The Number One Secret to Successful Writing

secret to successful writing

The secret to successful writing.

Please welcome guest author Marcy McKay with her top secret for successful writing.

You finally muster the courage to let someone else read your work. A live human being, a person who is actually qualified to share his or her opinion on your writing (unlike your Great Aunt Edna who thinks everything you do is perfect).

This individual reads your piece and gives a vague response. “It’s good. I mean, I like it, but something is missing.”

It’s similar to when you try to duplicate that delicious pizza from your favorite restaurant on your own. It tastes okay, but something still seems off – just not quite right.

So, what’s that certain spice for your writing? The recipe for literary success? Read more

Seven Ways Your Physical Environment Can Help or Hinder Your Writing

writing environment

How is your writing environment?

Please welcome guest author Ali Luke with a post on making adjustments to your physical environment to help your writing.

Do you struggle to get into writing?

Perhaps you sit down with your favorite notebook on a regular basis, but you never seem to get far.

Your kids start arguing. Or you get a backache. Or you’re distracted by that neighbor doing yet another bout of DIY. Or an urgent email pops up for your attention.

External factors aren’t the only (or the biggest) distractions that affect our writing, but they make a surprising difference in our ability to be productive.

If you’re already struggling to focus, a few distractions and irritations can easily be enough to make you give up for the day.

Here are seven key factors that influence how well – or how wrong – your writing sessions go. Which of these could you tweak today? Read more

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.

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

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.

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, 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 and follow her on Twitter @CarmenConnects.

Your Characters Aren’t Your Children

characters in fiction writing

Developing characters in fiction writing.

Please welcome guest author Joshua Danton Boyd with a post on character development in fiction writing.

For writers, characters can be very personal creations. Despite being taken from the ether, we can become attached to them, especially if we’ve been working on their story for years. With all the time and effort put into crafting their fictional lives, it’s understandable that we become overly sympathetic to them. We practically treat them like children. This, unfortunately, can be a one-way road to bland and uninteresting character development and plot lines. Just because you’re happy with your precious hero doesn’t mean your readers will be.

Here’s why:

We want to read about characters going on journeys, be they physical or mental. This means there needs to be change in some way or another. We want to see characters that end up different from how they started. This is why the famous trope of the reluctant hero is so popular. Take Han Solo in Star Wars for example. He starts out as a man only interested in money and his own safety and then ends up risking his life for the Rebellion.

These kinds of transformations are pleasing–even the ones where a character goes the other way and becomes evil. The point is that things can’t just stay the same, and one of the best plot devices for moving a character forward and making them interesting is to treat them badly. Put them through hell.

We shouldn’t give our heroes unfair advantages so that any problems they come up against are easily overcome. Even superheroes have their supervillains to ensure they are properly challenged. Imagine how terrible Superman comics would be if his adversaries were regular humans mugging old ladies.

Make things difficult for your characters. If you don’t, your readers already know how it’ll end. The stronger you make your character, the stronger you should make their enemies. This stresses your characters, which enables readers to get a fuller understanding of their mindsets. Stress, and how someone responds to it, tells us a lot of about people. It’s when we lose our cool that we are at our most honest.

Avoid making characters that are perfect, as though they could do no wrong in the world. This is generally boring. We do not want to read about people like that because we have no way to relate to them. All of us have one flaw or another and so should your characters. Make them selfish or ignorant or weak or arrogant or whatever. There’s no depth in characters that have nothing wrong with them. Flaws also give you scope for character development.

It’s important to remember that our characters do not belong to us. Once the story is out there, they belong to your readers. They’re the ones who will become truly attached to your characters, and for that to happen characters need to resonate with readers. Few people have a perfect life, so when things get tough, they want someone they can relate to. Make it the characters in your book. Even in books set in fantastical fictional universes, characters must be realistic. Put that realism into your heroes.

josh-boyd-picAbout the Author: Joshua Danton Boyd is a writer based in Brighton. He currently works full time as a copywriter and on the side is putting together a music and science site called The Scientist Conductor.



The Indie Edge in Fiction

indie publishing fiction

Indie Publishing and Fiction Writing.

Please welcome guest authors Evan Marshall and Martha Jewett with a post about indie publishing and the many benefits it offers fiction writers.

A number of clients of Evan’s literary agency have begun to self-publish, or indie-publish, as a supplement to traditional publishing. For some of these authors, an activity that was meant as a promotional sideline has turned into the main event, with the indie-published books outselling the traditionally published ones.

These authors have discovered that indie publishing offers a number of advantages over traditional publishing. Here’s our advice for making the most of these advantages.


Traditionally published authors are all too aware of publishers’ demands in terms of category. A book must fit cleanly into one of a small set of genres on a publisher’s list: thriller, romance, mystery, and so on. Creativity is of course encouraged, but only within the realm of plotting; too much experimentation that results in a book straddling two genres is strongly discouraged. So for years, authors who wanted to get published and keep getting published played by these rules, some happily, some not so happily.

The not-so-happy authors yearned to experiment further. They wanted to meld their favorite genres in the interest of telling a better story, genre be damned. In today’s indie publishing, this is not only possible, it’s smart. This is because readers of indie-published fiction expect something different. They’re browsing the indie-published racks to find the kinds of books they’ve never been able to get from the traditional houses.

Some of the most successful indie fiction authors are stretching the boundaries in amazing ways. They’re coining new genres that, when successful, are plucked up by the traditional publishers and added to their list of genres.

Ciara Knight describes having to come up with a genre for her novel Weighted: ultimately she ended up with “post-apocalyptic, futuristic, Biopunk, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, romantic elements, fantasy, paranormal.” Frustrated by discouragement from a New York editor, and realizing that some of her favorite books were genre blends, she decided to go the indie route. From her sales, it’s safe to surmise she’s glad she did.

Linda Gillard went the indie route after being dropped by her publisher because of disappointing sales. She describes her first indie-published novel, House of Silence, as “mixed-genre. It’s a country house mystery and a family drama, with an element of romantic comedy–in other words, it’s a marketing nightmare. I decided to promote the genre mix and marketed the book as ‘Rebecca meets Cold Comfort Farm.’ That seemed to hit the spot with readers, who clearly don’t have a problem with mixing genres.” Gillard says, “I market myself, not a genre.” House of Silence sold 10,000 downloads in less than four months, and Amazon UK selected it for its Top Ten Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category.

This trend makes us smile because it reminds us of the old “midlist” where traditional publishers used to put novels that didn’t necessarily fit into an established genre but were great stories. Today’s tightly slotted marketing has killed this midlist. Now, ironically, those books that are simply great stories are back with a vengeance.

When you’re in the brainstorming and plotting stages of a novel intended for indie publication, throw all the category brainwashing to the wind and just write what excites you. Remember, it was never the readers who demanded rigid categorization; it was the publishers, who needed categorization to sell books to the retailers, who in turn needed some way to organize their stock. Readers…just wanna have fun.

A Book a Day?

Authors on traditional publishers’ lists are lucky if they can get two novels published within a calendar year. Once in a while, as a special event, a publisher might publish connected books in two consecutive months, or the books of a series a few months apart; but these are the exceptions. The reality is that a publisher’s list is by necessity large, and a large list means everyone must get a turn.

Not so in the indie world. If you’re an indie author, your list is just you, and you can publish a book a week if you feel like it. Contrary to what many readers would like to believe, some of the best books are written quickly–like in-a-few-weeks quickly. In the past, traditionally published authors who wrote fast would hold back their manuscripts, afraid that if they turned them in too soon, their editors would question the books’ quality. But the truth is that some writers are both good and fast, so why not get these books into readers’ hands as quickly as possible? You know those readers who read a book a week, a book a day, or several books a day? They will devour a series—have a “marathon”—much the way TV viewers are using their on-demand services or Netflix to watch TV marathons of their favorite programs.

Barbara Freethy was a veteran of the traditional publishing world when she ventured into indie publishing. “I’m a self-starter,” she says, “and I’ve always wanted to put out series books close together. While writing for traditional publishers, I was never able to do that, but on my own, I can, so I love writing and I love putting out connected books that keep the readers happy!” In the past two years, the record-breaking Freethy has sold more than 3 million e-books.

Are you a fast writer? Without an editor breathing down your neck, you may be able to produce a quality manuscript faster than you think. Conduct an experiment: Produce several connected novels of perhaps 55,000 to 60,000 words and self-publish them as close together as you can. We guarantee your readers will ask for more…quickly.

Shake the Long Tail

Traditional publishers must market their books to the common denominator because they are not really equipped to market to niches. Granted, many of these publishers have special marketing departments that try to reach the more specialized audiences for their books, but even so, most books are sold through mainstream, general-audience channels.

Because the traditional publishers must publish books intended for mass consumption, they turn down many of the books that go on to successful indie publication. This is because indie publishing is perfectly suited to specialized marketing. Unlike a traditional publisher, you can afford to put all of your efforts, before and after publication, into reaching your niche readers. You can also keep your book in print as long as you like—something else the traditional publishers can’t do. A more specialized book needs more time to reach its readers, and you have that time. Many an author has been frustrated by how quickly the traditional publishers take their books out of print.

There are even guides for authors seeking to niche-market their books as effectively as possible. One example is Get Rich in a Niche: The Insider’s Guide to Self-Publishing in a Specialized Market by Jeffrey Bennett, who self-publishes under his own Red Bike imprint.

Kill the Editor

Veterans of traditional publishing know there are editors who tread lightly on a manuscript, and others who stomp all over it. Often the stomping is part of the editor’s effort to make a novel conform to her publisher’s idea of what sells to the mass audience mentioned above. Other times (and we know this from having been editors ourselves), perfectly good books must be shortened in order to lower production costs and meet certain price points.

Indie-published authors must contend with no such interference—no watering down or cutting. Their books may contain whatever content they deem appropriate for their readers; the books may also be as long as the authors like.

Take advantage of this fact. Think hard about what your readers like and give it to them without worrying that anyone will try to stop you. “Writing outside the ‘marketable’ trends can give my novels depth they wouldn’t otherwise reach,” says Karen Rose Smith, a popular writer of romances and mysteries for traditional publishers who has recently delved into self-publishing to make her older, out-of-print titles available again. Often she rewrites the books to reflect her growth as a writer and to appeal to current readers’ tastes. “Writing without rules is a huge responsibility but a welcome one. Because of this freedom, a new edge is creeping into my traditionally published work that strengthens it.”

That said, every manuscript does need a good copy-edit—the kind of spit and polish traditional publishers excel at. All indie authors are advised to invest in this phase, in order to avoid putting out the kind of rough material that has been associated with self-publishing in the past.

The Price is Right

Traditional publishers must charge a minimum amount for their books, especially in the case of print books. Even with e-books, traditional publishers are able to venture into free and promo pricing only for short periods. Indie authors can create entire novels to give away or sell at a very low price indefinitely. These promotional strategies bring excellent returns.

V.K. Sykes (the pen name of traditionally published author Vanessa Kelly and her husband Randy Sykes) is an indie author of sexy contemporary romances and romantic suspense. Through aggressive promotional pricing, Kelly and Sykes have steadily increased their sales and landed on the USA Today bestseller list. According to Kelly and Sykes, “The ability to set and quickly adjust the price of a book or a series of books is the most important weapon in the independent publisher’s promotional toolkit. Promotional pricing can boost sales like nothing else, and readers who opt for a bargain book and like it will often buy your other books at full price.”

Strength in Numbers

Indie authors can band together, especially in the case of e-books, to create anthologies or “boxed sets,” and then price these packages aggressively. Traditional publishers could do the same with authors on their lists, but rarely do. What they will never do is enter into bundling arrangements with other publishers.

Indie authors have no such limitations. They can work together to bundle books and achieve cross-readership. They can also join forces to create anthologies linked to their full-length books, as a promotional device.

Alexandra Ivy and Laura Wright, both New York Times bestselling authors of paranormal romances for traditional publishers (Ivy for Kensington, Wright for Signet), have collaborated on three indie-published double volumes in their Bayou Heat series; all three volumes are now available in a boxed set. Ivy and Wright have also joined forces with Cynthia Eden, Elisabeth Naughton, Katie Reus and Joan Swan on Wicked Firsts, a boxed set of six sexy suspense novellas. The set enjoyed four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, reaching the #2 spot on the e-book fiction list, in addition to hitting a number of other major bestseller lists.

Says Ivy: “Working in collaboration with other writers is the best of both worlds. You still have the freedom of self-pubbing that includes choosing what you want to write, when you want the book released, and how you want it priced, but you also have the support of other authors and their fans that can help get a buzz going that’s vital to push a book past the avalanche of self-pubs and get noticed by readers.”

Kelly and Sykes are another example of indie authors who have joined forces with other indie authors—and the result is greater than the sum of its parts. Sykes and 16 other traditionally published authors who also indie publish formed a self-publishing initiative called Rock*It Reads, which lately has received extensive online and print publicity. This exposure led Barnes & Noble to invite the group to contribute a regular column, “Rock*It Reads Love Rocks,” in its newsletter, for which Kelly and Sykes are regular reviewers.

Is the Edge for You?

Indie publishing isn’t right for everyone, but many authors find that it offers creative and promotional freedom the traditional houses can’t provide. If you write the kind of novel you think will have a hard time making it past the majors or the kind of novel the majors would have a hard time marketing, consider indie publishing. It’s not your mother’s “vanity publishing” anymore. It’s an exciting, major new industry development that savvy authors are already using to great advantage. You could get in on the ground floor—and that’s not something we can say very often these days.


Evan Marshall & Martha Jewett

Evan Marshall & Martha Jewett

Evan Marshall is a fiction expert, mystery author, and former editor. For 30 years he has been a literary agent specializing in fiction. The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software, co-authored with Martha Jewett, is based on his bestseller The Marshall Plan® for Novel Writing.

Martha Jewett is a memoir advocate, editorial expert, and co-author of The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software. She has worked as an editor, editorial consultant, ghost writer, and literary agent.

How to Write a Killer Opening Paragraph in Creative Nonfiction

creative nonfiction

Opening paragraphs in creative nonfiction.

Please welcome Alex McDonald with a guest post on writing an opening paragraph that grabs readers’ attention.

By the end of this post, you will be a better writer.

Got your attention? Good. This post is all about writing killer opening paragraphs and how doing so can affect a reader’s decision to read on or toss your piece aside. Making a good first impression is paramount.

For the majority of people trying to get involved in professional writing, the bulk of their writing experience comes from academic essays. In both forms of writing, a good introduction is crucial. To paraphrase a sports cliché, ”You can’t win anything with a good introduction, but you can lose a great deal with a bad one.”

However, there is a significant difference between what makes a good introduction in an academic essay and what makes a good introduction in a piece of professional writing or storytelling.

Many of the differences stem from the simple fact that, as a professional writer, you now have readers who are not being paid to read your work. To begin by informing your reader that you will “discuss X before introducing the concept of Y and concluding Z” may be considered clear and concise in the academic world, but outside that world, it’s unspeakably dull.

However, you do still need to outline the points that you intend to make. A balance is required. You need to be able to put the building blocks of your argument in place, without it seeming obvious to your reader that that’s what you’re doing. This takes practice, but you shouldn’t worry as an innate knowledge of how to find this balance comes with time.

The need to keep the reader’s interest means that being concise is even more important in professional writing than it is in academic writing. Moreover, for most people, when they leave university, they leave the world of 2500 word limits. 500 words fill up very quickly, and you can’t afford to spend 200 of them explaining to your reader what you are about to explain to them.

Of course, concise writing is an intrinsically good feature of a piece of writing, without considering the impact on word limits. Mindless waffle is rarely useful in persuading the reader to stick around until the end of your article. Nowhere is this more important than in the introduction, where the instinct for the reader to click away is at its greatest.

One way to make the transition from academic writing to professional writing less daunting is to consider its advantages. For one thing, professional writing can be much more varied. Articles can be humorous, angry, solemn, or scholarly. It is vital that the tone of an article is matched to the tone of the introduction.

If a humorous article has an introduction that reads like a physics journal, the reader will be confused and it is likely that the article will fail to convey whatever it is trying to say. Judging the necessary tone of an introduction is another thing that takes time and practice, but it is achievable, particularly if it’s seen as an opportunity and not a burden.

Professional writing also gives you the freedom to write genuinely unorthodox introductions if you have the confidence to do so. If you make it work in the structure of your article, there is no reason why you can’t begin an article on competitive rabbit breeding with a gorgeously descriptive account of what King’s Cross Station was like on a typical day in the late 19th Century.

If your unorthodox introduction doesn’t work, the worst that could happen is that you have to write it again. The trick is to see this freedom as not something to be afraid of, but the opportunity to write in the way that you always wanted to. When you realize this, you’re halfway to achieving your dream of being a professional writer.

Introductions can make or break a piece of writing. But they are also an opportunity to be creative and to stamp your personality on a piece of work. The confidence to do this comes with time and practice.

Practice is the key, whether through student newspapers, personal blogs, essays, or articles. With practice comes the ability to write an introduction that pulls the reader in and doesn’t let go. And once you can do that, you’ll be a better writer.

About the Author: Alex McDonald is an enthusiastic newcomer to the world of blogging who would love to one day write for a living. He currently blogs for the GKBC Writer Academy, which offers free editorial feedback on introductions and more. He is happy to help people with the same ambition in any way he can.

Discovering Your Story: 5 Ways to Find the Missing Pieces

find missing pieces of your story

Find the missing pieces of your story.

Please welcome author Ali Luke with five excellent tips for finding the missing pieces of your story.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

– Michelangelo 

Do you invent your story or do you discover it?

Writing is a process of invention. Chances are, though, that your subconscious is way ahead of you.

As your story begins to come together—through mindmaps and index cards and jottings and drafted scenes and scribbled notes and middle-of-the-night ideas—you might start to feel that you’re not really making it up after all.

You’re finding it.

Your story comes to you in snatches, and sometimes a big new idea appears and brings together what you’ve already written.

Much of this discovering will happen fluidly and naturally, maybe without you even noticing. You might not remember when or how your ideas came to you—they’re just there.

Sometimes, though, the process needs a helping hand:

  • Perhaps you’ve stalled halfway through your first draft.
  • Perhaps you need a 90,000-word novel but you only have 60,000 words.
  • Perhaps your main character’s motivation doesn’t quite make sense.

In all of these cases, your story can be fixed by finding what’s hidden. Your full story is there—you just need to unearth it.

You can’t force a discovery, but you can certainly make space for it, and open your mind for it. Here’s how:

#1: Don’t Plan Too Rigidly, Too Soon

Some writers recommend planning a story in careful detail before you begin, plotting every scene on index cards or in a spreadsheet.

My writing brain just doesn’t work like that. (Though I can definitely see the advantages of this method—I spend a lot of time rewriting.)

When I’ve run into problems, I’ve sometimes tried to plan too much, too soon. If your novel seems to be stalling, or if you sense that some aspect of the plot or characterization doesn’t fit, then trust your instincts.

Don’t be afraid to plan loosely. Don’t be afraid to leave gaps or change your mind. Look for your process—not someone else’s. Leave room to discover your story—once you begin to chip away the marble, it may look a little different from how you initially envisaged it.

#2: Write “Maybe…” Notes

When I’m working on a novel, I have a notebook where I jot down ideas and thoughts. Probably 80% of what I write doesn’t get used.

Often, when I’m thinking through a scene or new part of the plot, my notes will start with Maybe… This is a great technique to use if you want to open up some new possibilities. Let’s say you have a novel with a sagging middle, and you need to add an extra dimension:

Maybe John asks Sarah out. Hmm… but John hasn’t show any interest in Sarah so far.

Maybe John asks Sarah out on a dare.

Maybe Sarah asks John out.

Maybe John and Sarah get set up on a blind date by a mutual friend. To their surprise, they hit it off.

Maybe John and Sarah have both just started to date one another’s best friends; they go on a double-date and realize they have much more in common than they thought.

Start with a “Maybe” and see where you end up.

#3: Be Open to Inspiration

New discoveries—big and small—can come from almost anywhere. Some of my favorite places for inspiration are:

  • Overheard (and misheard) conversations.
  • Museums and art galleries—especially small, unusual ones.
  • Music and lyrics (again, misheard ones can be great).
  • Almost-forgotten memories.
  • The outside world—yes, it’s good to get fresh air once in a while.

(I’m sure you’ll have your own examples—do let me know what’s worked for you in the comments!)

Perhaps the interaction between two kids in your local park makes you realize that your protagonist needs a sibling, or the rain falling outside prompts you to set your not-quite-working story during a cold, miserable winter instead of during a balmy summer.

You don’t need to be deliberately thinking about your work-in-progress all the time, but keep it at the back of your mind and be receptive to great thoughts that might arrive at unexpected times.

#4: Do Quick Writing Sprints

Sometimes, you simply don’t have two hours to spend writing, or you can’t face the thought of a full writing session.

I find it hard to work “properly” on my novel for just a few minutes, but I find that 5–10 minutes is a great length of time for what I think of as a writing sprint.

Here’s how that works: Instead of trying to finish Chapter 10, open up a new document. Set a timer for 5 minutes (or 10, if you want a bit longer). Use a writing prompt or a word to spark an initial thought and run with it, writing as fast as you can until your timer goes off.

This is a great way to uncover new ideas and to write snippets that you might later combine into a full scene. It can also be a good warm-up activity for a longer writing session.

#5: Talk it Through

While I’m not usually a fan of talking too much about my work-in-progress (it can sap writing energy), one great time to talk is when you know you’re missing something but you’re not sure what it is.

For this, you need someone who’s familiar with your work-in-progress—maybe a writer friend who you’ve swapped drafts with or your spouse who gets to read everything you write before anyone else does.

Explain to them where you’re stuck (sometimes, just the act of explaining is enough, and you’ll suddenly realize what’s missing). Ask them for their ideas, and don’t reject them out of hand. If they suggest something that you know won’t fit with your story, think about ways to modify it.

There’s no magic, works-every-time method for discovering the missing parts of your story, but if you try all five of these, you’re almost certain to come up with something.

A true discovery should feel like it fits as an essential part of the whole, not like it’s been forced in or tagged on.

I’d love to hear your experiences of discovery or your tips; share them with us in the comments below.

Ali Luke

About the Author: Ali Luke, author of Lycopolis (a novel) and Publishing E-Books For Dummies is Zen Optimise’s Head of Content and Blogging Trainer.

If you’re a blogger short on inspiration, check out her post on “8 Under-Used Blog Post Structures.”