20 Best-Selling Authors Share Their Best Advice about Writing

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In the U.S., we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, a time to give thanks to the many blessings we enjoy in our lives. At this time of year, I am always grateful for the writing talent I’ve been given, as well as the abundance of story ideas I receive and the courage to share my writing experience with others. I’m also grateful for my readers. Thank you for reading my blog and commenting on posts; it keeps me grounded and motivated to keep writing.

During this Thanksgiving week, I thought I’d share a compilation of the best advice from the world’s most celebrated published authors. Let these words of wisdom serve as motivation for your own work, whether it be a novel, memoir or short story collection.

It’s comforting to know that other writers have gone through the trials and triumphs of a writing journey, like I’m going through now. It’s also worth remembering that though we might each live/work in isolation, we are all part of one interconnected community of writers.

Be grateful for your writing talents, dedicate yourself to learning your craft, and share your stories with pride. Happy Thanksgiving wherever you are celebrating this year. Enjoy!

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“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”   — George Orwell

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise, you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of our right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”   — Margaret Atwood

“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while, the muse shows up too.”  — Isabel Allende

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time – or the tools – to write.”  — Stephen King

“Nothing will happen unless you produce at least one page per day.”  — John Grisham

“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, and you find out who they really are.”  — Joss Whedon

“A short story must have a single mood, and every sentence must build towards it.”  — Edgar Allen Poe

“Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.”  — Kurt Vonnegut

“When you’re stuck and sure you’ve written absolute garbage, force yourself to finish and then decide to fix or scrap it – or you will never know if you can.”  — Jodi Picoult

“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”  — William Faulkner

“Run your own race. Don’t worry about how fast someone else writes, how much another author makes, how many followers another author has. Write what makes you excited, and the enthusiasm will come through on the page.”  — Christina Lauren

“I think success requires a lot of hours learning the craft through books and workshops from talented teachers, to the point where you have enough confidence and instinct to sit down and say, “I’m now going to perform.” Where you can apply it to your past projects and drafts and understand what didn’t work, as well as what did.”  Robert Dugoni, author of My Sister’s Grave

“It’s freeing to actually write the thing that you want to write, because everybody when they start out tries to be the authors that they loved. I was able to explore all of these different voices, but every author has to come up with their own individual voice. It takes a while.”  — Jenny Lawson, author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

“Finish the book and don’t let the success of others make you feel less.”  — Beverly Jenkins, romance novelist

“It takes a lot of time and effort to get good enough at writing to make books that are fun to read, and you just need to accept that. I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a deep natural gift at writing. Even writers who are famous for just one book did a lot of writing before they wrote that book.” — Andy Weir, author of The Martian

“You have to believe in this career, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to move with great determination forward, because it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to sell your first book or your 50th book, or you’re trying to redefine your career, or you’re trying to reinvent what it is you do, it’s always going to be difficult.”  — Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale

“Everyone loves talking about how busy they are. But there are 24 hours in a day. Make a half-hour or hour in a day, or an hour in a week, for writing. Just make sure you have one designated time—however long it is, given your constraints—to focus on writing.” — Roxane Gay, author of The Bad Feminist

“It’s very hard to write without having things to write about. That doesn’t mean necessarily going out as ‘a writer’. But having experiences that interest you in the world are a good first step to having material.” — Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball

“I am a huge believer in revision. The more times you write it, the more alive it becomes. For me, very often the first, second and third times it’s kind of dead material, but the more you go over it, the more you rewrite it, the more it comes to life.” — Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic

“The best advice I can give is to close the door to your writing room and not worry about anyone’s feelings until you’ve finished a draft. You don’t know what you’ll discover through the writing unless you write it—and considering people’s feelings before you’ve even written is a form of self-censorship.” — Dani Shapiro, memoirist

Stuck in the Middle of Your Novel? Try These Methods to Get Moving Again

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I started writing my first novel nearly three years ago. After rewriting the opening chapter at least a dozen times and writing a draft of most of the chapters that followed, I’ve landed somewhere in the middle not sure where to go next. So I’ve set the novel aside to work on other projects while I figure out if I should rework the novel or give up on it.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Many aspiring authors experience this sticking point. It can feel like trudging through a muddy forest, feet sinking into the ground.

The middle is the largest section of your story, and where most of the action takes place. It’s where your protagonist begins their journey, faces trouble, and meets adventure. Life gets complicated and the antagonist displays all their power. The middle is where you present challenge after challenge, each getting more difficult and raising the stakes higher for the protagonist. Without this series of setbacks, false starts and obstacles, readers may lose interest in your story.

Literary agent Donald Maass describes this middle section as place to play, a literary playground of sorts. “The middle isn’t quicksand; it’s a sandbox. It’s a place to play, the place for surprises. It is the most fun part of the novel because it’s the least burdened with the heavy requirements and rules of set up and resolution,” writes Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel.

If you’ve been slogging through your latest novel-in-progress, and the middle part has stymied your progress, it’s time to step back and review the work you’ve done so far. It may be that several scenes are out of proper sequence and need to be moved around. Or maybe you have provided either too much backstory which slows down the pace, or you have provided too little backstory that readers can’t understand what’s happening on the page.

The good news is there are ways to fix these issues.

First of all, it’s important to relax and keep writing, writes Heather Webb on the Writer Unboxed blog. This is especially important if you are working on a first draft. First drafts are usually messy anyway. Don’t beat yourself up because there is plenty of time to revise it later. Many of the issues related to tension, pacing and stronger narratives can be worked out in the editing phase, Webb adds.

What other issues might you be having with your middle section? Check out the solutions below.

1. Have you done enough research? Most of your story’s research should be done before you start writing. So you might be stuck because you didn’t research adequately, says Webb. You can’t move forward until you know X, Y and Z. Maybe there isn’t enough backstory for your main character, or about a prior event, or maybe there’s a key prop needed to carry a scene. You might need to go back to research the time and place of your story, especially if it’s set in the past.

2. Do you know your protagonist inside and out? The middle section provides the challenges that will test the protagonist’s strengths and abilities, as well as their fears and weaknesses. It’s important to understand what those strengths, weaknesses, desires and special skills are. Understand the flaw or wound that keeps them stuck in a rut and makes them feel they don’t belong in their current environment. Webb suggests journaling in your character’s voice to get to know their motivations and personality inside and out.

3. Have you introduced sub-plots? Focusing only on the main plot can be boring for readers because it’s one note. By introducing subplots, you complicate the protagonist’s story, weave in complex situations and reveal the protagonist’s secondary concerns and goals. “Every scene is a mini-story where the hero struggles,” writes Zara Altair at ProWriting Aid blog. This increases the tension readers need to stay engaged with your story.

4. Have you allowed enough space on the page for your supporting characters? The middle section is the prime opportunity for your readers to get to know these supporting – and sometimes antagonistic – characters. These are the characters who will accompany your protagonist on their journey – or hinder their progress, says Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA. A good example is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where readers learn more about Harry’s classmates and teachers at when he first arrives at Hogwarts.

5. Have you tried the rule of three to move the story along?  Pay attention to stories, books, TV shows and films and you’ll notice the rule of three appears somewhere in the middle of their story lines–three ex-boyfriends, for example, who show up to court your female hero. Or as in A Christmas Carol, three ghosts of the past, present and future who appear to Scrooge during the night.  The number three is common, says Pereira, because “it gives us a feeling of completeness. Two is not enough to establish a pattern, and four feels like too many. Three is just the right balance. It sets up a pattern but allows room for a twist in the third repetition.”

Remember, getting stuck in the middle sections happens to most writers. It’s part of the process of creating. It just means you have to step back, re-evaluate your plot structure, and alter where necessary. As Webb writes, “Be patient with yourself and with your story.”

Novel Beginnings and Endings: A Primer on Prologues and Epilogues

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If you’re working on a novel or memoir, you’ve probably considered how to begin and end your work. Should you open with a prologue? If so, what should the prologue contain? Should I include an epilogue too?

There is dissent among agents and editors about whether prologues are necessary. Some suggest that your first chapter should do the work that your prologue does. If your first chapter is written well (see my previous post), a prologue isn’t necessary, they claim. Other publishing experts feel prologues can work if they are done well.

Prologues are commonly used for genres such as historical fiction, thrillers, horror, and sci-fi and fantasy. They’re ideal for world building and providing background on a character or situation that may not fit into the main text.

If you’re considering starting your story with a prologue, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Prologues

  • Keep it short and simple. Prologues are shorter than chapters, which can run as long as 12 to 15 pages or more. Most prologues are only a few pages.  
  • Provide a glimpse of the past or future. If there’s a part of the backstory that’s integral to the main plot line that readers need to know in advance, a prologue might be the best place for that backstory. It’s better than flipping back and forth between the present and that other time or place, writes Shaelyn Bishop of Reedsy.
  • Use it for world building. Readers get a sense of what this new world looks and feels like, adds Bishop. You might be able to divulge some details about scene or present a different place and time that grounds readers
  • Reboot a series. If there’s a long gap between books in a series, the prologue can re-introduce characters, scenes and story lines from previous books.
  • Use an alternate point of view. For example, for a mystery or thriller, the prologue might be written in first person from the point of view of a person who is murdered, while the rest of the story is written from the perspective of the person investigating the crime.

These are general guidelines, of course. A good example of a well-written prologue is Caught by Harlan Coben, which follows several of the guidelines above. It’s shorter than the main chapters in the book, it introduces a character who becomes the focus of the story. It provides background to this character’s life story, which later becomes a contentious issue with the protagonist. The reader is left to decide which is true about this character – the one introduced in the prologue or the one the protagonist thinks he is.

Further, the prologue provides relevant and supplemental details to the story line. In this action-packed thriller, the prologue works because readers get caught up in the action. It also does a good job of tying into the conclusion, which answers all the questions readers need to know.

Ultimately, the best judge of whether to include a prologue is you. You know your story best. Let your story determine if you need a prologue or not.

Epilogues

There is less debate about epilogues, which come at the end of your story. The Write Practice describes the epilogue as “the moment when the reader learns the fate of the characters or when the hook to a sequel is revealed.” The epilogue generally has a different tone, point of view and time period compared to previous chapters. It is often set some time in the future, such as the epilogue for the Harry Potter series which placed the characters far into the future where they are seeing their own kids off to Hogwarts. Like the prologue, the epilogue is shorter than the chapters, usually only a few pages.

According to Kirkus Reviews, the epilogue can serve any number of purposes:

  • Illustrate a changed world. The epilogue can show how the world changed as a result of the conflict and action that took place in earlier chapters. If the prologue or early chapters showed dire circumstances, show how those circumstances changed and perhaps how the protagonist’s life changed.
  • Provide closure. Whatever remaining threads need to be tied up can be done in the epilogue. It can answer questions readers might have, such as “What happened to so-and-so?”
  • Return to real life after a difficult journey. The epilogue can serve as a breather after an action-filled story. It’s where characters recover from injuries, reunite with loved ones and resolve outstanding problems.
  • Create a cliffhanger. If the book is part of a series, the epilogue can provide a cliffhanger for the next book in the series, including a hint at a possible future conflict. In this case, the epilogue will whet the reader’s appetite for the rest of the story.

When contemplating whether to use an epilogue to conclude your novel, ask yourself “What do readers need to know to feel satisfied about the outcome?”

When used judiciously, prologues and epilogues can work like bookends, giving your novel a structural boost that can be carried throughout your novel 

Novel Beginnings: Eight Tips for Writing a More Compelling Opening Chapter

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If you have ever read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, you probably remember this opening line:

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love, we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are.”

I’d be hard pressed to find any opening more poignant than this one. From the very start, readers are taken on an emotional journey that doesn’t end until the final sentence.

Writers are tasked with the challenge to create a similar experience with their readers. The start of any  novel should accomplish several things: create the tone of the story, provide the point of view, reveal character, and show tension and conflict, among other things. Certainly, the opening line from The Nightingale accomplishes most of these objectives. Does your story do the same?

Why is the opening so critical? Because if it doesn’t grab the reader’s interest and keep it for the first few pages, the reader will likely close the book and set it aside, never getting to the end of it. Ask any published author, editor or agent what makes a strong opening, and you’ll hear a number of answers, which are summarized below. And these suggestions don’t just pertain to fiction, but to short stories, memoir and non-fiction works too. Without a compelling start, readers will dismiss your effort.

If you are participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), it might be helpful to keep the following suggestions in mind as you write the opening of your novel.

1. Skip the prologue. There is ongoing debate about the merits of a prologue. Many editors and agents feel they aren’t necessary. I tend to agree with them. I’ve rarely read a prologue that made a difference in my understanding of the plot. The one exception is Caught by Harlan Coben, which provided sufficient background on one of the main characters to make you second guess the outcome. But if you plan your story well and write the opening pages right, there shouldn’t be a need for a prologue.

2. Create a protagonist that readers will care about. The opening is your opportunity to reveal your protagonist’s character. Is he/she rebellious, angry, ambitious or curious? In the above opening from The Nightingale, the character speaking is introspective and perhaps has gained wisdom from life experience. It makes me care about who she is and what else she (and it is a she, btw) might have to say.

3. Ground your reader in the story’s setting. According to the Write Practice blog, let readers see where the story takes place. Establish early on what the setting is for the story – the time period, the location, the season of the year, etc. When the reader feels grounded in the setting, they feel mentally prepared to experience the events as the characters do.

4. Create conflict and tension. Identify what the inciting incident is – that starting point to your story that changes the status quo. Where is the conflict? Is that conflict with another character, with a situation or within themselves? That conflict is needed to create tension, which helps draw readers in and keep them reading to see how the conflict is resolved.  

5. Don’t frontload with dialogue or action. According to Fuse Literary, too much action or dialogue can confuse readers. Sure, you want to start with some sort of action, but an opening chapter heavy on action and dialogue and not enough narrative or backstory can be confusing to readers who may need a point of reference to understand what is happening on the page. You need some action, of course, but balance it with some narrative so you don’t lose readers’ interest.

6. Don’t overload the opening with backstory either. According to recent Reedsy webinar, Crafting a Novel Opening, writers should focus on what the reader needs to know at that moment. There’s plenty of time to reveal backstory and world building as the story progresses, says Shaelin Bishop who led the discussion. Weave in backstory throughout the length of the manuscript, and allow details to breathe between scenes. This approach will help with the pacing too. If readers are overloaded with details up front, they may feel overwhelmed.

7. Hook the reader with an interesting twist. Start where the story gets interesting, which is usually at the point where there’s a change in the status quo. For example, the protagonist gets a letter with good news or bad news, a new person enters the protagonist’s life, or they get into an accident that alters the course of their life.  “Show what is interesting rather than focusing on the mundane. It’s okay to show less of the status quo than you think you need to,” says Shaelin Bishop with Reedsy. This approach avoids overloading your opening chapter with too many details that can bore your reader.

8. Every scene should serve several purposes. For example, one scene can establish the tone of the story, reveal something about the character and hint at future conflict. This sounds complex, but it’s necessary to keep the story moving forward and keep readers interested. Don’t waste your first sentence, or any sentence for that matter. Write every scene with a purpose in mind. If it doesn’t serve  purpose, and if a character doesn’t serve a purpose, cut them out.

To get into the habit of writing stronger openings, try these two exercises.

Exercise 1: Take 10 minutes and create as many opening sentences as you can think of. It could be for a current work in progress or any other story. Experiment with different perspectives. Here are a couple of examples of intriguing openings that made me keep reading:

“You would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous. I can tell you with certainty that such things exists ….”
The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman

“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”
Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

Exercise 2: Select five novels from your collection that you enjoyed reading. Go back and read the first page from each one. What made you turn the page? Why did it grab your interest? Did it reveal anything about the setting, tone or character? Did it create tension and conflict? What can you learn from these first pages that you can adapt to your own work?

Hope you find these tips and exercises helpful.  

12 Tips to Survive – and Thrive – National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Logo courtesy of NaNoWriMo

Have you always wanted to write a novel but wasn’t sure how to start writing it? Maybe you’ve had a story idea swirling inside your brain for the past decade and just never made the time to write it. With November right around the corner, here’s your chance.

National Novel Writing Month is an annual creative writing challenge that takes place every November in which participants aim to write 50,000 words in 30 days toward a completed novel. The event is hosted NaNoWriMo, a nonprofit organization that encourages writing fluency and education for all ages. According to its website, the NaNoWriMo group believes in “the transformational power of creativity.”

Participation in this annual event has escalated from a mere 21 people in 1999 to 306,230 in 2017, according to the Novel Factory. You don’t have to sign up on their website to participate. You can do this in the comfort of your home, which is what I plan to do. While the goal is 50,000 words for the entire month, that is only the goal. If you can only achieve 30,000 words – or 1,000 words a day – that’s fine too. This is a personal challenge to motivate writers to write every day and work toward a larger goal.

Whether this is the first time you take part in the event or the tenth, here are some helpful tips for surviving this 30-day writing challenge. You can find other helpful tips here too.

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Outline and research your story ahead of time. Since you’ll be spending your November days writing, you’ll need to know what you’ll be writing about. Plan ahead. Plot your outline in advance. The Novel Factory has some awesome free downloadable tools to help you plan your story.

The same goes for research. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research ahead of time. If you get to a place in your story where you need to do more research, make a note of what you need to do and come back to that place during the revision phase. Don’t get distracted by the desire to look up something or you will never get back to your writing.

Plan your schedule. With a hefty 50,000 word goal, you’ll need to plan how you will achieve it. That’s roughly 1,667 words a day with no days off, or 2,000 words a day with one day off each week. Those daily word goals can be daunting. So it’s important to plan how much you’ll be able to write. It might mean getting up an hour early each day to write, or doing mini sessions throughout the day. Remember, you don’t have to write in one huge chunk of time.

Try something new. Many writers use NaNoWriMo to experiment with their writing. It might be re-writing a current work-in-progress from an alternate point of view, or trying their hand at writing a different genre – science fiction when they normally write psychological suspense. This approach can be applied to your writing schedule too. For example, try getting up an hour earlier in the morning to start writing rather than waiting until the evening when you may be too tired.

Participate in live write-ins. If you’re looking to stay motivated throughout the month, check out a live write-in in your area. If you sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, you’ll be given locations of write-ins near you. With the pandemic, I imagine there might be virtual write-ins too. 

Work with a writing buddy. When you participate with a friend, you can motivate each other and help you through the rough spots. If you’re both competitive, set up your own contest to see who can write more words each day. Try putting a giant thermometer on your wall. As you complete your daily word count, fill in the thermometer with red to see your progress. Then compare your progress with that of your friend’s.

Be prepared to put some activities on the backburner. That may mean less time hanging out on social media, less time watching Netflix or Hulu or shutting off the TV. It could also mean spending less time socializing with your friends and fewer Zoom meetings. You’ll have to decide what you can live without for the short term while you work on your masterpiece.

Silence your inner critic/editor. As you write, turn off the internal critic who tells you that your work isn’t good. It’s easy to get sidetracked by negative thoughts. First drafts usually aren’t very good, so relax and just tell your story without judgment and self-criticism. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to challenge yourself to write your story. There will always be time for editing later.

Avoid going back to the beginning. If you are ever tempted to read what you’ve already written or rewrite it, don’t. You may decide that your work is terrible and give up. Or you may want to start editing it, which only wastes time. If necessary, read the last page or two that you wrote to remember where you left off, but otherwise, keep a forward focus.

Find your writing rhythm. You may find one week into NaNoWriMo that you’ve hit your stride. That’s great news. If you get to the end of your 2,000 word goal and you still feel motivated to keep going, then by all means, keep writing. That’s one way to build up your word count early on in the challenge so if you feel a bit sluggish by the end of the month, you can slow down without harming your end goal.

Reward yourself when you reach milestones. When you get to the 5,000 word mark, for example, treat yourself to your favorite snack or watch a favorite movie. Set another reward at 10,000 words, 20,000 words and so on. Occasional rewards serve as great motivational tools to keep you writing.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your writing goals. So you only wrote 30,000 words. Congratulate yourself for your accomplishment. That’s better than not writing at all. Remember the purpose of this event is to challenge yourself to make quick, steady progress.

Make time for exercise and fresh air. All work and no play can stifle your creativity. Make sure you get outside if the weather is nice, and go for a walk or a bike ride. It’ll help clear the cobwebs from your brain and you can return to your desk with a fresh perspective.

Most important, have fun with NaNoWriMo. Yes, there will be plenty of hard work involved, but stay positive. Look at how much you will learn and grow as a writer. No matter how many words you eventually put down on the page, you can be proud of your accomplishment as you see your story develop.

Writing about Your Ghosts: Tips for Writing a Haunted Memoir

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October’s theme is Writing Scary Ghost Stories

“When writing a memoir about a difficult subject, writers have two responsibilities. One to ourselves and the other to the reader.”  Alexandra Amor, author of Cult, A Love Story: Ten Years Inside a Canadian Cult and the Subsequent Long Road to Recovery

It’s that wonderful time of year when our thoughts turn to Halloween costumes, ghost stories around a campfire or tales of the dark.

Of course, most ghost stories we hear or see on the big screen are fiction. People enjoy them because they know they’re not true. They are popular because they also tend to feed on our imagination, on what we perceive to be ghosts. We all have our own ideas of what ghosts are supposed to look like. Certainly we don’t imagine them to look like the Maitlands in Beetlejuice, the newly married couple played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin who were caught between the real world and the afterlife.

But in reality, ghosts can be anything that is not easily explained, writes essayist Bruce Grimm Owens, who often writes about haunted memoir. It can be a sudden knocking on the wall, a fire alarm that goes off for no reason, a scent that appears out of nowhere or lights that switch on during the night.

Ghosts also don’t have to be literal interpretations. They can be metaphorical as well – a memory, a nightmare or daydream, a secret, or feelings of guilt, fear, grief or anger. Any event that leaves a lasting imprint on the writer that forces her to explore those events and find explanations for them. Why did they manifest in her life at that moment?

“A writer’s task is to explore what these ghosts mean to them,” writes Owens. Identity is often a major theme in haunted memoir, he adds. What role do ghosts play in the story you tell about who you are?

We all have our ghosts, real or imagined, literal and metaphorical. When it comes to writing about your ghost, you need to follow the same rules for writing creative nonfiction. For starters, memoir is not the same as an autobiography, which relays events in chronological order with little room for reflection about events. “Rather than simply telling a story from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge, writes Judith Barrington, author of Writing the Memoir. “The contemporary memoir includes retrospection as an essential part of the story.”

Author Alexandra Amor suggests that writing memoir is about writing for both ourselves and for readers. “We tell our personal stories in memoir to inform, educate and perhaps even to assist others.” It isn’t just about telling our own stories but finding ways to connect with readers through the stories we share.

There are different ways to approach writing a memoir and different ways of sharing the ghosts of your past. Below are a few general guidelines for writing your haunted memoir.

1. Stay focused on a particular time period, event or theme. You might focus on your teenage years, for example, or the time your family lived in a haunted house until they moved out.  

2. Be truthful about everything you experience. Avoid exaggerating the details, but be honest about what you saw, felt and heard. Don’t use the memoir to exact revenge on anyone, and avoid writing with anger and bitterness about events. It’s important to tell your story honestly and objectively.

3. Put readers in your shoes. Let them see the action from your perspective as you experienced them. That lends authenticity to your writing, and people will find your story more credible and believable.

4. Use all five of your senses. Describe your experiences through taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. Let readers feel the coarse straw when you hid under a haystack, or the slick, mushy feel of the green slime that oozed down the basement stairs. Describe the scent of lavender perfume that you always smelled in your haunted house, or the sharp, acrid smell of burnt coffee. When you engage all of your senses, it helps readers experience your life the way you did.

5. Slow down the action. When the scariest scenes arrive, slow down, suggests A. E. Santana at the Horror Tree blog. Take time describing the scene. Let them follow along as you explore the dark cold basement or the graveyard. Slowing down the action adds suspense and makes readers believe they were there with you.

6. Show your personal growth. Be sure to show how your life changed over time. What was your life like at the start of the story, and how did you change at the end as a result of your experience? Did you embrace a new identity for yourself? Did you learn a life lesson?

A couple of final tips. Many memoir writers often cannot write effectively after a life-changing event. You may need to let sufficient enough time pass so you can reflect on how this haunted experience affected you. If you find after you’ve started writing your haunted memoir that it is still too painful to write about or you are still too close to the event, Amor says it’s okay to set aside your work. Return to it in a year or two when you’ve done more healing.

Writing about your ghosts takes courage, but doing so will make you stronger and more resilient.



Looking for a New Creative Writing Challenge? Enter a Writing Contest

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Now that the calendar has flipped over into September, it’s time to get serious about your creative writing. While many publications accept submissions throughout the year, there appears to be an uptick in calls for contest submissions after September 1.

If you’ve ever wanted to participate in a writing contest, now might be a good time to take the plunge and get your writing to stand out from the crowd. (Note that with COVID-19, some publications have put their contests on hiatus. Always check the website to confirm, but with the contests I’ve shared below, I’ve already done the leg work for you.)

There are many great reasons to participate in creative writing contests.

* There is the pride of performance, of knowing you’re submitting your best work to be reviewed (which I suppose can be scary as hell too). Just having the courage to submit your work can be a victory in and of itself.

* There’s the chance to win big cash prizes and publication for your work. Many publications I’ve come across are offering cash awards of $1,000 or more with several smaller cash prizes for second and third place.

* There’s the opportunity to gain a wider audience for your writing than you could achieve on your own, including being noticed by editors and literary agents who may be among the judging committee members. Who wouldn’t want to earn that advantage?

* Contests also are a great way to challenge yourself to complete that work-in-progress hidden in your desk drawer, or start a new project in a different genre. Perhaps you’re used to writing creative nonfiction and want to try your hand at writing flash fiction.

Some contests specialize in one kind of writing, such as poetry or fiction. Other publications offer awards in three categories: essay, poems and short fiction. Poets & Writers magazine publishes a comprehensive list of contests, including a nifty calendar with all the submission deadlines.

Below is a very brief roundup of contests taking place this fall, some with deadlines coming up within the next couple of weeks. Hurry and submit your work before these deadlines pass.

QueryLetter.com
Can you write a back cover blurb for a hypothetical novel? In 100 words or less, write a blurb about a non-existent book. Make sure you set the stage for the novel, establish the characters and raise the stakes to make the reader want to read more. One winning entry will receive $500 prize.  Deadline is noon, September 15, 2020.

Writer’s Digest Personal Essay Awards
Writer’s Digest magazine is holding its first ever personal essay contest. In 2,000 words or less, write about any topic or theme. One grand prize winner receives $2,500, a paid trip to Writer’s Digest annual conference, and their essay published in the May/June 2021 issue. Other prizes will also be awarded. Early bird deadline is September 15, 2020; final deadline is October 15, 2020.

Boulevard – Nonfiction contest for emerging writers
Great opportunity for new, emerging writers to have their work published. Essays must be 8,000 words. Winning entry receives $1,000 prize. Deadline is September 30, 2020.

Boulevard – Short fiction contest for emerging writers
Another great opportunity for emerging writers, this time for short fiction. Stories must be 8,000 words. Winning entry receives $1,500 prize. Deadline is December 31, 2020.

Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
Are you dying to write a ghost story?  Does the thought of telling paranormal or supernatural stories send chills down your spine? Then this contest is for you. Ghost Story is looking for short stories with a supernatural or magic realism. 1,500 to 10,000 words. $1,000 prize to the winning entry. Deadline is September 30, 2020.

LitMag
Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction
Write a short fiction piece of 3,000 to 8,000 words. First prize is $2,500, plus publication in LitMag and a  review by several literary agents. Deadline is December 31, 2020.

Anton Chekov Award for Flash Fiction
LitMag is also looking for flash fiction. Stories must be 50 to 1,500 words. First prize is $1,250, publication in LitMag and a review by several literary agents. Deadline is November 30, 2020.

ServiceScape Short Story Award
The freelance platform for writers, editors and graphic designers is looking for short stories of 5,000 words or less on any theme or genre. The winning entry receives a $1,000 prize. Deadline is November 29, 2020.

Prose.
Not interested in a contest but still want to challenge yourself? Check out Prose. This site posts numerous writing challenges and prompts to test your skill in writing prose. Most prompts are posted by the community, but others are shared by literary agents and publishing houses looking for new talent. They occasionally post contests, but as of this writing, none were posted.

As always, it’s a good idea to check out past winners before submitting to get an idea of what the publication is looking for.

Good luck, happy writing, and be safe this Labor Day weekend.

15 Writing Prompts for Memoirs and Essays

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Our childhood is filled with events both big and small, and we carry those memories with us as we grow older. That’s why our childhood and early family life are fertile soil for story ideas for memoirs and personal essays.

Sometimes our minds can draw a blank when forced to come up with a story idea, however. Beyond the basic “I remember” prompt that I frequently talk about on my blog, there are other story starters to brainstorm potential ideas.

I found the following list in my collection of notes from webinars and workshops. I wanted to share them with you so you never run out of story ideas for your essay collection or memoir. Feel free to refer to this list often whenever you feel stuck.

Good luck!

1. Fears, big and small. Perhaps your biggest fear is spiders or snakes. Or maybe it’s drowning or flying in an airplane. When was the first time you noticed that fear and how has it dominated your life? Have you done anything to overcome that fear?

2. Secrets, big and small. What secrets, big or small, have you never told anyone?  Perhaps it’s the one night you spent in jail for disorderly conduct that a friend helped you get released. Or maybe the abortion you had when you were sixteen that you never told anyone about. We all have our reasons for keeping secrets. Explore why you’ve kept this secret for so long.

3. Embarrassing moments. What is your most embarrassing moment in front of strangers? It could be spilling a gallon of milk while waiting in a checkout line at the grocery store? Perhaps you openly belched after a scrumptious meal in an upscale restaurant? It could be anything that happened to you or to someone else, and it can take place anywhere. Whatever the event, don’t forget to describe how people reacted because that’s what makes those embarrassing moments worth writing about.

4. Physical features. What physical feature or body part do you obsess over? Is there a feature that you think is too big, too small, too crooked, too narrow, or too obscene to show in public? Explain why this feature makes you feel uncomfortable or inadequate.

5. Parents are people too. When did you realize that your parents were not perfect? That they could not always protect you when you needed to be protected. Or that there were times when they felt scared, angry, lonely or guilty – that they were (gasp!) human.

6. Name changes. Some people don’t like the name they were given at birth. If you could change your name, what would you change it to and why? This could pertain to your first name, your last name or your middle name – or all three. What’s in a name anyway? Do you think a name change would alter your personality or your outlook on the world?

7. Family pets. Did you have a family pet? If so what are some of your favorite memories of that pet? Perhaps you had, like my family did, a series of unusual pets – hamsters, baby chicks, a baby alligator (I think my brother named him Sidney) and goldfish that died within three days. When you think of your favorite pet stories, think “Marley & Me.”

8. Families and food. When we think of family gatherings, we also tend to think of the meals we shared. What role did food have in your family life? Did you enjoy outdoor barbecues and abundant celebrations? Or was it just the opposite – your family struggled to put food on the table? How has food defined your childhood, and have those attitudes carried over into your adult life?

9. Family road trips. What is the most unusual place you and your family visited together? Perhaps you remember going camping for the first time, or learning to ski in Colorado. Have you ever seen the ocean or the mountains? Describe your most memorable vacations and explain why they were so memorable.

10. Family vehicles. Do you remember the car your parents drove when you were a child? Or do you recall the first car you ever owned? What did that car mean to you?

11. Favorite mementos. Is there one possession you have that brings back memories? It could be a piece of jewelry that you received from your grandmother, or a Christmas ornament that’s been handed down several generations. When you see that item, what memories does it conjure up for you?

12. Job hopping. What was the most unique job(s) you ever had? What about your parents or siblings – did they hold any unusual jobs? What work did they do? What did they learn from their experience? For example, when I was born, my father worked as a milkman, delivering milk to households. It was a dying career, however, and my father was soon forced to find other work. Think about family attitudes toward work and earning a living.

13. Hidden quirks and happy habits. Family members all have their hidden quirks and habits – a sister who talks in her sleep, a grandfather who collects antique instruments, or a mother who dances the Irish jig every night after the dinner plates are cleaned and put away. Do you have any family members with hidden quirks, habits or special talents?

14. Musical interludes. What kind of music did your parents listen to when you were growing up? Did you learn to play a musical instrument? I remember growing up with a jukebox in our basement that arrived for my sister’s sixteenth birthday party. I listened to records on that jukebox for hours. These days I have a playlist on my iPod that contains many of those records I listened to long ago. How did your family’s musical tastes influence your own? What role did music play in your family life?

15. The writing life. What events from your childhood influenced you to start writing? Did you win a writing contest, or perhaps you were always good in English and spelling? Was there someone who encouraged you to be a writer – or tried to persuade you not to be one? How did you develop your love of writing? Where did it come from?

There’s plenty of inspiration for your personal essays or memoir. You just have to be willing to go back in time to find them.

Nine signs you were born to be a writer

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I think I realized I was born to write when I was in seventh grade. My English teacher pulled me out of class one day and asked if I was interested in participating in an essay contest. I was flattered and said yes. Never mind that I never submitted an essay to the contest.

Over the years, other teachers expressed similar opinions about my writing skill. No wonder I wanted to write when I grew up. Everybody thought I was good at it.

That begs the question: how do you know that you were born to be a writer? The answer, I suppose, is as varied as the individual writer. Some people start creating plays and writing short stories as early as kindergarten. Others discover their writing hobby in high school when they begin keeping a diary or dabble in poetry. Yet many others don’t discover writing until well into adulthood.

The truth is there are signs that you are meant to be a writer, or at least love to write. (I believe there is a difference between the two: loving to write is more of a hobby while being a writer is a calling.)

Here are a few signs that convinced me that I was born to write. Of course, your experience may be quite different than mine.  

1. You see stories all around you. No matter where you look – your backyard, the park, the school, or the grocery store – stories abound. You can find stories in the people you see on the street and in nature too. For example, there’s a story behind the couple arguing in a restaurant, and a story behind the family of raccoons that dig into your garbage cans every night searching for their next meal. When you see stories in people, places and things, you know you are a writer.

2. You’re a day dreamer. You could be sitting in a classroom, around the dinner table, or out on the patio with your morning coffee, and your mind transports to other worlds – some you know well, and others that don’t exist except in your own imagination. If you’re constantly dreaming of real or imagined worlds, you have the creative mindset to be a writer.

3. You love to read. Reading and writing seem interconnected; I don’t think you can do one without the other. If you enjoy reading full-length books, such as memoirs and nonfiction to suspense thrillers and science fiction, you are naturally going to want to write full-length books too. Reading helps you learn about crafting stories, essential if you want to be a writer.

4. You enjoy spending time alone. Recent research at the University of Buffalo finds that unsociable individuals who withdraw from society because of a “non-fearful preference for solitude” are more likely to engage in creative activities. Writers are by nature solo artists. They do their best work when they are alone. They don’t mind that alone time because it gives them a chance to hear their thoughts, organize their ideas and craft their stories, both inside their heads and on paper.

5. You’ve received compliments about your writing. You may even keep a file of papers and essays with teachers’ remarks on it that remind you how good you can be. Pay attention to the feedback you get from teachers and colleagues. More important, pay attention to what you learn about your writing from their feedback. For example, while the feedback from my teacher in eighth grade made me feel good, her observation about being verbose and repetitive made me more aware of what I needed to work on. To this day, I write with an awareness to be succinct. If so many people tell you that they enjoy your writing, that might be a sign that you were meant to write.

6. You always kept a journal. It seems many writers kept a journal when they were younger. Journals are a way to sort through your emotions, your ideals, your hopes and dreams. You might one day look back over what you’ve written so long ago to see how far you’ve come in understanding that time of your life. Making sense of nonsensical things is one of the strengths of writers. Keeping a journal to do that is one more sign you might have been born to write.

7. You are constantly reading and learning about writing. You attend workshops, conferences, lectures, and author readings. You join writing groups to get feedback for your work. You soak up all the knowledge you can about your craft. You don’t have to attend an MFA program to be a writer because there are plenty of other resources available, such as websites, magazines and writing studios. There’s a huge writing community, and we can all learn from each other.

8. You express yourself better in writing than verbally. Debra Lobel, an author at the Writing Cooperative, says when things get too emotional, she writes about those emotions and puts them down on paper. Sometimes she sends the note, but other times, Lobel says, she puts it into her fiction. If you were born to write, you probably find it easier to put your thoughts on paper than to speak them.

9. You had imaginary friends in childhood. Sure, you hung out with your school friends and did your homework together, but when you needed a good heart-to-heart chat, you turned to those invisible friends for comfort. At least, they never talked back to you.

However, just because you experience any or all of these signs doesn’t guarantee that you were meant to write.  Conversely, you can still be a writer even if none of these experiences is true for you.

Think about your own writing experience. Were there any signs early on that you were meant to be a writer?

Come to think of it, there is probably only one true sign that you were born to write. That is making the time to write every day.  

Writing a Novel Takes Practice

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At a panel discussion I attended several months ago, one of the panelists described how she had a practice novel before ever getting published. She had been toiling on this particular story for months before deciding it wasn’t working. So she tucked it away into a drawer and began working on another novel, which eventually got published.

Up until that day, I had never heard of a practice novel. In that moment, I realized that one or two of the manuscripts I had been working on were most likely practice novels.

For the uninitiated, practice novels are written manuscripts that usually never get published. They serve to help you learn how to craft a story in novel form and work out different story ideas and angles. “Chances are the successful first novel is the one that was published, not the first one written,” writes author Donna Cook on her blog.

Think of a practice novel as the warm up concert act before the headliner hits the stage.

Tackling a novel is hard work, and not everyone is cut out for it. Writing a practice novel can lay the groundwork for future success, while helping you work out the kinks of your writing process. If you harbor any doubts or have any question about your abilities, the practice novel can usually answer them.

Here are several ways that practice novels can help your writing.

Practice novels are ideal for beginning writers. While many first-time published authors have previous writing experience, and perhaps have earned a degree from an MFA program, most beginning writers are starting to figure out how to write a novel. Practice novels help you learn the art of storytelling – from plot structure, dialogue, character development, even sentence structure. You learn as you go along, by learning from mistakes, picking up helpful tips from other writers, or by taking occasional workshops. It’s a piecemeal process, and a lengthy one. Even after spending several years working on a manuscript, off and on between other projects, that time is not wasted because you are continually honing your craft.

Practice novels help you gain insights about yourself. As you write each day, you learn how to set goals for yourself and solve storytelling problems. You pay more attention to how you think and how you feel. You may pay more attention to conversations around you, observe how you interact with others, and examine scenery with an eye for color and detail. Through your characters, you learn what makes people tick. Practice novels help you see your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and help you determine if you have what it takes to pursue this strange ambition. Novel writing isn’t for everyone, but a practice novel can tell you if this path is right for you.

Practice novels can help you test out different genres. If you read a variety of genres, it’s only natural that you want to experiment with each of those styles. Perhaps you’re a fan of both romantic suspense and mystery/thrillers, for example. While the two share common elements, there are also differences. You might experiment with both of them, but find through practice that writing a thriller fits your writing style better. Practice novels can help you figure out which genre best suits your writing style and whether your story idea has wheels.

Practice novels may never get published, but parts of it can be – later. It’s rare that the practice novel manuscript gets published at all. There are a few exceptions, such as Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but published many years later. Most readers and critics agree it wasn’t nearly as prolific as Mockingbird. While most practice novels never see the light of day, some can be utilized in bits and pieces. For example, author Anne Allen, used pieces of her practice novel for another one she wrote 15 years later. Likewise, you may decide that some of the scenes and characters from your first unpublished manuscript are worth saving for the purpose of using in other works. The work you’ve done on a practice novel is never wasted when parts of it can be used in future works.

Practice novels can help you stick to a regular writing practice. When you know you are working toward a specific goal, like completing a novel, it’s much easier to write every day. It’s also much easier to find time to write, no matter how busy you are, because you are immersed in your work-in-progress.

Instead of practice novels, try writing short stories. Many people find the prospect of writing a novel daunting, like climbing a mountain when you’ve never climbed before. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a smaller project, like a short story, which can provide valuable storytelling skills, like plot, character development, and pacing, according to The Writing Cooperative. Further, if you decide to send out that short story to an editor or critique group, you’ll likely get feedback faster. People may be more inclined to review a 20-page manuscript than a 200-page novel. With speedier turnaround time, you’ll learn sooner rather than later whether your work is any good, and what you may need to do to improve it.

Practice novels require a lot of time, effort and patience, but that time is never wasted. Each hour you put into your practice novel is time well spent learning about crafting stories. Even if your practice novel never gets published, just completing one is worth celebrating.