seven years, Writer’s Digest editor Robert Lee Brewer has presented the April Poem-A-Day Challenge on the Poetic Asides blog. Brewer posts a prompt each morning and poets around the United States write a new poem that very day. This means thirty new poems per writer by the time May flowers.

It’s a brutal challenge, but satisfying for those who finish. This is my third year taking the challenge.

Brewer requests participants submit their top five poems written in April. He creates a best-of list and names a Poet Laureate. This year, in conjunction with Words Dance Publishing, he will produce an anthology of the winning poems. How does he plan to inspire writers?

“I love to write and use both ideas and images to get started. For my prompts, I try to make them specific enough that most poets have a firm springboard into their own poems, but I also like them to be open to a variety of interpretations,” Brewer explained. “For instance, a weather poem could mean a weatherman to one person, a tornado to someone else, and forgetting to bring an umbrella to yet a third person.” He wants to offer a “focused freedom” every day of the challenge.

Thousands of writers attempt the challenge. They may keep a strong pace for the first few days, but many tire of the daily requirement. Life’s obligations take over and stanzas don’t write themselves.

I offer a few tips to help writers keep their pens going. For two of the past three years Brewer has honored my poems. How did I make it through the daily challenge, push through the mental fatigue, and make time to write an original poem every day? Here’s how:

  1. Use the whole day. Writing a poem each day for thirty consecutive days is a test of endurance. The peculiar mental fatigue turns some writer off. My routine involves reading the prompt first thing in the morning, then I let it irritate my mind while I’m at my day job. In the evening I force something out and hope it’s a pearl.
  2. Just write. What if you miss a day? Doesn’t matter. Some days we’re busy. Move on. Take the next prompt and ignore the previous one, or write a poem a day late or a week later. Whatever. Just write. Use your own prompts if necessary.
  3. Let it go. I don’t expect to produce thirty masterpieces in April. If I get five decent poems, it’s a good month. I hope to get ten more that, with a lot of revision, could be crafted into something (that’s what May is for). Just get the poem out before falling asleep. For instance, here was the prompt for April 27th, 2011:

Take the phrase “In the (blank) of (blank),” replace the blanks with a word or phrase, make the new phrase the title of your poem, and then, write your poem. Some possible titles might include: “In the Heat of the Night,” “In the Heat of the Moment,” “In the Middle of a Heated Argument,” etc.

My poem:

In the last week of the month

In the last hour of the day
Desperate to keep
The streak alive
He types his internal monologue
Inserting line breaks
Removing superfluous words
Hoping for a coda
To appear…

I got nothin’

After 26 poems in 26 days, my exhaustion shines through. The key is to let it go and not worry about quality.

It helps to consider something like Poetry on Demand which is a valuable exercise in public poetry. Living Poetry, the group I help organize in North Carolina, sets up a table at street festivals. We write poems in three minutes for passersby who offer us one dollar and one word as a prompt. There’s only so much poetic trickery one can include in three minutes, so we just write, read the poem aloud, give the customer their poem, and move on to the next. While I’m sure plenty of my poems ended up in trash bins, I was told some are posted on refrigerators. It’s a poet honor.

I suggest all poets attempt the Poem-A-Day challenge at least once in their lifetime. Consider it a pilgrimage. All that is required is to write. Just like life, rules can be followed or not. Poems can be shared or not. It doesn’t matter. Use the whole day. Let it go, and just write.

About the Author: Bartholomew Barker is a poet based in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His poetry made the Top 25 nationally in the 2013 Poem-a-Day Challenge. Wednesday Night Regular, his debut poetry book, was published in November 2013. Bart’s work has appeared in Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Three Line Poetry, and the anthology Point Mass. He is one of the organizers of the Triangle’s largest group of poets, Living Poetry. His Twitter handle is @bartbarkerpoet.

1200 Creative Writing Prompts: Kindle and Paperback Editions on Sale Starting at 99¢

creative writing prompts

1200 Creative Writing Prompts is on sale!

From now through Friday, 3/14/14, 1200 Creative Writing Prompts is on sale. Get the Kindle edition for just 99¢ through Amazon, or pick up the paperback edition at 15% off through CreateSpace with the discount code 7ZLPPK54.

About 1200 Creative Writing Prompts

1200 Creative Writing Prompts is packed with prompts that will inspire and motivate you to write. The book features three sections: fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. The fiction section includes prompts from every genre imaginable: literary, suspense, thriller, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, historical, humor, satire, children’s, and young adult.

Writing prompts are perfect for those times when you’re feeling unmotivated or aren’t sure what to write. They’re also ideal for maintaining regular writing practice. So what are you waiting for? Get your copy of 1200 Creative Writing Prompts now!

Have You Read It?

Have you already read 1200 Creative Writing Prompts? Did you enjoy it? If so, I’d really appreciate a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other online bookseller’s website. Positive reviews are immensely helpful for authors, and they help other readers (in this case, writers) find interesting and useful books.

Get your copy today:

Remember, the sale ends on Friday, 3/14.


Click here and use discount code 7ZLPPK54 to get the paperback from CreateSpace


or click the button below to get the Kindle edition for 99¢

1200 Creative Writing Prompts Kindle

It’s National Grammar Day!

National Grammar Day

National Grammar Day: March 4, 2014.

Every year on March fourth, we set aside a day to honor and celebrate grammar.

Grammar is either near and dear to a writer’s heart or it’s the bane of a writer’s existence. Some of us delight in studying the rules and constructs of language. These rules can be considered a consensus, a way to ensure consistency in language, so it can be widely used and understood.

That’s why grammar is one of the most important tools a writer can master. When you understand the rules of language, your writing will be smoother and easier to digest. You’ll also know when to break the rules for effect. As you gain mastery of grammar, your writing process becomes easier, because you won’t need to stop in the middle of a sentence to wonder if you’ve constructed it properly.

As writers, we should pay heed to grammar every day of the year. We should constantly strive to expand our knowledge of grammar, spelling, and punctuation as a way to improve our process and our finished product. National Grammar Day serves as a reminder that grammar is integral to our work.

Fast Facts About National Grammar Day

National Grammar Day was originally established in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG) and author of Things That Make Us [Sic].

Since 2013, National Grammar Day has been hosted by Mignon Fogarty, the author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and The Grammar Devotional. She’s also the host of the Grammar Girl blog and podcast, which offers short and fun grammar lessons in easy, digestible chunks.

Five Ways to Celebrate National Grammar Day

This year on National Grammar Day, set aside a few minutes to learn something new about grammar, spelling, or punctuation.

  1. Treat yourself to a grammar handbook or a style guide. I recommend The Chicago Manual of Style, a thick tome that will answer almost every issue that arises in your writing.
  2. Visit the dictionary and learn a new word, or visit the thesaurus and study synonyms for some of your favorite or most frequently used words.
  3. Make a commitment to set aside a few minutes each day (or week) to study grammar and become better versed in the rules of language.
  4. Subscribe to Grammar Girls blog or podcast.
  5. Review a piece of your writing, and take time to look up every issue you’re uncertain about.

National Grammar Day

National Grammar Day has a mantra:

March forth on March 4 to speak well, write well, and help others do the same!

Finally, spread the word about National Grammar Day. Let your friends know about it, whether they’re writers or not, and be sure to visit the National Grammar Day website, which is packed with grammar goodies.

From Your Head to the Page: Six Techniques Professional Writers Use to Get Started

getting started writing

Getting started on a piece of writing.

Please welcome guest author Dana Leipold with a post about getting started on a piece of writing.

How many times have you gotten an idea for book, but when you sat down to write it you froze or started playing Words with Friends instead?

The hardest part of any writing endeavor is getting started. You are turning a nebulous thought into something real and tangible—but that blank page or computer screen can be intimidating.

Professionals even grapple with getting started:

“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily.” —Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The difference between a professional writer and someone who does it as a hobby is that a pro knows how to get over that initial hurdle. In my experience as a copywriter and author, I’ve used a few tried-and-true techniques that have worked for me. I’ve also seen what other professional writers do and stolen those techniques too. Don’t tell on me!

Here is a compiled list of six techniques for going from your head to the page that can work for any writer—from novice to the seasoned professional.

1. Get Serious

You won’t be able to start anything if you don’t get serious. Professional writers see the process of writing as a business. They can’t sell their books, their ideas, or their expertise if they don’t have a product. Writing is their product.

Many authors see writing as their raison d’être or their life’s mission. If you have been given a mission (meaning an idea for a book that won’t go away) it’s your job to start it and see it to its completion.

Is it time for you to get serious about your writing?

2. Set Little Goals

You’ve got to put a stake in the ground so you can aim for it. Sometimes this is what blocks new writers because setting the vague goal of writing a book can feel monumental and overwhelming. If you set manageable, little goals, you can trick yourself into getting started. A little goal could be a word count or a predetermined number of pages or scenes. To me, achieving 1,000 words feels a lot easier than “writing a book.” The important thing is to set a goal that you can complete and will feel like an accomplishment when it’s done.

3. Use Productivity Tools

Productivity is the lifeblood of any writer. How much are you writing? Not enough? Not sure? Luckily there are tools out there that can help you stay on task:

750 Words is an online tool that rewards the writer with points for producing 750 words (roughly three pages) of work at a time. There’s a social element too: users can see how fellow site members are doing with drafts of their own.

Another online tool is Write or Die, which is available as an app for iPads and PCs. It boosts your output by giving you a time limit and attaching consequences to procrastination. The website says, “As long as you keep typing, you’re fine but if you become distracted, punishment will ensue.” That punishment can range from a pop-up box admonishing your distraction, to seeing your work “unwrite” itself in Kamikaze Mode.

If the thought of your precious words getting deleted is too much for you, try Written? Kitten! It is a positive reinforcement tool that deliverers a photo of a kitten every time you deliver a set number of words. How can you not be motivated by the idea of a cute kitten delivering words of encouragement?

4. Build in Accountability

Tell someone you trust–a friend, partner, or even a coach–about your intention to write a book. Ask that person to keep you on task. A lot of writers also join writing clubs or critique groups to help keep them writing. It’s a lot like exercise: When you have a person or group that does it with you, there’s accountability built in and you are more likely to do it. We are less likely to flake out when we’ve told someone else that we’re going to write.

5. Schedule Writing Time Each Day

Pick a time each day to sit your butt down and write. What you’re doing is training yourself to be creative and productive at this time. Pick a day of the week and start with weekly scheduled writing sessions. Build that up to two days, three days, and so on. I guarantee that the more you write, the more you’ll WANT to schedule a time to do it every day.

6. Leverage Momentum

This is probably the most important step because this is what determines whether you get what is in your head onto the page (or not). Stephen King says you should write your first draft as quickly as possible: “I believe the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months.”

Why is this so important? Because if you stop, it’s really hard to get started again. It’s less work to keep going than it is to restart from a dead stop. So don’t stop. Even if it feels overwhelming, eventually momentum will carry you through to a finished first draft.

Getting Started

Getting started is hard and not all that fun. Your inner procrastinator is all too willing to kick in at the thought of writing a book. No wonder so many writers don’t make it past the first page of their work. You are bringing forth something from nothing, which is an amazing thing. Instead of banging your head against the wall, try some of these techniques professional writers use to get over that initial hurdle, and you’ll be well on your way.

I’d love to hear from you: Do any of these techniques sound like they’d work for you? Do you have go-to techniques for getting started that you’ve found helpful? Please share in the comments below.

About the author: Dana Leipold is a writing coach and creative collaborator. She helps people write and publish books that change the world for the better. You can download her free training videos and more at www.danaleipold.com/hello.

Goodreads Giveaway: Win a Paperback Edition of 1200 Creative Writing Prompts

creative writing prompts1200 Creative Writing Prompts has received its first review, and it’s five stars!

“It didn’t take long for this book to blow me away. Right from the start, I was reading through the fiction prompts and I wanted to work on the ideas I saw presented. As someone who writes fiction, I felt like I discovered gold here…The ideas suggested in the prompts are very creative and will get your creative juices flowing…If you’re looking for help in getting ideas for things to write about, then this book should be just the thing to help you out. It’s great!”

Thanks for the glowing review, Buddy Gott!

Be sure to check out Buddy’s Writing Show on YouTube. I was recently a guest on the show. Buddy and I discussed writing tips and best practices. You can check that out here.

I’m also getting lots of positive feedback about the book on social media and via email. People are writing poems and stories inspired by the prompts in this book! If you’ve already gotten a copy and loved it, please consider leaving a review at Goodreads or any of the online bookseller’s websites. Reviews are instrumental in helping authors reach more readers.

Win a Free Copy of 1200 Creative Writing Prompts

From today through Friday, February 7, I’m hosting a free giveaway on Goodreads for the paperback edition of 1200 Creative Writing Prompts. 

Goodreads is a social media network for people who love to read. It’s a great way to share and discover books. You can create a list of books you want to read and rate and review books you’ve already read. Plus, there are plenty of special features for authors.

Click here to learn more about 1200 Creative Writing Prompts

All you need to enter is a (free) Goodreads account. Once you’ve logged in, click “Enter to Win” below for your chance to win a copy of 1200 Creative Writing Prompts.

The contest is open to residents of the United States.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

1200 Creative Writing Prompts by Melissa Donovan

1200 Creative Writing Prompts

by Melissa Donovan

Giveaway ends February 07, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Good luck, and keep writing!

1200 Creative Writing Prompts is Now Available on Amazon!

creative writing prompts

I’m thrilled to announce that the final book in the Adventures in Writing series is now available on Amazon in paperback and for the Kindle.

About the Book

1200 Creative Writing Prompts is packed with starters that will inspire you to write fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction:

  • 500 fiction prompts cover a range of genres: literary, suspense, thriller, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, historical, humor, satire, children’s, and young adult.
  • 400 poetry prompts inspire you with subjects, images, and word lists.
  • 300 creative nonfiction prompts for writing memoir, personal essays, journaling, and exploring your writing goals and habits.

That’s it. The book is simple and straightforward. It’s designed to do one thing: inspire and motivate you to write.

1200 Creative Writing Prompts

1200 Creative Writing Prompts is now available at Amazon, and it will be coming soon to other online bookstores, including Smashwords, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple’s iBookstore. I’ll make an announcement here on the blog as soon as the book is available everywhere.

Amazon Kindle
1200 Creative Writing Prompts Kindle
Amazon Paperback
1200 Creative Writing Prompts Paperback


Finding Gold In Old Floppies: Books Coming Back From the Dead?

old book drafts on floppy disks

Old book drafts on floppy disks.

Please welcome guest author Tony Vanderwarker with a post on bringing old drafts back from the dead.

One of the things you accumulate as you age is not just years, but places to stash your stuff. My wife and I have filing cabinets in the garage; stacks of plastic cases in the studio; and boxes of records, bric-a-brac, family photos, and just plain junk in the attic. So no matter how carefully we tuck some treasure away, months or years later it’s inevitable we can’t remember exactly where we put it, and a search can consume hours, sometimes days.

When prompted to start a search for a plastic bag full of floppy discs I’d secreted away years ago, I despaired of finding them. Should I start in my studio? In the garage? Or the attic? And even if I managed to locate them, would my computer be able to read the outmoded discs?

I’m not sure why I bothered to save them in the first place. I only remember stripping the stuff off my computer’s hard drive and transferring it to discs so I’d have room to write more novels. The six books I removed were my first attempts, relics of my first ten years of novel writing, read only by my wife, children, a couple close friends, and the New York literary agents who rejected them. I guess I couldn’t bear the thought of hitting the delete button and vaporizing years of writing.

I was astounded to find the dusty and cloudy bag containing the floppies on my first try, tucked away in a container under a bunch of old IRS records, titles faded but still legible. But I was not at all surprised when my computer would not recognize them.

First thing I did was call our computer wizard and ask, “Lou, any chance you can unlock these floppies?”

Two days later, Lou reported that he’d been able to save the 3 files I was most interested in.

After slipping the CD into my computer, I was delighted to discover that while one novel was fatally flawed, two held up well.  So well that the idea of potentially bringing them back to life that had sent me searching for them was not whacko, but maybe reasonable and even promising.

They’d been buried, if not dead, for decades. I had quit writing after a novel I wrote, under the guidance of my friend and neighbor John Grisham, didn’t sell. “If I can’t sell a book with John Grisham looking over my shoulder,” I said to myself, “it’s time to hang up the laptop.”

After that I didn’t go near my studio for four years, doing environmental work instead, throwing Walmart off a battlefield, fighting a couple of ill-advised road projects and protecting 100,000 acres of land. But the writing itch came back big time and I was soon sucked back into the chair in front of the computer.

I wound up writing a memoir about the process of writing a novel with Grisham: Writing with the Master: How One of the World’s Bestselling Authors Fixed My Book and Changed My Life. I got John’s permission to use his notes and critiques, and I found an agent and a publisher.

Initially, the publisher pitched a two-book deal bundling Writing With the Master and the thriller I had written under John’s guidance, Sleeping Dogs. I was flabbergasted by the interest in a novel that had been dead and buried for eight years. Could a resurrection of Sleeping Dogs be possible? Why not? It was created under the auspices of a master.

Then the publisher decided to start backing away from novels, so they didn’t go through with the two-book offer. But later, when the sales and marketing people began to work on Writing With The Master, they were so sanguine about the prospects for Sleeping Dogs that they came back and made an offer for the ebook rights.

That’s when I started my floppy search. I was looking for two other long-buried novels: Ads For God, a comic novel about advertising with the same kind of wild characters and sleazy situations that has made Mad Men such a hit; and Say Something Funny, a comic takeoff on reality TV before it even existed. I’d written them ten and fifteen years ago, respectively. Were both too far ahead of their time to be appreciated? I wondered. Would the two books, having hibernated in a plastic bag for all this time, come back to life?

Now my memoir, Writing With the Master, will be published traditionally along with the novel it talks about, Sleeping Dogs. And I’m using them to promote Say Something Funny and Ads for God, which I’m going to self-publish. So I’ll have four books coming out in 2014 after a drought of twenty years.

How it will turn out, I have no idea. But I can tell you, there’s definitely a warm glow from seeing your long-ago creations being brought back to life.

So authors, save your floppies, flash drives, CDs and old computers. For who knows what gold lies buried in them?

tony vanderwarkerAbout the Author: Founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, Tony Vanderwarker is author of the memoir Writing With the Master: How a Bestselling Author Fixed My Book And Changed My Life (Skyhorse, February 2014) about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs, releasing in 2014. He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing: Kindle and Paperback Editions on Sale

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

10 Core Practices for Better Writing on SALE.

From now through Friday, 12/6/13, 10 Core Practices for Better Writing is on sale. Kindle: Get the Kindle edition for just 99¢ through Amazon. Paperback: The paperback edition is available at 10% off through CreateSpace with the discount code 3G6Y3FFX. This will be the last time this book goes on sale for the foreseeable future, so be sure to pick up your copy now. Look for the next title in the Adventures in Writing series in January, 2014.

About 10 Core Practices for Better Writing

10 Core Practices for Better Writing is for writers who want to strengthen their writing skills. You’ll learn beneficial practices that promote excellence in writing, discover tools and techniques to improve your writing, and develop professional-caliber writing habits. By applying the concepts in this book, you will master the craft of writing. Each of the 10 practices presented in this book advance your writing over the long term. It’s packed with inspirational quotes, questions for thought and discussion, and activities that encourage you to practice and perfect your writing. What are you waiting for? Pick up 10 Core Practices for Better Writing now!

Have You Read It?

Have you already read 10 Core Practices for Better Writing? Did you enjoy it? If so, I’d really appreciate a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other online bookseller’s website. Positive reviews are immensely helpful for authors, and they help other readers (in this case, writers) find interesting and useful books.

Get your copy today:

Remember, the sale ends on Friday, 12/6.


Click here and use discount code 3G6Y3FFX to get the paperback from CreateSpace


or click the button below to get the Kindle edition for 99¢

10 Core Practices for Better Writing Kindle

How to Practice Writing Every Day

practice writing

Tips and reasons to practice writing every day.

Please welcome Sylvia Nankivell with a guest post on writing every day.

As writers we often wait for that flash of inspiration before we grab a pen and wrestle with the paper in a flurry of blood, sweat and tears. This flash can come at any time: when waiting for a bus, while drinking your morning coffee, or quite possibly not at all.

All of the master authors of the 20th century tell us that if you want to be a great writer, then you have to learn to write every day. Hemingway would rise after breakfast and sit at his office desk from 9 until 5. He treated it exactly like a day job and of course the results were astounding. I’m not saying you have to don a suit, carry a briefcase and chain yourself to the desk until five o’clock, but a little taste of Hemingway’s method can help.

The bottom line is simple; to be a great writer you have to write, and this means practicing writing every day.

Why Practice Writing Every Day?

Writers are the artisans of the written word; they are painters with language and they are storytellers. To be the best at your job you have to hone your craft and this means practicing.

You wouldn’t expect a ballet dancer to perform Swan Lake without a rehearsal; you wouldn’t expect a baker to make a cake without the proper ingredients; and you couldn’t invite an electrician into your home to fix your wiring if he or she had no experience. The same goes for writing.

You will never get better at writing if you don’t practice; this means that at the end of your daily writing session you might have five pages of junk and one paragraph that means something, yet it doesn’t matter—if the art of practice delivers one sentence, then it has been worthwhile.

How to Find the Time

If you want to write, you will make time for it. I have heard of mothers waking up at five a.m. to write for two hours before their children stir. I have heard of bankers catching an hour on their lunch break to scribble in the park. If you are a writer, you will steal minutes from your day to polish your craft and commit words to paper. However, it must be done every day, even if it’s one word, one line, or one paragraph at a time—the art of writing must be practiced.

Keeping the Juices Flowing

Finding fresh inspiration is never easy, but there are ways you can jump-start your imagination to keep the juices flowing:

  • Start by keeping a dream diary and writing in it as soon as you wake up. Before you grab a cup of coffee or let your dog out, take a few minutes to scribble down what you remember from your dreams. You will be amazed at the wealth of imagery trapped within dreams and it may also allow you a deeper look at your innermost thoughts.
  • Go to art galleries. When I am running dry on inspiration I simply pack my pen and paper and visit the art gallery. Walk around with your notebook in hand and write about the paintings. You can create whole stories or poems from a splash of color.
  • If you are stuck within the home and fighting to find a subject to write about, try freewriting. This is an exercise where you commit the pen to paper for at least ten minutes. All you do is write and never pause. Just keep going and don’t stop. If you find yourself coming loose and panicking then you can simply write I remember over and over, and take it from there. Keep coming back to I remember when you get stuck. This is a great exercise for ploughing through the mines of your memory and practicing your craft every day.

Make your notebook your treasure chest and use it to practice writing every day. A notebook is a writer’s best friend and you should always carry it with you. Use it for mindless scribbling, doodling, collecting things you find in the street and sticking in photographs you cut out of magazines. The notebook will come to reflect your inspiration and can be a spider’s web for collecting fragments of your imagination.

About the Author: Sylvia Nankivell is the owner of usedbooksearch.net, a free used and rare book price comparison search.

Nailing Your Novel’s First Chapter

first chapter

Write the best first chapter possible.

Please welcome guest author Ellen Brock with a post on writing a captivating first chapter for your novel.

First chapters are important. Really important. If you’re submitting to agents and editors, your first chapter is not only their first impression of your work, but it’s often their only impression.

This is a lot of pressure. If you’re like most writers, this pressure makes you anxious, causing you to second guess yourself, your story, and your ability to write.

Suddenly you’re wondering if you could sneak a sword fight onto the second page or if just one tiny info dump would help explain why your character likes cherries more than apples. But hold your horses.

Though most writers worry and fret and edit and re-edit, novel openings really aren’t that hard to write. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll nail your first chapter every time:

Conflict is Required

Most writers think of the first chapter as nothing more than a set-up. This makes writers go crazy trying to make backstory interesting and introspection exciting. This is a recipe for disaster.

While it’s true that first chapters are a part of the set-up, they also must have substance. This means that they must have a conflict. Period. No exceptions.

If you play your cards right, the conflict in the first chapter can perform double duty, offering both a conflict that sucks the reader into the story and insight into your character’s personality and motivations.

For example, if your protagonist is Suzy, who throughout the novel comes to terms with her father’s alcoholism, the conflict in the first chapter could center around Suzy trying to hide her father’s drinking from her fiancé.

Immediately, the reader is drawn in with a conflict (will Suzy succeed in hiding her father’s drinking?) while simultaneously learning about the protagonist (Suzy is ashamed of her father). Literary double duty.

The Protagonist Should be Proactive

Readers love characters they can root for, but it’s pretty hard to root for a character who isn’t doing anything. Opening with your protagonist gazing out a window or reflecting on the state of their life is a fatal flaw.

Your protagonist needs to be proactive from the very first chapter. This doesn’t mean you need to drop your character into a physical altercation or force them to leap off tall buildings. Remember that being proactive is not synonymous with action.

Being proactive simply means choosing to act in a situation that doesn’t require action, such as stopping a bully rather than walking on the other side of the street.

Don’t Bait and Switch

The bait-and-switch is when a writer promises one thing but delivers another. The most classic and cliché example is when a writer crafts an interesting and exciting opening scene, only to reveal that it was all a dream.

But the bait-and-switch isn’t limited to dreams. In fact, it isn’t even limited to exciting openings. Any time a writer creates a first chapter that doesn’t reflect the genre and tone of the rest of the novel, they’re guilty of a bait-and-switch.

Imagine if the conflict I described above, with Suzy and her father, was the opening chapter to a high fantasy novel. Suddenly that opening goes from intriguing to misleading.

Your first chapter is a promise of what’s to come. A bait-and-switch attracts the wrong readers and repels the right ones. It’s vital that what you promise is what you deliver.

Hold Off on Backstory

Have you ever had a friend tell you all about the problems of someone you don’t know? You probably got antsy, bored, maybe even agitated. After all, why would you care about some stranger’s problems?

As the writer, you probably love your characters, but the reader isn’t there yet.

Just like with real-life relationships, readers’ relationships with your characters must move through stages: strangers, acquaintances, friends, and then intimacy. The further along this relationship path you go before revealing backstory, the more the reader will care.

Writing about your character’s childhood in the first chapter is a bit like telling your deepest, darkest secrets on a first date. You’ve got a whole relationship to get to that. Right now, you’re just trying to get to a second date.

Raise a Question

Have you ever noticed how TV shows sometimes ask trivia questions before the commercial breaks? This is because people need answers, so much so that they’ll stick through a boring commercial break to get them.

As a novelist, questions raised in the first chapter get people to buy the book, ask for a partial, or turn to chapter two.

The question raised doesn’t have to be a huge one; it just needs to be intriguing. Why is the protagonist homeless? Why is he afraid to go home? Who is that guy stalking him in the streets? What is that woman trying to warn him about?

Without a question that begs to be answered, readers have no incentive to keep reading, but an intriguing question in the first chapter almost guarantees that readers will stick around for the answer.

First chapters are tough. They can reduce writers to mushy balls of frustration and stress, but stay calm. Take a breath. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll nail your novel’s first chapter every time.

About the Author: Ellen Brock is a freelance novel editor who works with self-publishing and traditionally-publishing authors as well as small presses. For more writing advice, including first-page critiques every Friday, check out her blog The Writeditor.

The 5-Minute Guide to Spicing Up Your Prose With Foreign-Language Words

using foreign language words in writing

Using foreign language words in writing.

Please welcome author Carmen Amato with a guest post on using foreign-language words.

“The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.” – Hippocrates

If your book is set in a non-English speaking location or your characters do not speak English, how are your readers convinced that they are striding through France or Italy? How can readers “hear” the character speak French or Italian? After all, you are writing in English, not in a foreign language.

Don’t let Hippocrates scare you away from using unfamiliar words to create an authentic tone and emphasize a culture or personality. By adding a few words or phrases in a foreign language you can transport your readers wherever you want them to go.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

The Basics

1. Use mostly foreign-language common nouns and put them in italics. For example:

“He’s a pendejo who makes me nuts,” she said.

2. Don’t italicize forms of address.

Wrong: Monsieur Bonaparte was very short.

Right: Madame Bonaparte was tall.

3. Foreign place locations are not italicized, unless you are using a foreign word as a descriptive term.

Wrong: The city of Valencia in Spain has great museums.

Right: La playa stretched out for miles of white sand.

4. Either provide the definition or add context so that the reader gets a notion of the meaning. For example:

Luz worked as a muchacha planta—a live-in housemaid—in the Vega household.

As a muchacha planta, Luz worked 12 hours a day scrubbing the Vega house.

5. Make sure you know the actual foreign-language word and don’t attempt a phonetic interpretation on your own. Take the time to research if you don’t know the language well.

Wrong: Senior Vega smoked cigars and Luz hated the smell.

Right: Señor Vega smoked cigars.

Spelling Tips

6. When you want to incorporate a language that does not use a Roman alphabet, such as Chinese, Russian, or Greek, use the established transliteration. This means someone has already mapped the sound of the original language to the alphabet of another language. Use of a transliterated word will give the reader some notion of how it sounds. The exception to this would be if you retain the original alphabet in order to give the reader a visual cue. In such a case the foreign words in their original alphabet would not be italicized. For example:

Kalimera,” the Greek man said, and Anna knew it was a greeting.

The sign read σας ευχαριστώ and Anna didn’t have a clue.

7. Don’t forget the accent marks of the original foreign-language spelling, such as ñ, é, ö, etc. Add accent marks in Microsoft Word with the Insert Symbol function. Omitting an accent can change the entire meaning of a word in that language. For example:

In Spanish, año means year but ano means a certain part of your, ahem, bottom.

Bonus Points

8. Each time you insert a foreign-language word or phrase the reader’s eye hesitates. They have to spend an extra second processing the new terminology. Think of the foreign language as salt and only season lightly.

9. Know how to pronounce the words you use. You don’t want to get caught at a press event or reading and stumble over a word your audience expects you to know.

10. Add the words and their meanings to your book’s description on Amazon using Shelfari’s Book Extras feature. You don’t have to provide a dictionary description, just a simple and quick explanation for your readers. For example:

Pendejo: a jerk

With these tips you can make those unfamiliar words seem downright familiar! But if you’re still not sure how foreign language words can spice up your writing, check out some good examples. Try Anything Considered by Peter Mayle (French) and The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato (Spanish).

Do you have any tips for including foreign-language words in English-language writing? Let us know in the comments!

carmen-amatoAbout the Author: In addition to The Hidden Light of Mexico City, Carmen Amato is the author of the Emilia Cruz mystery novels set in Acapulco, including Cliff Diver, Hat Dance and the short-story collection Made in Acapulco. Her books draw on her experiences living in Mexico and Central America. A cultural observer and occasional nomad, she currently divides her time between the United States and Central America. Visit her website at carmenamato.net and follow her on Twitter @CarmenConnects.

Enter to Win a Paperback Edition of 10 Core Practices for Better Writing

10 core practices for better writingIf you haven’t picked up a copy of 10 Core Practices for Better Writing yet, here’s your chance to get one for free.

From today through Thursday, November 8, I’m hosting a free giveaway on Goodreads for the paperback edition of 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.

Goodreads is a social media network for people who love to read. It’s a great way to share and discover books. You can create a list of books you want to read and rate and review books you’ve already read. Plus, there are plenty of special features for authors.

Click here to learn more about 10 Core Practices for Better Writing

All you need to enter is a (free) Goodreads account. Once you’ve logged in, click “Enter to Win” below for your chance to win a copy of 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.

The contest is open to residents of the United States and Canada.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

10 Core Practices for Better Writing by Melissa Donovan

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

by Melissa Donovan

Giveaway ends November 08, 2013.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Good luck, and keep writing!