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22 30

How Setting Shapes Story 21 Ways to Pivot Your Plot Time and place should be more than just a backdrop. Use these tools to mine your setting, and you’ll have everything you need to fuel your narrative drive.

Need more tension, momentum or just an unexpected turn? Try these strategies. BY ELIZABETH SIMS


26 34

To Change or Novel Writing Not to Change? by the Numbers For anyone who’s heard the dictum that characters must have a transformational arc, that really is the question. And the answer may surprise you. BY DAVID CORBETT

2 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

To get from start to finish, sometimes all you need is a simple countdown. COMPILED BY JESSICA STRAWSER



JA NUA RY 2 017 | VOLU ME 97 | NO. 1



8 A LIFE WELL WRITTEN: Writing about your life, but

Craft a Killer Cozy

Subgenres come and go, but the traditional mystery is here to stay. Master these essentials of the form, and you may just find yourself cozying up to success. BY JANE K. CLELAND


unsure of where to start and what to cover? Use mini memoirs to puzzle your story together piece by piece. BY RICHARD CAMPBELL

10 PLUS: 5-Minute Memoir: The Review Rat Race •

Poetic Asides: Byr a Thoddaid • Good to Know: Religion • Rules for Writing Strong Sequels • In Memoriam: Anna Dewdney C O LU M NS


Debbie Macomber The journey to becoming one of the bestselling authors of all time began with the power of positive thinking— and never strayed from the path. Sometimes, success really is as simple as that. BY JESSICA STRAWSER

19 MEET THE AGENT: Helen Adams,

Zimmermann Literary BY KARA GEBHART UHL


4 8 FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK: Categorizing Fiction;

Treating Signer’s Remorse BY BARBARA POELLE

5 0 YOUR STORY: “Love by the Numbers” BY JENNY MAATTALA

6 0 STANDOUT MARKETS: Narratively; John F. Blair;

Popular Mechanics; The Gettysburg Review BY TYLER MOSS

6 2 CONFERENCE SCENE: Desert Nights, Rising Stars;

Palm Beach Poetry; Unicorn Writers’ Conference BY DON VAUGHAN

7 2 PLATFORMS OF YORE: Emily Dickinson


 Yr Sto



5 3 Find the Best Frame for Your Story 3 0 21 Ways to Keep Your Plot Moving


2 6 Make Your Character Arcs More Compelling


2 2 How Setting Can Be the Secret to a Better Story


3 4 55 Tips, Techniques & Motivators to Help You

Reach “The End”


4 0 Cozy Up to Traditional Mysteries 4 4 WD Interview: Debbie Macomber




4 online exclusives

5 editor’s letter

6 contributors

7 reader mail

Writer’s Digest (ISSN 0043-9525) is published monthly, except bimonthly issues in March/April, May/June, July/August and November/December, by F+W Media Inc., 10151 Carver Road, Ste. 200, Cincinnati, OH 45242. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to Writer’s Digest, P.O. Box 420235, Palm Coast, FL 32142-0235. Subscription rates: one year, $24.96; two years, $49.92; three years, $74.88. Canadian subscriptions add $10 per year for GST/HST tax and postage via surface mail. Foreign subscriptions add $10 for surface mail or $39 per year for airmail. Remit in U.S. funds. Canadian Publications Mail Agreement No. 40025316. Canadian return address: 2835 Kew Drive, Windsor, ON N8T 3B7. Writer’s Digest, Reg. U.S. Pat. Off. Vol. 97, No. 1. Periodicals Postage Paid at Cincinnati, Ohio, and additional mailing offices. I 3

Right Now at

The Next Big Thing A blockbuster author with more than 100 titles in print knows a thing or two about staying ahead of trends. Romance novelist Debbie Macomber (WD Interview, Page 44) shares her advice for keeping your writerly eye on the future, alongside other expert insights.

Your Personal Top 10 Writing Your Legacy co-author Richard Campbell (“A Life Well Written,” Page 8) delves into 10 essential ways for memoir writers to mine for material.

Great Markets You’ve Been Missing

To find all of the above online companions to this issue in one handy spot, visit


Dream big with a boost from the WD blogs! GO HOLLYWOOD


Many writers dream of having their

Promotion can be the most daunting

books made into blockbuster movies.

and confusing part of the publishing

Producer Ken Atchity reveals how to

process. Dana Kaye—author of Your

best prime your manuscript for poten-

Book, Your Brand—shares how to

tial film adaptation.

boost publicity for your book.


Psychological thrillers have become staples on the bestsellers lists. Author Mark Edwards (The Magpies) shares tips for pacing and suspense in the genre.

4 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017


Starting in this issue, the Standout Markets column (Page 60) will now include online-exclusive opportunities alongside our trio of book publishers, literary journals and magazine markets. View the full submission guidelines for our first featured web market, Narratively.


EDITORIAL DIRECTOR Jessica Strawser ART DIRECTOR Claudean Wheeler MANAGING EDITOR Tyler Moss ASSISTANT EDITOR Baihley Grandison CONTRIBUTING EDITORS David Corbett, Jane Friedman, Steven James, Barbara Poelle, Elizabeth Sims, Kara Gebhart Uhl, Don Vaughan


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More Than a Feeling I’ve interviewed enough authors over the years to know this: Even the most successful among them can remember with vivid clarity the tentative tingling of first sitting down to write a novel and feeling as if they had no idea what they were doing. In fact, some of them still experience that odd mingling of fearful uncertainty and exciting possibility, fueled by a creative drive that’s hard to define but impossible to deny. Welcome to the club. Whether you have your sights set on your first novel, your fourth or your 40th (Debbie Macomber, the subject of this issue’s WD Interview, has written novels numbering in the triple digits—and says she’ll never stop looking for ways to grow), the articles in this issue address the kinds of questions that fiction writers are forever asking themselves—and offer the kind of answers that can help you channel that tingle of inspiration into a satisfying story with enough momentum to reach “The End.” What are the narrative choices that too many writers make as an afterthought— and how can we frame our stories for maximum impact from the start? Find useful takes on point of view, past versus present tense, narrative voice (all in Writer’s Workbook, starting on Page 53) and “How Setting Shapes Story” (Page 22) that will help put you ahead of the game. Do our characters really have to follow the “rule” of undergoing a transformation or a change in order for our stories to be successful? In his thoughtful article “To Change or Not to Change?” novelist and writing instructor David Corbett tackles the many nuances of character arcs, and helps us pinpoint better ways to drive our individual stories forward (Page 26). What can we do when our plot just seems to be missing something? Bookmark Elizabeth Sims’ “21 Ways to Pivot Your Plot” (Page 30), as you’ll want to turn (pun intended!) to this one again and again. Lingering questions aside, perhaps best of all is the serendipity of stumbling upon the answer you didn’t even know you were looking for—just the right tip, technique or bit of inspiration to pull you out of a tight spot. “Novel Writing by the Numbers” (Page 34) is full of them—from great first lines, to tales of rejection overcome, to rules that were made to be broken. Soon, your novel will be more than an idea. Soon, your inspiration will be more than a feeling. With this issue in hand, you’re readier than you think you are. All you have to do is turn the page.


BACK ISSUES Both print and digital back issues are available for purchase at I 5



JANE K. CLELAND (“Craft a Killer Cozy,” Page

40) is the award-winning author of the Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series, of which the 11th installment, Glow of Death, was released in November. Her book about the writing craft, Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot, was published in April by WD Books. Cleland teaches at Lehman College, CUNY, where she is the director for the Program for Professional Communications. Find her online at



Sequels,” Page 16) is the author of 12 novels, the first of which, Geography Club, was adapted into a feature film. His latest title, teen thriller Three Truths and a Lie, hit bookshelves in August. Hartinger is also a screenwriter and currently has four scripts in development, including Decked, the animated story behind a deck of playing cards. Visit him at and find him on Twitter @brenthartinger.

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BARBARA SOLOMON JOSSELSOHN (“The Review Rat Race,” Page 10) has written for The New York Times, Consumers Digest and Parents magazine; the online edition of Brain, Child; and websites Grown & Flown and Her first novel, The Last Dreamer, debuted in December 2015. She lives in Westchester, N.Y., and is currently at work on her second novel. Find her online at or on Facebook at

ELIZABETH NUNEZ (“How Setting Shapes Story,” Page 22) is the award-winning author of nine novels, including Prospero’s Daughter, Boundaries and Anna In-Between, as well as the memoir Not for Everyday Use. Her latest, Even in Paradise, a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, was released in April. Nunez is the co-founder and former director of the National Black Writers Conference, as well as a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, CUNY.

6 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

PRIVACY PROMISE Occasionally we make portions of our customer list available to other companies so they may contact you about products and services that may be of interest to you. If you prefer we withhold your name, simply send a note with the magazine name to: List Manager, F+W Media Inc., 10151 Carver Road, Ste. 200, Cincinnati, OH 45242. Printed in the USA COPYRIGHT © 2017 BY F+W MEDIA INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. WRITER’S DIGEST MAGAZINE IS A REGISTERED TRADEMARK OF F+W MEDIA INC.


BRENT HARTINGER (“Rules for Writing Strong



I’m a longtime subscriber to Writer’s Digest. I’ve published two works: the novel Dolphins’ Run and the nonfiction guide Become a 911 Dispatcher. When my copy of WD is delivered, the first thing I turn to is Barbara Poelle’s “Funny You Should Ask” column. I appreciate her insights, honest to-the-point responses and, most of all, humor. I hope Poelle’s column has a long run with WD. I look forward to it in each issue! Rich Callen

Las Vegas

SPOTTED ON TWITTER Get your hands on October’s @WritersDigest. Lots of great nuggets for established and new #writers. —@TheStoryPsych Loved Susan Shapiro’s tips in [October] @WritersDigest: If you keep working hard, someone will notice. —@SusanjBreen @jessicastrawser Loved your interview with @junotdiaz in [October] @WritersDigest! Biggest takeaway: Read beyond your comfort zone! —@SharifKhanBooks @mikemartinez72 Loved your [October] @WritersDigest piece about using Excel to outline. Great stuff. —@aprildavila I’ve subscribed to @WritersDigest! Practically read the whole [October] issue at Barnesies. Love it, wish I had subbed sooner. #waitingforthemail. —@mrosscormier

WRITE TO US: Email with “Reader Mail” in the subject line. Please include a phone number (for verification purposes only) and your city and state. Submissions are considered for publication and may be edited for clarity or space.


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A Life Well Written Writing about your life, but unsure of where to start and what to cover? Use mini memoirs to puzzle your story together piece by piece. BY RICHARD CAMPBELL

8 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

your life story” guides available—often targeted toward people who simply want to record their own legacies for family and friends (a perfectly reasonable goal, by the way), rather than looking to make them more broadly marketable. The problem with this method, regardless of your intended audience, is that it excludes the most important part of your life story—its context. Even if your family and friends are the sum total of your intended readers, you’d probably

rather entertain them than bore them to tears. Our lives unfold through the days, months and years, but our most influential experiences and what we learned from such moments do not. Whether your life story has an overarching motif or you plan to cobble together a montage of more diverse meditations, the project can seem less overwhelming if you approach it as a series of mini memoirs—two- to threepage essays that prompt you to probe into your experiences, examining



hose of us who set out to write about our own lives often assume it will be a natural process—after all, what subject could we know better?— but find it to be surprisingly complex. The stories are ours and ours alone to tell, and yet—especially if we want them to appeal to readers outside of our immediate circles—we are not absolved from the limitations and expectations that come within the confines of any genre: We must focus on a distinct theme (or themes), whether it’s a dysfunctional family, addiction, finding love or overcoming an illness. We must make decisions about narrative arc, dialogue and voice. We must contemplate format— is this a book-length memoir, an essay, a blog series or something else entirely? Which is why so many of our tales never get told. How often have you heard someone say, “I’d love to share my story, but I doubt anyone would be interested”? Maybe, if you listen closely, what they are really saying is, “I don’t know what to write. I don’t know where to start.” There are plenty of “how to write

how pivotal points feed in to the broader portrait of your life. IDENTIFYING YOUR LIFE’S THEMES Memoir purists often home in on a single life theme, such as addiction or redemption, and focus on that subject exclusively—omitting peripheral aspects. But I’ve found that the most engaging memoirs take a broader approach, packing personal stories with numerous themes in an all-encompassing manner that’s still focused and personally resonant. While researching this idea in the course of writing our book, Writing Your Legacy (WD Books), my coauthor Cheryl Svensson and I focused on the concept of life themes, developed by the father of gerontology James E. Birren. Every major or minor life event is rooted in theme. If you graduated from high school despite struggling with dyslexia, you may have a powerful story about perseverance. If you became hugely successful in your career, perhaps your story is rooted in diligence with a dash of luck. Birren identified a series of core legacy themes, each of which encompasses a defining aspect of a person’s life: (1) major turning points in life, (2) family dynamics, (3) exposure to money (or lack thereof), (4) career aspirations and accomplishments, (5) emotional and physical health, (6) experiences of traditional gender roles, (7) perception of death, (8) spiritual identity, (9) life goals and (10) personal legacy. The beauty in approaching your life story in terms of mini memoirs is that when it comes to themes, you don’t have to pick just one. Write scenes or vignettes on each theme that speaks to you. Although they

might seem disparate at first, you’ll be surprised to find how seamlessly such short pieces can come together to form a well-rounded life story. Start with the 10 listed previously, and then dig even further: Consider, for instance, your passions, cultural heritage and friendships. What about places you’ve traveled, moments of forgiveness and life miracles? Maybe you’d like to reflect on the process of aging. How has getting older affected your day-to-day life? What activities from your youth do you miss

STRENGTHEN YOUR CORE Campbell digs further into each of the 10 core themes of legacy writing at

introduce additional challenges, provide much-needed comfort, or both? Give each reaction the individual attention it deserves on the page. Consider, too, those themes relating to your sense of self. Did your psychological struggles carry the burden of low self-confidence? How

By examining your experience through the lens of dozens of different themes, your story becomes multifaceted as opposed to one-dimensional. the most, and why? Writing on any given theme could even tease out hidden themes that were not immediately evident, offering new avenues for exploration. USING MINI MEMOIRS TO ENHANCE THEMES What if you’re not struggling with the question of what to write about— your life story already has a strong, overarching theme? In that case, the mini-memoir approach can still lend depth and context to your structure. Say you want to write about your lifelong battle with depression. By examining your experience through the lens of dozens of different themes, your story becomes multifaceted as opposed to one-dimensional. Perhaps you recall the first time that you were overcome with depression. There’s your first mini memoir. The second of the core themes is family dynamics. You might write short pieces focusing on how your family reacted to your illness. Did they

did you manage to overcome it? You may find that mini memoirs unfold more naturally than the more unwieldy, longer story you have to tell—and that they build momentum strong enough to carry you through the manuscript. Using the core themes as prompts, along with any additional ones that resonate with you, will help you to form a balanced mosaic of anecdotes and reflections. How do you know when your story is complete? When and where does it end? The power lies in the process. Think of legacy writing as building your life story brick by brick. If you stack them right, you might find that the result can be a sound structure and a work-in-progress at the same time.

Richard Campbell is the co-author of Writing Your Legacy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story. He conducts life story writing classes ( on transatlantic crossings for a major cruise line. I 9



success, as it would affirm that they had completed something worthy of professional attention. Others felt that success would be holding their bound book —either self- or traditionally published—in their hands. To me, success meant having readers who felt that my novel articulated something important, something they had felt deeply inside but had never been able to express or fully understand before my book came along. That still sounds pretty good. So I wrote back to my friend’s aunt and thanked her for reading my book and letting me know that she liked it. I was surprised at how good it felt to abandon the drive for selfpromotion, if only for a day. Instead, I relished her compliment. And although it was for my eyes only, her email couldn’t have made me happier if it had been posted online for the world to see. Barbara Solomon Josselsohn (barbara is the author of The Last Dreamer.

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: Submit your own 600-word essay reflection on the writing life by emailing it to

with “5-Minute Memoir” in the subject line.

10 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017



wo weeks ago, my friend forwarded an email from her elderly aunt, to whom she had given a copy of my debut novel. Her aunt wrote that despite her failing eyesight, she had read the book quickly and thoroughly enjoyed it. My first thought was, I wonder if I can get her to write a review on Amazon. My second thought was, I am a horrible person. Instead of appreciating the compliment, I was immediately looking to add another notch to my literary belt, another excuse to push a social media mention or a sale. It was just three short months since I’d become a published novelist, yet I was already letting my thirst for another post, another review, another 5-star rating take precedence over what was far more important—that this elderly woman with bad eyesight had read and liked my book. How had I become such a horrible person? As many authors would attest, customer reviews have become the holy grail of novel publishing. More reviews can lead to more buzz, more sales, future book deals and better advances. I check my ratings religiously on Amazon, Goodreads and other sites, hoping the total number of reviews will climb. When people send me an email or text to say they enjoyed the book, I respond with Pavlovian consistency: “Thank you so much. Would you consider posting about it?” It used to make me uncomfortable to ask for reviews. It felt greedy and selfserving, as though the fact that they bought the book, read it and took the time to tell me they liked it wasn’t enough. But I got over that feeling quickly—out of necessity. These days, promotion is essential. We build platforms, we amass followers, and we tweet and post about our upcoming book launches and subsequent blog tours and giveaways. We have to. Otherwise we’ll be lost in the dust. And yet … Several years ago, when the idea of having my novel published seemed a pipe dream, I attended a writing conference and sat in on a talk on the topic of success. The workshop leader, an author herself, invited the room of largely unpublished authors to share what success as a writer would look like. Some writers measured success in terms of a large advance, a deal with a major publisher or book sales in the tens of thousands, but many had more idiosyncratic definitions. To some, success meant finishing a first draft or achieving that elusive feeling that a manuscript was done. Some felt that landing an agent would be their sign of

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The grand-prize winner and top 10 in each category will be spotlighted in the November/December 2017 Writer’s Digest, and all other winners listed on Plus, every entrant receives a free webinar worth more than your entry fee—so even when you lose, you win!

GRAND PRIZE: r $5,000 r Your name on the cover of Writer’s Digest! (subscriber edition) r A trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference r Face-to-face meetings with four literary agents or editors at the conference

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GET DIGITALLY! No matter what you write, a bit of poetic license can be a valuable asset to any writer’s arsenal. BY ROBERT LEE BREWER


The byr a thoddaid is a Welsh form that can vary in length from a single four-line poem to a series of quatrains (four-line stanzas). Regardless of length, each quatrain is divided into two couplets (two-line stanzas), which appear in alternating order. One couplet contains eight syllables in both lines with an aa end rhyme. The other has a 10-syllable first line and a six-syllable second line, with the final syllable rhyming with the eighth of the first line. The opening of the second line then echoes the close of the first line. Let’s look at an example by a Poetic Asides reader, in which the echoes are highlighted in bold and the rhyming syllables of the 10-6 couplet are italicized for clarity. This Is Heaven, by James Von Hendy a The man we love most in the world a is dying. He sits, fingers curled around the covers of an open book to mark his place, and though b he nods asleep, each time he wakes b he reads with wonder what he takes to be words he’s not read before. Tonight

The opening two lines of each stanza are eight syllables in length and handled with a simple end rhyme. While the echo is a little more obvious in the stanzas that follow, here “mark” is a suitable half-rhyme for “book.”

dim light pools on the floor c about his bare and swollen feet, c taut skin pale as a winding sheet. He says there’s nothing after death, so this

d less living room, its curtains drawn d against the night. “We’re here, we’re gone.” He shrugs, and smiles at us, son and wife. “This life’s a benison. e “No other heaven can compare.” e It’s true we’d rather not despair.

The poet rhymes the eighth syllable of the third line with the sixth syllable of the fourth line in each stanza. While the poet stays consistent in this example, poets can alternate the couplets within each stanza if they desire with a 10-6-8-8 syllable pattern.

These long evenings, spanning years, are blessed, and best, it staves our tears. Robert Lee Brewer is the editor of Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market (both WD Books) and the author of Solving the World’s Problems. SHARE YOUR POETIC VOICE: If you’d like to see your own poem in the pages of Writer’s Digest, check out the Poetic Asides blog ( poetic-asides) and search for the most recent WD Poetic Form Challenge.

12 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017


is heaven’s realm, the breath-

Every novel is a journey. Find the peaks. Navigate the valleys.

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Getting the Details Right: Religion


ccurately portraying the complexities of different religions is no easy task. Depictions can often fall prey to stereotype in TV and movies, and fiction is equally susceptible— especially when writers find themselves trying to

represent beliefs with which they aren’t intimately familiar. Distortions of a faith can take away from the nuance of our novels, as well as stunt our collective understanding. Here are a few debunked myths to keep your characters from becoming caricatures.



CHRISTIANITY Christians can be forgiven for anything by merely asking God.

While it’s true that the Bible says those who confess their sins will be forgiven, that teaching must be viewed in light of other scripture. Critics accuse Christians of “easy believism”—the notion that they can live however they want and commit any act they choose, knowing they’re guaranteed forgiveness. But Jesus is quoted, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” Scripture is clear that a transformed life is evidence of salvation.

The Bible says that money is the root of all evil.

The Apostle Paul writes to his young protege, Timothy, “… the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil …” Therefore, money itself is not the culprit, but greed is.

Christians don’t believe in science.

While many Christians might be skeptical of certain scientific theories (e.g., evolution vs. creation), portraying a Christian as one who “does not believe in science” amounts to an egregious caricature. The scientific community is replete with Christians who believe that much of science can coexist with Biblical teachings.

ISLAM A fatwa is a death sentence issued to an individual or a specific group of individuals.

By definition, a fatwa is not nearly so pernicious. It’s a formal announcement that clarifies or resolves a matter for which the Islamic jurisprudence is not clear (e.g., when to pray on the International Space Station), and follows a complex process in which the point is thoroughly vetted by religious scholars. Misinterpretation of the term is often derived from the well-known “fatwa” issued against author Salman Rushdie by the Iranian supreme leader in 1989, calling for his assassination following the release of Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses.

Sharia law covers a set of extreme, draconian beliefs outlined in the Quran by which all Muslims are bound to abide.

Sharia actually refers to the vast body of Islamic law, not just what’s predicated in the Quran, but also other religious texts and the pronouncements of Islamic scholars. It’s a broad code of conduct covering a range of subjects from dietary restrictions to personal finance. There are varied schools of thought regarding the interpretation of such religious statutes, and there's disagreement about how literally the edicts should be taken. Many Muslims practice some aspects of Sharia law and disregard others.

To wage jihad is to conduct a holy war against non-Muslims by way of violence in order to force them into accepting Islam.

The literal meaning of the word jihad is “struggle,” and while the term has been construed by some factions of the Islamic religion to justify violence, the original interpretation derived from the Quran pertains primarily to a spiritual struggle within the self. Jihad embodies the struggle of each individual to not be overcome by life’s material pleasures, or impulses of anger, lust, greed and the like.

14 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

JUDAISM Jews don't eat pork.

Only Jews who observe the Jewish dietary laws, kashrut, do not eat pork. Jews who follow these rules—those who “keep kosher”—don’t eat pork or shellfish, and can't consume meat and milk at the same time. Not all Jews keep kosher, however, so such dietary restrictions depend on one’s own level of religious observation.

Jews with tattoos are forbidden from being buried in Jewish cemeteries.

It is true that the Torah forbids Jews from tattooing their bodies, but there is nothing in Jewish law that prohibits a person with tattoos from being buried in a Jewish cemetery (Consider Holocaust survivors who have tattoos on their arms). Every Jewish burial society does, however, have the right to enact its own criteria as to who may be buried in its plots, so some families may not allow family members who willingly tattooed themselves to be buried among their own.

Hanukkah is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas.

Hanukkah is not a biblical holiday—so you might be surprised to learn that many Jews do not consider it a major holiday at all. (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover have more significance.) Hanukkah is more widely recognized by Christians merely because it is often celebrated around the same time of year as Christmas. The eight-day festival of lights celebrates the victory of a small army of Jews who fought to reclaim the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicate it to the service of God.

Jerry Jenkins is a novelist (the Left Behind series) and biographer (Billy Graham, Hank Aaron, Walter Payton, Nolan Ryan) who has written 21 New York Times bestsellers and sold more than 70 million copies. He blogs at and teaches writing at

Antioch University

Brenda Janowitz is the author of five novels, most recently The Dinner Party. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Salon, and she is a regular contributor to PopSugar.

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MFA in Writing & Contemporary Media



Genres in Fiction, Creative Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing for Young People, Literary Translation, and Creative Writing for the Therapeutic Community (in development) with the flexibility of cross-genre and dual-genre exploration.

Master the art of storytelling, whether on the big screen or over the radio, in pixels or on the page.

POST-MFA CERTIFICATE Teaching of Creative Writing

CONTEMPORARY MEDIA GENRES Writing for the Internet, Mixed or Multimedia Storytelling, Podcasting, and emerging contemporary genres

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT SEMESTER Creative and career mentoring/online teacher training

TRADITIONAL GENRES Screenwriting, Writing for Television, Playwriting

INSPIRATION2PUBLICATION Affordable online craft courses and book coaching LUNCHTICKET.ORG Top tier online literary journal edited by Antioch MFA students I 15

Rules for Writing Strong Sequels When penning a follow-up to a well-received book, implement these 7 rules to ensure your sequel is a success. BY BRENT HARTINGER

1. DON’T JUST PICK UP WHERE THE LAST STORY LEFT OFF. The most obvious place to begin a sequel is where the previous story ended. This is what fans are always clamoring for: “What happens next?!” This, however, is also very often a classic example of non-professionals not knowing what they really want. 16 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

Readers liked the original story, and they think they want it to go on as it was. The problem, of course, is that the original story is over. There was a reason it ended in the first place: The plotlines were resolved! To artificially restart a satisfactorily resolved story, especially with the same or similar conflicts as before, is a recipe for disaster. “No, wait!” you’re telling the reader. “There’s more I didn’t tell you! There’s an Indian graveyard underneath the first graveyard (Poltergeist 2)! There was a second island full of cloned dinosaurs (The Lost World: Jurassic Park)!” It’s going back to the buffet for a second helping you could have done without, and everyone knows it. What readers and viewers really want, even if they don’t quite know it, is to once again feel the way the first story made them feel. But, as they say, you can’t go home again. Ironically, the only way they can feel the way they did before is for you, the writer, to give them something fresh and different.

2. GIVE THE READER SOMETHING NEW. This is the real challenge of writing a sequel. Of course, it’s the challenge of every new project—but it’s especially difficult when writing a sequel because the pressure is so intense to do more of the same. After all, that first story is a proven winner. Resist the pressure. It’s a paradox: The more different your sequel is, the better your chance of success. The best sequels completely reinvent their characters and the central story. Aliens even switched genres—it’s an action-adventure movie, unlike Alien, which is a straight horror film. Resolving lingering plotlines and character arcs from the first project is the least important part of a sequel. What you want are new plotlines and new character arcs. In framing The Order of the Poison Oak, the first sequel to my novel Geography Club, I started with a different setting, choosing a summer camp so it would feel



hy are there so few great sequels? In the realm of movies, rare favorites include Toy Story 2 and 3, The Dark Knight and Aliens. Among books, The Da Vinci Code was a terrific sequel to Angels & Demons (The Lost Symbol didn’t quite draw the same attention). Note that writing the next book in a series is not necessarily the same as writing a sequel, because the overarching story line of a series is usually conceived in advance. With a sequel, writers are often starting from scratch with a new, independent plotline, often in response to reader demand. As a result, sequels can be difficult. They present certain advantages— namely, they’re much easier to market out the gate—but they also come with a host of challenges, the worst of which is often skyhigh expectations. How do you write a sequel without disappointing fans of the original? Here are seven rules I’ve learned through my own experience:

different at the outset from the first book, which is set in a high school. 3. MAKE THE STAKES DIFFERENT. A different frame for the story is a good start—but it isn’t enough. There’s a big tendency in sequels to give us as much as possible of the same. In other words, recreate the original plot—but on a grander scale. This can give the story the illusion of being “different.” In Speed 2, instead of a bus they’re on a cruise ship! Readers will not be fooled. The Godfather Part II, for example, continues to tell the story of Michael Corleone’s descent from family man to cold-hearted monster, but it also dares to go backward in time to tell the story of Vito Corleone, making him a case study for the darker side of American capitalism. And sometimes “bigger is better” does work, as in The Hobbit’s sequel, The Lord of the Rings (originally written as a single volume). But even here, at the same time author J.R.R. Tolkien is massively expanding his scope to include the fate of all of Middle-Earth, he is also moving his focus closer, zeroing in on the intimate relationship between Frodo and Sam. The Hobbit is the story of a character discovering an unforeseen capacity within himself, but The Lord of the Rings is about another character realizing no one can succeed alone. 4. PLAY WITH EXPECTATIONS. People come to sequels of beloved works with loads of baggage— specifically, expectations. If you can get past the intimidation that comes with it, that’s a fantastic opportunity

for the writer, who can confound those expectations. If you do it well, the audience will love you for it. In Alien, the android is the villain. So, of course, everyone (including Ripley) expects that the android in Aliens is also going to be a villain … until he turns out to be the hero. When we first meet Sarah Connor and the Terminator in The Terminator, she’s a carefree young woman and he’s the relentless android out to destroy her. But in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sarah is completely transformed— now a battle-ready warrior as a result of her experiences in the first movie. Even more interesting, the Terminator is now Sarah’s ally against the nefarious T-1000. Once again, things that might have seemed predictable become defiantly not so. 5. INCLUDE AT LEAST ONE GREAT NEW CHARACTER. Set out to include at least one very memorable new major character: someone unlike any of the characters we’ve met before. Try to make this character as different from your main hero as possible. It almost guarantees that the story will feel more fresh. In The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know, another sequel to Geography Club, I created Vernie Rose: a very confident, very opinionated 72-year-old woman. Because almost all the characters until that point had been teenagers or 20-somethings, she couldn’t help but shake things up. 6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO LET BELOVED CHARACTERS GO. Yes, readers and viewers are drawn to a sequel because of the characters.

But if you’re adding new players, it won’t take long for a cast to become unwieldy. Yoda makes a massive impression in The Empire Strikes Back, but he barely registers in The Return of the Jedi. Why? Because he serves no real plot purpose in the latter movie. In your sequel, keep only the characters that perform some essential plot function front and center. The others? Give them a cameo if you must, but otherwise let them go. 7. IDENTIFY WHAT MADE THE FIRST BOOK SPECIAL, THEN OFFER MORE. At the risk of contradicting my earlier advice, while it’s important for a sequel to shake things up, it’s also important to remember what made people like the project in the first place. It’s one thing to add new characters, mix up the stakes and even alter the genre slightly. It’s another thing to fundamentally betray your readers. It’s hard to imagine a sequel to a ghost story ever working as a romantic comedy. Consider what it was about the first book that made it so successful that it’s worthy of a sequel to begin with. What exactly did people feel, and why? Was it the tone? The theme? The characters? A fresh take on a tired old genre? Try to pinpoint exactly where the magic happened, and make a point to pay homage to it in your sequel. Then do what you can to shake things up and defy our expectations for the better. Brent Hartinger ( is the author of many successful sequels, but his latest novel, Three Truths and a Lie, is a dark and twisty stand-alone YA thriller. I 17

In Memoriam

Anna Dewdney, 1965–2016, New York Times bestselling author and illustrator of the Llama Llama children’s book series

UNLOCK YOUR STORY’S POTENTIAL The Secrets of Story provides comprehensive, audience-focused strategies for becoming a master storyteller. Armed with the Ultimate Story Checklist, you can improve every aspect of your fiction writing with incisive questions like these: • CONCEPT: Is the one-sentence description of your story uniquely appealing? • CHARACTER: Can your audience identify with your hero? • STRUCTURE AND PLOT: Is your story ruled by human nature? • SCENE WORK: Does each scene advance the plot and reveal character through

emotional reactions? • DIALOGUE: Is your characters’ dialogue infused with distinct personality traits

and speech patterns based on their lives and backgrounds? • TONE: Are you subtly setting, resetting and upsetting expectations? • THEME: Are you using multiple ironies throughout the story to create meaning?

To succeed in the world of fiction and film, you have to work on every aspect of your craft and satisfy your audience. Do both—and so much more—with The Secrets of Story.

Available at, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine book retailers.

18 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017



“Empathy is as important as literacy. When we read with a child, we are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language. We are doing something that I believe is just as powerful, and it is something that we are losing as a culture: By reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human.”




elen Adams (formerly Zimmermann) got her start in publishing more than 20 years ago: first at Random

House—where she became a director of advertising and promotion—then as author events director for an independent bookseller, where aspiring writers would often ask her how

Kent Hartman, author of The Wrecking Crew (St. Martin’s Press, 2012)

Susan Richards, author of Chosen by a Horse (Mariner Books, 2007)

Jim Afremow, author of The Champion’s Mind (Rodale Books, 2014)

to get published. “I would always say, ‘You need to find an agent,’” Adams says. “After I said that a dozen times, a light went off and I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t I become an agent?’”

“Making writers’ dreams come true is pretty darn fun.”


So she did: In 2003, Zimmermann Literary was born. “For nonfiction, my dream project is one that has a clear market, is fresh, informative and entertaining, and has an author with a large platform,” she says. “For fiction, my dream project [is one that] makes me miss a meal.”


Find Adams online at both and


“I am painfully neat. I can’t work unless my space is tidy.” “I was a volunteer EMT for 10 years, two of them as captain of the rescue squad—totally badass.”


“Wellness/fitness/ sports, relationships, pop culture, women’s issues, music, memoir, reading group fiction.”

American Society of Journalists and Authors Writers Conference, UPCOMING New York City, CONFERENCES May 20–21, 2017


“I love to cook without a recipe.”

Books Alive! Washington Writers Conference, Washington, D.C., WRITING TIPS April 28–29, 2017


chardonnay PITCH TIPS




“Solvitur ambulando.” (“It is solved by walking.”)

Adirondack Mountains BLOG:

“Make sure your query letter focuses on your strengths. You want to start strong.”

“Content is king. If your material falls apart a few chapters in, agents will notice.”

“Do your research.”

“For fiction writers, writers’ groups are invaluable.” “Never forget that publishing is a business: It’s not going to happen overnight, and numbers matter.”



Anne LaBastille

“Your biography should pertain [only] to your work.”

Kara Gebhart Uhl ( writes and edits from Fort Thomas, Ky. I 19

BREAKINGIN Debut authors: How they did it, what they learned and why you can do it, too.


Thoraiya Dyer Crossroads of Canopy (fantasy, “At the highest level of a gigantic rainforest, 13 kingdoms form the great city of Canopy, the relative safety of which apprentice-priestess Unar must abandon when her sister falls through the magical barrier that keeps demons trapped below.”

Sydney, Australia. I completed unpublished manuscripts of many different speculative fiction subgenres before I started writing Crossroads of Canopy. My published short stories won or were nominated for Australian awards for fantasy, science fiction and young adult. TIME FRAME: After leaving work as a veterinarian to become a mother, I set my own deadline of a novel per year and pretty much stuck to it. ENTER THE AGENT: My agent is Evan Gregory from The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency. The manuscript he first requested [through a cold query] wasn’t Crossroads of Canopy, but a standalone contemporary fantasy. It wasn’t until three manuscripts later that my [Titan’s Forest] epic fantasy trilogy was the one to sell. WHAT I DID RIGHT: I kept writing. And kept reading, so that I could learn—and try to write WRITES FROM:


20 I WRITER’S DIGEST I Month 2017

something better than the last thing. WHAT I WOULD’VE DONE DIFFERENT:

I should have taken screenwriting workshops sooner to pin down my grasp of structure. ADVICE FOR WRITERS: Have an old, separate writing computer not connected to the internet. NEXT UP: Book 2 of the trilogy, Echoes of Understorey. WEBSITE:

Emily Littlejohn Inherit the Bones (mystery, November 2016, Minotaur Books)

“A pregnant detective in a small town in Colorado investigates a modern-day murder and finds a connection to an unsolved crime from more than 30 years ago.”

Colorado. PREI’m a librarian by trade and I’ve always been a voracious reader. Somewhere along the line, I decided that I could write at least as badly as some of the books I’d read over the years, and just maybe a little better. I’d written a handful of drafts to other stories before Bones. TIME FRAME: Bones was written over the course of a three-year period. Sometimes WRITES FROM:


months would go without me touching it, then I’d get a creative spurt and write 40 pages. ENTER THE AGENT: My agent is Pamela Ahearn of The Ahearn Agency. I found her through a query process that lasted about eight months. By the time I finished, I’d written to 54 agents. I saw [Ahearn’s] profile on the website for ThrillerFest. WHAT I DID RIGHT: I understood that my draft was a living, changing thing. When my agent suggested I fix a few things, I placed my ego aside and examined the draft with fresh eyes. This made it much stronger in the end. ADVICE FOR WRITERS: Don’t wait for the muse to strike; sit your rear in a chair and start. It might be total crap [at first], but books are written word by word. NEXT UP: Polishing the draft for Book 2 in the series, tentatively titled A Season to Lie. WEBSITE:

Erin Teagan The Friendship Experiment (middlegrade, November 2016, HMH Books for Young Readers) “When scientist-in-the-


January 2017, Tor Books)

making Madeline Little starts sixth grade, she soon learns that middle school is nothing like a perfect lab experiment—and that she now has to find the cure for her newly messed-up life.”

Virginia. PREEXPERIMENT: I was working in a biochemistry lab when I first got the idea for The Friendship Experiment. I had six or seven practice novels piled in my drawer, but nothing published. TIME FRAME: The Friendship Experiment was my first NaNoWriMo project. I wrote the first draft in a month, but it took two more years of revising, rewriting and submitting before I found an agent. ENTER THE AGENT: My agent is Marie Lamba from The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. She has a great blog with writing advice. I sent [Lamba] a query WRITES FROM:

and mentioned that I love her posts. She requested my full manuscript and offered representation. I had queried about 20 agents at that point. WHAT I LEARNED: How to work on more than one project at a time. Sometimes there are long stretches between edits when you’re working with an editor. These stretches go much faster if you start on something else while you’re waiting. WHAT I DID RIGHT: I answered a call for a remote unpaid internship with a literary agency. It was a leap out of my comfort zone since I was an aspiring writer with no intentions of going into agenting. I got the job and it ended up [being] the single greatest learning experience. Not only did I get a glimpse of what happened behind the scenes in publishing, but my own writing improved immensely. WHAT I WOULD’VE

CHARACTER CHARISMA Littlejohn divulges her secrets for forming characters readers care about at

I spent too much time submitting my first manuscript. Early on it received positive feedback. In the end, though, the manuscript just wasn’t ready. It took me 10 years to put it aside and start submitting something new. ADVICE FOR WRITERS: Find a few critique partners you can trust, or join a writing group. NEXT UP: A new stand-alone middle-grade novel. WEBSITE: WD DONE DIFFERENT:

Chuck Sambuchino is the editor of Guide to Literary Agents and Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market (both WD Books). His most recent book is When Clowns Attack. I 21


HOW SETTING SHAPES STORY Time and place should be more than just a backdrop. Use these tools to mine your setting, and you’ll have everything you need to fuel your narrative drive.



22 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017


any years ago, confident I had finally finished a publishable draft of my first novel, I went in search of an editor. New York University was offering a weeklong workshop in Vermont that promised new writers the opportunity to get feedback from established editors. I packed my bags and off I went, certain that the editor assigned to my novel would be so bowled over by my amazing story, I’d immediately be offered a contract. I was stunned and not a little hurt when the editor told me that I had a lot of work to do before my novel could be ready for publication. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “I don’t know where this story is happening,” the editor said. “I have no sense of when, or how where and when are connected to the narrative, to the decisions your characters make.” How could she say that? My story was set in Trinidad, in the Caribbean. That’s where. At the end of the 19th century. That’s when. After I cooled down, I took another look at my manuscript and realized that, of course, the editor was right. I had setting, but only in a general sense. There were little to no specifics.

THE ROLE OF DETAIL In fiction, details matter. Details allow your reader to more fully enter the world you create, to suspend disbelief and, most important, to connect emotionally with your characters—to care about what happens to them. And when it comes to your setting, it’s the details that really lay the groundwork on which all the action in your novel takes place. I went to work revising my first novel’s manuscript. This is how I began: The hurricanes had long come and gone, and the land grew dry again. High up in the Central Mountain Range in Trinidad, the poui trees began to shed their leaves like the giant deciduous trees in the cold lands of Europe and North America. Yet there would be no winter here in the burning heat of the tropical sun. Life stirred restlessly at the tips of the naked branches of the poui. December, and already the pale outlines of buds, some orange, some yellow, some red, could easily be detected. By February the poui would set the hills on fire with their flaming colors. From the valleys, softly climbing between majestic immortelle and tonka bean trees, cocoa trees, the lifeblood of Trinidad, gently dropped their

delicate white flowers to make room for the purple cocoa pods that would soon hang from the sides of their trunks. The earth smelled good—of worms turning the soil fresh as they delved deep to escape the blistering sun. Emilia, sitting outside of Hrothgar’s house, took no notice of the earth smells. Her mind was elsewhere, though her eyes anchored themselves to the cocoa trees.

Choose your whole setting carefully, scene by scene—the time of day or night, the climate, the weather, the landscape, the seascape, the country, the part of the country— and you will be able to convey more effectively the emotions your characters are experiencing. I found the focus of my debut, When Rocks Dance, when I wrote those first paragraphs. My characters were not merely living in the Caribbean, which conjures up images of blue sea and sandy beaches; they were living in the mountains of Trinidad. And the novel begins at a specific time of the year, after the rainy season, when the mountains are alive with a range of colors, a stark contrast to Emilia’s dark mood. The trees, specifically the cocoa trees, serve to set the stage for the main conflict in the novel, as well as to further establish the time period. For by the beginning of the 20th century, oil was beginning to replace cocoa as the main source of the economy in Trinidad.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE All you need to build your setting is in the world around you. Observe, observe, observe. I know that, like me, you probably wanted to be a writer because you found a lot of joy and pleasure by making up stories in your head. I love living in my imagination—so much so that when I was younger, my siblings would say: “Divide everything Elizabeth tells you in half. One half is true and the other is make-believe.” Your imagination is indeed a powerful tool for creating stories. But using your five senses— I 23


sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch—you can locate your setting on firmer ground. If you can, go to the locations where you have decided to set your story. What do you see? What do you smell? What sounds do you hear? What do you taste? What sensations do you experience in the weather or when you touch the land or the vegetation? Take copious notes. Take photographs. Record the sounds of this place. Years into my writing career, by the time I was thinking about writing Prospero’s Daughter, a novel loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I knew that setting would be a crucial determinant of the narrative line and would seriously affect the outcomes of my characters’ choices. Shakespeare’s play is set on an isolated (perhaps tropical) island that itself is intrinsically linked to the issues and conflicts in the play. To imitate the parameters of that setting, I decided to set my novel on Chacachacare, a small offshore island annexed by Trinidad that had once been a leper colony. I had heard about Chacachacare, I had read about Chacachacare, but I had never been to Chacachacare. And what a difference it made when I went! Had I not taken the boat trip across the channels of water linking Trinidad to Chacachacare, I would never have realized how dark and muddied the sea became from the backwash of the Orinoco River, I never would have seen how friendly the dolphins were that accompanied our boat to the shore, or heard their joyful chatter. I would not have smelled the horrible odor of the filth floating on the bays around Chacachacare: the sewage and refuse dumped there from the yachts of wealthy Americans and Europeans. (I learned Donald Trump had allegedly investigated the island as a possible location for a casino.)

You may have decided on a setting before you thought about a plot, but setting can also propel you to discover ideas not originally conceived. All those details and more infused themselves into my novel: the glorious beauty of the island, the sweet smells of the wild flowers entangled between tall trees, the musical songs of multicolored birds, the feel of the warm sun or the damp air against my skin. There was even beauty in the relics of the leper hospital overgrown with weeds and 24 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

vines. And at the top of the highest hill was a lighthouse, which was to play a major role in my story that I had not conceived of in the earlier stages in the narrative. From that lighthouse one could see the Boca Grande, that wide expanse of water through which German U-boats during World War II snuck into oil-rich Trinidad to refuel their submarines—until the Americans blew them out of the water. But what if you cannot travel to the places where you want to set your novel? I had been to Barbados, but only on holiday, when I decided to create the story that would become Even in Paradise, about an Anglo-Caribbean man in Barbados who had three properties which he wanted to pass on to his three children (a story once again inspired by a Shakespearean play, this time King Lear). To jog my memory and enhance the setting further, I browsed photographs. I equated the island with its flat landscape, ink-blue sea and sparkling white sand, but the character I had in mind lived on a hill. Then I came upon a photograph in a Barbados coffee table book of a Victorian house on top of a hill, facing a shimmering blue sea, with two lush green promontories jutting out from the sides. I had before me one crucial aspect of my setting: the home of the main character. That one photo provided me with many of the details I needed to create the framework of the house and to fire my imagination to expand upon what lay hidden beyond the doors and windows.

THE LINK BETWEEN SETTING & CHARACTERS The emotions and conflicts your characters experience can be made more vivid by the setting you choose. One of my favorite novels is The Sea by John Banville, which opens with a “strange tide,” a morning under “a milky sky,” a bay that “swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights.” With that beginning, the mood is established for Banville’s moving story about a man who loses his beloved wife to cancer and retraces his past to a seaside cottage, hoping for respite from his grief. The setting of a turbulent sea undergirds the entire novel, and the reader is swept into the character’s struggles until the very last line, when, harkening back to the first, the husband says: “… It was as if I were walking into the sea.” You can also choose a setting that contrasts with your character’s emotions. Take, for example, the famous love scene in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. When the two lovers finally come together, there is not brilliant sunshine,

but instead a burst of thunder and lightning. The effect is to convey to the reader the intensity of the passion between the two characters. Choose your whole setting carefully, scene by scene— the time of day or night, the climate, the weather, the landscape, the seascape, the country, the part of the country—and you will be able to convey more effectively the emotions your characters are experiencing.


well-detailed setting. 2. Your

Setting is important for verisimilitude in fiction, for creating a fictive world that is plausible, but you need to research your real-world settings so that the world you create is one that your reader can trust. With that in

If possible, visit the locations of your setting, and carefully research the details that would give



plot can be more engaging if you locate it in

a time and place that feels real. 3.

A setting that either complements or contradicts the events in your story can enhance your plot. A particular setting, with specific details, can be a rich source of story you could easily weave into your characters’ lives to increase the tension in the conflicts they face. You may have decided on a setting before you thought about a plot, but setting can also propel you to discover ideas not originally conceived. Think of the metaphor of a car driving down a dark road with only the headlights to light the way, generally attributed to E.L. Doctorow to illustrate the writing process: It is only when the car moves that the driver can see the way forward; it is only when the writer begins to write that she can see the way to fill the page. Writing begets writing. As a native of Trinidad, I began Even in Paradise comfortable with its setting, but there was a challenge in that my story was about a man who wanted to live in a tropical seaside paradise. For all its beautiful landscapes, the beaches in Trinidad are not paradisiacal. Not only are the waters west of the island muddied with the backflow from the Orinoco, but on the east, trade winds lash against the shore, coarsening the sand. The story, then, led me to Barbados, chasing those postcard seascapes, but then I discovered that political tensions on those very beaches—open to the public even on privatized resorts essential to the tourism economy—would have unexpected but undeniable sway on the turns the story would take. Don’t make the mistake of telling your story apart from its setting. Allow the time and place not just to support the narrative drive, but to shape it.

emotions and conflicts that your characters

experience can be enhanced or contrasted by a

authenticity to your descriptions. 4.

Use your five senses; let the reader see, hear, smell, taste and touch the settings you describe.


Setting can lead you to a plot or character development you had not originally conceived.

mind, here is a cautionary tale about the importance of research in creating believable settings for your novels. I had given my novel Bruised Hibiscus to my late friend, the writer and journalist Wayne Brown, confident that he would like it. To my surprise he called to tell me that he had stopped reading around Page 10. Why? He said I had the wind blowing from the wrong direction across the sugar cane fields. Wayne was an avid yacht man whose life on the sea often depended on his knowledge of the trade winds. Most readers did not notice my mistake, but Wayne did—and he taught me a lesson I never forgot. I thought I had been careful about the research I had done for this novel. I had set it in 1954 at the height of a scandalous murder of a young Jewish ophthalmologist by her Indian doctor husband. I knew the setting of this novel was important to the story, and in an effort to get it right, I had scoured the microfiche records of the daily newspaper that year. To create a believable world, I recorded the details of the weather at that period in 1954, the conditions of the roads and landscape, the music people were listening to, even the books they were reading. But I forgot about the wind, and that small detail shattered my friend’s belief in the world I had created. Paint your worlds with the attention they deserve, and your readers will stay right there with you. WD Elizabeth Nunez is the award-winning author of nine novels and a memoir, Not for Everyday Use. Her latest, Even in Paradise, is the King Lear–inspired story of a man whose obvious preference for his youngest daughter leads to toxic resentments from her siblings. I 25


TO CHANGE OR NOT TO CHANGE? For anyone who’s heard the dictum that characters must have a transformational arc, that really is the question. And the answer may surprise you. BY DAVID CORBETT

26 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

• What’s the story I’m trying to tell? • Given that story, is it natural that my character(s) might change? • If not, why not? • If so, how? Why?

STARTING WITH THE STORY Every story implicitly asks two simple questions: 1) What happened? and 2) Why? These questions may remain unanswered, but they cannot be escaped. Taking it one step further, to keep “what happened” from sounding like Uncle Ned’s account of his exquisitely uneventful fishing trip, we need to keep in mind what Les Edgerton means when he says every story is about the same thing—trouble—or what Steven James means



eldom a conference or workshop goes by without someone asking the inevitable question: Do my characters really have to change? I’ve heard a broad array of answers from a variety of authors and teachers, ranging from a full-throated “Yes!” to a table-pounding “No!” Then the debate begins, where everyone discusses what they mean and why, examples are cited, counterexamples are offered, interpretations are discussed and parsed, reality is invoked—Can convicts really be reformed? What actually happens when someone converts to a new faith, or gives up drugs or alcohol? My own response? A confident if seemingly equivocal, “It depends.” Because the question of whether a character must change muddles several other questions that need to be teased out to fully, meaningfully address the issue:

when he says that stories are not about what happened, but about what went wrong. Stories are about problems, and problems pose questions. The movement from an unanswered question to an answered one implicitly suggests a change—in circumstances or the situation, if not the characters. It is likely, but not inevitable, that a change in circumstances should effect a change in your characters, if only in their understanding. But is that enough to say the characters change? Again, it depends. What is the nature of the problems they face? What questions do those problems pose—and what happens when they try to answer those questions? Characters in a story face problems of three sorts: •

EXTERNAL CHALLENGES: tasks in pursuit of a goal in the physical world—take a trip, save the miners, rescue the hostage, catch the killer. • INTERNAL QUESTIONS: doubts concerning deepseated issues such as one’s worth, purpose, nature, identity—in which characters are forced to ask, Who am I? What kind of person do I want to be? • INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS: efforts to grow closer to or distance oneself from another character or characters.

Not every story has all three levels of conflict, but stories that include at least two tend to feel more substantial. More important, the levels of conflict are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the story will lack dramatic unity if the distinct threads are not somehow woven together. (An imaginary example: By facing his guilt concerning the accidental death of Consuela’s brother, Jack is able to reconcile with her, which is important because she speaks Spanish and he doesn’t, and he needs that skill to help the immigrants who have wandered onto his ranch seeking shelter from the vigilantes who are hunting them.) Each area of conflict tends to ask its own questions of the characters—and these distinctions point toward unique tests the characters face, depending on which level of conflict predominates in your story. •

EXTERNAL CHALLENGES: Is the character capable of doing what is necessary to achieve the goal? (If the character is capable, what happens to put that capability in question? If the character doesn’t have what it takes to succeed at the outset, what skills does he need in order to prevail?) • INTERNAL QUESTIONS: Will the character resolve his uncertainties about himself and gain a stronger

sense of identity, purpose or worth? (What weakness, wound, limitation or flaw is undermining the character’s sense of self? Can he rise above the weakness, heal the wound, overcome the limitation or correct the flaw? What will it take to do so?) • INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS: Will the bond between the protagonist and another character grow stronger or weaker? (What does the character need to do to get the other character to respond, whether favorably or unfavorably? Is that within the realm of possibility?) What we often refer to as change in a character normally points toward the internal questions: Will the character resolve his doubts about his own merits? That change may—and often does—reveal itself in external behavior, (i.e., by resolving his self-doubts, he is more capable of achieving his goals in the world, including building better relationships with others). In those cases, change is obvious. However, in tragedy, this new self-awareness often comes too late to change the misfortune that’s been lurking in the shadows. Nevertheless, that shocking new awareness is itself a change, which the reader feels along with the character. Even if the character is paralyzed by what he now understands, it is also clear that he is profoundly different than a moment ago. But there are many other types of stories where this “crisis of insight” (also known as the “change-ordie moment”) is not only missing, it’s unnecessary. Let’s examine a few examples, focusing on protagonists.

GRAPPLING WITH EXTERNAL CONFLICT Many protagonists who validate the claim that not all characters must change reside in genres where the principal action is external: mysteries, action, war stories. Heroes such as Hercule Poirot, James Bond and Jack Reacher exemplify this, and arguably are loved by readers in no small part precisely because they do not change. In crafting their stories, their respective creators Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Lee Child typically reveal a change in circumstances or the situation rather than in the hero. This kind of heroic protagonist typically has a unique skill set that elevates him above the common man, thus inspiring awe rather than empathy. We do not necessarily want to feel what Bond and Reacher feel; we simply want to watch them overcome the incredible odds they face and save the day. I 27


WHAT ABOUT ANTAGONISTS AND SECONDARY CHARACTERS? A perceived “rule” that the opponent never changes basically reflects the routine use of this character as the embodiment of evil—a villain. Often villains are conceived as psychopaths or sociopaths with rigid personality disorders who by their nature resist change. But the opponent can and often does change, especially in dramas where the conflict is motivated meaningfully on both sides, as when good is pitted against good (e.g., the Kansas father who fears losing the farm versus the artistic son who desperately wants to leave). In such cases, the observations discussed in the body of this article apply equally. There are also stories that possess a plot technique known as the double reversal in which both the protagonist and the opponent experience a crucial insight into themselves when each learns something from the other. It’s perhaps ironic that this technique is as common in love stories as it is in tales of war and sports. In both cases, the adversaries gain a grudging respect for each other through their combat (with or without a resulting change of heart). As for secondary characters, their dramatic function— mentor, ally, betrayer—suggests a certain fixedness, though more in role than understanding. And yet if they endure a similar gauntlet of trials and struggles as the main characters, how can they not change in some way? Their distinct personalities will determine the degree to which they do or don’t evolve or even transform.

With “everyman” protagonists whose struggle is largely external—i.e., they need to acquire that Bondlike skill set during the course of the story—it can be argued that to learn is to grow, and to grow is to change. Obtaining a skill typically makes a person more confident, if only in the performance of that skill or the victory of that battle. He feels differently about himself and his capability—less uncertain and doubtful. That may not be a huge change—though your story will be more engaging if it is—but it’s a change nonetheless. This raises a crucial point: When a protagonist of any kind changes, it’s usually because the struggles and conflict he has faced have forged a different understanding of himself, his abilities and/or his world, including the people in it. 28 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

INTERNALIZING CHARACTER CHANGE It is difficult to imagine a character going through a number of struggles, tests and challenges and not emerging at the opposite end with a transformed perspective on himself or an altered attitude toward life. The conflict he faces may also finally force him to rise above the weakness, heal the wound, overcome the limitation or correct the flaw that has up to this point held him back, distorting his sense of his own worth and what he can expect from life. That evolution may not reflect itself, however, in a change in behavior—and it’s characters of this nature who are often (mis)identified as not having changed. Take, for example, Brick in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. At the end of the play he is still resisting Maggie’s advances, and when she begins putting away his liquor with the intention of conceiving a child with him, he responds with a phrase he used earlier: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?” Though his words are the same, their meaning is not, for we have witnessed him forced to confess the truth about himself, his lies and his homosexuality. Cynicism has been replaced by surrender. This leads to discussion of a character type sometimes referred to as the Steadfast Character, whose dramatic arc is premised precisely on his refusal to change, usually for one of two reasons: 1) He refuses to sacrifice an ideal or give up on a goal he believes he cannot live without, or 2) He clings to the “pathological maneuvers” he uses to protect himself from the pain of life. In each case, it would seem that the character in question is defined precisely by a refusal to surrender his core goal, moral stance or personal commitment. Examples of the former include Antigone, Romeo, Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises and Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive; a classic example of the latter is A Streetcar Named Desire’s Blanche Dubois. But this notion of “steadfast” glances past a key point: Although it might be said that the motives or behaviors of such characters don’t appreciably change, their emotions, insights or attitudes toward life do. They have gained a new understanding of the cost of standing firm. Or else they are forced through even greater effort than before to clamp down on their denial and refuse the opportunity to change that is before them. In either case, they are different than before—and that’s a change. Sophocles’ Antigone understands the merit of both obeying Creon, who has ordered death to anyone who buries the Theban rebels, and fulfilling her sacred

obligation to lay to rest her beloved brother, whose body lies out in the open, prey to dogs and buzzards. Both options have grave moral weight. But she has to choose. A choice always means change, if only in circumstances, for every option but one is eliminated—but here the change goes much deeper. As she accepts the ultimate consequence of her choice—her own death—the audience feels the increased depth of her love and conviction, even though, outwardly, her behavior does not change. She remains faithful to her brother. One might say that the love of Shakespeare’s Romeo is steadfast, but as the stakes change, so does his appreciation and acceptance of what that love requires of him. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Jake and Brett experience a moment of ironic tenderness in the end. They don’t change because they consciously refuse the opportunity that’s presented. Change isn’t impossible, it’s forsaken—meaning a decision has been made. And a decision, by necessity, is inherently dramatic as it reveals change: For every judgment call, there is a distinct “before” and “after.” And what of Tennessee Williams’ DuBois? She refuses to give up the romantic illusions that blur the hard reality of growing older, and the loss of her sexual allure. Her psychotic break at the conclusion, after Stanley rapes her, testifies to a continued, pathological preference for delusion over truth, but also an awareness, however dim, that those delusions did not and cannot protect her.

FAILING ON THE WAY Nothing prompts profound reassessment of oneself or one’s situation like disaster. Even minor failures and setbacks often cause us to rethink what we’re doing, how we’re going about it or why. As already noted, stories involve trouble. That trouble is caused by something going wrong, then getting progressively worse. Throughout the course of events, as the protagonist tries to reverse that disturbing trend, he is trying to figure things out. To the extent he succeeds he is, again, learning, and learning intrinsically indicates change. The character’s understanding—of the situation, himself and/or others— is different at Point B then it was earlier at Point A. It is in how he responds to this gauntlet of failure that the character who changes distinguishes himself from the one who does not. If your protagonist never appreciably doubts his capabilities or sense of purpose—as Poirot, Bond and Reacher do not—then feel no need to

jerry-rig some sort of change. It’s one reason we admire such characters—they lack the doubt, confusion, weakness and fear of mere mortals like us.

ROMANCING THE TRANSFORMATION In the modern love story, the core question is: What’s keeping the lovers apart? Given societal changes, old tropes surrounding differences in class, status or religion often no longer apply. Similarly, the broader acceptance of divorce makes it possible for married lovers to cut the nuptial knot and move on.

When a protagonist of any kind changes, it’s usually because the struggles and conflict he has faced have forged a different understanding of himself, his abilities and/or his world, including the people in it. What’s keeping the lovers apart, then, is each other. There is some combination of traits on the part of one character or the other that is preventing the couple from resolving their differences, coming to terms and committing. This means one or both characters at some point are obliged to ask themselves: What do I need to change about myself, my life or what I’m doing to get that person to say yes? The setup implicitly dictates change. This is equally true if the love driving your story takes the form of a family connection, friendship, student-teacher relationship or any other significant bond—or even if it’s simply a subplot. The lone wolf who realizes he needs to be more of a team player (or vice-versa) is observing an identical logic. Look to your story to determine whether your main characters must change, and the degree of change they will undergo. Change is by no means a requirement—but when the story leads to self-examination, or revolves around a relationship, it is all but inevitable that the action will create the re-evaluation of self that we equate with change. WD David Corbett ( is the award-winning author of five novels, including 2015’s The Mercy of the Night, the story collection Thirteen Confessions, and the writing guide The Art of Character (called “a writer’s bible” by Elizabeth Brundage). I 29


21 WAYS TO PIVOT YOUR PLOT Need more tension, momentum or just an unexpected turn? Try these strategies. BY ELIZABETH SIMS

30 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

in the name of learning by example. This is the life we’ve chosen …) 1

DROP A HOUSE. The Wonderful Wizard

of Oz by L. Frank Baum features any number of important turning points, the most central (and literal) of which is the tornado that transports Dorothy to Munchkin Country. While the tornado is definitely the inciting incident, the immediate pivot point that results is the fact that Dorothy’s house crushes to death the Wicked Witch of the East—thus earning Dorothy the malignant enmity of the Wicked Witch of the West. That one pivot infuses life-and-death urgency into every minute of Dorothy’s journey. You too can create an accident that brings an innocent character into the crosshairs of an unforgiving antagonist, be it a car wreck, a spilled drink or a bump in an elevator. 2

CREATE A GHOST. Some plot points

can pivot more than one way; for example, the introduction of Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a



ou can write a great character sketch, a moving love scene, a thrilling chase, even a heart-clutching murder—but a good story needs more than those elements. It needs plot movement—articulated by pivot points. A pivot point is an essential fulcrum upon which a story or a large swath of story turns. Archimedes, standing there next to the Earth with his lever, would understand! More significant than an ordinary plot point (which might serve to impart information or develop character), a pivot point effectively changes the direction of a character or action sequence. Huge when used as a foundation for a story, a pivot point can also be a small powerhouse for plot movement. If your outline or story hangs together but lacks zing or seems to be missing something, take a look and see if there’s an opportunity to add a pivot point— or three. Some may be more or less dropped in via a new character or subplot; others require more planning to effectively incorporate. Let these ideas get your wheels turning. (Warning: plot spoilers ahead,

Mockingbird. The children’s obsession with him leads them to approach his creepy house; Boo’s secret gifts to the kids reveal his true nature; and, of course, without Boo, Scout would not have lived to tell her tale. In this case the pivot point is the ultimate force for good. Of course, Boo was a man, not a ghost. But you can take that idea of a quiet presence or force and make it your own. Such a “ghost” who quietly crops up here and there can suffuse your plot with real tension and mystery. 3

GIVE SOMEBODY CHARGE OVER SOMETHING. The classic fairy tale “Jack and

the Beanstalk” pivots beautifully on this. Jack’s mother, instead of taking the family’s cow to market herself, entrusts young Jack to do the job. Before he even reaches town, he gets suckered into giving the cow to an old man who offers him a few supposedly magic beans for it. He catches hell, but all ends well. The injunction “Don’t screw it up!” is an automatic pivot point, because it applies instant pressure to the character entrusted with the task. 4


Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, a key pivot point comes fairly late in the story, but it’s correctly placed for maximum impact. It’s not when the ambitious Clyde Griffiths gets the homely Roberta Alden pregnant, and not even when he begins to think of how much easier life would be without her. It’s when he swims away from her in the cold lake after their boat capsizes. He has made a decision that both solves his immediate problem and damns him forever. How could you give a more or less moral character a dire, fast decision to make—and have her pick the dark path? That choice itself is hugely compelling. 5


Allan Poe got maximum mileage from a guilty conscience in his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the unnamed narrator commits a murder, dismembers the corpse and hides it beneath the floorboards. After the cops show up, the narrator’s unhinged conscience works on him until his guilt becomes unbearable and he confesses in a frenzy. The pivot is the sudden appearance of the police—the agents of moral authority. Young children, with their rudimentary impulse control, can be great fun as characters in situations like this.


EXPLOIT LOYALTY. A character who is

blind to the faults of another can furnish fabulous pivot points. In Graham Greene’s short, powerful novel The Third Man, the entire plot hinges on Rollo Martins’ decision to stay in Vienna to clear the reputation of his dead friend Harry Lime. The reason Martins stays is his loyalty, which, because it influences his every choice, serves to pivot the story multiple times. This technique is beautiful because it’s so simple and internal, and because you can—like Greene—twist your character into knots trying to justify her allegiance, whether that loyalty serves as a driving force all the way to the end, or ultimately comes to a breaking point.

You can use any hidden error to pivot a plot: a wrong grade on a longago exam, a contract containing a critical typo, a misidentified photo in a newspaper archive …




A character who is willing to pay a high price for being honest can furnish a terrific turning point. In Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, such a pivot comes not at the startling moment of Lear’s request that his daughters compete with one another to show their love, but when Cordelia refuses, knowing she’ll be disinherited on the spot. Without this key moment of integrity, the play could easily be merely a miasma of greed and vanity. You can endow a character with similar principles. When integrity costs nothing, it’s not that interesting. But when a character sacrifices much to be true to his standards? Now there’s some drama.

LEVERAGE SHAME. Deep down, shame

begins with ego: What will people think? A single shameful secret provides a major fulcrum for Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The matriarch’s drug addiction defines her life, and it also effectively controls her husband and sons, whose actions in scene after scene revolve around their mother’s relationship with her syringe. I 31


Make a character feel shame over something secret and watch what it does to that character. Better still, let that character manipulate others into codependence, as O’Neill did, and press the results forward. 9

COVER UP A MISTAKE. A serious mis-

take can be buried, with hope, for years (“maybe no one will find out!”), only to surface as a pivotal element. One of my favorites is the switched-at-birth story at the heart of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore. A dotty wet nurse mixes up two infants, one of humble birth, “the other upper crust!” but keeps mum, hoping for the best. She (having a conscience—see above) feels compelled to come clean when one of the lads, now grown, is smitten with a lass far above his station. All seems hopeless—until the happy truth comes out. You can use any hidden error to pivot a plot: a wrong grade on a long-ago exam, a contract containing a critical typo, a misidentified photo in a newspaper archive …

DELAY SALVATION. Help is on the way …


or is it? Laura Ingalls Wilder drew on her family’s experiences in The Long Winter, during which an entire region of South Dakota is snowed in for months and months with the supply train unable to reach them. The townspeople endure dreadful privations as they work to defeat starvation. Hidden caches of food play a starring role, but blizzards keep delaying that train. You can pivot a plot by creating an expectation that goes unmet. Hope rises … hope falls … hope rises …

Grant a wish—or bestow some benevolence—that can grow fangs over the course of your story: a lift to a hitcher, a witness statement, a marriage proposal, a gift of money or land, or political favor.


LEVEL A CURSE. Many a folktale relies

on a curse for a plot fulcrum, “Sleeping Beauty” being perhaps the most famous. Today, knowing what we know about the power of suggestion—from the placebo effect to hypnosis—an author can work a curse to 32 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

not only pivot a plot, but to drive subsequent action to an exciting (or ghastly) conclusion. You can employ a literal curse in fantasy genres. More broadly, consider the closely related self-fulfilling prophecy, upon which an entire multi-generational saga can pivot.

BREACH A CONFIDENCE. In the Norse myth of Balder and the mistletoe, goddess Frigg extracts promises from the gods and all the animals, plants, metals and stones on Earth never to hurt her beloved son Balder. But the jealous trickster Loki wonders if perhaps the queen missed something. He changes into a friendly, harmless crone and gets the queen to admit that she overlooked a young sprig of mistletoe. He fashions an arrow from it, and soon Balder lies dead. The pivot here is the queen’s careless tongue. You can create a marvelous pivot point by having someone trustingly reveal a vulnerability to a treacherous foe in (figurative) disguise. 12




INVENT A MINI MENTOR. Mildred Pierce, eponymous protagonist of James M. Cain’s novel, is down on her luck. A tough-talking woman at the employment agency asks why Mildred won’t take a job as a waitress. Mildred says she couldn’t face her kids if they knew she was doing such menial work. “But you can face them with nothing to eat?” says Miss Turner, who gives her a few more choice words. That blunt affirmation gets Mildred to see herself honestly, and she changes her course then and there. Any minor character can speak wisdom that pivots a character—and your story. MAKE A BAD DECISION. The first pages

of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code contain a major pivot point: the moment when the assassin sadistically refrains from completing his task, feeling safe in permitting his target to die slowly. Which, of course, enables the victim, art curator Jacques Saunière, to prepare his final messages to the world via a subtle system of clues. Personally, I thought it was a sketchy device, but then again, I haven’t sold a bazillion copies of anything. Let evil indulge itself a little. It can prove to be its own worst enemy.

WRECK A SHIP. Never underestimate

the power of brute force. From Captains Courageous (Rudyard Kipling) to Lord of the Flies

(William Golding) to Life of Pi (Yann Martel), authors have explored the gut-wrenching, life-changing effect of a shipwreck. You can create all sorts of aquatic disasters—even, say, a scuba lesson gone wrong—or you can get farther out: a marooned spacecraft, a time traveler separated from her equipment. This one can act as your main pivot point, or be dropped in to shake things up.

GRANT A WISH. All King Midas wanted was more riches—is that too much to ask? The gods granted his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold—but of course they knew better, and soon so did Midas. His lively daughter turned into a golden statue, and inedible hard yellow food made him see the error of his greed. Grant a wish—or bestow some benevolence—that can grow fangs over the course of your story: a lift to a hitcher, a witness statement, a marriage proposal, a gift of money or land, or political favor. 16



Literary novels often take license to sprawl all over the place, plotwise. But if you look closely, you can see pivot points. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a key pivot is when Lady Brett seduces the young matador, Romero. It’s a double betrayal of the sexually disabled protagonist Jake: Not only is it clear she doesn’t care about Jake’s feelings, but by recklessly bedding Romero, she destroys Jake’s credibility with the local bullfighting aficionados, whose esteem he cherishes. Sexual betrayal is powerful, and nothing’s ever the same afterward. 18


James Dickey’s violent ’70s-era classic, Deliverance, features four men who set off into the wilderness on a pleasure trip. Once they’ve pushed off in their canoes and shot a few rapids—a strong pivot point—they realize how isolated they are, how far from the thin but comforting veneer of civilization. They literally cannot paddle upriver, back the way they came; they must keep going, into a contemporary heart of darkness. You can create a similarly intense situation, either with a literal journey or perhaps a spiritual or emotional one. Someone who spontaneously sells off

everything she owns likely cannot buy it back. Someone who at last remembers a suppressed trauma cannot unremember it. 19




Coleridge’s famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” created the lasting trope of an albatross around one’s neck. It’s a mistake of overconfidence for the mariner to shoot the lucky albatross, leading to his awful penance. Create a similar pivot point by having a character— in a moment of stupidity or perhaps arrogance—throw away or destroy a gift, with deep consequences.

WARP AN INNOCENT. Incest almost

always represents a major pivot point; a contemporary example can be found in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Oprah’s Book Club bestseller, Fall on Your Knees. Other sorts of corruption can be achieved when a person in a position of power forces or cajoles an innocent into committing an atrocity, such as murdering a shared enemy, or suppressing evidence, or giving false testimony. Furthermore, in many such cases the revenge of the innocent can drive a story on to a satisfying and dramatic conclusion.


Many successful stories hinge upon characters who suddenly give in to impulse. We find a good example in Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. The first (tremendously illicit) kiss between Frances and Lilian not only pivots the plot, it heightens the tone of the story from that point on. When a conventional character suddenly rebels against fundamental cultural rules, you have something juicy to work with. I bet now you’ll be able to perceive and note pivot points as you read the novels on your wish list. You’re also equipped to recognize existing pivot points in your own work, and consciously create and incorporate new ones going forward. Readers might not know exactly why your fiction grabs them—but they’ll agree that it’s taken a turn for the better. WD Contributing editor Elizabeth Sims ( writes the Rita Farmer mysteries and the Lillian Byrd crime series, and is the author of You’ve Got a Book in You (WD Books). I 33


NOVEL WRITING BY THE NUMBERS To get from start to finish, sometimes all you need is a simple countdown. COMPILED BY JESSICA STRAWSER

10 FIRST LINES FROM RECENT BESTSELLERS “The woman stood in the far corner of the dimly lit room, hiding in shadows like a fish in gray water.”

“We didn’t like to gossip; we loved to gossip.” — ELIN HILDERBRAND , The Rumor

— ROBERT CRAIS , The Promise

“All you really need to know about the Paris Ritz is this: By the middle of 1937, Coco Chanel was living in a handsome suite on the third floor, and the bartender— an intuitive mixologist named Frank Meier—had invented the Bloody Mary 16 summers earlier to cure a Hemingway hangover.” — BEATRIZ WILLIAMS ,

“Some people used to believe that there was an elephant graveyard—a place that old and sick elephants would travel to die.” — JODI PICOULT , Leaving Time “The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.” — COLSON WHITEHEAD , The Underground Railroad

“A private plane sits on a runway in Martha’s Vineyard, forward stairs deployed.” — NOAH HAWLEY , Before the Fall

Along the Infinite Sea

“I love Thursday nights.” — BLAKE CROUCH , Dark Matter “None of it would have happened if Spider Barnes hadn’t tied one on at Eddy’s two nights before the Aurora was due to set sail.” — DANIEL SILVA,

“Well before his arrival in Cincinnati, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife.”

The English Spy


34 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017


“War was declared at 11:15 and Mary North signed up at noon.” — CHRIS CLEAVE , Everyone Brave Is Forgiven



An intriguing hook is important, but it must do more than simply grab attention. It also needs to be honest to the story, to the voice and to the direction you’re taking things. … A hook that doesn’t provide the impetus for escalation will sabotage the progression of your story. —Troubleshooting Your Novel by STEVEN JAMES

To improve your style, begin by reducing your writing to its essential elements. Then build. Finally—with caution and some risk—embellish. Add flourish if it suits you (and if it suits your audience and subject), keeping in mind that flourish is not the same as fluff. Even as you attempt elegance, your principal goal should be clarity.

(WD Books, 2016)

—Keys to Great Writing: Revised and Expanded by STEPHEN WILBERS (WD Books, 2016)

A writer I know kept referring to a story he was working on as “the one in which I am a woman.” Not the one in which “I write from the point of view of a woman,” not even the one in which “I pretend to be a woman.” He was, temporarily, a woman. I think that’s what it takes. —The Kite and the String: How to Write With Spontaneity and Control—and Live to Tell the Tale by ALICE MATTISON (Viking, 2016)

If you don’t have enough action, you don’t necessarily have to make more events happen; you can just make the events that happen more difficult. —The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young

When in doubt, delete. As you comb through your manuscript, every time you think, I’m not sure that works, you’ll be tempted to second-guess yourself and think, Oh, it’s fine. Think again. It’s not fine. Fix it— or lose it. —Writing With Quiet Hands by PAULA MUNIER (WD Books, 2015)

Zoom in on the scene where your character crosses from the middle to the end—it should be an unforgettable moment of conscious action in which the character’s final story goal is in sight. —Writing Deep Scenes by MARTHA ALDERSON & JORDAN ROSENFELD (WD Books, 2015)

Adults by CHERYL B. KLEIN (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016)

When one person kills another, and they are strangers to each other, we see such an act as frightening, terrible, maybe even shocking. But when a child murders a parent or vice versa, or a brother slays a brother, such a deed strikes us as much more horrific. Conflict of any kind, from the most trivial to the most serious, between characters who have close ties by blood and/or intense relationships through friendship, marriage or love, magnifies what’s at stake for the parties on both sides. … Such personal conflict, too, bridges easily to the emotions of the reader, whose strong feelings about his own parents, children, friends, lovers or spouse then lead him to empathize all the more with the feelings of the fictional characters. —Writing the Blockbuster Novel: Revised and Updated by ALBERT ZUCKERMAN (Forge, 2016)

In the end, hundreds of plotlines showed us that bestsellers can have any of the fundamental three-part plot shapes. … [But] how the author works the scene-byscene rhythm into that shape is very important. The million-dollar move is in a good, strong, regular beat.

Sometimes a character just won’t live no matter what you do. Other times a character pops up and you simply can’t drive him off the paper. He’s the one you’ve been praying for. —On Story: Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films, edited by BARBARA MORGAN and MAYA PEREZ ,

—The Bestseller Code by JODIE ARCHER & MATTHEW L.

from the afterword by BILL WITTLIFF (University of Texas

JOCKERS (St. Martin’s Press, 2016)

Press, 2016) I 35




“ “My biggest tip for writing is: If you get stuck, move forward to a scene that you’re looking forward to working, and that just tends to give you your joy back. And then often you’ll find that the space between them is actually a lot smaller than you thought it was, and maybe a kind of easier way to work it.” — JOJO MOYES , Jan. 2016

“ particularly like to write characters “I who are bits of shades of gray, so we don’t know exactly where they’re going to go. Th They’re at a turning point in their lives and they’re under extreme stress, because it’s a thriller. So, will this break them? And not even just your main characters, but all the characters. And suddenly there’s something interesting, for me, to show up for in the mornings.” — LISA GARDNER ,

“ “Everything you could ever think of has been written. That’s worth saying three times. You’re not going to think of a new idea, per se, as far as plot or story. What W you can infuse it with is your voice, because while every story has been written, there h is only one you. We are unique snowflakes. Be yourself. Tell the story about the teddy bear who can talk, but give it your voice. Don’t try to make it Corduroy or Winnie-the-Pooh. Make it your teddy bear. That’s what you can give the world—give the world your voice.”

July/Aug. 2016

— DREW DAYWALT , Feb. 2016

— JANE GREEN , Sept. 2016

“ think all art comes from … struggle “I and search—and, you know, I don’t think it’s something that should come easily. It doesn’t necessarily have to be painful or impossible, but it’s important to recognize and to respect what it is to create something h out off nothing—the challenge of it, the difficulties of it—and work from that position.” — JHUMPA LAHIRI , March/April 2016

“ “Dull, awful jobs like laundry, ironing and weeding suddenly feel like an urgent priority when you’re looking at a blank page that needs to be filled with a couple of thousand words before you can sit back and breathe deeply. … Writing is my joy, but not always; much of the time it is my job, and I have to write whether I feel like it or not, whether inspiration strikes or not. That is how you make a story unfold.”

“ always urge young writers who feel the “I pressure to produce [more, faster] to spend more time browsing bookstores. I urge them to check how many books any writer tends to have on the shelf. Ours is a culture where it’s lucky for a writer to be remembered b d for f even one book, less three or four. Writing 20 books in your career is wonderful; I wish I had written as much. But ultimately I’d rather write the best book I can write no matter how long it takes me than the best book I can write fast simply because the unrelenting pace of our society demands speed in all things.” — JUNOT DÍAZ ,

“ “My perspective in writing my own books is that I’m writing about the real world. Th The world I live in is not all white. I do live in Omaha, so it’s whiter than most places, but even then, that becomes part of the book. In Eleanor & Park, you get Park talking about being one of the only Asian people in a white school. In Fangirl, you get Cath moving from the least white part of the state to the university, which is very white. Race is a part of our lives, and diversity is just a part of our lives. So it feels like a very realistic way to write, to me. I’d feel so ashamed of myself if my books were less diverse than my life.” — RAINBOW ROWELL ,

“ “Successful writing is all about passion … and I think it’s a mistake for anyone to somehow disassociate themselves from that passion, to think that the creation of a compelling piece of fiction can be had simply on intellectual terms. It becomes cold, and I don’t think you want cold. You want heat, you want fire. That’s what we gather around and warm our hands with.” — ROBERT CRAIS ,

May/June 2016

Nov/Dec 2016

36 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

Oct. 2016




100,000–115,000 words YOUNG ADULT:

55,000–70,000 words UPPER MIDDLE-GRADE:

40,000–55,000 MIDDLE-GRADE:

20,000–55,000 words PICTURE BOOKS:

32 pages; 500–600 words



“There is a time in the lives of most writers when they are vulnerable, when the vivid dreams and ambitions of childhood seem to pale in the harsh sunlight of what we call the real world. In short, there’s a time when things can go either way. That vulnerable time for me came during 1971 to 1973. If my wife had suggested to me even with love and kindness and gentleness ... that the time had come to put my dreams away and support my family, I would have done that with no complaint.” — STEPHEN KING , on the period during which

‘Does not win in competition with others,’ was always checked off on mine. I still can’t look at a copy of Highlights without wincing. I would go to sleep at night feeling that I’d never be published. But I’d wake up in the morning convinced I would be.” — JUDY BLUME , beloved children’s author


his wife pulled an early draft of Carrie out of the trash; the

“I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’ ” — SAUL BELLOW , winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the

novel went on to be rejected by 30 publishers before he

Nobel Prize for Literature and the National Medal of Arts

was offered a meager $2,500 advance for the debut from Doubleday. (Later, the paperback rights for the book went to Signet Books for $400,000.)


“From the day I wrote my first word to the day I sold my first word was a span of 12 years. During that time I completed eight manuscripts, five of which were submitted to New York publishing houses. They were rejected a total of 85 times. It was on the 86th attempt that things happened for me.” — STEVE BERRY , No. 1 international bestselling author of 16 thrillers


“For two years I received nothing but rejections. One magazine, Highlights for Children, sent a form letter with a list of possible reasons for rejection.


Q: “How did you handle rejections from publishers?” A: “I gave their email addresses to my mother. You don’t know pain until you’ve met Teri Meltzer. Fear it.” —From Q&A on the website of bestselling thriller writer and children’s book author BRAD MELTZER


“After rejection No. 40, I started lying to my friends about what I did on the weekends. They were amazed by how many times a person could repaint her apartment. The truth was, I was embarrassed for my friends and family to know I was still working on the same story, the one nobody apparently wanted to read.” — KATHRYN STOCKETT , on the writing of her runaway bestseller The Help I 37


5 PIECES OF WRITING ADVICE YOU SHOULD IGNORE DON’T START WITH DIALOGUE. Starting with dialogue creates instant conflict, which is what most unpublished manuscripts lack in the first pages. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. Sounder advice is this: Write who you are. Write what you love. Write what you need to know. DON’T EVER FOLLOW ANY WRITING ADVICE.

A few literary savants out there may be able to do this thing naturally, without thinking about technique or craft, and those three people can form their own group and meet for martinis. Every other writer can benefit from time spent studying the craft.

DON’T START WITH THE WEATHER. Weather can add dimension and tone to the opening disturbance. If you use it in that fashion, weaving it into action, it’s a fine way to begin.

—Just Write: Creating Unforgettable Fiction and a Rewarding Writing Life by JAMES SCOTT BELL (WD Books, 2016)



Gain reader confidence. Simply put, internal dialogue is your character’s inner voice—and when a character reveals his thoughts, he’s confiding in the audience. Suddenly readers feel involved and invested; they have some skin in the game.


Adjust the pace. After a spate of action, let your character(s) pause and reflect. This can even happen while things in your story literally are still in motion—say, in a speeding subway train. Even then, it will slow things down and let the reader absorb what just happened.

38 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017


Show the difference between what a character thinks versus what she says or does. This can fuel both tragedy and comedy.


Trace a character’s growth and development, or the opposite: a character’s degeneration. Change is the name of the game.

—Crafting Dynamic Dialogue: The Complete Guide to Speaking, Conversing, Arguing and Thinking in Fiction from the editors of Writer’s Digest, 2016 (from Chapter 24: “Understanding Internal Dialogue,” by ELIZABETH SIMS )



NO BACKSTORY IN THE FIRST 50 PAGES. If you stop the forward momentum of your opening with a long flashback, you have dropped the narrative ball. However, when backstory refers to bits of a character’s history, then this advice is unsound. Backstory bits are actually essential for bonding us with a character.




Have you ever noticed a stranger looking at the person you love with real interest or attraction? Doesn’t it freshen your own attraction real quick? Pretend you’ve run into someone who’s just leaving your study and they look a little weak in the knees. “I just ran across the most amazing piece of writing in there,” they tell you. “I’ll never be the same. Man, how I wish I’d written it.” Now go read your work and try to see it through their eyes.

—Part Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Harnessing the Creative Power of Resistance by DEB NORTON (Enliven Books/Atria, 2016)


Brainstorm a list of all the unpaid, unseen, unrewarded hours you’ve invested in things relating to your writing that haven’t “paid off ” in your mind. When you’re finished, look objectively at each item on the list. See if you can’t come up with one “gift” each item has given you—even if the “gift” is something like “It made me realize I never want to do that for a living,” or “I learned to get back up after a fall.”


It’s easy to be fooled into thinking there’s a magic program, a specific path that only others know about, or a unique but mysterious road that you should take with a set number of steps to reach your dreams. Nonsense. You decide when. You decide how. No effort you make toward your writing practice is wasted. —A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by JORDAN ROSENFELD (WD Books, 2015)


We’re conditioned to think envy is bad, because we think there isn’t enough of the type of success we want to go around. But when we consider envy to be a point of desire, and we believe that one person’s good news does not preclude our own, we can enjoy discovering fresh desire and get curious about the best way to fulfill it. Let’s remember that when we see other people doing or getting some version of what we want, we have proof that it is possible! —Fierce on the Page by SAGE COHEN (WD Books, 2016)


I believe that there are two major reasons why a story doesn’t work, or doesn’t work well enough. These two categories are the very things a writer should strive to conquer, not just in the revision phase but from the story’s inception. If there are two reasons why a story doesn’t work, it follows that there are two reasons why it does, and that the first set is the antithesis of the latter set. Like an airplane must have both power and lift, an athlete must have both timing and speed, and a hit song must have both melody and lyrics, effective stories need two separate dimensions of energy. Just two. Either your story proposition isn’t strong enough, or its execution isn’t effective enough. The flip side, then, says that when a story does work, it is because the story proposition is strong enough and its execution is indeed effective. In either case, two coins are spinning in the air, and how they land determines the fate of your story. Mining the gold of this truth requires that you

understand what strong means and what effective entails. Not everyone agrees, so whom you listen to becomes a factor in your success. —Story Fix: Transform Your Novel From Broken to Brilliant by LARRY BROOKS (WD Books, 2015)



“There are a million talented writers out there who are unpublished only because they stop writing when it gets hard. Don’t do that.” — GILLIAN FLYNN, bestselling author of Gone Girl and other novels

Jessica Strawser ( is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest. Her novel Almost Missed You is due out in March. I 39




Subgenres come and go, but the traditional mystery is here to stay. Master these essentials of the form, and you may just find yourself cozying up to success. BY JANE K. CLELAND

40 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

THE SLEUTH In cozies, the sleuth is usually an amateur (Miss Marple, Nancy Drew, Jessica Fletcher)—though not always. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels feature a tough-guy private eye, yet the books are essentially cozies. What distinguishes Parker’s PI from his classically hard-boiled cousins is the sweet and decent world Parker creates for Spenser to inhabit. Spenser is a man of honor—loyal, loving and devoted to the truth—and those are the qualities that lead to his success. If you do choose a detective with a gritty career—a police officer, bail bondsman or parole officer, for example—your character’s goodness should serve as a compelling counterpoint to the dark world he inhabits. Whether you opt for a professional or amateur sleuth, your protagonist needs to be ethical, fair and kind. Your sleuth can be conflicted about normal life issues, but she



gatha Christie, the doyen of the traditional mystery (often called a cozy), once said that it’s innocence that matters, not guilt. That one statement tells you everything you need to know to write a winning cozy: By the end of the novel, the guilty must be punished and the innocent must be vindicated. Cozies can examine the dark side of human interactions, but they’re not ugly, and ultimately, order must be restored from the chaos that surrounds murder. The facts of the genre are these: Killer cozies feature an appealing and relatable sleuth, a murderer who kills for personal reasons, a denouement that showcases the deductive abilities of the sleuth (rather than, say, forensics); and an overall milieu of civility. Yes, you as the author kill people on the page, but you do it tastefully, and you ensure that, ultimately, good triumphs over evil. Sound like your cup of tea? You’ve come to the right place.

shouldn’t be dour or baleful. In all fiction, opposites work to increase tension, the heart of suspense. Creating a character who’s at odds with her environment lends itself to the kinds of complexity readers love. Amateur detectives are popular because readers can relate to them. Give your sleuth a unique or unusual career or hobby, and your readers will want to know more. You could have your sleuth work as a lawyer or a reporter, but know that those occupations are well represented in the cozy genre. So is the worker at the village post office, and you can see why—in a small town, such a post office clerk knows who’s in debt, who’s getting love letters in pink scented envelopes, and who’s sending the town grump postcards from Hong Kong, rubbing his nose in the fact that he’s stuck in a deadend job while the girl he rejected in high school is jet setting around Asia. Think of other specialized occupations that might allow your amateur sleuth to use his expertise in solving the crime. A gourmet, for instance, would notice if the guest chef used day-old fish instead of fresh-caught trout (as in the premise of Rex Stout’s 1955 Nero Wolfe novella, Immune to Murder). My own series protagonist, Josie Prescott, is an antiques appraiser who’d know that a 14-karat gold ring is unlikely to be an antique because 100 years ago most gold jewelry was crafted from 18-karat gold. Aim to find an occupation or hobby that has not been done before, is offbeat, or allows room for you to put a new spin on a familiar career. John D. MacDonald’s amateur sleuth, Travis McGee, is a “salvage” expert who lives on a houseboat called the Busted Flush, which he won in a poker game. He works to salvage whatever he can from what his clients have lost, and for his efforts, he keeps half of all he recovers. Now that’s an unusual occupation ripe for a whole series worth of stories.

Cozies are often written in the first person for just this reason—to create an in-the-moment experience. Consider this scenario: Davis is a rich man who owns a medical device company. He is poisoned, and the only individuals who could have fed him the poison are: Davis’ nephew, BOB , a high-stakes poker player: Because Bob is the only surviving child of Davis’ much-loved, recently deceased sister, Davis routinely bails Bob out when he comes up short. After Bob lost $10,000 during an all-nighter last month, however, Davis cut him off. Bob expects to inherit a significant chunk from Davis. 2. Davis’ wife, ANN : She just discovered that Davis is having an affair with Tina, a woman young enough to be her daughter. Davis and Ann met Tina when Bob brought her to a charity fundraiser that Ann organized last winter. 3. Davis’ lawyer, MITCHELL : He recently lost a device liability lawsuit, leaving Davis’ company vulnerable to crippling penalties. 4. Davis’ mistress, TINA , a blackjack dealer who initially hooked up with Bob in Vegas: She liked Bob fine, but she likes Davis better, especially since he set her up in a condo. When Ann found out about their relationship, Davis told Tina their affair was over, and gave her a month to move out. 5. Davis’ senior vice president, MARIAH , who is known to be ambitious: Recently, Davis told her she wasn’t getting the promotion to CEO after all. 6. Davis’ doctor, GREG : The doctor truly adores Ann, and he can’t bear to see how Davis treats her. 1.

WHAT’S IN A NAME? Most industry professionals use the terms “cozy” and

THE KILLER & THE CRIME In traditional mysteries, the killer and the victim are known to one another and the motive is typically domestic in nature. That is, the murder is the result of some searing or long-festering emotion such as hate, jealousy, love (or lust), revenge or greed. Cozies are, essentially, fair-play puzzles. You create a complex plot, generously laden with clues and red herrings (false leads to distract your reader from the truth), and your reader gets to solve the mystery alongside your sleuth.

“traditional mystery” interchangeably. Some authors, though, find the term “cozy” denigrating, as if their work isn’t worthy of serious consideration. Think of it this way: Traditional mysteries are simply a subgenre of mystery or crime fiction. Subgenres ultimately exist to signal agents, publishers and readers that they’re in for a certain, specific reading experience, and to match work to its intended audience. Embracing the term can only help you. I 41

COZY UP TO THESE COZIES Here is a sampling of 10 noteworthy traditional mysteries. Note the variety of settings, sleuth occupations and historical periods.


Rock Island in South Carolina, where the amateur sleuth

Bradley (2009): The first in the series starring 11-year-old

owns a mystery bookstore called Death on Demand.

Flavia de Luce, set in an English village in 1950.

PLAID AND PLAGIARISM by Molly MacRae (2016): A

A DARK AND STORMY MURDER by Julia Buckley (2016):

Highland Bookshop Mystery, set in Scotland and starring

The start of the Writer’s Apprentice Mystery series featur-

Janet Marsh, a new owner of a bookstore.

ing aspiring writer cum amateur sleuth Lena London, set in the quaint town of Blue Lake, Ind.


McCall Smith (2003): The inaugural book in the titular

A MOST CURIOUS MURDER by Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli

series, set in Gabarone, Botswana, and featuring wise

(2016): A Little Library Mystery, the first in the series star-

and sassy detective Precious Ramotswe.

ring amateur sleuth Jenny Weston, set in the charming

EARLY AUTUMN by Robert B. Parker (1980): The seventh

small town of Bear Falls, Mich., and inspired by Alice

Spenser mystery, following the private detective in then-

in Wonderland.

contemporary Boston.

MURDER AT THE VICARAGE by Agatha Christie (1930):

STILL LIFE by Louise Penny (2005): The first in the Chief

Our introduction to the iconic Miss Marple set the elderly

Inspector Armand Gamache series, set in a made-up

spinster in then-contemporary England in the made-up

rural village south of Montreal.

village of St. Mary Mead.

MURDER BY THE BOOK by Rex Stout (1951): The 19th

DEATH ON DEMAND by Carolyn G. Hart (1987): The first

in the Nero Wolfe series, starring the New York City

of the Death on Demand Mysteries, set on Broward’s

private detective.

In traditional mysteries, it’s important to create characters whose motives to kill are driven by strong emotions. You can see that here among our suspects: Greed (and possibly hate and/or lust) 2. ANN: Jealousy (and possibly hate) 3. MITCHELL: Revenge (and possibly hate) 4. TINA: Revenge (and greed, and possibly lust) 5. MARIAH: Revenge (and greed, and possibly hate) 6. GREG: Love (and hate, and possibly lust) 1. BOB:

For an 80,000- to 90,000-word story (the typical length of a cozy), you should plan on integrating four evenly spaced TRDs: plot Twists, plot Reversals, or moments of heightened Danger. A twist sends the story off 42 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

sideways, a reversal directs the story in a direction opposite to what readers expect, and moments of heightened danger use unexpected threats or events to increase tension. Given that a typical Microsoft Word document this length (with 12-point, Times New Roman font) is roughly 350 doublespaced pages, here’s how TRDs might work in our cozy about Davis, the medical device company owner: PAGE 70–90, TWIST: Bob, the nephew, announces he made a killing at last night’s poker game. (Davis previously griped that Bob always loses, leaving the reader to wonder which one is lying.) PAGE 140–160, REVERSAL: Mitchell, the lawyer, confides in Mariah, the senior vice president, that he’s going to Davis’ house to resign. (Davis previously said

he had fired Mitchell, leaving the reader to wonder which one is lying.) PAGE 240–260, DANGER: Davis’ wife, Ann, confronts Davis about his affair with Tina, and Davis retorts that if Ann hadn’t let herself go, he wouldn’t have been tempted. Ann gets a knife from the kitchen and slowly walks toward his study. (In the next chapter, we see Ann regain control and put the knife away, leaving the reader to wonder if she’ll be able to keep it together the next time Davis provokes her.) PAGE 300–320, TWIST: Davis discovers text messages between Greg and Ann that reveal their emotionally intimate relationship. (Davis had no idea the doctor and his wife cared about each other, leaving the reader to wonder what else Davis might have missed and how he might react to the betrayal.) One of the most effective ways to integrate a final plot twist is for the sleuth to either correctly identify the motive but misidentify the killer, or to correctly identify the killer but assign the wrong motive. In this example, for instance, let’s say Bob is the killer, but not because he needed money: He killed Davis because his uncle stole his girlfriend, Tina. Jealousy fueled a simmering fury that exploded when Davis pulled the financial plug. One side note: While you rarely find a random serial killer in a cozy, there’s no intrinsic reason to avoid such an antagonist—if the context supports it. Say, for instance, women throughout a community start dying on their 42nd birthdays. The police can’t figure out why, but your librarian sleuth happens to know that Jane Austen died at age 41—and starts to wonder (and investigate) whether the genesis of the murders is (remember: emotion) contempt: The killer can’t bear it that her hero, Jane Austen, died so young while these less worthy (in her eyes) women live on.

THE SOLUTION The detective needs to solve the crime by using her brains, not forensics. Traditional mystery sleuths are keen observers, so they latch onto anomalies that other people miss. They’ll notice the roasted chicken in a vegetarian’s refrigerator or a pen missing from a pen holder. Avoid anything that smacks of coincidence or seems contrived. The best solutions are those that feel fitting, yet surprising. Margaret Atwood said, “Whatever is hidden behind the curtain must be revealed at last, and it must be at one and the same time completely unexpected and inevitable.”

The best way to avoid that trap is again to bring your sleuth’s expertise into play. A gardener, for instance, would know that a certain blight lives deep in soil and can’t be spread by, say, a breeze. Thus, if that blight appears in an orchard, it must have been introduced by human hands.

In traditional mysteries, the killer and the victim are known to one another and the murder is the result of some searing or long-festering emotion such as hate, jealousy, love (or lust), revenge or greed. By the end of the story all primary and secondary plotlines should be resolved, all character questions answered and all conflicts settled. And, of course, the innocent must be vindicated.

THE MILIEU You won’t find explicit sex, onstage violence or cussing in a traditional mystery. No animals are injured or killed— not even to demonstrate a villain’s bad character. There is an overarching ethos of civility. Creating a sense of community is key, which is one reason that most traditional mysteries are set in small towns. (Again, this is not to say that a skilled writer cannot pull off an exception to any rule. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories are set in New York City, Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series is set in London, and Parker’s Spenser books, in Boston.) Whether you invent a town or select an actual place, make certain it’s a location where readers want to spend time. Wendy Corsi Staub, for instance, chose the real lakeside village of Lily Dale, N.Y., for her traditional series that launched with 2015’s Nine Lives. Lily Dale is a charming hamlet known for its psychics. How’s that for an unusual and intriguing setting? Create a sleuth who’s relatable, craft a complex puzzle of a crime, ensure your crime is solved organically through your sleuth’s wits, and concoct a wholesome world where people feel safe, and readers will cozy up to your book. WD Jane K. Cleland ( is the award-winning author of the Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series as well as Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats (WD Books). I 43

Debbie Macomber ANY DREAM WILL DO The journey to becoming one of the bestselling authors of all time began with the power of positive thinking—and never strayed from the path. Sometimes, success really is as simple as that.



44 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017


arm and uplifting, yet undeniably real; comforting and familiar, yet surprisingly fresh; relatable and entertaining, yet comically self-deprecating; generous and humble, yet unabashedly successful: If Debbie Macomber herself seems like a living, breathing extension of the heartwarming romance and feel-good women’s fiction titles that have become her trademark, it’s no accident. And in an era where bestsellers lists sometimes seem dominated by an appetite for secret psychopaths, dystopian worlds and scandalous sex, it’s also refreshing. Because Macomber’s more than 200 million books in print worldwide are page-turning proof that happy endings still sell—big. And, looking back on her start as a stayat-home mom with no degree, that they’re just as possible off the page as they are in your favorite corner of the bookstore. To her fans, her name is synonymous with the comforts of home: love (she got her start in the ’80s with Silhouette and Harlequin category romance—and is still married to her teenage sweetheart), family (the mother of four is a devoted grandmother), faith (a devout Christian, she serves on the Guideposts National Advisory Cabinet), food (her series have spurred cookbooks and even a cafe near her Port Orchard, Wash., home), friends (they’re the lifeblood of her women’s fiction), hobbies (she runs charitable knitting initiatives for World Vision and owns A Good Yarn Shop), even holidays (annual themed novels by the celebrated “official storyteller of Christmas” are regularly adapted into Hallmark Channel movies). Her popular Cedar Cove books, inspired by her hometown, ran for 14 bestselling titles and three seasons of the Hallmark Channel original series of the same name. That she has her headquarters in a quaint Victorian where she writes in the turret seems perfectly fitting. Averaging three or four books a year, Macomber treated readers in 2016 to A Girl’s Guide to Moving On, about a woman and her daughter-in-law divorcing unfaithful husbands, Sweet Tomorrows, the conclusion of her eight-book Rose Harbor series set in a bed-and-breakfast, and most recently Twelve Days of Christmas, in which a woman’s Scrooge-like neighbor has a change of heart. If Not for You, her latest women’s fiction title, is forthcoming in March. With over 150 published books to her name, at the root of it all is an unwavering commitment to the good in the world, the power of a dream, and the people turning the pages.

Writing so many books a year, I’d imagine you probably have one of the most efficient writing processes around. Can you walk us through it?

I’m a storyteller. I loved to tell stories even when I was a little kid—I would go to sleep at night making up stories in my head. That is the gift God gave me. And because I am a [prolific] storyteller, early on in my career I had to devise a way of deciding which ideas to develop. So if I come up with an idea, I gauge it against these words: First is provocative. I want my reader to think. And relevant: I know my reader—I read my mail, I know who they are. It’s important that whatever idea I have is relevant to their lives. I [also] have to tell the story in the most creative way I can think to tell it, and that often means: Where do I start the story, and whose point of view do I choose? (The most creative book I’ve ever written was published many years ago, Between Friends, and the whole story is told without one word of dialogue and without one word of description: It’s a scrapbook of two people’s lives, but it tells a story just from flipping the pages.) It has to be entertaining. I’m not here to preach, I’m not here to teach, I’m not here to tell you about the latest horrible disease of the world—I’m here to entertain. And it has to be realistic. If I can take a premise and gauge it against those words, then I know I’ve got a good idea. I’ll go to my agent and editor, and we’ll discuss it. Then I write a synopsis—a lengthy one, generally one scene for every chapter, 20 to 30 pages. The editor reads it and gives me feedback before I start to write. Then I take a calendar page, and I write down how many pages I need to write every weekday to make my deadline, and then [each day] I don’t go home from the office until I’m finished. When you write a novel classified as women’s fiction as opposed to strict romance, in what ways do your goals for the story or for the characters differ?

I think women’s fiction has more of a themed [storytelling] process. In the series I’m writing now, New Beginnings: Last One Home is about reconciliation between sisters; The Girl’s Guide to Moving On is about forgiveness; the book I just handed in, If Not for You, is about healing; and the book I’m currently writing is called Any Dream Will Do and it’s about redemption. I 45

Debbie Macomber

“It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have. It doesn’t matter if you barely graduated high school like I did— I even married as a teenager. The key to success in any field is passion.” But there’s always some kind of romance in my stories, and you’ll find that very often there’s romance in just about anything—and just about any genre. Looking at the books you’ve published outside of your novels—inspirational works, cookbooks, children’s books, even an adult coloring book—do you see them as side projects, or as a healthy part of your overall body of work, one you’d like to continue?

Definitely I’d like to continue. I’ve just been contracted for another cookbook and also another nonfiction book, one that I’ve wanted to do ever since I read Simple Abundance [A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach] 20 years ago—it’s sort of like my own version. But writing nonfiction, for me, is much, much harder than writing fiction—I’m so into my creative fantasy world, when I write nonfiction it’s very personal. One of the blessings of my career has been reader mail. [I think] I was the very first Harlequin author to ever have her mailing address in a book. I wanted to hear what the readers had to say. My dad had his own business, and he was very successful at what he did—he reupholstered furniture—because he kept in contact with his customers: He made an effort to remember things about them, they became his friends. [So] I wanted to create a reader list. I was probably the first author to do this, at least in the romance genre. I read every single letter, I read every single guest book entry from the website. Reading their mail has actually changed the course of my career three or four different times, and one of those is the cookbooks. Every time I mentioned something one of the characters would be cooking in the Cedar Cove series, the office would get inundated: “Would you mind sharing that recipe?” Peggy Beldon’s blueberry muffins became a hit. [So did] Teri Polgar’s macaroni and cheese—which is kind of something I discovered when I was cleaning out my refrigerator and had some leftover cottage cheese and thought, Hmm, I wonder what would happen if I melted that in there? I saved their letters. Harlequin had never published a cookbook before, but I said, “I think a cookbook would 46 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

be successful,” and they believed me, and it hit The [New York] Times list, which for cookbooks is pretty amazing. That all came from the readers. Something else that came from the readers is the success of my Christmas books. When I first published those, they were short stories, 100 pages, and the mail I got said, “Loved the story, but I wanted more.” I was contracted for three more of those books, and I did not get a penny more [for lengthening them], but I made them probably 250 pages, and the sales of those escalated with every book. It’s so important for writers to be in touch with the readers. … [Before] my first published book, every time I got a rejection, I would force myself to read another chapter in The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. There were days it felt like there weren’t enough chocolate chip cookies in the world to get through another rejection, you know. And I wrote him a letter to thank him for writing that, and tell him how it helped me get through the rejections, and he wrote me back. I have to tell you, that had a profound effect on me. You had tremendous faith in yourself in those years— I read that your unpublished writing was actually costing you money, because you had to rent a typewriter. What would you most like to say to someone who is feeling that struggle today—feeling a calling to write but doubting they’ll be able to succeed?

One of the most valuable lessons I got from that time is that I felt so guilty: I was taking that $100/month out of the family budget and feeling terribly guilty about that because I didn’t feel I was contributing anything. But in retrospect, I was teaching our children some of the most valuable lessons of their lives. They learned about the power of a dream. They learned about having fortitude and sticking to something, about believing in yourself. Not long ago my daughter had to make a very difficult decision, and I praised her on it, and she looked me right in the eye and said, “Mom, I learned that from you.” And I got tears in my eyes, because she was telling me that everything that we had gone through before I published had taught them valuable lessons about life. So for

anybody who feels guilty that they’re taking time away from their family, or the cost of what they are doing, they should not feel guilty, because they are contributing— even if their children are grown. They are teaching what it means to have a dream, and to be passionate about something. Nothing of value comes easy. Something else writers need to understand is that talent isn’t static. You have to grow. You can’t just write the same story over and over. You’ll grow bored, you’ll grow tired, you’ll grow stale. I study the The New York Times and USA Today lists every single week, and if something is on that list for a long time, I want to know why. What has made this book and this author so popular? So you read in lots of genres?

I do. I just finished A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and it was wonderful. Also, I wish you could be in my office right now. I write in a turret, and when I walk up the stairs, my whole wall is covered—there are probably 40 author signatures on my wall: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Pearl S. Buck. These are the authors I admired and loved, and this is my wall of mentors. Their books and their stories have lasted the test of time. And every time I walk up the stairs I’m reminded of the power of story. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said, “So you’re the little woman who [wrote the book that] started this great war.” And Pearl S. Buck’s book The Good Earth has helped to change foreign policy. Now, my books aren’t going to change policy, they’re not going to start a war [laughs]— but they’re going to get somebody through a hard weekend. They’re going to give a young mother a break. They’re going to take someone’s mind off a diagnosis. It’s the power of story—a simple story. How long after your debut was published did you feel that you were going to make it as a career writer? Was there a turning point?

There was one time that I knew I was a success, a defining moment, and that was when I was an answer on “Jeopardy.” [Laughs.] And that was two years ago. Come on [laughs], you knew before two years ago!

Let me give you my theory: I think there are three different kinds of authors. First, natural-born writers—but almost always they get caught up in the beauty of their words and forget the importance of the story. Once their storytelling ability is on par with their writing talent,

MORE FROM MACOMBER For her take on staying ahead of trends, connecting with fellow writers and more, visit

that’s when they sell. I’m the opposite: I had to learn to be writer. I’m a born storyteller, so once my writing skills were on par with my storytelling ability, that’s when I sold. The third kind of writer possesses both talents— and I joke that those do not suffer enough! They almost always sell quickly, but they are also [often] the one-book wonders. They may sell other books, but they’re never as successful as that one—and that’s because they don’t know what they did right. They have not learned, they do not have that foundation, and they actually do suffer [later], because so much pressure is put upon them to create a book equal in talent and popularity to the first one. You had undiagnosed dyslexia and took only a few community college classes after high school, and yet you’ve sold more than 200 million books. It’s jawdropping. I know writers who feel self-conscious just because they don’t have an MFA! What would you like other writers to take away from your success?

The power of a dream and believing in yourself is just so important. I know I started out with that rented typewriter, and just passion—I think passion sells more than anything, and that comes through to the reader. I’ve been searching for a word for a long time that describes this, but I know when I write, there is a link between me and that reader. If I cry writing a scene, my reader will cry. If I laugh, they’ll laugh. If I lay my heart out on the page, it links with theirs. There is a link between us, and I just cannot find a word to describe it—I don’t want to say magic, I don’t want to say spiritual, there is just that amazing, powerful link that the reader feels. One of the things repeated in the letters I get over the years has been: “I feel like I’m right there with you” or “—with the characters.” And that is the passion, passion for the story. Any writer at any level, if they are passionate about what they feel and what they want to do, it comes through. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have. It doesn’t matter if you barely graduated high school like I did—I even married as a teenager. The key to success in any field is passion. WD Jessica Strawser ( is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest and author of the novel Almost Missed You, forthcoming in March from St. Martin’s Press. I 47

FUNNY YOU SHOULDASK A literary agent’s mostly serious answers to your mostly serious questions. BY BARBARA POELLE

Dear Curious, Pinpointing the genre is a fundamental aspect of being able to talk about your book, but the lines here can be a bit slippery, like shades on a color wheel blended into a murky goulash. First, let me clarify: You asked about three categories, but I don’t usually use the term “mainstream.” Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but in these broad terms I think mainstream and commercial are interchangeable (though mainstream can refer to commercial fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into a popular genre). The three overarching categories my agency uses to describe and pitch novels are generally commercial, upmarket and literary. COMMERCIAL FICTION is the hot fudge sundae on the menu: a slamdunk satisfier for the widest of audiences. You’ll find delightful variations—sprinkles or nuts, mystery or romance—but overall you can feel comfortable recommending

it to someone else who likes desserts, as they will likely find it accessible and satisfying.

on track to land. So, let’s see who is flying the plane:

is more like tiramisu. There are folks who enjoy it, and some who don’t. The palate may need to be a little more refined to appreciate it, and maybe you’ll be dressed a little fancier when you order it, yet it’s still a relatively accessible dessert with satisfying but identifiable components—albeit presented in a more original way.

the plane.


is green tea chocolate mousse with a raspberry reduction. Some folks will think, “Yeah, that just sounds like a bunch of trying too hard.” Others will be attracted to the lushness of it all— and this target group is looking to be satisfied by a unique construct. LITERARY FICTION

[Long pause …] Sorry, back now. I just ran out to order one of everything on the dessert cart and then had to take a nap. Let’s look at this question another way: Different sets of readers have certain expectations about how a book is going to get them from “It was a dark and stormy night” to “And they lived happily ever after.” Whether the ride is turbulent or smooth, first class or coach, a lead aspect in each of these categories is up front in the cockpit, keeping us



The plot flies

The characters

fly the plane. LITERARY FICTION:

The prose flies

the plane. This is getting fun. Let’s do it in haiku! Commercial fiction Entices broad audience Nicholas Sparks, yo. Upmarket fiction With wine and cheese at Book Club Jodi Picoult, friend. Literary Fic Lush and meaty craft throughout What up, Donna Tartt?

Tarts—that’s what the dessert cart was missing! Excuse me for a sec … Dear FYSA, I signed with my agent after picking between two offers of representation. Unfortunately, in recent conversations with him I can’t help but have the feeling that maybe I chose the wrong one. Can I reach out to the other offering agent and say I’d like to talk again? Signed, Regretful Ruby

ASK FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK! Submit your own questions on the writing life, publishing or anything in between to writers.digest@ with “Funny You Should Ask” in the subject line. Select questions (which may be edited for space or clarity) will be answered in future columns, and may appear on and in other WD publications.

48 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017


Dear FYSA, Agents’ submission guidelines routinely categorize fiction submissions as “commercial,” “upmarket” and “mainstream.” Can you explain the differences? I’d also find it helpful to have an example of a successfully published author or book from each. Sincerely, Category Curious

Signer’s Remorse doesn’t exist in a vacuum. But this is your career—you get to decide who advocates for it.

Dear Regretful, Last year I made an offer on something at the same time as another agent. When the client called to say she was going in the other direction, she actually cried and said, “I’m probably making a huge mistake.” To be honest? She totally was. Just kidding! It was disappointing, but the mitigating circumstance

that led her to choose the other agent involved something that would’ve never occurred to me—nor did it appeal to me, frankly—and that’s something to define for yourself first: Why did your agent win out over the other, and how has that changed in the time you’ve been together? Once you’re clear on your own mitigating factors, initiate that conversation … with your current agent. Address what you feel has changed and see if there’s a solution to be had. You don’t specify whether the agent you signed with has submitted your manuscript yet, but I hope he hasn’t, because “my book didn’t sell” is way down the list of reasons for seeking new representation. Sometimes books don’t sell. And as long as the agent submitted to reputable houses that publish the kind of

book you wrote, then your next steps should be about looking forward to what’s next—not backward by revisiting the same work with someone new. Signer’s Remorse doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a reason you’re feeling this way, and speaking directly to the source is the best foot forward. Worst-case scenario? Identify an unmalleable aspect of your current agent and do an awkward “I really wanted to take you to the Sadie Hawkins dance” call with the other agent. There’s no guarantee she’ll still be interested, and everyone might feel kinda oogy about the switch, but this is your career—you get to decide who advocates for it. WD Barbara Poelle is vice president at Irene Goodman Literary Agency (irenegoodman. com), where she specializes in adult and young adult fiction.

GIVE YOUR STORY ITS BEST START The best beginnings possess a magical quality that grabs readers from the first word and never lets them go. But beginnings aren’t just a door into a fictional world. They are a gateway to the realm of publishing— one that could shut as quickly as it opens. In The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, author and literary agent Paula Munier shows you how to craft flawless beginnings that impress agents, engage editors and captivate readers. You’ll examine bestselling novels from different genres to learn how to develop the big idea of your story and introduce it on Page 1, structure opening scenes that encompass their own story arc, kickstart your writing with effective brainstorming techniques and introduce a compelling cast of characters that drive the plot.

Available at, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine book retailers.

“Writing a book? Hard. Writing the beginning of a book? Rocket science! Strap on your spacesuit, because thanks to Munier’s nuanced, actionable breakdown of every possible aspect of a gripping opening, authors everywhere can now take their books to the stars.” —K.M. Weiland I 49



Love by the Numbers Write a short story of 700 words or fewer that begins with the following phrase: “You don’t have enough points, sir.” THE CHALLENGE:

Out of more than 400 entries, Writer’s Digest editors and forum members chose this winner, submitted by Jenny Maattala of Bismarck, N.D.


ou don’t have enough points, sir.” She spit the words out, jagged and spiteful, through clenched teeth. They’d decided early on, back when chills rolled down their limbs with every touch and the excitement of love was tangible, that they were too urbane for run-of-the-mill fighting. Instead, rather than yelling at him for leaving wet towels on the floor and staying out late, or berating her when she locked keys in the car or refused to delete exes’ numbers from her phone, they simply added or subtracted points to stay accountable. To their friends this seemed a futile way to resolve issues, but to them it was an easy glance at who was ahead and who needed to straighten up their act. Forgot to take out the trash? Minus one point, sir. Left clumps of hair in the drain? I’m subtracting two, my doll. TWO? Well, one for neglecting to remove your debris from the drain, and another for leaving me to do the task. A moment to consider, then— Fair enough. Points would ebb, but the best part was seeing the numbers climb again, the validation they felt when their accomplishments were recognized. We haven’t had dinner together in a week … that’s three points off for 50 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

neglecting your spouse and another three for poor time management. Why can’t you understand the pressure I’m under at work? Minus seven points for lack of support. But then pink tulips would be waiting on her desk after a stressful meeting the next day, a creamcolored card resting against the vase: 10 points, doll, for being the most beautiful and dedicated woman I know. Making up, they agreed, was the most satisfying way to help the points ascend: 20 points for that new maneuver, sir! She could feel his chest swell and recede with each heavy breath, and with a wearied nod, she knew she had gained a few points too. Even when the numbers dipped, they insisted the system still helped forge a stronger, healthier relationship. Take three points for missing dinner with my family. Add 12 points for my surprise birthday party. They insisted as long as the additions exceeded the subtractions they were still on the right side of love. Add 15 for making partner, and five more for boosting our savings! Add 10 for the fun weekend away, but subtract one for throwing a fit when I had to take a work call. Minus five points for forgetting our anniversary. Minus seven for acting like a petulant jerk and giving me the silent treatment for the last three days.

Minus 20 points for refilling your birth control when last month was supposed to be the last. Minus 20 for buying a new boat with my money. Minus eight for missing our counseling session. Still, they tried to be considerate. And loving. And dedicated. That’s my favorite dessert! Eight points for you. Thank you for the hug. Here’s five points. I love you. 10 points. I love you, too. 10 points. The numbers didn’t lie, couldn’t lie, and their arrangement truly kept them accountable for how they treated each other … until it didn’t. Another work trip? Six points. Give or take? Does it matter? You’re acting selfish. Minus seven. Who’s calling you this late? Minus five. What time did you get home? Minus 10. You never touch me anymore! Minus 15. My points haven’t changed in months. I don’t understand what you want right now! She talked, she pleaded, she yelled, she bargained, she added and she subtracted. And finally, on the day she walked in on them, she was grateful she’d kept such an exhaustive tally. You don’t have enough points, sir. Then she closed the door and walked away.

ENTERYOURSTORY WRITE A SHORT STORY of 700 words or fewer based on the prompt below. You can be funny, poignant, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story. TO ENTER: Send your story via the online




submission form at your-story-competition or via email to (entries must be pasted directly into the body of the email; attachments will not be opened). NOTE: WD editors select the top five entries and post them on our website ( Join us online in mid-January, when readers will vote for their favorites to help choose the winner!

The winner will be published in a future issue of Writer’s Digest. DON’T FORGET: Your name and mailing address. One entry per person. DEADLINE: January 9, 2017


THE UNSOLVED DEATH IS ONLY THE BEGINNING OF THE MYSTERY . . . “Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love was one of the books that inspired me to write young adult novels.”

—John Green, author, The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns “Author Ellen Wittlinger proves once again why she’s a master of realistic fiction, creating believable dialogue, events, and emotions.” —Bookpage “An enjoyable and thought-provoking read that is sure to appeal to many teens.” —School Library Journal 9 81 97 8 440589 9003 |

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ellen Wittlinger is the author of seventeen YA and middle-grade novels. Her novel Hard Love won both a Printz Honor Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Her books have been on numerous ALA Best Books lists, Bank Street College of Education lists, and state award lists. Ellen has won state awards in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Her work has been translated into many other languages including Turkish, Croatian, and Korean. She has taught at Emerson College in Boston and in the Simmons College Writing for Children MFA program.





he narrator’s relationship to the story is determined by point of view. Each viewpoint allows certain freedoms in narration while limiting or denying others. Your goal in selecting a point of view is not simply finding a way to convey information, but telling it the right way—making the world you create understandable and believable. The following is a brief rundown of the three most common POVs and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

FIRST-PERSON SINGULAR This POV reveals an individual’s experience directly through the narration. A single character tells a personal story, and the information is limited to the first-person narrator’s direct experience (what she sees, hears, does, feels, says, etc.). First person gives readers a sense of immediacy regarding the character’s experiences, as well as a sense of intimacy and connection with the character’s mindset, emotional state and subjective reading of the events described. Consider the closeness the reader feels to the character, action, physical setting and emotion in the first paragraph of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, via protagonist Katniss’ first-person narration: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping. PROS: The first-person POV can make for an intimate and effective narrative voice—almost as if the narrator is

speaking directly to the reader, sharing something private. This is a good choice for a novel that is primarily characterdriven, in which the individual’s personal state of mind and development are the main interests of the book. CONS: Because the POV is limited to the narrator’s knowledge and experiences, any events that take place outside the narrator’s observation have to come to her attention in order to be used in the story. A novel with a large cast of characters might be difficult to manage from a first-person viewpoint. THIRD-PERSON LIMITED Third-person limited spends the entirety of the story in only one character’s perspective, sometimes looking over that character’s shoulder, and other times entering the character’s mind, filtering the events through his perception. Thus, third-person limited has some of the closeness of first person, letting us know a particular character’s thoughts, feelings and attitudes on the events being narrated. This POV also has the ability to pull back from the character to offer a wider perspective or view not bound by the protagonist’s opinions or biases: It can call out and reveal those biases (in often subtle ways) and show the reader a clearer understanding of the character than the character himself would allow. Saul Bellow’s Herzog exemplifies the balance in third-person limited between closeness to a character’s mind and the ability of the narrator to maintain a level of removal. The novel’s protagonist, Moses Herzog, has fallen on hard times personally and professionally, and has perhaps begun to lose his grip on reality, as the I 53


novel’s famous opening line tells us. Using thirdperson limited allows Bellow to clearly convey Herzog’s state of mind and make us feel close to him, while employing narrative distance to give us perspective on the character. If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant and strong. He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun. … [H]e wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people

much freedom can lead to a lack of focus if the narrative spends too many brief moments in too many characters’ heads and never allows readers to ground themselves in any one particular experience, perspective or arc. The novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke uses an omniscient narrator to manage a large cast. Here you’ll note some hallmarks of omniscient narration, notably a wide view of a particular time and place, freed from the restraints of one character’s perspective. It certainly evidences a strong aspect of storytelling voice, the “narrating personality” of third omniscient that acts almost as another character in the book (and will help maintain book cohesion across a number of characters and events):

in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of

dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.

magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every

This POV offers the closeness of first person while maintaining the distance and authority of third, and allows the author to explore a character’s perceptions while providing perspective on the character or events that the character himself doesn’t have. It also allows the author to tell an individual’s story closely without being bound to that person’s voice and its limitations. CONS: Because all of the events narrated are filtered through a single character’s perceptions, only what that character experiences directly or indirectly can be used in the story (as is the case with first-person singular). PROS:

THIRD-PERSON OMNISCIENT Similar to third-person limited, the third-person omniscient employs the pronouns he or she, but it is further characterized by its godlike abilities. This POV is able to go into any character’s perspective or consciousness and reveal her thoughts; able to go to any time, place or setting; privy to information the characters themselves don’t have; and able to comment on events that have happened, are happening or will happen. The thirdperson omniscient voice is really a narrating personality unto itself, a disembodied character in its own right— though the degree to which the narrator wants to be seen as a distinct personality, or wants to seem objective or impartial (and thus somewhat invisible as a separate personality), is up to your particular needs and style. The third-person omniscient is a popular choice for novelists who have big casts and complex plots, as it allows the author to move about in time, space and character as needed. But it carries an important caveat: Too 54 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. PROS: You have the storytelling powers of a god. You’re able to go anywhere and dip into anyone’s consciousness. This is particularly useful for novels with large casts, and/or with events or characters spread out over, and separated by, time or space. A narrative personality emerges from third-person omniscience, becoming a character in its own right through the ability to offer information and perspective not available to the main characters of the book. CONS: Jumping from consciousness to consciousness can fatigue a reader with continuous shifting in focus and perspective. Remember to center each scene on a particular character and question, and consider how the personality that comes through the third-person omniscient narrative voice helps unify the disparate action.

Oftentimes we don’t really choose a POV for our project; our project chooses a POV for us. A sprawling epic, for example, would not call for a first-person singular POV, with your main character constantly wondering what everyone back on Darvon-5 is doing. A whodunit wouldn’t warrant an omniscient narrator who jumps into the butler’s head in Chapter 1 and has him think, I dunnit. Often, stories tell us how they should be told—and once you find the right POV for yours, you’ll likely realize the story couldn’t have been told any other way. Excerpted from Writing Your Novel From Start to Finish © 2015 by Joseph Bates, with permission from Writer’s Digest Books.



haracters demonstrate their behavior in four ways: through actions, dialogue, thoughts and feelings. Yet a great deal of information and detail included in a story doesn’t necessarily fall neatly into these categories. Setting descriptions, observations, philosophical musings, sensory imagery and more slip through the cracks between action, dialogue and thoughts. All of that in-between material constitutes your narrative voice. Think of narrative voice as the stream in which the story flows, the current carrying along key information a story needs to thrive. Or, if you prefer a more personified approach, think of narrative voice as an impartial court reporter sharing with the reader that Harry Potter is a wizard, that Jane Eyre doesn’t believe Mr. Rochester could love her, or that Gone Girl’s “Amazing Amy” is not the sweet, content wife she appears to be. If narrative voice is the stream of your story, then point of view is the swimmer stroking through it, sending feelings and actions to the surface. The narrative voice of your story will feel different depending on which POV you use. In first-person, writing narrative voice merges with your character’s thoughts: You see the tale through that individual’s eyes. In other points of view, the narrative voice hovers above the characters, presented from either a character’s viewpoint or that of an omniscient, all-seeing storyteller. When considering how narrative voice and POV interact in your story, first ask whether the viewpoint is internal or external to your character. Readers love to follow characters they feel close to— with whom they feel intimate. While that word might conjure real-world interpersonal relationships, intimacy in fiction means that readers understand a character deeply and can clearly identify her strengths, flaws and vulnerabilities. Choosing an internal POV makes the character self-aware (in which she voices personal observations, thoughts and feelings for the reader), while an external POV makes that character opaque (in which information is delivered by the story’s narrator). The POV you choose will have a major impact on the narrative voice and the degree of intimacy between reader and character.

UNDERSTANDING THE LINK BETWEEN VOICE & POV An internal POV makes readers feel as though they are right inside the mind and heart of the character, or in some cases, that they are the character. First person, second person and third-person intimate are all considered internal points of view, but each conveys a varying degree of closeness to the character. THE INTIMACY OF FIRST PERSON

The closest POV, first person allows us to inhabit a character’s mind and heart directly—no secondary or omniscient sources required. Here’s an example from Krassi Zourkova’s novel Wildalone: I recognized him intuitively—his voice, the way he said my name. Then I saw the silhouette. The white flower in his hand. But also something else: unmistakably different body, unfamiliar face. For one last instant, my brain refused to accept it. Then I was hit with the obvious truth: This had to be the guy from my concert. And it wasn’t Rhys. Before I could react, he smiled and came up to me. The slow, cautious moves again, stopping just as his body was about to touch mine.

Notice that the narrative voice and the POV are one and the same. The character’s thoughts, feelings and observations are reported directly to the reader in the character’s own voice. The character’s revelation—that the “guy from the concert” isn’t Rhys but someone else entirely—is delivered from her personal perspective, and the reader recognizes this as her thought, even though she never outright says, “I thought.” Notice the intimacy, the way the I pronoun renders the line between reader and character null. Every detail, every feeling, seems to belong to you as the reader. THE RELATABILITY OF SECOND PERSON

It’s rare to find an entire book written in the second person; it can be a strangely self-conscious manner of narration that is difficult to sustain for several hundred pages. Instead it’s often used when a character who is I 55



+ R8e V2b T3

Verb tense is a detail many writers only briey consider in advance, but it plays a vital role in determining the level of intimacy between character and reader. Nothing interrupts a smooth reading ow faster than inconsistent verb tenses—and you want to make absolutely sure that by the time you submit your manuscript to an agent or a publisher, you’ve corrected any inconsistencies. The two most common verb tenses for ďŹ ction are present tense and past tense. • PRESENT TENSE:

Verbs are in the now: “I go,�

“he sees,â€? “we touch.â€? This creates immediacy, even urgency. When combined with ďŹ rst-person POV, this tense creates hyper-intimacy, a style used most commonly in young adult ďŹ ction and more contemporary adult novels. A common critique from readers is that such a style is “too presentâ€?; many prefer the small amount of emotional distance past-tense verbs provide. Still, the effect can be stylistic and powerful in the right hands. • PAST TENSE:

important is whatever it is that the animal has stepped in, like mud or snow.

Most of this novel is written in first person, but the second-person you pronoun is used in this passage as a way of thinking about the self universally. The character is considering that anyone who might be tracking wildlife could find herself in a similar situation in which you’d have to “examine the track from three perspectives,� “get all close and personal with your track,� and so on. In this case, you is a generalized pronoun that both refers to the character and to an imagined “someone� who might also undertake tracking.

If at e e  r

ory,  t   r

 h , ! "#!s $ %&Đžs to )*%e. + at e e r ory -ll "# 023t 4‍ !פ‏О 6h POV  7e.

While these verbs are formatted

so that the action is in the past—“I went,� “he


saw,� “we touched�—the story might still take

One of the most versatile perspectives an author can take, third-person intimate POV allows readers to get close to a character while still keeping a smidge of distance from which the writer can infuse some mystery or ambiguity. The following example comes from Jennifer McMahon’s novel The Winter People:

place in the present. Only the verbs themselves differ from their present-tense forms. The past tense puts a little more breathing room between characters and readers, and softens the sense of immediacy. It’s a common and useful style of writing, and the default choice for many successful authors across genres.

“Wake up, Martin.â€? A soft whisper, a utter against his cheek. “It’s time.â€? Martin opened his eyes, leaving the dream of a woman with long dark hair. She’d been telling him something.

narrating in first person expresses a universal thought, truth or experience, as in this excerpt from Myfanwy Collins’ tragic young adult novel The Book of Laney: To begin with tracking, you examine the track from three perspectives—lying, standing and ying. Lying down is when you get all close and personal with your track, planting your nose as near it as possible. Standing allows you to take a look at the trail, not just the track. Flying is when you use what you know of the surrounding ecology to bring perspective to the track. Also 56 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

Something important, something he was not supposed to forget. He turned over in bed. He was alone, Sara’s side of the bed cold. He sat up, listening carefully. Voices, soft giggles across the hall, from behind Gertie’s bedroom door. Had Sara spent the whole night in with Gertie again?

Here, the reader is introduced to the scene from Martin’s viewpoint—given access to his thoughts and feelings—but not through his voice. The effort of using his name or the pronoun he inserts distance between

 Yr Sto character and reader. We don’t feel quite as close to this character as we would if the passage were presented in first person. The narrative voice and the POV are a hair’s breadth apart, creating a slight separation from the intense subject matter of the novel, which could be difficult to read in first person. COMMUNICATING FROM A DISTANCE On the other end of the intimacy spectrum are external points of view, in which readers observe a character from an omniscient or remote vantage point, looking in from the outside. The most common external POV in fiction is omniscient (sometimes referred to as thirdperson omniscient). This POV presents information to the reader that the character already knows about himself (physical descriptions, personal traits, etc.) and is thus unlikely to even think about. Narrative voice is then used to communicate information to readers that the character doesn’t report directly. Take these examples from Lauren Groff ’s 2015 National Book Award finalist Fates and Furies. Notice the first description is in omniscient. The details are external to the character Lotto; these are not things Lotto would think about himself: Lotto was a tiny adult, articulate, sunny. … Everyone worked to please, and Lotto, having no other models, pleased as well.

Then watch as Groff shifts between internal and external narration in the rest of the passage. Keep in mind that the passage remains in the omniscient POV, even though the author slips into an internal perspective: Lotto got off his bike when he saw his father on the old pump, apparently napping. Odd. Gawain never slept during the day. The boy stood still. A woodpecker clattered against a magnolia. An anole darted over his father’s foot. Lotto dropped the bike and ran, and held Gawain’s face and said his father’s name so loudly that he looked up to see his mother running, this woman who never ran, a screaming white swiftness like a diving bird.

Several details in this paragraph come from within Lotto: He sees his father “apparently” napping—the word apparent derived from the character’s perception of the situation—and notes descriptions of a woodpecker and an anole that are nearby. These observations are delivered

G I ate W h POV Choose a scene in your work-in-progress—or write a new one—in which your character feels a strong emotion that requires sensory imagery (loathing, passion, regret). Now increase the intimacy. If you’re writing in third person, for instance, rewrite a page in first person. If you’re already in first person but you’re using past-tense verbs, switch to present tense. If you’re in omniscient, choose any of the intimate POVs. What do you learn from this exercise that you can use to enhance your existing narrative voice?

through Lotto’s eyes. The narrative voice also reveals that Lotto thinks that his father’s napping is “odd”—an observation clearly coming from within. Details such as “the boy stood still,” however, are external, and indicate we are no longer inside Lotto. Throughout the passage, the narrative voice describes him as “the boy.” Writers often confuse internal and external perspectives. Always ask yourself: Am I inside my character looking out, or am I outside my character looking in? If you’ve selected the third-person intimate POV, you are limited to the internal—it’s not much different from first person, except that you’re using the pronouns he, she and they instead of I. If you find yourself jumping back and forth between internal and external vantages— offering an emotion (internal) and then describing your character’s physical appearance (external)—your narrative voice resides squarely in the omniscient POV. Bear in mind that narrative voice recounts the thoughts, feelings and opinions of your characters indirectly. It differs from internal monologue and dialogue in that it is an ongoing stream of observation and sensory information that tells readers a story without relying on the character to do so. Even so, narrative voice must still feel organic to your character. Its tone and style should not be vastly different from your character’s manner of thought and speech—otherwise you risk jarring the reader and pulling her out of the story. Excerpted from Writing the Intimate Character © 2016 by Jordan Rosenfeld, with permission from Writer’s Digest Books. I 57



hen I began experimenting with first person, I had a hard time conveying a sense of immediacy for my narrator. I kept falling prey to a trap I call retrospective retelling. This is the tendency to relate the story by looking back as if it’s all already happened. I found it much harder in first person to make every scene an actual scene, the real-time narration of an event. Instead, the narrator seemed to relay the story from some vantage point in the future. I found myself using phrases like “I didn’t know then that …” and “Later I understood that …” which prevented the reader from feeling present in the moment. I decided I had to choose one or the other: Either the character was narrating the events as they happened (in the more standard past tense), or she was retelling the experience from the future with all the knowledge of someone who had already lived through the events (what I call future retrospective). Either choice has its advantages, but I didn’t think I could adequately convey strong emotions such as terror and curiosity in retrospect. Furthermore, it’s not easy to persuade a reader to fear for the narrator’s life when she’s making it clear that she’s survived. That being said, it can be done. Some authors have fun with this retrospective structure, playing with the anomaly of telling the past from the future as if it were the present. Elizabeth Peters’ narrator directly addresses the issue early in The Last Camel Died at Noon, starting with a straightforward account of the day the last camel died, stranding her, her husband and her son in the desert: Let me turn back the pages of my journal and explain in

What the chauffeur wished was to avoid, if possible, the dead season. I have said—though I was unaware of this at the time, and the knowledge of it would have saved me much unhappiness—that he was on very friendly terms with Morel, although they showed no sign even of knowing each other in front of other people.

Proust’s technique works because his story is very much reminiscence from an older and wiser perspective. The title makes that retrospective approach clear. Notice how his foreshadowing creates conflict (always a good thing) by letting the reader know that the chauffeur and Morel are being deceptive. It also gives weight to what otherwise might seem like a trivial incident (a chauffeur taking his car and going back to Paris). Proust delineates the two time periods with his tenses: “I have said” is coming from that future perspective, while the simple past (“the chauffeur wished”) denotes the time of the story. If you’re working in first person, the decision to have the narrator relay the story from some point in the future or more or less as it happens should be made early. Either method, or a combination of them, can work. What probably won’t work, however, is telling each scene as a historical record, as that will make the narration seem slow and detached. Try, as Peters does, interjecting “future time” (for example, “I’ve been down that road since, and it’s all changed. Now it’s the most generic of suburban highway strips. But back in 1982 ...”) and then descending into the actual time of the story.

proper sequence of time how we came to find ourselves in such an extraordinary predicament. I do not do this in the meretricious hope of prolonging your anxiety as to our survival, dear Reader, for if you have the intelligence I expect my Readers to possess, you will know I could not be writing this account if I were in the same state as the camels.

Marcel Proust’s 3,400-page first-person epic À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (translated in English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past) uses future retrospective as a way to foreshadow what is coming. It’s a linking device that holds together a sprawling narrative that spans decades (and seven volumes) and adds an extra dimension to the character of the young narrator. Here’s one such passage: 58 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

DESCENDING INTO THE PAST Harper Lee, in her masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, deals with the awkwardness of a child narrator by telling the story from the retrospective of the adult Scout. From the first page, she makes the approach clear: When he was nearly 13, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. … When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

 Yr Sto While the voice is adult throughout the book, the action following this opening is narrated more or less in the time of the book. The reader gets a sense of the distance between the narrator’s current life and the events of her past, but once the story actually begins, the scenes are told as they are happening. When you’re using this future-looking-back method, the clearer the time references, the better. Use future markers—like Lee’s “When enough years had gone by …”— to delineate the passages that have the narrator looking back. Then, when you descend into the past, try to narrate it directly as it happens. Here’s another example from To Kill a Mockingbird that illustrates how Lee enters the past and then picks up the story in straight time: That was the summer Dill came to us. Early one morning as we were beginning our day’s play in the backyard, Jem and I heard something next door in Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy—Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting—instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke: “Hey.” “Hey yourself,” Jem said pleasantly. “I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said. “I can read.”

The “early one morning” and the specificity of detail (Miss Rachel’s rat terrier, the collards) place us very definitely in a particular moment in the past, and the dialogue enhances the sense of immediacy. We’re no longer in the future looking back; we’re now watching the initial encounter with Dill play out as if it is happening in front of us. To increase that immediacy, aim for the most active prose you can create without being obnoxious. Opt for strong verbs, but make sure they are ones your narrator would use, nothing overwrought. “I shoved open the door” would be stronger than “I opened the door.” Envision the setting, and provide the sharp details and sensory aspects that will anchor the scene in the moment. STAYING IN THE PRESENT One contemporary technique in first person is to narrate the story in present tense, as if the narrator is telling the story as it happens. This technique increases the immediacy of the events, and eliminates the awkwardness of future retrospective. I also suspect it aids the author in

keeping the first-person account sharp and active. It’s hard to slip into “retrospective” when the action is unfolding right in front of you. A more stream-of-consciousness narration conveys thought and feeling as they happen. Brad Meltzer crafts most of his thrillers in this fastpaced style. Here’s an example from The Millionaires: Now that lunch is over, most of the pews are empty … but not all of them. A dozen or so worshippers are scattered throughout the rows, and even if they’re praying, it only takes one random glance for one of them to be crimestopper of the week … Three-quarters down the aisle, along the left-hand wall, a single, unmarked door. Trying not to be too quick and noticeable, Charlie and I keep the pace nice and smooth. There’s a large creak when the door opens. I cringe and give it a fast push to end the pain … The door slams shut, and Charlie is still silent. “Please don’t do this to yourself,” I tell him. “Take your own advice. What happened with Shep, it’s not my fault, and it’s not yours!” Collapsing on a wooden bench in the corner, Charlie doesn’t answer. His posture sinks. His neck bobs lifelessly. He’s still in shock. Less than a half-hour ago, I saw a co-worker get shot.

The present tense allows for a running commentary of the event. This can be a lot of fun, or it can be tedious. Concentrate on making the narrator’s experience and perceptions vivid and entertaining, with plenty of emotion and conflict. You’re not cataloging events; you’re telling a story. In the example above, the narrator isn’t just noting the worshippers in the church; he’s thinking of them as potential adversaries who might turn him and his fugitive brother over to the police. He’s not just walking down the aisle; he’s trying to keep anyone from noticing that they’re hiding from the police. He’s not just reassuring his brother; he’s begging him not to fall apart. Lots of conflict, lots of emotion—all presented in an urgent, immediate way. The way in which your narrator presents the story in time will have a profound effect on the overall shape of the tale that follows, so don’t make such a decision lightly. Carefully consider and even experiment with both tenses before deciding which one best fits the story you wish to tell. WD Excerpted from The Power of Point of View © 2008 by Alicia Rasley, with permission from Writer’s Digest Books. Visit writersdigestshop. com and enter the code “Workbook” for a 10 percent WD reader discount on this and other books to help you hone your craft. I 59

STANDOUTMARKETS An exclusive look inside the markets that can help you make your mark.



Narratively “Narratively is a digital publication that prides itself




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Recently honored by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the “Best Experiments in Journalism,” Narratively distinguishes itself in a format largely shunned by other online-only

ing instead on ordinary people with extraordinary stories. Our talented storytellers come with the passion projects they care about most—having combed our world’s big cities and hidden corners for the characters and narratives that mainstream

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freelance written website ensures “every story and storyteller is awarded the space and time needed to have an impact.” The focus on solid storytelling, no matter the length, has paid off for Narratively—and its writers— with accolades that include a 2014 New York Press Club award in Feature Reporting, and The Best Writing (Editorial) Webby Award in both 2014 and 2015. —TM

2012. TRAFFIC: 475,000 monthly visitors. Up to $300 for features, $100 for shorter stories. LENGTH: Varies—up to 4,000 words for reported or first-person stories. RECURRING SERIES: Ordinary Obituaries, Humans Behind the Headlines, The Naked Truth, Secret Lives. HOW TO SUBMIT: Submit pitches or completed stories via DETAILED GUIDELINES: FOUNDED: PAYMENT:


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Stories that embody life in the South are this publisher’s specialty—including the recent release Cripple Joe: Stories From My Daddy by National Storytelling Network’s Lifetime Achievement–winner Donald Davis. The 2016 lineup included The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time, a sequel to Steven Sherrill’s 2000 hit The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break—which made The Wall Street Journal’s “Five Best Novels Not About Humans” and The Telegraph’s “The 10 Best Food and Drink Books of All Time.” —TM

60 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

1954. PUBLISHES: About 10–12 titles per year, 1–2 of which are fiction. PRINT RUN: Varies. ADVANCE: Negotiable. ROYALTIES: Varies. HOW TO SUBMIT: Nonfiction proposals should include a cover letter, an outline or introduction, up to 30 pages of text, a brief market analysis and an author bio. Fiction proposals should include a cover letter, a synopsis, the first 30 pages and an author bio. Email submissions to, or mail to Acquisitions Committee, John F. Blair, Publisher, 1406 Plaza Dr., Winston-Salem, NC 27103. DETAILED GUIDELINES: FOUNDED:


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egories of General Excellence and Personal Service, also ranking twice for Magazine Section (for the department “How Your World Works”). In addition to competitive pay rates, nearly 50 percent of the magazine is penned by freelancers—which means opportunities to have your work read by this massive audience abound. —TM


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emerging voices with such notable e names as E.L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, Jeffrey

1988. CIRCULATION: 2,000. PUBLISHES: Quarterly. READING PERIOD: Sept. 1–May 31. PAYMENT: $2 per line for poetry, $15 per printed page of prose. Length: For poetry submissions, no more than five short poems or two longer poems. Fiction includes forms from short stories to short-shorts and lengthier pieces (published serially). Essays average 25 pages, double-spaced. HOW TO SUBMIT: Submit by mail with an SASE to Mark Drew, Editor, The Gettysburg Review, Gettysburg College, 300 N. Washington St., Gettysburg, PA 17325-1491; or online at for a $3 fee. DETAILED GUIDELINES: submissions/guidelines. FOUNDED:

Eugenides, Richard Wilbur, Donald Hall and Rita Dove. Stories, essays and poems appearing in this illustrious literary journal have earned honors from Pushcart Prizes to O. Henry Prizes, as well as placement in varied editions of “The Best American” series. —TM

Tyler Moss is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest. I 61

CONFERENCESCENE Events to advance your craft, connections and career.


Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference Inspiration doesn’t run dry at this university-sponsored conference.

Feb. 16–18, 2017. WHERE: Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz. Sessions are held at the University Club, Old Main buildings and venues across campus. Nearby lodgings, such as the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel, are within walking distance of ASU. PRICE: $400. See website for details. WHAT MAKES WHEN:

Sponsored by ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Desert Nights, Rising Stars aims to offer a community-based experience. “While the conference features numerous acclaimed faculty members, awardwinning authors and experienced industry experts, our focus is less on [celebrating] the faculty than on how their knowledge can benefit budding authors,” conference coordinator Jake Friedman says. WHO IT’S PERFECT FOR: Established and emerging writers alike seeking to deepen their engagement with contemporary literature and explore new publishing avenues. HOW MANY ATTEND: 250. FACULTY: Novelists Benjamin Percy (The Dead Lands), Benjamin Alire Saenz (He Forgot to Say Goodbye) and Paolo Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl); editor Cheryl B. Klein (Arthur 62 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

A. Levine Books/Scholastic); agent Emma Patterson (Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents); and more. HIGHLIGHTS: A catered welcoming ceremony allows conferencegoers to mingle before buckling down to work. Programming includes lectures and discussions on the craft of writing; panels with agents, editors and publishers; and creative exercises. “We also will be offering mini readings during the lunch hour,” Friedman says. IF YOU GO: Tucked away in the Arts District of nearby Scottsdale, The Poisoned Pen Bookstore specializes in autographed first editions. Just 20 minutes from Tempe is the David Wright House— built in 1950 by Frank Lloyd Wright for his son. The elevated home looks like a rattlesnake from some angles, offers 360-degree views of the surrounding mountain valley and is

open for tours. FOR MORE INFO:

Palm Beach Poetry Festival Fly south this winter to warm up your verse at this long-running favorite among poets. WHEN: Jan. 16–21, 2017. WHERE: Old School Square, Delray Beach, Fla. PRICE: Workshops are $895 for participants, $495 for auditors (observers who do not comment or share their work), plus a $25 application fee (attendees must apply; spots are limited). See website for details. WHAT MAKES THE CONFERENCE

The Palm Beach Poetry Festival is designed to nurture the writing, reading, performance and appreciation of poetry. “It is nonhierarchical, informal and aims to UNIQUE:



create lifelong bonds between participants,” conference director Susan R. Williamson says. WHO IT’S PERFECT FOR: Serious writers of poetry who want to improve revision skills and/or generate new work. HOW MANY ATTEND: 135. FACULTY: Poets Terrance Hayes (How to Be Drawn), Dorianne Laux (The Book of Men), Thomas Lux (God Particles), Carl Phillips (Reconnaissance), Martha Rhodes (The Thin Wall), Charles Simic (The Monster Loves His Labyrinth), Scott Raven (The Polygons: Surrealist Poems Volume 1); performance poet Mason Granger and more. HIGHLIGHTS: Nine workshops totaling 16 hours of instruction, four afternoon craft talks by faculty poets, and an interview and reading with Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Simic. IF YOU GO: Take a break from waxing poetic with a visit to nearby Atlantic Dunes Park, a secluded beachfront nature area just an eight-minute drive away where you can recline under an umbrella, book in hand, as the sea—in the words of Pablo Neruda—“shakes its bull’s beard.” FOR MORE INFO:

Unicorn Writers’ Conference Take a crash course on real-world publishing in a regal setting.

March 25, 2017. WHERE: Reid Hall, Manhattanville College, Purchase, N.Y. PRICE: $325. Editor/ agent manuscript review sessions are an additional $60. See website for details. WHAT MAKES THE CONFERENCE UNIQUE: Unicorn gives attendees access to insiders ready to discuss the issues of greatest concern to writers, thanks to conference chairperson Jan Kardys’ decades of WHEN:

experience in the industry. “Often editors/publishers do not provide entry for their forthcoming published authors into the key departments that can make or break a book,” Kardys says. WHO IT’S PERFECT FOR: Writers eager for a glimpse into publishing, as well as those seeking to establish productive relationships with editors and publishers. HOW MANY ATTEND: 350–500. FACULTY: Novelists J.L. Witterick (My Mother’s Secret), Michael J. Sullivan (Age of Myth), Beatriz Williams (A Certain Age), and Nancy Kress (Yesterday’s Kin); agents Marilyn Allen (The Allen O’Shea Literary Agency) and Katharine Sands (The Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency); and more. HIGHLIGHTS: The conference is held in Reid Hall (nicknamed “Reid Castle” for its distinct architectural style), which was rebuilt by a newspaper magnate in 1892 after a fire. Workshops cover an array of topics from self-publishing to writing effective book proposals. Craft sessions range from how to write an evocative opening scene to creating realistic dialogue. “We also will be offering book summary reviews, flap copy reviews and query letter reviews,” Kardys says. IF YOU GO: Venture 15 minutes west to Tarrytown’s Sunnyside estate, home of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” writer Washington Irving. Now a museum, Sunnyside was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962. FOR MORE INFO: WD

Don Vaughan ( is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C., and founder of Triangle Association of Freelancers.

14ʖʊ Sʃʐ Fʔʃʐʅʋʕʅʑ Wʔʋʖʇʔʕ Cʑʐʈʇʔʇʐʅʇ A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community

Keynoters : HEATHER GRAHAM, JOHN PERKINS &WILLIAM BERNHARDT 100+ presenters—authors, editors, publishers & literary agents from New York, L.A. & S.F. Bay Area

February 16-19, 2017 at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel Substantial early discounts & special room rates.

x Feb. 16 & 20: Single & half-day, in-depth classes are available to all writers.

x Free events including author/illustrator Jon Agee children’s book session.

x 2017 San Francisco Writing Contest is NOW accepting entries

x Free SFWC Newsletter subscription For event/class details & online registration; contest rules; and SFWC Newsletter subscription:

SFWC is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization I 63


CONFERENCE GUIDE JANUARY 2017 • Keep in mind that there may be more than one workshop in each listing. • These workshops are listed alphabetically by state, country or continent. • Unless otherwise indicated, rates include tuition (T) only. Sometimes the rates also include airfare (AF), some or all meals (M), accommodations (AC), ground transportation (GT), materials (MT) or fees (F). • When you find workshops that interest you, be sure to call, email or check the website of the instructor or organization for additional information. • All listings are paid advertisements.


January 27–29, 2017 at the DoubleTree Hilton, Los Angeles West Side, CA. If you write Science Fiction, Fantasy, Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Horror, Military Science Fiction, Urban, Historical, Epic Fantasy, and/or Space Opera, now you can learn the secrets for success from more than 30 published masters and industry experts, who can help raise the level of your writing (see our display ad in this issue). This is a unique opportunity to learn how to brainstorm and develop new ideas, visualize brave new worlds of wonder, create compelling memorable characters (both human and otherwise), plot and structure amazing story lines of imagination, and develop standalone award-winning novels, screenplays and graphic novels. Learn how to edit and polish your novels and screenplays, then pitch to literary agents or publishers in the right market. The conference will feature literary agents, publishers, celebrity and bestselling authors, industry experts, Hollywood veterans, educators and publishing professionals who will meet and discuss your project. Enjoy the complimentary Keynote Address Luncheons plus have opportunities to network with other attendees, celebrity authors, and faculty. Attendees can also schedule appointments to meet with literary agents and publishers looking for new talent with polished manuscripts. There is an informative daily session with the "agents and publishers du jour" to help prepare for your actual meeting/pitch session. Over our past 15 conferences, attendees have acquired literary representation, earned publishing contracts, and seen their books reach audiences around the world. Early-bird Discount Tuition with financing available. Contact: Lillian or Tony Todaro P.O. Box 2267, Redondo Beach, CA 90278 Ph: 310/379-2650


64 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017

DoubleTree Hilton Hotel, Los Angeles Westside, CA, and other locations. Every writer needs the skill-sets to develop a great story from the first sentence, through the developmental and editing process, solving manuscript issues, and polishing the work until it is ready for publication or production. Now you can learn the tools and secrets to take your writing to the next level by working face-to-face with literary agents, renowned educators and industry veterans as they discuss topics such as: “From The Writers Fingers to the Keyboard to Money in the Bank” with top literary agent and intellectual property attorney Paul S. Levine, “Write a Query Letter with a Literary Agent,” “BCX™ - Boot Camp Extreme Intensive Writing” with veteran literary agent Toni Lopopolo, “Crafting Scenes Like a Pro” with author of 40+ TV movies Christine Conradt, “No Agent - No Problem: How To Sell a Screenplay,” “Generate, Develop, and Pitch Successful Stories Interactive Training,” “Master The Skills Needed to Write Your First Novel, or Revise Your First Draft,” “Fiction/Narrative Nonfiction Intensive Class: Improve Your Writing—Now!” and much more. Length of workshop varies from four hours to a full day. Seating is limited to 20 per session. See website for details. Early registration discounts available. Contact: Tony or Lillian Todaro P.O. Box 2267, Redondo Beach, CA 90278 Ph: 310/379-2650

2017 SAN FRANCISCO WRITERS CONFERENCE, February 16–19 at the Mark

Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. This “Celebration of Craft, Commerce and Community” welcomes major names in publishing. Bestselling authors, literary agents, editors and publishers attend the SFWC and take personal interest in projects discovered there. The 100+ presenters list includes Heather Graham, William Bernhardt and John Perkins. Writer’s Digest is the “Speed Dating With Agents” sponsor. Open Enrollment Classes available on Feb. 16 & 20. All levels and genres. $795 (with substantial early discounts available). Contact: Barbara Santos 1029 Jones St., San Francisco CA 94109 Ph: 415/673-0939


Saturday, March 25, 2017, 7:30 a.m.–8 p.m. at Reid Castle, Manhattanville College, Purchase, NY. As valuable for published authors as it is for beginners! This conference covers the total story from craft to career. Meet industry shotcallers, get one-on-one face time with industry insiders, including: One-on-one manuscript reviews and feedback sessions with agents and book editors. Networking breakfast, lunch and dinner. Perfect your craft with a choice of six workshops every hour, and over 37 different sessions offered. Price: $325 includes all workshops and three meals. Additional $60 for 40 pages and book summary (read in advance by your selected agent/editors) and 30 minute meeting. Three agent panels, one editor panel, and printer panel. Sponsorship booths

available upon request. Contact: Jan L. Kardys, Chairman Unicorn Writers’ Conference, Inc. Ph: 203/938-7405


Digest. Writing’s premier conference returns to New York City! Join WD in 2017 for the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, taking place August 18–20 at the Hilton Midtown. This conference only grows bigger and better each year, so expect even more of what you love: A-List speakers, top-notch mentors, premium networking and a wideranging selection of sessions on the craft and business of writing. Don’t miss: The Pitch Slam—your chance to pitch your work directly to agents scouting new talent—will be back with at least 50 agents eager to hear why you’re the next big thing. Registration opens soon! Contact: Ph: 877/436-7764, option 2


Sala. February 15–19, 2017 in San Miguel de Allende (No.1 City in the World 2013, Condé Nast Traveler). 2017 Keynote Speakers: Mary Karr, Billy Collins, Naomi Klein, Judy Collins, David Ebershoff, Lisa Moore, Pedro Pallou and Robert Moor. Previous speakers include: Cheryl Strayed, Gloria Steinem, Lawrence Hill, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Luis Urrea, Joyce Carol Oates, David Whyte, Joy Harjo, Scott Turow, Alice Walker, Ellen Bass and Sandra Cisneros. Plan now to attend the 12th annual SMWC, featuring distinguished authors and faculty from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Sunny, historic San Miguel is known worldwide as the creative crossroads of the Americas—a mecca for writers, artists and musicians. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ringed by mountains, filled with cobblestone streets and colorful 18th century buildings, worlds away from border issues. Hotel rooms $75+, double/single. Select seven of seventy 90-minute classes in all genres, beginning/ advanced; keynotes and panels (bilingual); open mic; spectacular Mexican Fiesta; breakfasts, lunches, receptions. Optional consultations, agent pitches; post-conference workshops; explore San Miguel excursions. Join the mailing list for conference updates and articles. (T, M, MT, F, parties!) Contact: Maia Williams San Miguel Literary Sala Box 526, 220 N. Zapata Hwy. #11 Laredo, TX 78043 Ph: 415/324-5020



headlines, illustrations, rules, etc.) of 1–3 inches in depth: $375 per inch for 1 issue; $350 per inch for 3; $325 per inch for 6; $300 per inch for 8. Typesetting charges $15 per inch. Larger ads up to 5 inches will be accepted at special rates; ask for details. Ad prices are calculated on a per word, per issue basis (20 word minimum). All contracts must be prepaid at the time of insertion. $7.25 per word for 1 issue; $5.75 per word for 3; $4.75 per word for 6 or more consecutive issues. Street and number, city, state and ZIP code count as 4 words. Area code and phone number count as 2 words. Email and website addresses count as 2 words. A sample of any product and/or literature you plan to send must accompany your order. Literary Services and Editing/ Revising advertisers must send a résumé and sample critique.

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CLASSIFIEDS: WE T YPE MA NU S CRIPT S Advertising rates for a WE TYPE MANUSCRIPTS (6 line listing): $200 for one issue; $450 for three issues; $650 for six issues; $800 for eight issues. Payment in full must accompany the order. Rates apply to consecutive issues. A sample typed manuscript page must accompany initial order. Prices quoted in listings refer to a standard manuscript page double-spaced with 11⁄4" margins on all sides. To order or to obtain more information, contact: Writer’s Digest Typists, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990, (800)726-9966, ext. 13223. Fax: (715)445-4087. PAYMENT by credit card accepted with advertising orders of three or more consecutive issues. CLOSING DATE FOR THE MARCH/APRIL 2017 ISSUE IS DECEMBER 20, 2016.




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Power Up Your Plot! Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot by Jane K. Cleland Suspense is one of the most powerful tools a writer has for captivating readers—but it isn’t just for thrillers. From mainstream fiction to memoir, suspense creates the emotional tension that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Award-winning author Jane K. Cleland teaches you how to navigate genre conventions and build gripping tension to craft an irresistible page-turner.

Creating Characters by The Editors of Writer’s Digest Populating your fiction with vivid characters is a sure way to captivate your readers. In this book, you’ll find timely advice and helpful instruction from bestselling authors. They’ll teach you how to build a believable protagonist, juggle multiple points of view, motivate your players with powerful objectives, develop dynamic characters and more.

Just Write by James Scott Bell So many writers find their careers stuck in neutral. The solution is simple: Just write. Write past fears, doubts and setbacks, using your desire for excellence to deeply immerse yourself in the craft. In Just Write, you’ll learn how to master the nuances of fiction, give readers what they really want, and persevere through the challenges of getting started, conquering writer’s block and dealing with rejection.

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68 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017



Don’t Miss the Latest Writer’s Digest Books! Crafting Dynamic Dialogue by The Editors of Writer’s Digest Exceptional dialogue isn’t just important when writing fiction—it’s essential. Crafting Dynamic Dialogue will give you the techniques and examples you need to impress your readers, with instruction from bestselling authors and teachers. They’ll show you how to understand the role of dialogue in reader engagement, use dialect and jargon effectively, set the pace and tone, and more.

Author in Progress by Therese Walsh, Editor, and the Members of Writer Unboxed Written by members of the popular Writer Unboxed website, Author in Progress is filled with practical, candid essays to help you reach the next rung on the publishing ladder. It’s the perfect no-nonsense guide for excelling at every step of the novel-writing process, from setting goals, researching and drafting, to giving and receiving critiques, polishing prose and seeking publication.

Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld The key to excellent fiction lies in its characters: the unforgettable protagonists, antagonists and secondary characters who populate the world of your story. Through a blend of practical instruction, useful examples and helpful exercises, Writing the Intimate Character shows you how to create the experience of living through a character rather than just reading about one.


Troubleshooting Your Novel by Steven James In order to increase your chances of getting a literary agent or selling your manuscript to a publisher, you need targeted, practical instruction for tackling the problem areas in your story. In this guide, awardwinning author Steven James provides advice on adjusting elements of story progression, developing authentic characters, learning narrative techniques for specific elements of fiction, and more.

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2017 Writer’s Market Series: THE MOST TRUSTED GUIDES TO GETTING PUBLISHED Now with these exciting features: • A one-year subscription to the online database at, updated year-round • Original how-to articles by industry leaders • New interviews with bestselling and award-winning writers • Up-to-date listings for contests, conferences, workshops and professional organizations • And more!

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The Official Online Home of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson January 27, 2017 at 10:46pm

Twitter •

I’ll travel to a Friend-ly Place — To the One where I met Thee. I’ll not look back unto My Space — I’ll roam the Facebook — Free.


EmDickinson @womaninwhite 3d I heard my phone buzz—before it died.


William Faulkner and 3 others like this. Mark Twain Who needs a publisher when you have a nice locked chest on the floor of your closet? #twaintrolling 5 hrs Like Reply •

Emily Dickinson The Soul selects her own society — Unfriend! Like Reply 2 4 hrs •

EmDickinson @womaninwhite 3d If I can stop one Drunk from tweeting, I shall not live in vain. EmDickinson @womaninwhite I felt a Funeral, in my Feed.


EmDickinson @womaninwhite 8d My life has stood—a loaded Baked Potato—with bacon—and some cheese. No, that’s no good … #firstdrafts


EmDickinson @womaninwhite 2d My relationship with *the world* is “Complicated.”

And if we two should meet some End — ‘Mid the oft-travers-ed Sea — Oh, Friend, do not neglect to Send Your best Status line to Me —



EmDickinson @womaninwhite 25d I <3 Twitter—Where I can interact with others from the comfort of my 4-post bed. #introvert


6 likes WomanInWhite A Bird, came down the Walk LaviniaNorcrossDickinson I’ll have to send Madam Meow over to meet this little bird. ;) WomanInWhite Don’t you dare, @LaviniaNorcrossDickinson—hope is the thing with feathers. Perhaps I would visit more often if you had fewer cats …

VirginiaW @Woolf Good One!


SHARE A LAUGH: Next Up, F. SCOTT FITZGERALD. Email your funny tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram pics to wdsubmissions@ with “Platforms of Yore” in the subject line, or tweet @WritersDigest using the hashtag #plastformsofyore.

72 I WRITER’S DIGEST I January 2017


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Writer's digest  

january 2017

Writer's digest  

january 2017