Category : The Writing Craft

  • May 20, 2013

    What do you look for in historical fiction?


    Someone wrote to ask, “Should an author who writes historical fiction stick only to fiction? Since so much historical research has to be conducted, how do you feel about authors using their novel research to also pen nonfiction?”

    I think it depends on the author’s preference, or maybe their gifting. I don’t have any problem representing authors who write both fiction and nonfiction. However, it’s really tough for a writer to succeed at both. In my view, a novel requires a different set of writing skills than a nonfiction book — novelists require the ability to show, not tell, while nonfiction is all about telling. There are very few examples of writers who have excelled at both. (Yes, there are some, but not many.) And readers simply don’t cross over – most tend to be either fiction readers or nonfiction readers. And historical fiction readers aren’t generally that interested in reading a nonfiction book from a favorite writer, so even a bestselling novelist will find her nonfiction book to be a hard sell in the marketplace. For those very practical reasons, most historical fiction writers tend to stay with the fiction genre. 

    Another writer wants to know, “What particular skills do you look for in a writer of historical fiction?”

    A strong voice, first of all. The one thing that makes a novel unique is not so much the setting or the characters so much as the voice of the writer. Too many historical novels feel the same — the setting has changed, but the book could have been written by anyone. So what really sets it apart, and the first thing I look for, is a strong author voice. That being said, a strong sense of history and adequate research so that the story feels genuine are essential, of course. I want a story that’s unique and interesting, so it’s best if the writer has a passion for

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  • May 15, 2013

    How can I improve my dialogue? (A guest post)


    Recently, I received a call from my publisher. “You’re saving us a lot of money,” he said.

    My response was instinctive. “Add it to my next royalty check.”

    “I’m serious, man. We hired a scriptwriter to convert your novel to a script for an audio book. She had it back to us in three days. She said your dialogue was so natural, she pretty much just transcribed it.”

    “You know what they say: ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.’”

“Well,” he said, “yours is on the page, so we’re puttin’ it on the stage.”


    Although novels, short stories, and works of narrative nonfiction are venues of the mind, I try to write dialogue as though my readers will be in an audience listening to a performance. It forces me to keep the dialogue crisp, witty, poignant, and supported by the right stage business. Let me share with you some tips from scriptwriting that will enhance your prose.

    Begin by reading and studying other writers’ scripts. And by that, I mean reading them aloud. When I was in graduate school as an English major, one of my profs made us read out loud in class. We read long passages from plays by George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Samuel Beckett, and Agatha Christie. I was amazed at how this approach to understanding literature also served to sharpen my ear in regard to writing dialogue for my short stories. I still do this today with TV and movie scripts, musicals, and stage dramas. You can do likewise by obtaining play collections from the library or downloading public domain scripts from the Internet.


    If you’re not confident about how to make a scene dramatic enough, you can surprise readers by doing a flip-flop. In scriptwriting this is called role reversal. A “normal” scene would have a mother

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  • April 20, 2013

    The Power of Words (a guest post)


    A guest post by Karen Swallow Prior

    In Charlotte’s Web, the first hint Wilbur the pig receives about the odd spider’s true character comes when she tells him her name, Charlotte A. Cavatica. What an oddly beautiful name for a creature usually associated with ugliness, fear, and death. Upon hearing her name, Wilbur tells Charlotte, “I think you’re beautiful.” And Charlotte, naturally, agrees.

    Names are powerful words. We don’t think about names quite the same way people of old did, and this is our great error. In ancient times, a person’s name often signified an event, a personal quality, or a family relation. In this way, a name offered not only a label for oneself, but even more importantly, a connection to the world one was born into and a part of. The acts of naming and being named were momentous events laden with significance—just as it is significant that the first work God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden was naming the animals. To name something or someone is a gesture that is both creative and powerful. In Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White bestowed a spider with the name of Charlotte A. Cavatica. And he gave a little girl—one a lot like me—the name of Fern Arable, a name resonant with the pastoral qualities that permeate the pages of the book.

    As for me, my mother chose my middle name, Irene, first because it is my grandmother’s name, and then she picked a first name suitable to accompany it. For most of my life, I thought of Irene as an old, ugly name. But now that I am older, and my grandmother is much more so, and I can better appreciate who she is and the life she has lived, I think it is a pure, strong name. Its origin is Greek; it means peace. I’m thankful for this name, not only because I think it is beautiful

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  • April 15, 2013

    Why do we write?


    I’m sorry to have dropped out of the teleseminar last week. If you stopped by and were expecting me, I apologize for doing a no-show. Knowing I was going to be talking with Michael Hyatt, I went to a Mexican restaurant and ordered fish tacos for lunch (since everyone knows Mike believes fish tacos are the secret to great book publishing). Anyway, lesson for the day: When eating at a sketchy Mexican place at the beach, stay away from fish tacos. I got sick, and ended up in bed. My apologies, but I hear Mike and Amanda rocked it. Thanks for participating, thanks to Michael for being fabulous, and a huge thank you to Amanda for pinch-hitting and taking leadership of the event. 

    If I can go back to writing and publishing questions, I thought you’d like to see this question someone sent me: “I’ve been writing for several months now, and I’m trying to figure out what my motivation is. Can you help me understand WHY I want to become a published author?”

    A fascinating question. Okay, this may surprise you, but I believe most new writers basically want to get published so that they’ll be famous. They want that thrill of holding up a book with their name emblazoned on the cover, show it to their friends, leave it on their coffee table, maybe peruse a copy at the bookstore and casually mention to someone in the aisle, “You know… I wrote this.” I think most new writers are seeking fame and encouragement, that they believe validity and meaning will arrive out of publication. They see fame as offering a measurable amount of worth and competence. 

    That’s not to say most new writers don’t also have something they want to say — they do. It’s just that many newer writers struggle with having a worthwhile story. Think about it — we all know it takes a while for

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  • March 20, 2013

    Why did you become a writer?


    Someone wrote to say, “I’ve never seen you answer this question… What moved you to begin writing?”

    I’ve always been a words guy — I started writing as a child and never stopped. My mom said that, when I was in first grade, I came home and announced, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a book guy.” So I guess I had to live up to that promise. I’ve been writing ever since. My life has been intertwined with words. My first real job in college was as a copyeditor for a junior high science teacher’s magazine. I later worked for newspapers, then back to magazines, and eventually to books. I can’t not write. There are stories inside me, or stories I see, and they simply must be told. I love working with authors to help them tell their stories. Words are what move me. Thanks for asking. 

    On a related note, someone asked, “As a writer, what keeps you going through the setbacks and disappointments?”

    I suppose a lot of writers will tell you that writing is therapy – and I suppose it is for me, in a way. But I’ve kept writing because I still have stories to tell, I still have things to say. I rarely feel the setbacks I’ve faced were because of my writing. Rather, they were in spite of my writing, or maybe they were at odds with my writing. So I kept writing until I could convince the people who made the mistake of saying “no” in the first place.

    And let’s face it – most “disappointment” authors face is really the simple act of rejection. Writers hate to hear the word “no.” But I’ve never been one who allowed “no” to get in the way of accomplishing what I wanted. So while I’ve had more than my shares of “no” as both writer and agent, I’ve continued writing because that’s

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  • March 11, 2013

    What is "voice" in writing?


    We’re continuing our “ask an agent anything” series, where I’m trying to offer some short answers to your general publishing questions. If you’ve got a question you’ve always wanted to ask an agent, send it to me or leave it in the “comments” section. One reader wrote to ask, What is “voice” in writing? “

    Voice is the personality of the author, expressed through words on the page. When you write, your word choices, your phrasing and structure, your thinking and themes — they all help establish your personality as a writer. So the way I write is different from the way someone else writes — my personality comes through, and shows how I’m different and unique as a writer. (An example: Stephen King and William Faulkner both like long sentences, psychological implications, semicolons, and the use of the word “and” in their works… but nobody ever picked up a Stephen King novel and mistook it for a William Faulkner novel. Though they share some characteristics, each writer has his own personality, and that comes through on the page.) Of course, not every writing voice is good — just as not every singing voice is good. A great writer has a voice that is appealing and interesting.

    Similarly, another person asked, “How does a writer know when he has established a strong voice in his work?” 

    It takes time and effort. I’ve always thought a writer recognizes his or her own voice over time, so the more you write, the better you hear yourself in your words. My experience is that, as I write more and more, my personality becomes clear on the page. When we talk, your words don’t sound like mine. Your stories don’t sound like mine. Your personality is unique, and getting that to be clearly expressed on the page will help you define your voice. (So, for example, when I tell my story of being

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  • February 26, 2013

    Should I use first-person or third-person in my novel?


    Someone asked, “In your opinion, is it better to see first-person or third-person POV novels for a first-time novelist?”

    I’m not one who gets too worked up about first-or-third POV as the “answer” to great fiction. A good novelist can use either one. However, I can tell you from experience that many first-person novels from beginning writers suffer from an overuse of the “I-verb” syndrome. (“I started… I walked… I ate… I moved… I handed… I answered…”) That endless parade of I-verbs creates a really dull novel. First-person fiction can be great, and it’s certainly become much more common in recent years, but in my view it’s harder to master than third person. 

    On a related note, someone asked, “Is it true most publishers don’t want first-person novels?”

    No, I don’t think that’s true at all. Again, writing an excellent first-person novel is simply harder to do well, so publishers probably have set the bar a bit higher. But some of the best fiction on the market is done in first person, and publishers still buy first-person novels. (Two favorite authors of mine, Ross Thomas and John D. MacDonald, wrote nearly everything from the first-person point of view. Bridget Jones Diary was a wildly successful first-person novel. I could give a bunch of other examples.)

    One author sent in this: “How many POV’s should a new novelist have in women’s contemporary fiction? I’ve heard we should use two for romance and one or two for general fiction. (I’m asking because my work in progress has one main character, but three other storylines that each require chapters from their POV. I’m wondering if that will make my novel harder to sell.)”

    Interesting question, since it seems to suggest there are hard and fast rules to be followed in contemporary fiction. While there are certainly rules to follow in genre literature (for example, if you’re writing contemporary romance, you’ve got to have

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  • February 8, 2013

    How can I find my writing voice?


    I’ve had several questions recently on finding one’s voice… so I turned to good buddy Les Edgerton, author of the brilliant ebook Finding Your Voice…

    Writers’ Isolation

    I’ll wager that most of you reading this do something else to earn your daily bread. Which means that for most of your waking hours, you’re among non-writers. That’s probably true even if you’re self-employed or stay at home with those small citizens roaming around the living room who bear your last name and a smaller version of your nose. If your main source of social contact happens to be your significant other, he or she probably isn’t a writer either.

    Further, most of the people you work in the office or on the assembly line with—or break bread at noon with—or meet in the coffee shop after work with—more than likely aren’t writers—chances are they probably aren’t readers either. Oh, sure, casual readers, but not readers to the depth you’re a reader.

    What does this mean to you as a writer?

    Only this—it’s easy to begin to think of your own potential readership as being comprised of the same kinds of folks you see at work or at play or bearing a strong resemblance to the family next door. Non-writers and nonreaders or casual readers, mostly. Unless you lease a rent-controlled co-op in the Simon & Schuster building.

    And why wouldn’t you see your audience that way? After a while, it’s only natural to imagine most people in the country itself are pretty much like the folks you see every day.

    Well, most folks are . . . but those aren’t your readers, usually.

    Your reader is yourself.

    Write This Down!

    I’ll repeat: Your reader is yourself.

    Or someone much like yourself.

    Someone who shares your interests, knows just about the same things as you do, has close to the same intelligence, has a reading background and history similar to what you’ve
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  • October 17, 2012

    How can I get the most out of my writing group?


    A reader wrote to say, “I’m going to a big writing conference that encourages us to join a critique group. You’ve talked before about the benefit of being in a critique group, but I was in a critique group that didn’t work. What I’m wondering is how to make a critique group actually WORK. Can you help?”

    I’m a huge fan of critique groups, and have participated in several until I moved or they wised up and threw me out. The experience has taught me a few principles for getting the most out of the group. Here are my Ten Laws of Critique Groups:

    1. Ask yourself why you want a critique group. What do you hope to get out of it? You ought to have clear expectations going in, so that you’ve got something to evaluate the benefits later. Some people basically want to hang out with other writers — more or less the same reason they attend writers conferences. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your reason for joining, you should easily find a group that fits your needs. Others really want a dedicated group of professional writers to take a careful and thoughtful look at their material. If that’s what you’re after, you’re going to need to put a lot more thought into your group.

    2. The value of a critique group is based almost entirely on the membership. So look for people who are AT YOUR LEVEL or maybe just a bit better than you (if your ego can take it) and talk to them about the group. Basically, people want to know what the commitment will be (a weekly or maybe twice a month meeting that lasts a couple hours), what the expectations are (that members will actually READ the other member’s writings before coming to the meeting), and what the benefit is to them (you’ll hear advice for improving your writing).


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  • October 16, 2012

    How can I improve my online writing group?


    Someone wrote to say, “I signed up for an online writing group. The first meeting was great. Then… nothing. There’s no direction. I don’t know what to do. Help!”

    I know what you mean: You sign up for a writing group, and you’re excited when you receive an email telling you who else is in your group. You introduce yourself to the others. Maybe you go back to check out the things these folks have said on recent topics. One morning you sit down at your computer, log on, and can’t wait to start emailing back and forth with your writing buddies. Then something deflating happens…nobody has much to say. You’re not sure where to start. There’s not really a “leader,” so you don’t want to be the one pushing the group toward a topic, but everybody just seems to be sitting there, waiting for someone else to DO SOMETHING. You start to wonder if this group is a bit off the mark…or if it’s you. Instead of participating in the group, you start thinking of spending your time at something considerably more helpful — like online mah jong.

    If that describes you and your online writing group, may I offer a handful of helpful thoughts?

    First, some perspectives regarding a writing group…

    -The group should be a SUPPORTIVE experience. So keep it positive.

    -The group should be an EDUCATIONAL experience. Share your thoughts openly.

    -The group should be a CHALLENGING experience. Learn to listen.

    -The group should be a FOCUSED experience. The others are there to critique your work, not your character.

    -The group should be a FUN experience. Let people vent, say stupid things, poke fun, make jokes…and you do the same.

    Next, let me offer some ideas to get the most out of your group:

    1. Everybody read an article (maybe an online article) and discuss the writing.

    2. Ditto with a book…but this is considerably

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