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1. Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 282

If you live within striking distance of Columbus, Georgia, please consider coming out to a poetry reading on Saturday (October 4). I’ll be reading with Megan Volpert (yes, this Megan Volpert) starting around 5:30 p.m. at the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. The event is free, and the first 10 folks to arrive will receive a free book (either a copy of Volpert’s Only Ride or my Solving the World’s Problems). Hope to see you there!

For this week’s prompt, write a broken down poem. Write about cars, lawn mowers, or the human spirit. So many possibilities for things and people to break down. Write one!


Win $1,000 for Your Poetry!

Writer’s Digest is offering a contest strictly for poets with a top prize of $1,000, publication in Writer’s Digest magazine, and a copy of the 2015 Poet’s Market. There are cash prizes for Second ($250) and Third ($100) Prizes, as well as prizes for the Top 25.

The early bird deadline is October 1 and costs $15 for the first poem, $10 for each additional poem. Enter as often as you’d like.

Click here to learn more.


Here’s my attempt at a Broken Down poem:


not so much broken down
as broken

waking up
roll out the driver’s side

consider what was thought
before sleep

washed over
before the sudden break


roberttwitterimageRobert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market, Writer’s Market, and Guide to Self-Publishing, in addition to writing a free weekly WritersMarket.com newsletter and poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine.

He once worked third shift in a car factory and often had trouble with getting his body to fall and stay asleep during the daytime. This eventually caught up to him, and he crashed his first car, a Plymouth Horizon, into the back of a parked pickup truck as a result. He has not worked in a car factory since.

Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


Find other poetic posts here:

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2. WD Poetic Form Challenge: Madrigal Winner

I’m sorry for taking so long to share the winner of the madrigal challenge. I’ve known for a week or two now, but you know what they say about good things coming to those who wait, right? If you don’t, trust me on this one.

Thank you to everyone who submitted a madrigal! They were really fun to read, and I found myself constantly caught up in their musical nature.

My initial short list included 22 poems, but I’m always stuck having to pick one winner. This time around, that winner is Bruce Niedt for his poem “Senior Discount,” which won me over with its humor.

Here’s the winning Madrigal:

Senior Discount, by Bruce Niedt

Apparently I’ve reached a certain age
where I’m forgiven at least ten percent.
I wonder how and when my youth was spent.

The movies, the museum and the stage
all offer handsome discounts for this gent.
Apparently I’ve reached a certain age
where I’m forgiven at least ten percent.

Nobody checks ID, they simply gauge
me by my face and how my spine is bent.
Free coffee doesn’t ease my discontent.
Apparently I’ve reached a certain age
where I’m forgiven at least ten percent.
I wonder how and when my youth was spent.


Win $1,000 for Your Poetry!

Writer’s Digest is offering a contest strictly for poets with a top prize of $1,000, publication in Writer’s Digest magazine, and a copy of the 2015 Poet’s Market. There are cash prizes for Second ($250) and Third ($100) Prizes, as well as prizes for the Top 25.

The early bird deadline is October 1 and costs $15 for the first poem, $10 for each additional poem. Enter as often as you’d like.

Click here to learn more.


Here is the Top 10 list:

  1. “Senior Discount,” by Bruce Niedt
  2. “A Tree in an English Garden,” by William Preston
  3. “Christina’s World,” by RJ Clarken
  4. “What She Needs,” by Taylor Graham
  5. “A Conversation with Nana,” by Nancy Posey
  6. “Windthrift,” by Jane Shlensky
  7. “The Unneeded Weed,” by Susan Schoeffield
  8. “Passion Play,” by James Von Hendy
  9. “Midsummer Night,” by Daniel Ari
  10. “Barbecue,” by Andrew Kreider

Congratulations to Bruce and everyone in the Top 10! And thank you to everyone who took the time to participate and comment on each others’ poems.

The next WD Poetic Form Challenge is already in motion for the terzanelle. Click here for the guidelines and to participate.

Also, be sure to read through the 450+ comments from the madrigal challenge. Click to continue.


roberttwitterimageRobert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market, Writer’s Market, and Guide to Self-Publishing, in addition to writing a free weekly WritersMarket.com newsletter and poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine.

He loves hosting, reading, and judging these challenges.

Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


More poetic good stuff here:

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3. Your Story 62: Submit Now!

Prompt: Write a short story, of 750 words or fewer, that begins with the following sentence: I knew it was a mistake the moment it was over.

You can be funny, poignant, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.

Use the submission form below OR email your submission directly to yourstorycontest@fwmedia.com.

IMPORTANT: If you experience trouble with the submission form, please email your submission directly to yourstorycontest@fwmedia.com within the body of your email (no attachments please).

Unfortunately, we cannot respond to every entry we receive, due to volume. No confirmation emails will be sent out to confirm receipt of submission. But be assured all submissions received before entry deadline are considered carefully. Official Rules

Entry Deadline: November 24, 2014

Your Story Entry Form


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4. NaNoWriMo Prep Work: Find Your Writing Niche

nanowrimoBY OWEN BONDONO In nature, all living things fill a specific role in their ecosystems. This is called their ecological niche, and organisms need this specific combination of factors to survive.

Similarly, every writer needs their own specific combination of factors to thrive creatively. Some people like quiet, while others like noise. Some write first thing in the morning, others write after everyone else has gone to bed. Finding your writing niche is key to upping your productivity.

Lists and charts have always made me happy. Even if you hate charts, taking notes on your writing habits can help clarify what factors work for you and which factors don’t.

Spend a few weeks setting aside writing time as often as you can. Record all the details of your writing session, including:

  • location,
  • the day and time,
  • how much time spent writing,
  • background noise,
  • what else you’re doing (eating, drinking, texting, etc),
  • words written, and
  • anything else you think may impact your writing productivity.

Make sure you switch up these factors during the few weeks you’re recording, so you get as much data as possible.

Sitting back to look at this information will show you trends that are hard to spot on their own, especially when you do the math to figure out how many words you wrote per hour. As the factors change, productivity can vary widely.

Study these numbers for patterns. These patterns of productivity are the factors that will describe your niche. For instance, my niche is in the evening, out of the house, somewhere with some background noise but with my music playing. That’s why you’ll find me in libraries and cafes with too much coffee and headphones that look too big for my head. Everyone has their own niche, and keeping track of your productivity can help you find yours.

T1255Get prepared to write an entire novel in November with
a little help for our October 9 webinar: How to Pre-Plot & Complete
a Novel or Memoir in a Month (comes with a bonus ebook).
Register here

Make Your Niche Into A Habitat

Once you’ve found your niche, it’s time to burrow in and make it your home. Habitats provide animals with everything important in their lives. They dictate the habits and routines of nature. As humans, we get to decide what is in our habitat.

Routine helps prevent writer’s block and gives you focus. If you always write after supper, then your brain will start shifting automatically into writing gear as you’re stacking your dishes in the sink.

Don’t think of writing time as stolen moments, but as planned time to give your creativity the room to stretch and play. Putting your writing time on your schedule – and sticking to it – helps you and those around you take it seriously. That’s when your niche becomes a habitat, when you settle down to live in the efficiency of routine.

To do this, lay out your schedule for a typical week. Index cards or sticky notes are great for this because you can move them around easily. On each card or note, write out one thing you must do in your day. Include everything: your job, your commute, your mealtimes, your sleep.

owen bondonoFigure out what you can rearrange. Some things you can’t move, like your commute. But with a little flexibility, many things can be moved. Showers can be taken in the morning or at night; the dishes can be washed any time. Rearrange your tasks so your butt is in  your preferred writing chair during your writing niche as often as possible.

Most of us can’t afford to spend hours every day writing. There are just too many other things that need our attention. By making writing in your niche a routine, we can be more productive in less time. We may not be professional writers who can dedicate hours of the day to writing, but 20 minutes of high efficiency writing is better than spending two hours unfocused.

Owen Bondono is a border-crossing educator who teaches in Detroit and lives in Canada. He has served as National Novel Writing Month’s Detroit Municipal Liaison for six years and is currently revising his first novel. To write with him this November, visit his NaNoWriMo author profile.

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5. How to Make a Living as a Writer – Introduction

It’s true—you CAN make a living as a writer! AWAI has been teaching people how to do it since 1997.

And I’m happy to announce we’re now able to share our tips, techniques and strategies directly with Writer’s Digest readers through our new blog – How to Make a Living as a Writer.

rebecca_matter-150My name is Rebecca Matter. I’m the President of AWAI, and have personally worked with and trained hundreds of writers over the last 15 years. I have a lot of experience helping writers cross over from dreaming about the writer’s life—to actually living it. And I’m going to share what I know works with you each week, so that you too can start living the life of your dreams.

I won’t be alone …

Along the way I’m going to invite many of the AWAI-trained writers I know who have successfully made the leap and are living the writer’s life too. People like:

  • Pat McCord, a once struggling novelist who learned to support herself and her creative passion doing what she loves …
  • Starr Daubenmire, who fulfilled a life-long dream by moving to Lucca, Italy for 3 months, and spent her mornings writing and her afternoons painting …
  • Joshua Boswell, a father of 11, who put his nose to the grindstone and earned a six-figure income 11 months after he started out …
  • Mindy McHorse, a young stay-at-home mom who spends her days with her kids in the Albuquerque sunshine while writing on the side …
  • Henry Bingaman, an ex-flight attendant who ditched his crazy work hours to write — and like Joshua, quickly set up shop and skyrocketed his income to six figures …
  • And Rae Robinson – a writer who found us through Writer’s Digest when she was in college and has doubled her income every year since she graduated just 3 years ago.

They’ll participate in this blog to bring you different perspectives, and share their “life in the trenches” as successful working writers.

We’ll talk about the best paying opportunities for writers, skills and techniques for writing winning copy and online content, best practices for landing clients who value writers and are willing to pay them well, and how to successfully work with clients to ensure long-term relationships with more and more opportunities.

So check in weekly, and let my team of experts and me help you live the writer’s life of your dreams.

In the meantime, I encourage you to spend some time today thinking about what your version of the writer’s life looks like. What would it mean to make a very good living as a writer? How would your life be different? How would you spend your free time and extra money?

Give it some thought and write it down. It will become your goal as you participate in this weekly blog.

And if you have any questions for me in the meantime, I invite you to post comments or connect with me on Facebook.

Talk to you next week!



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6. Caught Pants Down

You wake up feeling refreshed, a new day a new— wait your favorite pair of pants is missing. Darting up from bed you hear a noise outside. A woman is wearing them and looking straight at you. What do you do?

writing-promptsWant more creative writing prompts?

Pick up a copy of A Year of Writing Prompts: 365 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block. There’s a prompt for every day of the year and you can start on any day.

Order now from our shop.






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7. Copywriting Crash Course: Learn the Basics of Writing Great Copy

The secret is out …

If you want to make a VERY good living as a writer, you should become a copywriter. What used to be a “closed profession” is now the biggest opportunity for writers thanks to the $2.3 trillion direct-response industry.

Your first step? Learn how to write the copy companies are hungry for.

Join Rebecca Matter and Katie Yeakle – who train hundreds of copywriters every year – for this FREE webinar and get a crash course in writing copy that sells. In just one hour you’ll learn the secrets behind good copy, tips for connecting with your reader, techniques for improving every piece of copy you write, a checklist you can use to ensure your copy always hits the mark, and a whole lot more.

They’ll even close things out with some tips on how to use your new skills to find paid assignments! They’ve promised to pack a lot of information into a single hour – so make sure come ready to learn.


Katie Yeakle has spent over 30 years in the world of direct marketing and publishing in the roles of copy editor, editorial coordinator, product manager, fulfillment supervisor, marketing manager and publisher.

Recognizing the industry-wide need for talented copywriters who can deliver copy that sells, she helped establish American Writers & Artists Inc. (AWAI) with co-founders Paul Hollingshead and Don Mahoney in 1997.

Today, as Executive Director, Katie oversees AWAI’s 70+ programs designed to help people turn their passions into careers.

Rebecca Matter is a copywriter, Founder of Wealthy Web Writer – named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest, and President of AWAI.

A marketer with over a 15 years of experience in publishing and direct-marketing, Rebecca has spearheaded successful million-dollar campaigns for countless products, both online and off, and has spoken and written on topics ranging from getting and working with clients to successful marketing strategies.

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8. New Literary Agent Alert: Julie Gwinn of The Seymour Agency

Reminder: New literary agents (with this spotlight featuring Julie Gwinn of The Seymour Agency) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.


Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 12.19.22 AM

About Julie: Before joining The Seymour Agency, Julie Gwinn most recently served as Marketing Manager for the Christian Living line at Abingdon Press and before that served as Trade Book Marketing Manager and then Fiction Publisher for the Pure Enjoyment line at B&H Publishing Group, a Division of LifeWay Christian Resources. Last year she was awarded Editor of the Year from the American Christian Fiction Writers and won B&H’s first Christy award for Ginny Yttrup’s debut novel Words. She has more than 25 years public relations and marketing experience and has also worked in marketing for several Nashville non-profit organizations including the TN Assoc. for the Education of Young Children, the Nashville Area Red Cross and the YWCA. She is married and has two children.

(Query letter FAQs answered.)

She is seeking: Christian and Inspirational Fiction and Nonfiction, Women’s fiction (contemporary and historical), New Adult, Southern Fiction, Literary Fiction and Young Adult.

How to submit: E-query julie [at] theseymouragency.com. Be sure to include: genre/target audience, word count, contact information, references (conference, recommendation, etc.). No attachments, please. All of The Seymour Agency agents ask that you paste the first five pages of your manuscript into the bottom of your email. “Simultaneous submissions are acceptable for queries and partials. However, we only review complete manuscripts on an exclusive basis.”

(How many blog page views are enough to impress an agent?)


The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
most recent updated edition online at a discount.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

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9. How I Got My Literary Agent: Lori M. Lee

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Lori M. Lee, author of GATES OF THREAD AND STONE. These columns are great ways for you to learn how to find a literary agent. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at literaryagent@fwmedia.com and we’ll talk specifics.

GIVEAWAY: Lori is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).


Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 12.44.52 AM        Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 12.44.00 AM

Lori M. Lee is the author of young adult fantasy GATES OF THREAD AND STONE
(purchase it on Amazon or IndieBound), which came out Aug. 2014 from Skyscape.
Lori has a borderline obsessive fascination with unicorns, is fond of talking in capslock,
and loves to write about magic, manipulation, and family. She lives in Wisconsin
with her husband, kids, and a friendly pitbull. Connect with her
on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest.

Changing things up

I’d read somewhere that writing the query before writing the book would help focus the plot. Since both an overly complicated plot and, subsequently, a query that just never felt right (despite numerous attempts to rewrite it) had been problems with my previous manuscript, I decided to try it for my next project. To my surprise, the query came easily, and the one I ended up sending out to agents changed little from that first draft.

An unexpected referral

I was determined not to repeat the same mistake I’d made with my previous manuscript by querying too soon, so I took my time making sure my book was as polished as I could get it. I decided to enter a random drawing for a first chapter critique by an author whose books I enjoyed. I ended up winning the critique, so I sent her my first chapter hoping for some insight. She responded shortly after saying she had nothing to critique and could I please send my second chapter instead. Surprised but also tentatively optimistic, I sent my second chapter. Once again, she had no feedback but mentioned that she’d forwarded my chapters to her agent Suzie Townsend (of New Leaf Literary) and hoped I didn’t mind.

At that point, my brain short circuited, and I’m pretty sure my response was something like “!!!oifseks!!!” As it turned out, Suzie loved my pages and encouraged me to query her as soon as the manuscript was complete.

(Why writers who don’t have a basic website are hurting their chances of success.)

The “Call”

About a month later, I’d done all I could for this manuscript and took the querying plunge. I emailed Suzie on a Friday night at 11:45 pm (b/c when I’m tired is when I’m feeling bravest). Thirty minutes later, she responded with: “YES PLEASE SEND!!!! Right now! :):)”

Ecstatic, I sent off my ms and put it from my mind. (And by that, I mean I obsessed over it day and night.) About a month later, I got a sheepish and apologetic email from Suzie saying she’d responded within days to receiving my manuscript and wondered why I hadn’t replied. She checked her email and found it never sent. But she still wanted to talk! And she included a couple pages of revisions notes for me to look over as well.

We set up a phone call, during which I was too anxious and wired to remember to say ANY of the things I’d planned to. When she asked what else I was working on, even though I had it written down right in front of me, I blanked and went, “Um… this book about… a girl who has a monster in her… and this boy… who captures her.” And then because I could unfortunately HEAR myself, I added, “Wow, that sounds terrible.”

(Hear a dozen agents explain exactly what they want to see the slush pile. See if your work is a match.)

Suzie was kind enough to laugh and take it in stride, and despite my bumbling, she still offered me rep. Whew! After the call, I did the usual, which was to run around the house a few times (is that not the usual?) and then I contacted all the other agents in possession of my manuscript to inform them of the offer.

In the end, although I had several offers from really stellar agents, I knew that Suzie was the right agent for me. The book she signed me for, Gates of Thread and Stone, released in August, and I couldn’t be happier.

GIVEAWAY: Lori is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).



Writing books/novels for kids & teens? There are hundreds
of publishers, agents and other markets listed in the
latest Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market.
Buy it online at a discount.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

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10. “Find an Agent and Get Published” — WD Premium Collection is 11 Great Items Bundled Together at 80% Off

Are you ready to get your book on the shelves? Whether you’re just starting to write your novel or have dozens of submissions under your belt, this new “Find an Agent and Get Published” collection includes everything you need to successfully get your work into the market. Learn how the publishing industry has changed and how you need to format and submit your proposal in order to build a solid reputation. Get insight from experienced agents on common mistakes writers make and how to craft an irresistible query letter. If you’re serious about having a long-term, prosperous career as a writer, you need to develop the business-savvy skills necessary to land an agent and get published. And the 11-item kit is yours for 80% off. (Not too shabby!)

Buy it here. Here are the 11 items in this month’s kit:

Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 12.34.34 AM Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 12.34.28 AM Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 12.34.18 AM Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 12.34.06 AM


Buy the kit here.

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11. 5 Moral Dilemmas That Make Characters (& Stories) Better

t2799Readers can’t resist turning pages when characters are facing tough choices. Use these 5 keys to weave moral dilemmas into your stories—and watch your fiction climb to new heights.

—by Steven James

Key #1: Give Your Character Dueling Desires.

Before our characters can face difficult moral decisions, we need to give them beliefs that matter: The assassin has his own moral code not to harm women or children, the missionary would rather die than renounce his faith, the father would sacrifice everything to pay the ransom to save his daughter.

A character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who will be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget.

So, to create an intriguing character facing meaningful and difficult choices, give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.

For example: A woman wants (1) peace in her home and (2) openness between her and her husband. So, when she begins to suspect that he’s cheating on her, she’ll struggle with trying to decide whether or not to confront him about it. If she only wanted peace she could ignore the problem; if she only wanted openness she would bring it up regardless of the results. But her dueling desires won’t allow her such a simple solution.

That creates tension.

And tension drives a story forward.

So, find two things that your character is dedicated to and then make him choose between them. Look for ways to use his two desires to force him into doing something he doesn’t want to do.

[Get Query Help: Click here for The 10 Dos and Don'ts of Writing a Query Letter]

For instance, a Mennonite pastor’s daughter is killed by a drunk driver. When the man is released on a technicality, does the minister forgive him (and what would that even look like?) or does he take justice into his own hands? In this case, his (1) pacifist beliefs are in conflict with his (2) desire for justice. What does he do?

Good question.

Good tension.

Good drama.

Another example: Your protagonist believes (1) that cultures should be allowed to define their own subjective moralities, but also (2) that women should be treated with the same dignity and respect as men. She can’t stand the thought of women being oppressed by the cultures of certain countries, but she also feels it’s wrong to impose her values on someone else. When she is transplanted to one of those countries, then, what does she do?

Construct situations in which your character’s equally strong convictions are in opposition to each other, and you will create occasions for thorny moral choices.

Key #2: Put Your Character’s Convictions to the Test.

We don’t usually think of it this way, but in a very real sense, to bribe someone is to pay him to go against his beliefs; to extort someone is to threaten him unless he goes against them.

For example:

  • How much would you have to pay the vegan animal rights activist to eat a steak (bribery)? Or, how would you need to threaten her in order to coerce her into doing it (extortion)?
  • What would it cost to get the loving, dedicated couple to agree never to see each other again (bribery)? Or, how would you need to threaten them to get them to do so (extortion)?
  • What would you need to pay the pregnant teenage Catholic girl to convince her to have an abortion (bribery)? What threat could you use to get her to do it (extortion)?

Look for ways to bribe and extort your characters. Don’t be easy on them. As writers we sometimes care about our characters so much that we don’t want them to suffer. As a result we might shy away from putting them into difficult situations.

Guess what?

That’s the exact opposite of what needs to happen in order for our fiction to be compelling.

What’s the worst thing you can think of happening to your character, contextually, within this story? Now, challenge yourself—try to think of something else just
as bad, and force your character to decide between
the two.

Plumb the depths of your character’s convictions by asking, “How far will s/he go to … ?” and “What would it take for … ?”

(1) How far will Frank go to protect the one he loves?

(2) What would it take for him to stand by and watch the one he loves die when he has the power to save her?

(1) How far will Angie go to find freedom?

(2) What would it take for her to choose to be buried alive?

(1) How far will Detective Rodriguez go to pursue justice?

(2) What would it take for him to commit perjury and send an innocent person to death row?

Ask yourself: What does my character believe in? What priorities does she have? What prejudices does she need to overcome? Then, put her convictions to the ultimate test to make her truest desires and priorities come to the surface.

[Here's a great article on how to structure a killer novel ending.]

Key #3: Force Your Character Into a Corner.

Don’t give him an easy out. Don’t give him any wiggle room. Force him to make a choice, to act. He cannot abstain. Take him through the process of dilemma, choice, action and consequence:

(1) Something that matters must be at stake.

(2) There’s no easy solution, no easy way out.

(3) Your character must make a choice. He must act.

(4) That choice deepens the tension and propels the story forward.

(5) The character must live with the consequences of his decisions and actions.

If there’s an easy solution there’s no true moral dilemma. Don’t make one of the choices “the lesser of two evils”; after all, if one is lesser, it makes the decision easier.

For example, say you’ve taken the suggestion in the first key above and forced your character to choose between honoring equal obligations. He could be caught between loyalty to two parties, or perhaps be torn between his family obligations and his job responsibilities. Now, raise the stakes—his marriage is at risk and so is his job, but he can’t save them both. What does he do?

The more imminent you make the choice and the higher the stakes that decision carries, the sharper the dramatic tension and the greater your readers’ emotional engagement. To achieve this, ask “What if?” and the questions that naturally follow:

• What if she knows that being with the man she loves will cause him to lose his career? How much of her lover’s happiness would she be willing to sacrifice to be with him?

• What if an attorney finds herself defending someone she knows is guilty? What does she do? What if that person is her best friend?

• What if your character has to choose between killing himself or being forced to watch a friend die?

Again, make your character reevaluate his beliefs, question his assumptions and justify his choices. Ask yourself: How is he going to get out of this? What will he have to give up (something precious) or take upon himself (something painful) in the process?

Explore those slippery slopes. Delve into those gray areas. Avoid questions that elicit a yes or no answer, such as: “Is killing the innocent ever justified?” Instead, frame the question in a way that forces you to take things deeper: “When is killing the innocent justified?” Rather than, “Does the end justify the means?” ask, “When does the end justify the means?”

Key #4: Let the Dilemmas Grow From the Genre.

Examine your genre and allow it to influence the choices your character must face. For instance, crime stories naturally lend themselves to exploring issues of justice and injustice: At what point do revenge and justice converge? What does that require of this character? When is preemptive justice really injustice?

Love, romance and relationship stories often deal with themes of faithfulness and betrayal: When is it better to hide the truth than to share it? How far can you shade the truth before it becomes a lie? When do you tell someone a secret that would hurt him? For example, your protagonist, a young bride-to-be, has a one-night stand. She feels terrible because she loves her fiancé, but should she tell him what happened and shatter him—and perhaps lose him—or keep the truth hidden?

Fantasy, myth and science fiction are good venues for exploring issues of consciousness, humanity and morality: How self-aware does something need to be (an animal, a computer, an unborn baby) before it should be afforded the same rights as fully developed humans? At what point does destroying an AI computer become murder? Do we really have free will or are our choices determined by our genetic makeup and environmental cues?

[Learn the 5 Essential Story Ingredients You Need to Write a Better Novel]

Key #5: Look for the Third Way.

You want your readers to be thinking, I have no idea how this is going to play out. And then, when they see where things go, you want them to be satisfied.

There’s a story in the Bible about a time religious leaders caught a woman committing adultery and brought her to Jesus. In those days, in that culture, adultery was an offense that was punishable by death. The men asked Jesus what they should do with this woman. Now, if Jesus had told them to simply let her go free he would have been contravening the law; if, however, he told them to put her to death, he would have undermined his message of “forgiveness and mercy.”

It seemed like a pretty good trap, until he said, “Whoever is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

Nicely done.

I call this finding the Third Way. It’s a solution that’s consistent with the character’s attitude, beliefs and priorities, while also being logical and surprising.

We want the solutions that our heroes come up with to be unexpected and inevitable.

Present yours with a seemingly impossible conundrum.

And then help him find the Third Way out.

Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of 10 novels. He has a master’s degree in storytelling, has taught writing and creative storytelling on three continents, is a contributing editor to WD and loves putting his characters’ beliefs to the test.

Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.


brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian’s free Writer’s Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter

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12. 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Dylan Landis

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Dylan Landis, author of RAINEY ROYAL) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Dylan is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).


Screen shot 2014-09-24 at 10.18.09 PM     dylan-landis-author-writer

Dylan Landis is the author of a novel, RAINEY ROYAL (Sept. 2014 Soho), which
was a New York Times Editors’ Choice; as well as a collection of linked stories,
Normal People Don’t Live Like This. She received a 2010 National Endowment
for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, and had a story selected for The O. Henry
Prize Stories 2014. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York
Times, Tin House, Bomb and House Beautiful. Find her on Twitter.



1. Start a file called 100 Rejections. Chris Offutt gave this advice from at the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, back when I’d published exactly nothing, and it was so encouraging. He said: Make it your goal to collect 100 rejections, and you’ll feel like you’re doing your job as a writer with each submission, rather than crashing emotionally over each rejection. I took heart from this fact: Offutt nearly filled his own file before getting his first story in print. When I got my first acceptance, I tucked it into the Rejections file to leaven it. And then I just stopped counting, and kept submitting.

2. Be a dedicated reader for at least two people. Funnel some generous literary karma into the writing community by offering to be a reader, even if you don’t have a dream reader of your own. (Such relationships are often not mutual, anyway.) Never doubt that in your writing life, what goes around, comes around. Besides, critiquing the work of another writer hones the ability to self-critique. I’m fortunate enough to trade “Monday pages” with a stellar writer named Heather Sellers. It’s a work relationship so intense I call her my “writing wife,” but I also read frequently for another excellent writer who doesn’t read for me.

(11 literary agents share what NOT to write in your query letter.)

3. Pay yourself first. That’s how financial gurus put it, but here the currency is time. I learned the painful way to say no sometimes when friends invite me out. If you don’t pay yourself first, you’ll fall mortally out of touch with your work. Another way to pay yourself first is to turn off the TV. While some writers may be watching (admittedly excellent) television, you’ll be getting your novel written.

4. Don’t share work-in-progress with non-writers. Indeed, don’t even discuss it. Think of work-in-progress as an egg around which the shell has not yet hardened. I told my wonderful husband, a newspaper editor, my idea for a scene I wanted to write. “It sounds like a cliché to me,” he said. I winced—but as an editor on a daily deadline, his job is to derail weak ideas before they waste anyone’s time. As a fiction writer, mine is to trust my ideas, follow them around dark corners and see what turns up. Thankfully, I wrote my scene. The story won a prize that took me to Russia, ran in a top literary magazine, and was published in my first book.

5. Insomnia is a friend. So is commuting. Ditto long waits at the dentist’s office. At some point in mid-life I learned what it meant to be up much of the night, unable to sleep. So I got up and wrote, enfolded by silence. I thought, This time is gift-wrapped just for you. Other little packages of time for writing, and reading, are everywhere. My teacher, Jim Krusoe, turns the radio off during his driving time in Los Angeles and thinks hard about his novel in progress. And my husband carries poetry specifically to read on the New York City subway.

(How do you boost web traffic to your writer blog? Here are 7 tips.)

6. When you think you’re done, read the work aloud. Yes, the entire book. Slowly and with beats and expression. Listen for every flat note, every jutting word. (My writer-friend Michelle Brafman read parts of my second book to me over the phone.) Your ear will pick up problems in language that your eye skims past: it’s just the way we’re made. I failed to do this with parts of my first book, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and the copy I read aloud from is full of crossed-out words, lines and even paragraphs. So I read my second book, Rainey Royal, aloud twice (with Brafman’s help) before submitting it for publication. If this sounds extreme, know that some authors read aloud first as they write, and then again at the end.

7. Free yourself from ritual. If it’s just a matter of a quick meditation, that can be freeing—but take notice if you truly can’t write unless you light a particular jasmine candle, or hold your lucky pen from Paris, or swim a mile. At that point, your rituals may be running you. From there it’s not so far a jump to “I can only write in perfect silence” or “I can only write if the whole house is neat.” Time is a gift. Try not to throttle it with conditions.

GIVEAWAY: Dylan is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).


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13. Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 281

If you haven’t heard yet, we’ve completed the list of finalists and winners from the 2014 April PAD Challenge. 300 finalists, 30 winners. Click here to view the results. And then, share them with the world!

For this week’s prompt, write a “next in line” poem. This could be a poem about somebody waiting in a line at the DMV or the grocery store obviously. But it could also be about a line of lovers, a line of errors, or a line of poetry. What is coming up? What is around the corner? These could be topics for a “next in line” poem.


Win $1,000 for Your Poetry!

Writer’s Digest is offering a contest strictly for poets with a top prize of $1,000, publication in Writer’s Digest magazine, and a copy of the 2015 Poet’s Market. There are cash prizes for Second ($250) and Third ($100) Prizes, as well as prizes for the Top 25.

The early bird deadline is October 1 and costs $15 for the first poem, $10 for each additional poem. Enter as often as you’d like.

Click here to learn more.


Here’s my attempt at a Next in Line Poem:


always searching, always looking, always finding, always buying,
always tweeting, always booking, always linking, always buying,
always gaming, always playing, always talking, always buying,
always driving, always flying, always riding, always buying,
always buying, always buying, always buying, always buying…


roberttwitterimageRobert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market, Writer’s Market, and Guide to Self-Publishing, in addition to writing a free weekly WritersMarket.com newsletter and poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine.

He likes to buy things, sure, but there’s more to life than commerce. Just saying. Robert is married to the poet Tammy Foster Brewer, who helps him keep track of their five little poets and the toys with which they play.

Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


More poetic fun times here:

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14. How to Write and Publish Nonfiction Premium Collection – 11 Great Resources Bundled in One Low Price

wd_howtowritenonfiction-500There are many resources out there for writing nonfiction, which can be confusing for writers trying to decide which one fits their needs. Here, with our new Writer’s Digest How to Write and Publish Nonfiction Premium Collection, you get 11 great writing resources covering everything—from writing better nonfiction to crafting your query letter to getting your nonfiction published—bundled together for one low price. There are details to all the books, webinars and downloads including in this collection below, but this is a limited time offer so click here to order before they are gone.

Click here to order now >>


Publish Your Nonfiction Book
PAPERBACKThis book collects every resource you need to publish your nonfiction story in one place! Whether you haven’t written your first page or you’re a published author, this book will make the process from idea to publication a painless one. Learn if you have the necessary skillset necessary for nonfiction writing, how to develop your platform and target your audience, and how to navigate the relationship with editors and publishers.
Writing Creative Nonfiction
This compilation presents more than thirty essays examining every key element of the craft of writing creative nonfiction. Learn from today’s top creative writers how to draw on your own experiences for compelling nonfiction story ideas, how to structure your novel, how to use satire and other forms of humor, and more. This resource also includes a creative nonfiction “reader” featuring pieces from popular authors.
3 Secrets to Getting Your Nonfiction Book Published
ONDEMAND WEBINARThis presentation will get you from idea to published in three steps. Find out the secrets of a nonfiction story that thrills agents and editors, how to craft a selling handle, the basics of proposal writing, and more. The webinar includes everything you need to know about the publishing process to ensure your story hits the shelves.
Selling Your Nonfiction Book
EBOOKNot every nonfiction book is picked up by an agent or editor. There’s an art to writing your proposal and finding a publisher. This eBook outlines the seven components to crafting a nonfiction book proposal, what to include in the query letter, and books, websites and organizations that can help you prepare a winning nonfiction story proposal.
How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal
DIGITAL DOWNLOADDo you know what prescriptive nonfiction is? This tutorial will outline how it can speed up the process to publication. As a nonfiction writer, you have to know how to position yourself as an expert on your topic and how to show editors that there’s a need for your book. This 30-minute video will uncover the best way to sell yourself in your book proposal.
Nonfiction Books – Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript
EBOOK EXCERPTThis eBook excerpt will guide you through the nonfiction story submission process. All components of your book proposal will be addressed: Cover letter, cover page, overview, marketing information or business case, competitive analysis, author information, chapter outline, sample chapters and additional attachments.
How to Pitch and Publish Your Nonfiction Book
DIGITAL DOWNLOADPublishing nonfiction books is a different ballgame than fiction publishing. You pitch differently, you prepare differently, you write differently, and you get paid differently. This tutorial describes how to pitch your nonfiction book idea, how to complete the book proposal, and how to write your table of contents (TOC). The tutorial also covers authorship, co-authorship, contributing authorship, agents, and publishers.
Marketing Plan Template for Non-Fiction Authors
DIGITAL DOWNLOADHow strong is your platform? In today’s publishing climate, nothing influences a publisher’s interest more than the strength of an author’s marketing plan. If publishers aren’t sure an author can help sell books, they tend to reject the book proposal and choose someone else. This downloadable template is a concise, four-page, Word document that walks you step-by-step through building your own marketing plan to distinguish yourself from the pack.
Bestseller Website Tutorial for Non-Fiction Authors
DIGITAL DOWNLOADResearch has shown that websites are the top way readers choose to support their favorite authors. The more people you attract to your website, the more likely your book sales will increase. Sadly, too many authors hinder their success by throwing together a shoddy webpage or never setting up a website at all. Get expert insights from Rob Eagar, and build a website worthy of a bestseller!
Ask the Editor: Nonfiction 2014 Writer’s Digest Conference Session
DIGITAL DOWNLOADThe market for nonfiction books is thriving and it can be substantially easier to get nonfiction published than fiction. In this Writer’s Digest Conference session, a panel of high-level nonfiction acquisition editors answer a range of important, thought-provoking questions about how books are acquired, what you can do to seal a deal – or kill it – and what they’re looking for, regardless of what the latest “trends” suggest. You’ll also learn about their stance on self-publishing and whether doing so can help or hurt your chances of securing a traditional contract.
The Five Keys to Selling Your Nonfiction Book or Memoir OnDemand Webinar
ONDEMAND WEBINARIf your submission is going to get any consideration, you have to know what to emphasize and how to prioritize your points to make your book attractive.Your nonfiction book can quickly stand out and get attention if it presents the 5 key aspects of a book project. In this On Demand Webinar, learn how to craft your sales proposition, give good comparative titles, present your marketing platform, build your TOC and choose sample chapters to make agents want to represent you.

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15. College Introduction

It’s your first day of college and, in your first class, your professor does something unusual—she has you all sit on the floor in a big circle and introduce yourself, as if you were in kindergarten. When it gets to be your turn, you say, “My name is _____. Every day I like to _____ in purple and yellow______.” Amused, the professor asks you to explain. So you do.

writing-promptsWant more creative writing prompts?

Pick up a copy of A Year of Writing Prompts: 365 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block. There’s a prompt for every day of the year and you can start on any day.

Order now from our shop.






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16. Pamela Schott’s The Passion of Minerva Mullen

The Passion of Minerva Mullen, a screenplay by Pamela Schott, is the Grand Prize winner of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. You can read an extended interview with Pamela here, and view a full list of winners here. For complete coverage of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, please check out the November/December 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest.


Whatever you do, please don’t tell my mom about this screenplay. Because if she knew… If she knew that I was laying bare the story of a young girl, circa 1979, on the verge of womanhood, a smart ass middle child who has the unhappy distinction of being the product of 1) Catholic schools; 2) the military; and 3) a family that really knows how to take the “fun” out of dysfunctional, well… Let’s just say that she would wrongly assume that this is about her.

In truth, this story belongs purely, solely, and absolutely to the aforementioned school girl, one so-called Minerva Mullen (named for the Goddess of War; her father had big ideas) who has just about had it up to here with all the things she can’t control. Like nuns with rules (and rulers); a dad with orders that send him to sea with every turn of the tide; a posse of brothers who are left to navigate the road to manhood on their own; and a pill-popping, perpetually pregnant mother with a manic-depressive disorder that makes family life anything but livable. And this is the story of how, having stirred the wrath and ridicule of Holy Name school principal Sister Mary “Battle Axe” Bernard one time too many, Minerva lands in hot holy water and finds herself charged with the impossible task of mounting the school’s annual Christmas pageant to Sister’s satisfaction—complete with a real, live Baby Jesus—or face expulsion. But can Minerva keep the peace at home, the family in Holy Name’s good graces, and her own cool when a secret crush becomes her first true love?

For all the latch-key kids who remember what the world felt like when Iran took American hostages; who found the fun in a Slinky and Pet Rocks and Pong; who yearned for the first kisses, first cars and first place in the Spelling Bee; and who witnessed the advent of the self-help movement—watched, helpless, as their families fell apart, Minerva’s story is a story about what it’s like to go kicking and screaming into an uncertain future.

But it’s definitely, absolutely, and positively not about my mom. So, please. Whatever you do? Don’t tell her about this screenplay.



A bright, early fall morning. Wind rustles EUCALYPTUS TREES and tall, colorless grasses that line the drive to the GUARD GATE.

Too fast, A DATSUN STATION WAGON approaches the GATE, braking at the last moment, tires crunching pavement.

As it stops, the GATE SERGEANT (early 20s) leans out of the guard shack, smartly salutes the COAST GUARD STICKER on the car’s silver bumper.


The driver, a very pregnant BRENDA MULLEN, early 30s, a pretty bottle blonde just this side of washed up, stubs her cigarette in the ash tray, rolls down her window.

Next to her is MINERVA MULLEN (15). Awkward, gangly, she’s got the bold-faced confidence of girls three times prettier, and a rebellious streak to match.

On Minerva’s lap is blonde, curly-haired PATSY KLINE (2). Patsy Kline munches Zweiback toast, works it through the web of her hands, into her hair. None wear a seat belt.

Good morning, Sergeant.

Sergeant rubs his gloved hands together, blows into them.


Looking good today, Sergeant. Very smart.

Ma’am, yes ma’am, Mrs. Mullen.

Please, Sergeant. Mrs. Mullen is my mother-in-law, the old battle ax.

Sergeant eyes the BAGS of bread in the back of the car.

Commissary out of bread this morning, Ma’am?

Can’t beat the day-old prices at the bakery. Girls, say good morning to the Sergeant.

Good morning, Sergeant.

Patsy Kline extends the mushy cookie, grins.

No cookie for me, Patsy Kline. Still on duty.

(grinding the gears)
Always by the book, eh, Sergeant? That’s what I like about you. Stay

Goodbye, Mrs. Mullen.

Brenda floors it, wipes Patsy Kline’s mouth with the corner of her sleeve, reaches to the dash to shove the CIGARETTE LIGHTER into place.

It’s a well-rehearsed orchestration of movements.

Grab me a cigarette, will you Minerva?

Minerva moves Patsy Kline off of her lap, straddles the seat to reach into the back.

Balance is precarious as Brenda takes the right angles of the base streets, rolling through each stop.

Why doesn’t the Sergeant ever say good morning to me?

You know how it is. The young ones always steal the show.

Brenda slows for another stop, pitching Patsy Kline forward towards the gear shift.

BRENDA (cont’d)
Whoa, there, Patsy Kline!

Minerva finds the SALEMS, climbs back to her seat.

BRENDA (cont’d)
You grow into those knobby knees of yours, that Sergeant’ll be
noticing you soon enough. Mark my words. And ‘Nerve?

Minerva peels the plastic from the pack, expertly smacks it against the heel of her hand, pulls a cigarette out.

BRENDA (cont’d)
Didn’t we have an agreement about those bangs?

Patsy Kline reaches for the cigarette.

No, Patsy Kline.

(to Patsy Kline)
Not till you’re 18, darlin’. 16, if you don’t let your daddy know you’re

doing it.

The LIGHTER disengages with a crisp, metallic POP! Minerva lights the cigarette, avoids Patsy Kline’s grab.

No, Patsy Kline.
(to Brenda)
I like my bangs.

The cigarette lit, Brenda takes a long drag, down shifts.

They bounce onto the driveway and into the carport of a one-level, nondescript cinder block medley of grey and greyer, just like every other house on the block.

Brenda exhales as she studies Minerva.

In your eyes, you like them?

Minerva adjusts the rear-view mirror, studies herself.

I’m trying to grow them so they can feather. Laura Cooper? At school?
She has the perfect feather.

She’s got the right hair for it, ‘Nerve. Blonde and thick. Gorgeous hair.

Brenda brushes the bangs from Minerva’s eyes.

BRENDA (cont’d)
We’ll cut these this weekend. Remind me, okay?

Not gonna happen.


Brenda hoists herself out of the car, leaving Minerva to scrutinize in the mirror.

She’s not happy with what she sees, but this isn’t the first time.

BRENDA (cont’d)
Bring those groceries inside, I’ve got a surprise for you.

As Brenda waddles to the kitchen door, Patsy Kline in tow, Minerva dutifully begins unpacking the car.

BRENDA (cont’d)
(calling into the house)
Boys, you better be up and ready. Frankie? Sammy? Let’s go.
Reveille, reveille!

Minerva struggles with the bags, kicks the car door closed, moves to the other side where she shoves her hip into Brenda’s door to close it, heads towards the kitchen door.

Remembering something, she moves back to the car, peers into the back passenger window, taps on the glass.

Come on, Sammy.

Momentarily, SAMMY MULLEN (6), HEARING AIDS IN BOTH EARS, emerges from the car, obediently follows Minerva inside.



CLOSE ON three squirming PAIR OF FEET, each sporting identical pairs of DAY-GLO ORANGE AND BLUE ADIDAS TRACK SHOES. Atrocious.

Brenda double-ties Sammy’s shoes, sits back on her heels, scratches her distended belly.

As she does, we get a look at the living room: the tattered FURNITURE, B&W T.V. SET, old UPRIGHT PIANO, PHOTOS crooked on the wall.

ON ONE PHOTO, a recent family portrait, where we see COAST GUARD LIEUTENANT COMMANDER BECK MULLEN, mid-30, surrounded by Brenda and the children, dressed in military WHITES. He is handsome, and proud.

Hey? What do you think?

From her angle, we see Minerva and Sammy, plus FRANKIE (16), all dressed in Catholic school uniforms, and humiliated beyond belief.

Fair like his father, movie star good looks, Frankie is Brenda’s favorite. He’s also a closeted homosexual who’s trying desperately to be straight.

Next to Brenda, Patsy Kline chews on a sponge that has yet to clean the mess on her face.

BRENDA (cont’d)
Got those on close out at Big Five. Adidas, guys! Brand name, right?

No one wears Adidas.

No one?

Frankie drops to one knee, cuffs his pants.

They’re not so bad if you know how to wear them.

Isn’t that a little, you know…?

Brenda makes her wrist go limp.

BRENDA (cont’d)
…queer, Frankie?

No. Ma, it’s “Grease”!

Anyway. It’s Nikes now.

Brenda takes the sponge from Patsy Kline, wipes faces as Frank wordlessly undoes his cuffs.

When it’s her turn for the sponge, Minerva moves so her face is out of reach. No way.

Then the Mullens get to start a new trend

God, you are so wrong about so many things. Did you even go to
school, Mom?

Don’t push my buttons. I’m having a good day so far and I don’t want
you ruining it.

What about my day? Do you know what’s going to happen to me the
minute we set foot on campus?

Leave it, Minerva.

You watch. You wear those Adidas today, everyone’ll be wearing them
tomorrow. Nikes’ll be a thing of the past.

Fat chance.

Grab your lunches, let’s go. You know how Sister Mary Joseph
Bernard gets when we’re late.

(to the others)
Do not, under any circumstances, call attention to yourselves. Or
your feet. Especially your feet.




SR. MARY JOSEPH BERNARD, 50s, full black and white robes—
RULER strapped to her belt, ROSARY hanging at her side—stands at the foot of the school stairs, hands warming under her robes.

Above her is a mammoth-sized STATUE OF JESUS.

Eagle eying all commers, he extends one hand out before him, points the other to his heart. Long hair flows in two plates over each shoulder, as if waiting to be braided.

The Datsun slides to a stop as the LAST BELL RINGS. Brenda gets out, opening car doors to release her brood.

Mullens tumble out, race up the steps past Sister.

Morning, Sister! Looking lovely today! That black and white on you?

Then, spotting his best friend, HENRY (16), handsome in his Clark Kent glasses, Frank hurries up the steps.

FRANKIE (cont’d)
Henry! Wait up.

The day-glo ADIDAS catch Sister’s eye as he goes.

Sammy is next to tumble out of the car. When Sister sees the ADIDAS on Sammy’s feet, she has to smother a smile.

Sammy hurries past Sister without a word, but she grabs him by the collar, literally sweeping him off his feet.

“Good morning, Sister Mary Joseph Bernard.” Say it. Say it!
(under her breath)
I know you can talk, you little brat.

Blushing furiously, Sammy MUMBLES something incoherent, breaks free of Sister’s grasp, tears up the stairs.

Back at the car, Brenda licks her fingers, wets Minerva’s bangs, slicks them back away from her eyes. Minerva brushes her off.

Now, ‘Nerve, remember…

Brenda thrusts her chest out, wiggles her shoulders.

BRENDA (cont’d)

Oh my God.

Minerva hurries past Sister, who notes Minerva’s day glo ADIDAS.

Just… try. Please? We’ll go bra shopping at the Commissary this
weekend, just so we’re ready. Okay?

Beyond humiliated, Minerva disappears into the CROWD of STUDENTS.

Sister arches an eyebrow at Brenda

BRENDA (cont’d)
Not all of us are called to be Brides of Christ, Sister. Landing a man’s
the next best thing.

Brenda gets in the car, moves Patsy Kline from the window.

ON SISTER as the Datsun pulls away, an idea brewing before she marches up the stairs, garments billowing.



The restless STUDENT BODY, a mass of K through 12 STUDENTS, is assembled outside the Mission-style school for morning prayers. They stamp and paw at the ground against the cold.

At the front of the assembly is a PODIUM on which stands a small AMERICAN FLAG.

Behind this is a LARGE WOODEN CROSS.

Momentarily, Sister emerges from her office, strides up the center aisle as if assessing troops.

Francis Mullen, please.

Frankie moves to the podium, takes the FLAG from its stand. This is a familiar routine.

Samuel Mullen?

Moving noiselessly to avoid attention, Sammy complies.

A PUZZLED WHISPER ripples through the student body as the Mullens line up at the front.

Who are we missing? Oh, yes. Minerva Mary? Will you join us?

Minerva emerges from line, reluctantly joins her brothers. She throws Frankie a questioning look, but he shrugs it off.

Nothing from Sister, who watches the assembled students, waiting for what she prays is coming.

Finally, a STIR in the crowd, then SNICKERS and GIGGLES as the students get Sister’s unspoken message.

It’s the shoes.

In the morning grey, with the Mullens shoulder to shoulder, the day glo awfulness of the three pair of ADIDAS is glaringly obvious.

Sister lets the commotion ride, poker faced, a few delicious moments longer, then:

Excuse me, Holy Name students, is this how we behave at morning

SILENCE once again. Sister closes her eyes, is the epitome of reverence.

On this, the first day of Advent, we pray… In the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

ALL but Minerva bless themselves.


Today we begin the season of waiting. Waiting for the Baby Jesus to
be born, in our hearts, and in our world. As we take that first step on
the road to Bethlehem to meet Jesus in the manger, will we walk, sure-
footed in our fine, shiny shoes…


I’m gonna kill her.

…or stumble, pitifully, over our own egos. Our inequities. Our shame.
As we ready ourselves for the birth of our Savior, wash us clean of all
our sins, clean as bright, unsoiled new shoes…

So help me God, I’m gonna kill her.

…that we may so walk forever in your Grace. In Jesus’ name.


Now, Minerva, if you would lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance?

Minerva slices Sister a look of pure hatred, steps forward, raises the FLAG.

I pledge allegiance to the flag…

CLOSE ON SISTER as a small smile plays around her lips.





The clock tower BELL CHIMES three times.

Minerva and Frankie huddle on the wall for warmth in front of the school, Sammy on Minerva’s lap.

The last to be picked up, they wait for Brenda, who’s very late. Minerva eyes the CLOCK TOWER, the STATUE of Jesus.

I can’t wait to get the hell out of here.


What’re you gonna do, tell Mom on me? What does she have against
us, anyway?

Sister? She knows we can’t afford to be here. Not really. She knows
we’re vulnerable.

Sammy gets Minerva’s attention, SIGNS a question.

What Frankie means is, Sister isn’t a good person.

Minerva sees Sammy isn’t understanding.

MINERVA (cont’d)
She’s mean, Sammy.

Minerva eyes the STATUE again, an idea dawning.

Then, she lifts Sammy off her lap, places him on the wall, jumps down, begins untying her shoes.

MINERVA (cont’d)
Mean, and nasty, and so much fun to mess with.

What are you doing?

Minerva takes her shoes off, grins from ear to ear, ties them together with the shoelaces.

Do you remember what the Three Wise Men brought Jesus for his

Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh.

Totally useless gifts. Like, he’s a baby. In a manger. What’s he gonna
do with Myrrh?

I don’t even know what Myrrh is.

Exactly my point.

Frankie and Sammy watch in disbelief as Minerva approaches the STATUE, swings the shoes in a high arc… and lets go.

ON THE SHOES as they fly through the air, catching on Jesus’ outstretched hand, winding around his fingers.

The blue and orange DAY GLO stripes are a bright contrast against the marble statue.

Sammy laughs, thrilled at what Minerva’s done as Frankie stares, wide-eyed.

You are so busted.


She’s gonna know it’s you.


Frankie slips his backpack over his shoulder, grabs Sammy’s, too, gives Minerva a wary shake of the head.

Let’s go, Sammy.

Frankie takes Sammy’s hand, begins walking.

Hey, Frank?


When’re you going to get your own wheels?

Soon as I can, ‘Nerve. Soon as I can

Minerva hangs back, suddenly aware she’s got to walk home without shoes.

Hey, guys? Guys?

Minerva hoists her backpack, gives one last look to Jesus, beams as she considers her handiwork.

Then, hobbling in her stocking feet, she hurries to catch up.

MINERVA (cont’d)
Ow. Ow. Ow.



Minerva enters the kitchen, drops her backpack on the floor below the row of HOOKS where the family’s book bags hang.

From somewhere in the house, Patsy Kline CRIES.

MINERVA (cont’d)

Frankie enters, a SOBBING Patsy Kline on his hip, gives Minerva a dark look.

MINERVA (cont’d)
What—no. Again?

Minerva looks past Frankie to the hallway.

MINERVA’S POV: THE CLOSED DOOR at the end of the hall.

ON THE KITCHEN, where BOWLS, CEREAL BOXES, MILK from breakfast crowd the counter. This is not a good sign.

Minerva sighs, moves to take the baby from Frankie.

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17. 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Winners

Writer’s Digest would like to congratulate the 101 winners of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition! For full coverage of the awards, please check out the November/December 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest.

Grand Prize

Pamela Schott, “The Passion of Minerva Mullen” (Television/Movie Script) Read Pamela’s winning entry here. An extended Q&A with our winner is also available.

Children’s/Young Adult Fiction

  1. Jayne Jenner, “Berty and CL”
  2. Holly L. Niner, “Chicken Little’s Grade A Idea”
  3. Peter Gibb, “Big Tom, Little Dog”
  4. Mary E. Furlong, “The Far Side of Ryan’s Knock”
  5. Rita Arens, “Bella Eats the Monsters”
  6. Gay Kamber Seltzer, “The Second Day of School”
  7. Mary Edith Cerny, “Picasso and Spike (A Cat Tail in Haiku)”
  8. Laurie Weeks, “Battle on the Home Front”
  9. James A. Schindler, “One Hell of a Sale”
  10. Lara O’Brien, “Chesca and Rogue”

Genre Short Story

  1. Elizabeth English, “Rainbow’s End”
  2. Stephanie Dockery, “Devil in Disguise”
  3. Thomas J. Humprhey, “A Hankerin’ for Justice”
  4. Scotty Williams, “Hitching Devils”
  5. Kara Pauley, “Min’s Promise”
  6. Janella Lee, “Swelling with Love”
  7. N.E. Silver, “The Demerits of Missing Toes”
  8. Courtney Sikora, “When Young Blood Boils”
  9. Max Thorgeirson, “Withdrawn”
  10. Connie Kay Harris, “Redemptive Silver”

Inspirational Writing

  1. Cassandra Rankin, “Life is Messy and Things Aren’t Always So Little on this Crazy Farm”
  2. Roy Martin, “The Day That Changed My Life”
  3. Mandeep Matharu, “Living with Inspiration”
  4. Elvie Bennett and Lois Grzzard, “Major Illness”
  5. Jennifer Reinharz, “A Pleasant Passover”
  6. Samuel Zane Farrell, “Living the Dream with Multiple Sclerosis”
  7. Christine Gray, “Adding Bleach to Water”
  8. Bebe Faas Rice, “Grandma and the Angel”
  9. Soraya Nelson, “A Family Kept”
  10. Barbara Daniel, “The Miracle of Tough Love”

Magazine Feature Article

  1. Julie Loar, “Nemesis or Tyche: Does Our Sun Have a Sister?”
  2. David Sachs, “A Guided Tour of the Spirit World”
  3. Leslie Hsu Oh, “We Paddle Together, Imitating Our Ancestors. Whoosh teen ayxa’a! Daa naaytee!”
  4. Cathy Cassinos-Carr, “When Grief Gets Complicated”
  5. Rebecca L. Rhoades, “The Colors of Bravery”
  6. Edie A. Clark, “Kachidoki Maru”
  7. Angela Waldron, “Coffee Comes to the West”
  8. Marina DelVecchio, “If You Want It, Come and Get It: How Pop Culture Defines Female Sexual Identity”
  9. Rebecca L. Rhoades, “Swimming with Giants”
  10. Elaine K. Howley, “Ageless Wonder”

Mainstream/Literary Short Story

  1. Kara Donadt, “10:03”
  2. Anthony T. Lagler, “Stalingrad”
  3. Andy Zembles, “Safe at Home”
  4. Daniella McGowan, “Forgiven”
  5. Guy Claudy, “Match Play”
  6. Z.J. Czupor, “Down in Disappointment Valley”
  7. Beverly A. Rogers, “Release”
  8. Jean Blasiar, “A Matter of Who”
  9. Robert Granader, “Brothers”
  10. David Meyers, “Derelict: The Curious Voyage of Redemption for a Doubting Thomas”

Nonrhyming Poetry

  1. Caroline Reichard, “Visiting Henry”
  2. Emily Byers, “To my grandfather, while eating”
  3. Kim Garcia, “Tilth of snow”
  4. Susan Kinney-Riordan, “Ocarina”
  5. Jayson C. Lynn, “No One Told Me We Could Float Away”
  6. Johne Richardson, “Generations”
  7. John E. Simonds, “Friendly Intervention”
  8. Linda Neal Reising, “Every Little Being”
  9. Nancy Alvarado, “The Kiss of the Homeless Man”
  10. Johne Richardson, “Drowning”

Personal Essay

  1. Nancy Freund Bills, “The Myth”
  2. Tracy Mancuso, “Perfect Husband”
  3. Flavia Brunetti Proietti, “On sugared ginger, the merits of coffee, and thunderous hoofs over the plaints of the desert”
  4. Lyz Lenz, “How the World Was Supposed to End”
  5. Brandon Loran Maxwell, “Notes From an American Superpower”
  6. Sarah Houssayni, “707 N. Emporia”
  7. Marguerite Lambrinos, “The Decision”
  8. Carol Siyahi Hicks, “Wild Things All”
  9. Colleen K. Penor, “Fearsome Men”
  10. Bobbye DePaul, “I Bought a Banana”

Rhyming Poetry

  1. George Amabile, “Design After Herakleitos”
  2. Melissa Cannon, “Mercury Poises On the Pinnacle of Nashville’s Bygone Union Station”
  3. Clay Fulghum, “The Keening of the Swallows”
  4. Scott Cyre, “True to Joy”
  5. Melissa Cannon, “The Returning Dead”
  6. Robert Daseler, “The Bridesmaids”
  7. Susan Huppert, “The Wool of the Lamb”
  8. Erin T. Gunti, “Simply Put”
  9. Dylan Guy, “It’s a Charade”
  10. Ronald Miller, “Moses”

Stage Play

  1. Jennifer E. Pergola, “Change or Death”
  2. C.M. Webb, “Driver’s Ed”
  3. Pamela Jamruszka Mencher, “Escape from Eden”
  4. Michael Reimann, “American Farce”
  5. Richard Fewell, “Cancer Dreams”
  6. Michael Balin, “Conversion”
  7. Augustus Cileone, “Handicapped”
  8. T.M. Reel, “How I Became an Atheist”
  9. Lisa Snider, “Motel 101”
  10. Gerard Marconi, “Absolution”

Television/Movie Script

  1. Nicholas Kats, “Sweet”
  2. Tess Clark, “Supernatural: The Webs We Weave”
  3. Mark Schroeder, “TrainHoppers”
  4. Sula Miller, “Born Into Hate”
  5. Sonya Davis-Roberts, “Motivation”
  6. Alex Knudsen, “Principles of the Past”
  7. Lynne M. Smelser, “Traunik”
  8. David Ennocenti, “Sniper Queen”
  9. Tess Clark, “Hel”
  10. Michelle Donnelly, “A Golden Moment”

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18. Extended Q&A With Annual Winner Pamela Schott

The Passion of Minerva Mullen, by Pamela Schott, is the grand-prize winning manuscript (available here) in the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, besting more than 6,300 entries across the 10 categories. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the November/December 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from the competition.

Pamela Schott is an award-winning screenwriter and a contributing author to the Amazon.com #1 Bestseller, Speaking Your Truth. A creative executive who got her start in marketing and advertising as a copywriter in San Francisco, Pamela has written for Creative Screenwriting Magazine and was featured in Writer’s Market 2009, the annual New York Times bestseller for aspiring writers. A wife (of one) and mother (of two), Pamela is currently at work on her seventh screenplay and in pre-production on her first major motion picture, Music From a Scorched Earth.

Can you give us a summary of The Passion of Minerva Mullen?

This is the story of a young girl, circa 1979, on the verge of womanhood, a smart-ass middle child who has the unhappy distinction of being the product of 1) Catholic schools; 2) the military; and 3) a family that really knows how to take the “fun” out of dysfunctional.

Although laden with authority figures, this story belongs purely, solely, and absolutely to the aforementioned school girl, one so-called Minerva Mullen (named for the Goddess of War; her father had big ideas) who has just about had it up to here with all the things she can’t control. Like nuns with rules (and rulers); a dad with orders that send him to sea with every turn of the tide; a posse of brothers who are left to navigate the road to manhood on their own; and a pill-popping, perpetually pregnant mother with a manic-depressive disorder that makes family life anything but livable.

And this is the story of how, having stirred the wrath and ridicule of Holy Name school principal Sister Mary “Battle Axe” Bernard one time too many, Minerva lands in hot holy water and finds herself charged with the impossible task of mounting the school’s annual Christmas pageant to Sister’s satisfaction—complete with a real, live Baby Jesus—or face expulsion.

But can Minerva keep the peace at home, the family in Holy Name’s good graces, and her own cool when a secret crush becomes her first true love?

For all the latch-key kids who remember what the world felt like when Iran took American hostages; who found the fun in a Slinky and Pet Rocks and Pong; who yearned for first kisses, first cars and first place in the spelling bee; and who witnessed the advent of the self help movement—watched, helpless, as their families fell apart—Minerva’s is a story about what it’s like to go kicking and screaming into an uncertain future.

Describe your writing process for this piece.

While it’s not accurate to say that Mineva is autobiographical, there are many aspects of the story that were lifted directly from my childhood. I grew up in a very conservative Catholic family with a dad who served as an officer in the Coast Guard, so my life was a constant cycle of confession and upheaval as we followed him around the world from one assignment to the next. I am also one of nine children (insert Catholic joke here), so naturally, our household was a hive of activity—“controlled chaos” might be the best term for it. What resulted was often loud and messy and unsettling, but there was a lot of love there, too.

My husband had long been on my case to write down my experiences, and so when I finally decided to do just that, the pages came quickly. A normal first draft of a screenplay takes about six months for me to complete, but the first act of Minerva was done in about two weeks.

After that, I put it away for a few years (I went through a rough patch in which I considered giving up on a writing career altogether), but then, in the fall of 2013, I decided to see if I could knock out a completed draft by the end of Christmas. I jumped in where I had left off and again, the words just poured out of me. Before long—and in record time—the script was done.

What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing screenplays?

The biggest benefits of writing screenplays are actually the same benefits that come with any creative endeavor: you get to play, have fun, and let your imagination run free. On this level, you are powerful and unlimited, and there’s nothing more satisfying than experiencing that.

The biggest challenge to screenwriting that I find is getting out of the way of the characters and what they want to say and how they want to behave. I’ve gotten better at this with time, but I remember in the beginning being overly concerned with how my characters behaved or the language they used because I cared about what people I knew would think of me for making those choices. When I finally realized that a good writer knows how to let the characters come in as they are—flaws and f-bombs and all—I started to care less about what people thought about the end product and more about letting my characters be wholly who they are.

How long have you been writing? How did you start?

I started writing screenplays at night after my two babies were in bed (my daughter, Julia, was a newborn at the time, and she would sleep in her bassinet next to my desk in between feedings). With a toddler, a newbie, and a business to run, nights were best because it was quiet and I could think without interruption. That was 16 years ago. But my desire to work in show business dates back to when I was little and dreamed of being a member of the Mickey Mouse Club. In truth, I was more drawn to their cowboys outfits—white leather boots, vests, hats, etc.—than actually being in front of the camera. But writing was always there, and I was always receiving encouragement from teachers to pursue it on a professional level.

After my husband and I got married, I bought a copy of Syd Field’s book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and started playing with the idea of writing movies, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I sat down and actually tried it.

Have you published any stories? Won any other competitions?

Since I work in the film industry, I’m not seeking publication. I do have another script that is being made into a major motion picture as we speak, plus an additional screenplay that is being shopped around.

I have placed twice in the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition in the screenwriting category, receiving Honorable Mention for the two scripts I just spoke about.

Who and what has inspired you as a writer?

Nora Ephron has been a big influence in my writing life. I also admire Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento). I wish I could think like he does so that I could write stories that bend the brain as his do, but my mind just doesn’t work like that. Steven Soderbergh and Steven Spielberg are also up there, and I am inspired every day to write something that either of them would want to direct.

For the “what” category, it’s got to be music that inspires me the most. My life has been informed by the music of U2. It’s layered and poetic and original and sexy, and if I can create something on the page that halfway resembles any of that, I will be that much closer to becoming the writer I want to be.

Do you write in any other genres?

I have tried writing dramatic fiction—short and long form—but it’s too hard. Too much work. In novels, you have to paint with a larger brush to communicate to the reader what you see in your mind’s eye. Screenwriting is more dialogue driven—both in terms of what a character says and doesn’t say—which means you get to leave the heavy lifting on all the other stuff to the actors and director and director of photography and set designers and all the other host of professionals who make a script come to life.

As a screenwriter, while I tend towards dramas, I have also written several romantic comedies and coming-of-age stories. Minerva is a coming-of-age script that is both sad and funny all at once, so I guess this one spans what I’m capable of at this point.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?

My laptop and screenwriting software. Wait, that’s two things.

Where do you get ideas for your writing?

Minerva came from my growing up experiences. My other project, Music From a Scorched Earth, which is now being made into a film, came from an experience I had that sparked a question. Back in high school, I had been inseparable from a friend of mine. We spent every waking hour together, and I loved her and admired her. After we graduated, we took a trip together, and the wheels just fell off the whole relationship. It was very painful for me, and I took the memory of that experience into adulthood and wrestled with it for some time. Finally, when I sat down to write MUSIC, it was with my friend in mind and the question, What is the worst thing that could happen to a friendship that tears it apart, and what would it take to mend that relationship? The script just unfolded from there.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?

As I mentioned before, self censoring has been a little bit of a struggle. But, c’mon. Catholic school and the military will do that to the best of us.

Overcoming that censorship has been a process, but when you stop caring what other people think about you, writing gets a whole lot easier. (That’s a good tip for life in general, too.)

What’s your proudest moment as a writer?

Finishing a script is always a proud moment. There’s no feeling like it. But setting up my first motion picture and then winning the Grand Prize in this competition—all within a matter of a few weeks—has topped everything so far. It actually took about two days for the shock to wear off.

What are your goals as a writer?

I’m looking forward to seeing my name on the big screen, to seeing the script embodied by actors, and experiencing the creative collaboration with all of the talented people that will come together to realize that vision. I’m just getting a taste of that right now with MUSIC, and it is an intoxicating cocktail!

Any final thoughts or advice?

Yes. Make up your own mind about the industry that you’ve chosen to create in, and ignore everything that doesn’t fit with that vision. I started writing 16 years ago, and for the majority of that time, I had bought into the whole notion of being a starving artist in a brutal field that’s run by crazy people. And guess what? I made no money, fell flat on my face, and had my share of encounters with lots of questionable individuals.

Over time, I came to realize that the most successful people (successful in all aspects of their lives, not just their careers) don’t think about obstacles or struggle. They keep their eye on what they want, and they refuse to listen to anything that doesn’t match the story that they are telling themselves. They shut out the peanut gallery and go about their business, and we read about them in the trades and hear about them on the news as a result.

If you want to be successful in your field, think like people who have that success. There is a way to get from where you are to where you want to be. Hold firm to your vision, love what you do, and see who turns up to light the path as a result.

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19. Querying 101: Putting Your Best Book Forward – Sept. 25 Webinar With Jennifer De Chiara

jencopyLearning how to write a great query—one that will not only make an agent want to read your book, but pick up the phone and call you the minute he/she reads your query—is essential if you want to be a published author.

In this live 90-minute webinar — titled “Querying 101: Putting Your Best Book Forward” —  Literary agent Jennifer De Chiara will guide you, step-by-step, in writing the perfect pitch for your book. She’ll offer do’s and don’ts from her 16+ years of agenting and share queries that got her attention and those that didn’t. De Chiara will also give tips on how to find the right agents to query.If you’ve written a dynamite query, it’s still worthless if you’re not sending it to the right agents. It all happens at 1 p.m., EST, Thursday, September 25, 2014, and lasts 90 minutes.


  • U9486How to start your query
  • How to write the perfect elevator pitch
  • Common mistakes that writers make
  • How to find the right agent to query
  • How to highlight your hook
  • How simple and direct can often be the best way to go


Jennifer De Chiara is President and Owner of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, which she founded in 2001. Before forming the agency, she was a literary agent with two established New York agencies, worked in the editorial departments of Simon & Schuster and Random House, and was a writing consultant for several major corporations. A New York City-based writer, she is a frequent guest judge for the WRITER’S DIGEST, WOW! WOMEN ON WRITING, and THAT FIRST LINE writing contests, among others. She is a frequent guest lecturer on publishing and the art of writing at universities and writers’ conferences throughout the country, including New York University’s Summer Publishing Institute, the Penticton, Canada Writers Conference, the San Diego State University Writers Conference, Backspace, the International Women’s Writing Guild, and the Learning Annex. The agency represents both children’s and adult books, fiction and non-fiction, in a wide range of genres. They represent many best-selling, award-winning authors, including: Pen Award-winning author Carol Lynch Williams, Edgar Award-winner and PEN Award-winner Matthew J. Kirby, Newbery Honor Medal-winner Margi Preus, Lambda Award-winning YA novelist Brent Hartinger, best-selling children’s book authors Chanda Bell and Carol Aebersold, best-selling, award-winning Cathie Pelletier (aka K.C. McKinnon), and #1 New York Times’ best-selling author Sylvia Browne. The agency has a strong presence in Hollywood and is affiliated with many of the top film agencies there, with many film and television projects in development, several of which De Chiara has created and/or co-produced.


All registrants are invited to submit their query letter for review. All submissions are guaranteed a written critique by literary agent Jennifer De Chiara. Jennifer reserves the right to request more writing from attendees by e-mail following the event, if she deems the query excellent. Instructions on how to submit your work are sent after you have purchased the webinar and officially register in Go-to-Webinar. When you have registered in GTW, you will receive a confirmation email from gotowebinar@citrixonline.com, which contains the information you need to access the live webinar AND the Critique Submission Instructions.


  • Writers who are unsure about how to craft a query
  • Writers currently composing a query who want to make sure their work gets read
  • Writers who want to write the perfect elevator pitch
  • Writers with a finished novel or proposal who are ready to submit their work to editors and agents
  • Writers who have been rejected by agents and editors and wonder if their query letter was at fault
  • Writers in need of help with the business side-rather than creative side-of publishing
  • Writers who want a professional critique by a literary agent


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20. WD Poetic Form Challenge: Terzanelle

It’s that time again: time for another poetic form challenge. And, as you may have guessed, we’ll focus on the terzanelle this time around. Click here to read the guidelines on writing the terzanelle.

Once you know the rules for the terzanelle, start writing them and sharing here on the blog (this specific post) for a chance to be published in Writer’s Digest magazine–as part of the Poetic Asides column. (Note: You have to log in to the site to post comments/poems; creating an account is free.)

Here’s how the challenge works:

  • Challenge is free. No entry fee.
  • The winner (and sometimes a runner-up or two) will be featured in a future edition of Writer’s Digest magazine as part of the Poetic Asides column.
  • Deadline 11:59 p.m. (Atlanta, GA time) on October 6, 2014.
  • Poets can enter as many terzanelles as they wish. The more “work” you make for me the better, but remember: I’m judging on quality, not quantity.
  • All poems should be previously unpublished. If you have a specific question about your specific situation, just send me an e-mail at robert.brewer@fwmedia.com. Or just write a new terzanelle.
  • I will only consider terzanelles shared in the comments below. It gets too confusing for me to check other posts, go to other blogs, etc.
  • Speaking of posting, if this is your first time, your comment may not appear immediately. However, it should appear within a day (or 3–if shared on the weekend). So just hang tight, and it should appear eventually. If not, send me an e-mail at the address above.
  • Please include your name as you would like it to appear in print. If you don’t, I’ll be forced to use your user/screen name, which might be something like HaikuPrincess007 or MrLineBreaker. WD has a healthy circulation, so make it easy for me to get your byline correct.
  • Finally–and most importantly–be sure to have fun!


Win $1,000 for Your Poetry!

Writer’s Digest is offering a contest strictly for poets with a top prize of $1,000, publication in Writer’s Digest magazine, and a copy of the 2015 Poet’s Market. There are cash prizes for Second ($250) and Third ($100) Prizes, as well as prizes for the Top 25.

The early bird deadline is October 1 and costs $15 for the first poem, $10 for each additional poem. Enter as often as you’d like.

Important note: This is separate from the terzanelle challenge. The Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards is open to all forms, styles, subjects, etc. So enter your haiku, free verse, and so on.

Click here to learn more.


roberttwitterimageRobert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He loves reading poetry, writing poetry, and studying poetry–but he especially loves sharing poetry and is happy that Poetic Asides is a place that accommodates just that.

For the terzanelle, in particular, Robert appreciates its complex structure of rhymes and refrains that when done well make for a really enjoyable poem. He looks forward to reading through this batch.

Robert is married to the poet Tammy Foster Brewer, who helps him keep track of their five little poets (four boys and one princess). Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


Find more poetic posts that rock here:

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21. John Sandford: Bonus WD Interview Outtakes

Few journalists find the level of success that earns a Pulitzer Prize, and few authors can brag that every novel they’ve written has landed on The New York Times bestseller list. Even fewer writers can claim both—but John Sandford can.

Before he began a decades-long career at the top of the thriller charts, the writer born John Roswell Camp was a successful journalist. His career included stints at Southeast Missourian and the Miami Herald, a place on the Pulitzer shortlist in 1980, and the Distinguished Writing Award of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1985. In 1986, Camp was awarded a Pulitzer for Non-Deadline Feature Writing for his St. Paul Pioneer Press article series chronicling the life and work of a Minnesota farm family. Around that time, he tried his hand at long-form nonfiction with two books, one about the paintings of John Stuart Ingle and another about plastic surgery. “Neither,” he says, “will ever be a bestseller.”

In 1989, he wrote and published his first two novels—Rules of Prey and The Fool’s Run. Each would spawn a successful series: Prey, featuring his iconic Lucas Davenport character, a loner detective with a womanizing streak; and the Kidd series, which follows a computer genius who doesn’t mind taking sketchy hacking jobs—as long as the money is good. In 2007, he launched yet another wildly popular series, Virgil Flowers, about a rough-around-the-edges cop who only does “the hard stuff.” To date, Sandford has sold more than 10 million copies of nearly 40 bestselling crime thrillers. This year alone, Sandford released three titles: the 24th Davenport book, Field of Prey; the 8th Virgil Flowers installment, Deadline; and his first young adult thriller, Uncaged, the start of The Singular Menace series co-authored with his wife, fellow journalist-turned-author Michele Cook.

The full WD Interview with John Sandford appears in the November/December 2014 Writer’s Digest. In these online exclusive outtakes, he talks about the series he never wrote, more about writing what you know, and the irritation of printed mistakes.

Have you ever had an idea that just didn’t pan out?
After I had established a career writing fiction, I once had an idea for a series of books that would be based on the idea that a guy—an ex-cop—was a golfer who won a tournament and was invited to the Master’s Tournament. At the Master’s Tournament, a guy gets killed and the people who run the show want to kind of hush things up and find out what’s going on, so they get [this ex-cop, amateur golfer] to do that. So then all these rich golfers find out that this guy can keep his mouth shut, is a good investigator, and so the next thing that happens is that there’s a big scandal involving a Chicago basketball team. And my idea was to have a whole series of sports books.

I never wrote that—another guy did, actually—but the reason I didn’t write that was that I had never covered sports. I didn’t know what the inside of a pro team locker room looks like. I don’t know what jocks act like. I don’t know that stuff, but I know that about cops and judges and courts and detectives and farmers and doctors and medical stuff.

So it’s all about writing what you know.
Yeah, and it’s the same problem young writers face, and that’s that they don’t have that store of images in their head yet. Which they will get, but it takes a while to get that. It’s just a problem that they’ve got to deal with and that’s the thing that journalism gave me. …

One of the benefits, by the way, of being a reporter is that you go to places like courts, and you hear people when they’re testifying. They’re using these great big long sentences, and you’re typing and writing and trying to get it down exact because you’ve got television cameras and you’ve got other people [reporting], too. If you write out a quote, and everyone else picks up that quote and they’re all different from yours, your editor is thinking, You’re an asshole. You’ve screwed this up. So you have to work very carefully to write down the quotes, and that teaches you how people talk and the kind of language they use and when they screw things up.

If a person didn’t want to be a journalist first, how might they go about getting that “store of images” for writing?
When I’ve been asked in the past what I would recommend if a kid’s in college—and no one would ever take this advice—I would tell him to join the army. If you join the army you learn about weapons, you learn about a great swath of society, you learn about all kinds of people doing different kinds of jobs. In the space of two or three years, you get this intense education and learn about a huge variety of things that are useful to writers. An alternative would be to become a social worker or a cop for a couple of years. Any of those things will expose you to the kind of images that you need just simply to write.

Do readers ever send you feedback that you just can’t ignore?
There’s been a little, irritating controversy on my website about my knowledge of guns. I actually have a pretty extensive knowledge of guns because I grew up in the countryside in Iowa and I first shot a gun when I was probably four or five years old. But I made an editing mistake in a novel— I said that a particular kind of gun had a safety, which it does not. It’s a Glock. It does not have a safety on it. And it’s widely used by cops. What happened in that situation was that I was trying to fix a mistake. I had a [scene] where a guy took a Berretta—which does have a safety—from a dead cop. Later, I realized that that cop wouldn’t be carrying a Beretta, he would be carrying a Glock because that was the issue weapon for the Minneapolis Police Department. What I did was I went back through the book and I changed all the Berettas to Glocks. What I didn’t realize was that … I had a guy make sure that the safety was off on the Beretta. And so when I just changed Beretta Beretta Beretta to Glock Glock Glock Glock, I didn’t change the sentence about the safety. So then a lot of people wrote in and said I was an idiot because Glocks don’t have safeties.

I also once made a mistake [in a book] because I went through Arizona in the summertime. And in the book, [my main character] is in Flagstaff, AZ, in the wintertime, and I mentioned that it was hot. Well, Flagstaff has a ski area and it snows like crazy there in the wintertime and it gets very cold. That’s a mistake that I made because I did the location research, but I didn’t do the weather research. And when I shifted time periods from when I was there to when the book was [set], I made a mistake. All of my books, not all them that I know of, but most of them have some kind of mistake that I find really irritating. Usually it’s something very small, but the local people who live in that area will tell me about it.

It’s not usually anger. It’s just, “You know, you didn’t get this quite right.” And I always realize it instantly when they tell me, because I know that they’re telling me the truth! I find it very annoying when I make mistakes. I mean it really, really bothers me.

You have several hobbies. What, aside from art and archaeology, interests you?
I’ve been studying songwriting. … In my music study, I was reading a quote by Metallica. They had a song called “Ride the Lightning,” and it turns out it’s a quote from a Stephen King book about a guy who was about to be sent to ‘ride the lightning’—because he was being sent to the electric chair. So [King] picks up that line from a guy who’s a killer, and then Metallica picks it up [from King] and then puts it in a song, which is completely different from the book. It’s interesting how people are sensitive to language and how it works.

If you enjoyed these outtakes with bestselling novelist Lisa Scottoline, be sure to check out the feature-length interview—full of valuable insights about pulling off plot twists, changing directions with your writing, and much more—in the November/December 2014 Writer’s Digest.

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22. Write a Book in a Month: More Writers Share Their Experiences & Advice

Sometimes it’s a lone writer who’s been putting off a story idea for too long, and decides it’s now or never. Sometimes it’s a pair or a group determined to find out what they can achieve by sharing self-imposed deadlines and strong pots of coffee. Sometimes it’s peer pressure or curiosity about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.org), that challenge that rallies ever-increasing numbers of writers around the globe every November to band together in pursuit of a 50,000-word “win.”

Book-in-a-month challenges take all forms, fueled by all stripes of writers with all manner of motivations—make the most of that time alone in a borrowed cabin, hunker down for the winter, stop procrastinating, have something ready to pitch at that conference, prove to yourself you can do it, prove to someone else you can do it, get a fresh start—and in this hyperconnected age of 24-hour fingertip resources and networks, of tiny portable keyboards and glow-in-the-dark screens, they’re more popular than ever.

What do writers really glean from these write-a-thons? What have those who’ve set out to achieve the seemingly impossible learned, good or bad, and what advice would they share with others thinking of setting out with that same single-minded focus? We asked the WD writing community, and responses came in waves—with refreshing honesty, admitted mistakes, tales of redemption, palpable pride, self-deprecating humor and, above all, contagious enthusiasm.

In the November/December 2014 Writer’s Digest, we published an array of the best tips and strategies—one for every day of the month—along with a roundup of resources offering more help along the way. Here, in this bonus online-exclusive companion, we’re delighted to share even more valuable first-hand experiences and lessons learned from the dedicated writers in our readership. Because who knows? It’s so crazy, it just might work.

By Heather Gibson, Hartville, Ohio

I first heard about NaNoWriMo in 2012 from my friend who runs the writing group at the library. The name prompted several raised eyebrows and quizzical looks. We were considerably more agreeable toward it after she explained it to us. I mulled it over awhile before deciding it was the perfect forum to get my book out of my head and onto the page. Besides, I’m more than a little competitive so the challenge was welcome rather than daunting.

Unfortunately, I found out about NaNoWriMo right before the contest began. There wasn’t time to outline my book or research various topics in the story. I started writing cold, struggling to create my characters, setting, etc. I barely made it to chapter three before I abandoned the first portion of my book.

Determined not to give up, or “lose,” I picked up with the story where I was sure about what I wanted to write. The pages flowed freely as my story grew. In short, I completed the 50,000-word challenge, and then some, required by NaNoWriMo. I cannot begin to tell you how amazing that felt. Then I realized two horrible things.

First, I did not have a complete novel. Second, I had to edit this mess. Deep breaths were taken and I pressed on. If I can give one small piece of advice, do not quit just because NaNoWriMo is over. December, with all its hectic holiday madness, is the worst time to work on a novel. Do it anyway. I promise this is the point where you will appreciate what you have accomplished. Besides, the balm of January is just around the corner.

Everyone knows how boring January can be once the holidays are over. Use this valuable opportunity to write and/or edit your work. This is also a good time to do research should your novel require it. I found several facts in my writing needed to be clarified and portrayed with more accuracy than I had originally done.

I also took time to decide if I wanted to outline my novel or stay with a more organic approach. At first, I felt as if I was forcing my writing into an outline. I resisted in favor of exploring rabbit trails that led to what I believed was good, old-fashioned storytelling. I also thoroughly developed my characters during this time.

With everything going so well, it was the perfect time to hit another snag. I had absolutely no idea how I wanted my novel to end. I also began to lose interest. My writing habits were hit or miss and the quality of my book suffered. Thank God NaNoWriMo was just around the corner again.

Every NaNoWriMo submission is supposed to be a new novel of at least 50,000 words. I decided that year to instead use it as an editing tool to reignite interest in my own book. It worked. I turned in a 73,000-word combination of well-edited old writing as well as several new chapters.

Since my second experience with NaNoWriMo, I’m continuing to research the best way to convey my story. An outline would be helpful to keep the plot on track, tighten up the structure of my book. I believe this can be done without surrendering the natural flow.

I’m also happy to say that in the months following NaNoWriMo, I actually finished my book. I set it aside for a while before editing one more time. My novel is currently in the hands of four beta readers whose opinions, criticisms and critiques I anxiously await. This year’s NaNoWriMo effort will undoubtedly be another 30-day editing session.

In the meantime, I’m back on the internet researching what comes next. Believe me when I say it looks scarier than blank pages awaiting your 50,000 words. Good thing I’m still too competitive to give up!

by Ty Unglebower, Knoxville, Md.

I had never “lost” Nanowrimo. That is to say, by the contest’s own definition, (reaching at least 50,000 words by the end of November), I had never failed to win it. I don’t do it every year, but each time I try, I make it. Little certificate and everything. Arrogant as it may sound, I’ve realized that with discipline and persistence I can in theory always compose 50,000 words of coherent fiction in 30 days.

But for years it was incomplete fiction. I’d never finished the entire first draft within the one-month limit of Nanowrimo, or within any other month-long span for that matter. In 2013, as summer dwindled into fall, I decided to undertake what I called “Nanowrimo Plus.” In other words, I wouldn’t declare victory in December unless I’d completed the first draft of the entire story arc within November.

Usually I’m a plotter. I draw up outlines and brief character sketches before starting most of my longer fiction projects. But for Nano I do more pantsing. That works fine for the 50,000-word milestone, but makes finishing an entire novel in 30 days much trickier for someone like me. So I knew I wanted to go with a tight, plot-heavy genre for my experiment, lest I get seized by my literary tendencies or get pulled into sub-plot hell. That’s why I went with the mystery genre—more specifically, the cozy mystery.

A cozy mystery allowed me to keep the action in one central location. It also meant less meticulous research, (as opposed to a hard-boiled procedural, for instance.) Also, by keeping the character count to fewer than 10, I gave myself the chance to play to my strengths in my limited time: character and dialogue.

The tight requirements of a cozy mystery worked in conjunction with the Nano time constraints to act as sort of an enclosed waterslide during that month; I could slip and slide around only so much before being redirected, almost against my will, back into the inevitable flow of things. Flying off too far into another direction was simply not an option if I wanted to attain the goal.

Oh, I could feel the pull of elaboration or extraneous description tugging at my progress as I rounded some of those tight corners. But the tick-tocking of the clock all throughout November compelled me to always move forward, down that slide, pushed by that running water. Plot, plot, plot.

Every page I wrote had to set up some specific fact that would relate to the ultimate solving of the crime, or at least provide temporary misdirection. Even as I did that, I had a tone to set and characters to bring to life and settings to describe. It forced me to tighten my writing.

That isn’t how I work, normally. But I found that during the experience, plot developments presented themselves just a short time before I needed them. I knew point B came after point A in the timeline, but had no clue what was in between the two points until I sat down to write. That came as a surprise to me, but a pleasant one. I wouldn’t want to write that way most of the time, but for my Nanowrimo Plus experience, being pushed along that waterslide was as effective as it was nerve-wracking so far as tightness of writing is concerned.

By the 30th, I’d done it; I’d written my first ever mystery, not to mention my first ever fully formed first draft, all within 30 days. It’s coherent, fast-paced and, for a first draft, better than I expected it to be. I don’t know if I’ll do anything further with it, but it exists, fully formed written totally within 30 days, just as I had wanted.

I wouldn’t want to write like that most of the time; I like my character studies and literary elaborations as I write. The kind of novel I normally write benefits from such things. But they have no doubt also benefited from the lessons I learned on that waterslide in November of 2013.

by Lisa Doyle, Aurora, Ill.

I’m proud to say that I am a two-time NaNoWriMo Winner! I succeeded on both attempts, in 2008 and 2012. The motivations and outcomes for the novel writing process were different, and have led to some pretty life-changing results.

I’d always wanted to write a novel, and it was one of those things I thought I’d “get around to” one of these years. Then, in the final days of October 2008, I happened to read a blurb in Self magazine about NaNoWriMo. I was intrigued, went to the website, and learned of a local NaNoWriMo group workshop that very night in my town. I left the meeting completely jazzed, wrote my basic outline and downloaded YWriter, and a few days later, I was off and writing.

I had the goal of writing about 1,800 words every night, and for the most part, I achieved it (I took the night off for the presidential election, and one night I was sick). And, on November 30, I finished the story with an excess of 51,000 words, tears streaming down my face, not sure if I’d ever felt so proud before.

Life got busier (I had a baby in 2010) and I wasn’t ready to attempt NaNoWriMo again yet. But in the fall of 2012, I had an idea for a novel that I just couldn’t shake. I again outlined and set a plan of action, and once again completed the 50,000-word goal by deadline.

My book continued to nag at me, though. I knew I had something unique, something marketable, and it wasn’t really complete. In January, a friend alerted me to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, so I checked it out. The deadline was two weeks away, so I got back to work, adding another 25,000 words to the novel, and sent it in on time.

I made it through to the second round (yay!), but not the third (womp womp). I took the judges’ comments seriously and tweaked the novel further. I briefly had the book up on Amazon to share with family and friends, and received more helpful feedback. Then, I finally worked up the nerve to query agents. Not much time passed before I found my agent, who loved the premise, and wanted to work with me on a significant rewrite. Over the next several months, I shaped the novel into a much-improved story—one that I owe in large part to my agent’s expert coaching. It’s now on submission, and all appendages are crossed that it will find a home.

I am truly grateful that NaNoWriMo exists. I’m a very deadline-driven person, and I don’t think I actually would have worked the writing into my schedule without the timeframe, the goals and the structure it provides. I think anyone with a story in them should give it a shot. It could be the greatest favor you ever do for yourself.

by C.L. (Cyndi) Pauwels, Yellow Springs, Ohio

For someone who’s never written a full-length manuscript before, trying to write a book in a month is daunting, to say the least. I completed my first NaNoWriMo attempt in 2005, and the euphoria of typing “The End” shortly before midnight on Nov. 30 was indescribable. That draft—and yes, that’s all NaNo participants should seek to produce is a draft, no matter how many overly eager authors start querying (or hit “publish”) on Dec. 1—served as the basis for my thesis manuscript for a Master of Arts in creative writing, which I completed in 2010. NaNoWriMo showed me that I could, in fact, complete a book-length manuscript, something I had not been able to do up to that point. It gave me the confidence to complete my education and to take my writing seriously.

My 2006 NaNo effort built on the central theme of a short story I published in 1990. After many, many revisions and rewrites, that 50,000-word draft became my police procedural Forty & Out. I started querying it to agents in 2011, and after 39 rejections, that debut novel was released by Deadly Writes Publishing on Sept. 1, 2014. 

‪NaNoWriMo has been good to me and for me—in motivation, in confidence-building, in adding to my support group of fellow writers. Now that I’ve learned the habit of daily writing and regularly produce a decent word count on my own, I may not return to the event. But I’ll continue spreading NaNo joy as I encourage new writers to join the fun.

LEARNING TO EXERCISE DEMONS (misspelling intended)
by Rev. Dr. David McDonald, Jackson, Mich.

Since 2008, I have written in excess of 2 million words: 56 books, 13 position papers and hundreds of explanatory diagrams that translate historical theology into the language of ordinary, everyday people. I started the Teaching Atlas Project to benefit the congregants at my church (westwinds.org), but over the years, the project grew. I used my writing to raise money for local charities, highlight notable people within our community, and dabble in speculative theology—even fictionalizing missionary work in Atlantis.

I have written three books this year, including The Handbook for Hellfighters (a training manual for ministry) and The Church Survival Guide (a resource for people confused by Christianity). Last week, in 118 hours, after seven years of research and three weeks of preparation, I wrote The Garden City Epistles—a 56,487 word devotional on human becoming.

Here’s what I’ve learned through it all:

Passion will get you started, but discipline will see you through. Theology is fascinating, but it’s a lot of work to explain, develop and substantiate. The only way to succeed is to set a schedule, write like mad and never stop, even if you despair. Get your first draft finished before you pay attention to your feelings, since—in the early stages—most of your feelings will steer you off a cliff like a GPS for lemmings.

We require the same disciplined perseverance to begin, also. The first words will rarely be your best, and the fear of bad writing often keeps writers from the initial click on the keys. But writing is a like jumping into a cold lake: You squirm less once you’re all in.

In my case, I know I’m in trouble once the ideas begin to gush from my mind and onto the screen. I don’t try and interrupt the flow, but I know the next 24 hours will likely involve head-shaking, smirking and self-recrimination. Easy means effortless, and good writing is never easy, just as good abs do not result from doughnuts and naps in the afternoon. You may be able to relate, knowing the more the writing flows in the first draft, the more you’ll have to trim it back during revisions.

Revisions are not only essential for clarity and concision, but for argumentation. That which interests us is only interesting to the audience if there’s a payoff. Most people don’t spend their afternoons reading 4th-century African theology. In order for any writing to gain traction, both the reader and the writer have to answer the all-important question, “So what?” The book, after all, is for the audience. In my case, I’m not writing to exorcise demons, but to share about how you, too, can get your demons looking great in a bikini by summer. Your reasons for writing, though probably not like mine, should be obvious and transparent to the reader.

Your work is not the best work on any topic, but it is yours. I knowI’ll never be on a shelf with Meister Eckhart, Athanasius, or Jacques Ellul, but my mission isn’t to compete with the greats. I translate great theology for everyday use. The translation is mine—my voice, my take, my slant—and it’s the only thing I have to offer. In your own writing, be less concerned with greatness and more concerned with faithfulness—to your beliefs and idiosyncrasies—in order to give yourself to your readers.

Finally, I realized not only has publishing changed, but reading has, too. We need shorter chapters, earlier payoffs and more memorable axioms to keep people turning the page. Every story is comprised of smaller tales; every tome is a hundred pamphlets; every dissertation is a dozen arguments working together to make one point. When we forget this, people put down our work and are either dismissive or angry that they wasted 10 bucks.

That’s right—10 bucks. Our therapist-employing, dotage-initiating, profanity-inventing work of desperate passion isn’t worth nine cents an hour. And how do I know this? Because, as my friends are fond of saying, “There isn’t another pastor on the planet that puts out like you do,” and this is the first time you’re seeing my name.

I’ve learned buckets of truth over the last six years, growing so tired of recounting inadequacies to my minister that I became one. I consider it essential training for the future, as I’m only beginning my career as a writer. You may not be ready to dive in like I did, but I still hope you benefit from hearing my confession.

To read the full feature “Plan Your Own Write-a-Thon: 30 Tips, Resources & Strategies for Writing a Book in 30 Days,” plus other articles to help you complete a book in a month, check out the full November/December 2014 Writer’s Digest now.

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23. Professional Speed Writing

In this Q&A, Rochelle Melander, author of Write-a-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It) (Writer’s Digest Books), discusses how she’s written five books at a marathon pace.


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24. 5 Tips for Writing Suspense

I am a traditionally published thriller author. My latest book No Time to Die just hit shelves this week. When I first started writing suspense fiction, though, I had very little idea what I was doing. It took a humble amount of trial and error to get in a groove and overcome basic rookie errors. Now, seven years later, I like to think I’ve figured out some tricks of the trade. I’ve also been extremely lucky to receive the support and mentorship of some of the top names in the biz, like Jack Reacher’s creator Lee Child and the late Michael Palmer. So without further ado, here are some tips for budding thriller writers that I wish I’d known from day one…

GIVEAWAY: Kira is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).


no-time-to-die-novel-cover     kira-peikoff-writer-author

Column by Kira Peikoff, a journalist and novelist in New York who has written
for the New York Times, Psychology Today, Slate, Salon, and Cosmopolitan.com,
among many others. She is the author of LIVING PROOF (Tor, 2012) and
NO TIME TO DIE (Kensington, 2014), which was praised by best-selling
author Lee Child. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

1) Structure Scenes like Mini-Novels: Each one should contain its own narrative arc, with rising action and a climactic moment that signals the end of the chapter. It’s good form to finish most chapters on a cliffhanger—especially the first one. A major dramatic question should be raised in the opening scene, and then resolved in an unexpected or unfavorable way to hurl the main character further into the conflict (and thus drag your readers into the story). Get your protagonist in trouble as soon as possible and never let her get too comfortable or too safe. As far as chapter length, I’ve found that an average of five pages (double-spaced, size 12) works well for keeping up the pace.

2) Plot Strategically to Avoid the Sagging Middle: This rookie error is one I had the misfortune of making early on: I wrote the beginning of a book and then abruptly ran out of steam about sixty pages in. When you’re staring down 240 blank pages without a plan, it’s easy to freeze up. Now I have a method. Once I have the main cast of characters and their conflicts, I conceive a new book in four sections. At the end of each section, I devise a major twist to launch into the next section and keep up the narrative momentum. Once I’ve figured out my four big plot points, I go deeper into plotting the concretes of each individual section, dropping red herrings and hints about the twists to come so that they will be logical without being predictable. This is the most challenging part of the process for me and is apt to change when I actually get to writing. I think of the outline like a highway: you can go off-roading from time to time but you get back on the highway to get to your final destination.

(How many markets should you send your novel out to?)

3) Alternate Character POVs: I love writing in third-person multiple vision, alternating between protagonist, antagonist, and usually another main character who has a stake in the central conflict. Getting into each character’s head increases suspense for the reader, who knows to anticipate the moves of competing characters and either roots for or against them to succeed. It’s the easiest POV choice to use in writing a thriller. When you follow Tip 1 and end each chapter on a cliffhanger, then switch to a new character whose scene also ends on a cliffhanger, the reader will be tearing through the pages to learn what happens. A word to the wise: the hardest POV choice is writing in first person—and keeping with only one character—for the entire story, because then you can’t create dramatic irony. (i.e. when the reader knows more about the stakeholders in the conflict than each character alone knows.)

4) Obscure POV when useful: Say you’re writing a murder scene but you want the killer’s identity to remain a secret. I wanted to pull this off in my new book, since the killer was someone surprising in the story, but I didn’t want readers to know who until way later. The trick is to write the scene from the victim’s perspective. Don’t allow the victim to know or recognize the killer—so you can have a dramatic, intense scene without spoiling the mystery. This is the first chapter of No Time to Die.

(Book Payments and Royalties — Your Questions Answered.)

5) Raise questions and delay the answers: This technique is the absolute key to suspense. Pique people’s curiosity and then make them wait for a resolution. While they’re waiting, introduce a new tantalizing question, and then delay that answer too. Once you can layer these successfully, you’ve got a page-turner. The famous author Pete Hamill told me once that writing suspense is about planting diving boards and then jumping off them later. Best advice I ever got.

Go forth and good luck!

GIVEAWAY: Kira is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).


Hook agents, editors and readers immediately.
Check out Les Edgerton’s guide, HOOKED, to
learn about how your fiction can pull readers in.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.



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25. How to Find and Keep a Literary Agent — Agent One-on-One Boot Camp (With Critiques) Starts Oct. 1

How do you hook an agent right away, keep them hooked, and make the most of your new publishing relationship? In this Boot Camp starting Oct. 1, 2014, “How to Find and Keep a Literary Agent,” you’ll learn how to get a literary agent’s attention through a great submission, and also how to navigate the process of working successfully with an agent. You’ll also work with an agent online to review and refine your all-important query letter and the first five pages of your novel. As always, seats in the boot camp are limited, and many WD camps sell out — so consider signing up sooner rather than later.



This Boot Camp will cover a range of important questions:

– What keeps an agent reading? What makes writing jump off the page?
– What are the most common Chapter 1 mistakes that make them stop reviewing your submission?
– What are the steps you need to give your query and manuscript the best possible shot?
– What are the turn-ons and turn-offs when it comes to queries?
– How do agents make judgment calls?
– And much more.

With real-life examples of queries that do and don’t work, you will learn how you can refine your own query letter and get an agent to request your novel.The world of literary agencies can be an intimidating place. You’ll be lead through the inner-workings of finding the perfect literary agent, working with an agent and how to get the most out of your relationship. See what a day in the life of an agent looks like, and get tips about how to find your perfect author-agent match that will result in a successful partnership.

The best part is that you’ll be working directly with a knowledgeable and experienced agent, who will provide feedback specific to your work.

Here’s how it works:

On October 1, you will gain access to a special 60-minute online tutorial presented by agents at the Dijkstra Literary Agency. It will explain the submission process of submitting to an agent, what they find appealing in a query letter and what an author-agent relationship looks like from the inside. You will also be notified by email which agent you’ll be working with Monday afternoon.

From 10:00 am to 1:00 pm (PT) on October 2, instructors will be available to answer questions and provide additional feedback via the Writer’s Digest University message boards. Only registered students can access these boards. You’ll also be able to ask question of your fellow students. Feel free to share your work and gain support from your peers.

After listening to the presentation and participating in the discussion sessions, you’ll be able to revise your query & first 5 double-spaced pages as necessary. Then, you’ll email those pages directly to Jill Marr, Elise Capron, Thao Le, Jessica Watterson, or Roz Foster, by the end of the day on Thursday. They will spend 10 days reviewing their assigned critiques and providing feedback as to what works and what doesn’t.

Please note that any one of the instructing agents may ask for additional pages if the initial submission shows serious promise.

In addition to feedback from instructing agents, attendees will also receive:

– Download of “An Agent’s Tips on Story Structures that Sell,” an on-demand webinar by Andrea Hurst
1-year subscription to the WritersMarket.com literary agent database

PLEASE NOTE: No Additional discounts are available. All sales are final. If you have a preferred agent you would like to work with, please notify WDU after registering.


Wednesday, October 1 – Access to Tutorial
Thursday, October 2 – Blackboard Discussion 10 am to 1 pm (PT)
Friday, October 3 – Materials due to agents
Monday, October 13 – All critiqued materials due back to attendees

About the Instructors:

ELISE CAPRON is an acquiring agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She also manages the SDLA office and works closely with Sandra Dijkstra on author development and management. She is most interested in serious, character-driven literary fiction and well-written narrative non-fiction (particularly serious history with a good story).A graduate of Emerson College, Elise holds a BFA in Writing, Literature and Publishing, and served on the editorial staff of the Emerson Review for several years. She interned at Harcourt and the Dijkstra Agency before joining the agency full-time in late 2003.Elise is interested in fiction that has unforgettable writing, a terrific narrative voice/tone, and memorable characters. She loves novels with an unusual or eccentric edge and is drawn to stories she has never heard before. She aims to work with writers who are getting their work published regularly in magazines and who have a realistic sense of the market and their audience. Some of Elise’s recent and soon-to-be-published fiction titles include Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning (Riverhead) and How to Escape from a Leper Colony (Graywolf); Rachel Toor’s On The Road to Find Out (FSG); Jonathon Keats’ The Book of the Unknown (Random House); Rikki Ducornet’s Netsuke (Coffee House Press); Maureen McHugh’s After the Apocalypse (Small Beer Press), which was picked as a “Top 10 Best of the Year” by Publishers Weekly; Ali Liebegott’s The IHOP Papers (Carroll & Graf); Peter Plate’s Soon the Rest Will Fall (Seven Stories Press); and more.

On the non-fiction front, Elise is looking for fascinating true stories told in a compelling way. Currently, Elise is especially interested in working with up-and-coming scholars (particularly historians) who are looking to transition from the academic market to a trade readership. Some of Elise’s recent and soon-to-be-published non-fiction titles include Jack Shuler’s The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose (Public Affairs) and Blood and Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a Southern Town (University of South Carolina Press); Leo Braudy’s Haunted; Jane Vandenburgh’s The Wrong Dog Dream: A True Romance (Counterpoint); Jonathon Keats’ Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age (Oxford University Press); Cynthia Barnett’s Blue Is the New Green: An American Water Ethic (Beacon); Billy Smith’s Ship of Death: The Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World (Yale); and more.

Please note that Elise is specifically not interested in: fantasy, young-adult/middle-grade, picture books, romance, sci-fi, business books, cookbooks, poetry, religious/spiritual books, screenplays, or self-help. And while she is interested in narrative non-fiction, please note that she takes on very little memoir.

JILL MARR is an acquiring agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.She graduated from San Diego State University with a B.A. in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing and a minor in History. She has a strong Internet and media background and nearly 15 years of publishing experience. She wrote features and ads for Pages, the literary magazine for people who love books, and continues to write book ads for publishing houses, magazine pieces, and promotional features for television.After writing ad copy and features for published books for years, she knows how to find the “hook” and sell it.

Jill is interested in commercial fiction, with an emphasis on mysteries, thrillers, romantic suspense and horror, women’s commercial fiction and historical fiction. She is also looking for non-fiction by authors who are getting their work published regularly and who have a realistic sense of the market and their audience. Jill is looking for non-fiction projects in the areas of history, sports, politics, current events, self-help, cookbooks, memoir, health & nutrition, pop culture, humor and music.

Some of Jill’s recent and soon-to-be-published non-fiction includes the Travel Channel’s Nick Groff’s Chasing Spirits (NAL); Maybe We’ll Have You Back (Skyhorse) by actor Fred Stoller; Get Over It (Seal Press) by Christina Pesoli; Doulas A. Wissing’s Funding Our Enemy (Prometheus Books); Why We Love Serial Killers (Skyhorse) by Scott Bonn; America’s Greatest “Failing” School (Nation Books) by journalist Kristina Rizga; Don’t Lick the Minivan (Skyhorse) by Leanne Shirtliffe; William Jones’ More Than the Dream: The Untold Story of the March on Washington (Norton); Rocking the Pink (Seal Press) by singer-songwriter Laura Roppé; Stop Reading Baby Books (Skyhorse) by JJ Keith; Drunks: America’s Search for Sobriety by Christopher Finan; and Argyle Armada: Life with America’s Top Pro Cycling Team (VeloPress) by Mark Johnson.

Some of Jill’s new and upcoming fiction includes Bloodman andAmerican Woman (Thomas & Mercer) by Robert Pobi; Reckless Disregard (Seven Stories Press) by Robert Rotstein; Three Souls(HarperCollins) by Janie Chang; Madam (Plume) by Cari Lynne and Kellie Martin; The Cordell Logan thriller series (The Permanent Press) by David Freed; Benefit of the Doubt (Tor/Forge) by Neal Griffin;Garbo’s Last Stand (Entranced) by Jon Miller; The Crossroads thriller series (Thomas & Mercer) by Eyre Price; The Dog Year (Berkley) by Ann Garvin; The Change Your Name Store (Sky Pony Press) by Leanne Shirliffe; and the Jaden Terrell series that includes the Shamus Award nominee Racing the Devil and A Cup Full of Midnight (The Permanent Press).

Please note that Jill is specifically not interested in: YA, children’s books, sci-fi, romance or anything involving unicorns.

ROZ FOSTER is an acquiring agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She works from New York. She has a B.A. in English Literature from UC San Diego, studied philosophy for a year at the University of Sheffield, U.K., and earned her M.A. in English, with an emphasis in composition & rhetoric and creative writing, from Portland State University. At PSU, she taught writing in exchange for tuition. She’s been learning French since 2009.Roz spent over five years as a qualitative researcher in high-tech consumer products marketing. In 2008, she co-founded a web design company for which she provided non-profit organizations with audience-focused market research, project planning, and digital design. She joined SDLA in 2013.

Roz is interested in non-fiction in the areas of cultural studies, sociology, business, history, politics, current affairs, science and design. She looks for driven, narrative storytelling and sharp concepts that have the potential to transcend their primary audience. She’s also interested in literary and commercial fiction, literary YA with crossover potential for the adult market, and literary sci-fi. In fiction, she looks for a resonant, lively voice; rich, irresistible language; characters with compelling development arcs; and a mastery of dramatic structure. Across the board, she’s looking for books that make her feel like the author is tuned into a rising revolution — cultural, political, literary, or whatnot — that’s about to burst on the scene.

Please note that Roz is specifically not interested in: sports, cookbooks, screenplays, poetry, romance, fantasy, or children’s books.

THAO LE handles finances and selected contracts at the Dijkstra Agency. She is also an agent. Thao is looking to acquire adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror, New Adult, YA and Middle Grade. She enjoys both gritty, dark narratives and fantastically quirky stories. She is also looking for light-hearted, funny, and moving contemporary YAs with a raw, authentic teen voice. She’s particularly drawn to memorable characters, smart-mouthed dialogue, strong plots, and tight writing. Her favorite books are ones that reimagine familiar tales and tropes in a completely fresh new way and she has a soft spot for multicultural stories and lush settings. Recent sales include: Katherine Harbour’s fantasy, THORN JACK (Harper Voyager), Lisa Freeman’s surf YA, HONEY GIRL (Sky Pony Press), IPPY Award Winning S.K. Falls’ NA (Forever Yours), and James Kendley’s paranormal thriller, THE DROWNING GOD (Harper Voyager Impulse). Thao is NOT looking for: Biographies, business books, cook books, memoirs, picture books, poetry, religious/spiritual books, screenplays, self-help, short stories, travel books.

JESSICA WATTERSON graduated from the University of California at Irvine with a degree in Sociocultural Anthropology and English. Jessica has made books a serious part of her life for many years. Jessica is most interested in all subgenres of adult and new adult romance, and women’s fiction. She is looking for heartfelt and unique romance that will instantly draw a reader in and keep them hooked.

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