For Writers

Writing a novel and finding book publishers isn’t easy. Learn how to write a novel, beat writer’s block, find literary agents and publish a book with these free writing tips.

Want to Get Published? Read This.

Want to Get Published Read ThisI’ve talked to dozens of best-selling authors about their early years, before they were published. And the similarities between them are striking.

On average, they wrote about half a dozen unpublished manuscripts before they sold a novel.

(By the way, this is what I call the Myth of the First Novel. Because it’s hardly ever the first novel they wrote. Just the first one to get published. But that’s beside the point.)

Aside from cranking out thousands of pages of prose, there’s one thing they all do furiously:

They read every day.

If you want to get published, you need to be an avid reader. Here’s what you should read.

Read books about writing fiction.

Writing is a skill, and it can be learned. Nobody is born with “author” stamped on their birth certificate. Whatever you want to write, you can learn how.

Not sure where to begin? You’re already here on Fiction University, so you’re off to a good start.

Subscribe to a good writing magazine, such as Writer’s DigestThe Writer, or Writers’ Forum.

Then find some top-quality books you can study. Here are my personal recommendations of some of the best books for any aspiring novelist:

There are plenty more. But that’s a good start. Stack those books up beside your reading chair, and you’ll give yourself a top-notch education in writing fiction.

Read both good and bad books.

Read everything you can get your hands on, both good and bad.

Obviously, reading good writing will inspire you to write better. But bad novels can be just as educational. Reading cheap, cheesy, overblown writing might just make you feel better about your own writing skills.

Plus, it’s a quick way to learn what not to do. That’s valuable, too.

Read inside your genre.

First: yes, you must pick a genre for each book you write. No, you don’t have to stick to the same genre for the rest of your life.

Read to see what other people are doing in your genre, and how they’re doing it. Pay attention to what works, and what doesn’t. See what’s popular and what isn’t. See what’s been done to death, and look for a way to do something fresh and new.

Read widely.

Don’t just stick to your favorite subjects. Take a walk through the library or bookstore and pick up anything that catches your eye. Read random magazines. Read a good newspaper, like the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. You never know what you’ll discover.

In the last 24 hours alone, I’ve read about:

  • backpacking through a disaster area
  • the law regarding cursed objects in medieval England
  • how to convert a van into an RV
  • using radar to map ancient Incan cities, and
  • a guy chasing a car around LA because it had giant fiberglass chicken on the roof. I’m not making this up.

At least two of those things will end up in my next book. Maybe three. Overall, time spent reading is time well spent.

Soak up all the knowledge you can.

You never know when something you read today will come in handy for a story tomorrow. Every character, setting, and plot you write about has to come from somewhere.

Remember, your own personal experiences are only the starting point. Reading avidly multiplies that many times over.

The hidden bonuses of reading:

Studies have shown that both kids and adults who read fiction exhibit improved empathy and problem-solving skills.

Here’s another bonus: better sleep. The less time you spend watching a screen (especially at night), the quicker you’ll fall asleep. You’ll also enjoy a better quality of sleep. The trick is to read a paper book (or a Kindle Paperwhite), not a phone or tablet with a backlight.

So, if you can’t find anything good on Netflix tonight, just switch off the TV. Read a book. It will make you a better writer.

What are your favorite books about writing?

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Compelling Character Arcs in 4 Easy Steps

Compelling Character Arcs in 4 Easy StepsI’ll let you in on a secret: readers want your character to change.

They know, deep down, that your character is unhappy with the status quo at the beginning of your book.

Something is terribly wrong in your character’s life, and things can’t keep going on this way.

Something’s got to give.

Readers fervently hope that your character will rise to the challenge and become a better, happier person.

In other words, what your readers want is a character arc. But how do you create one?

Believe it or not, there is an easy way. Here’s how to create an arc in any story.

1. What’s wrong with this character?

First, you need some raw materials to work with. The best way to create them is by brainstorming.

Open up a blank page or document and jot down at least ten problems in your main character’s life. Not the main plot problem of the novel, but some kind of trouble that your character would have to deal with even if the main plot wasn’t happening.

These could be personality flaws, toxic relationships, a bad living situation, a lousy job, anything that needs to be fixed in order for this character to be happy.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What is lacking from this character’s life at the start of the story?
  • Why are they in this situation?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What self-defeating belief are they carrying around that’s holding them back?

Jot down anything that comes to mind. These could be problems that are already there in the story, or they could be ideas for new problems. You don’t have to use all of them. Just pick the single most dramatic or compelling problem, and start there.

Here’s an example. In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, the main character desperately wants to be a crystal sorceress, but she doesn’t believe in herself. So she settles for opening a crystal shop instead.

“I have just a smidge of talent. That’s it,” Dru said. “I never developed any real powers, no matter how hard I tried. And I tried super hard.”

“I know. I was there.” Rane made a face, apparently reliving some awkward memory.

Dru sighed. “All I’ve ever been able to do is a few crystal tricks. That’s it. Maybe brew up some potions that never ever seem to work right. So I decided to open up a crystal shop. I figured if I can’t fight the bad guys on my own, then the least I can do is help the real sorcerers any way I can.”

2. Make it a scene.

Now, write a scene near the beginning of the story where the character has to make an important choice—and they choose wrong.

Most importantly, make sure that they do the wrong thing because of their flaw.

What are the consequences of that? How does it make this character’s life worse? Show the complications that come out of that choice.

Be careful with this scene. You don’t want to lose the reader’s sympathy. Use all of your writerly skills to make it completely believable and understandable why the character chooses a path that is about to make them horrendously unhappy.

Here’s what happens in the first Dru Jasper book, It Happened One Doomsday:

She was a little nervous, leaving a safe cubicle job and opening her own business, trying to run it all by herself. But the work was exhilarating.

Curing magic-hangover headaches and nausea. Finding the right ingredients for a good luck charm. Helping the occasional B-list sorceress track down a long-lost book, decode an ancient inscription or identify an errant creature that had strayed too far into civilization.

Working with a real sorceress was like being invited backstage by a rock star. Every time, Dru had to resist the urge to squeal.

3. Now, make the right choice.

Let’s fast-forward to the far end of the character arc and see how it all works out.

Imagine that your character has grown past the flaw that used to hold her back. (Because by the time we’re done, that’s exactly what’s going to happen in your book.) Picture this character as a whole, happy, competent person.

Now, write another scene near the end of your story where the character digs down deep inside and finds the strength to make the right choice.

This scene can parallel the earlier scene, or it can be something totally different. The intent is to show that your character has learned something important. They are stronger now. They are better than they used to be.

And voila. Your character has just transformed.

Bonus tip: After the character has made that pivotal choice, have someone else point out this character’s newfound inner strength.

Here’s an example from It Happened One Doomsday, after Dru has finally found the strength to believe in herself and use her magical powers to defeat a malevolent creature of darkness:

Dru shook herself. She still couldn’t believe what had just happened. The concept of actually being a sorceress was just too big an idea to handle.

Rane punched her in the shoulder. “Welcome backstage, rock star.”

“Ow.” Dru rubbed her upper arm. “Thanks. I think.”

4. Build that arc throughout your novel.

Basically, what you’re doing here is showing the “before” and “after” versions of your character. It’s kind of like one of those late-night infomercials, except that instead of showcasing some dubious exercise gadget, you’re revealing your character’s transformation.

Neat, right? But don’t stop there.

Go back through your book and look for places where you can show your character struggling with the same issue. Put in a couple more scenes in the middle where your character is trying to change, and gets closer every time—but doesn’t quite make it.

When someone reads your book straight through from beginning to end, they will see a character who starts out flawed and living a troubled life, who strives to do the right thing and eventually—after much struggle and heartache—becomes a better person and finally triumphs.

Now, that’s a character you can really root for!

How miserable can you make your character?

The more troubles you give your character, the more challenges you force them to overcome, the more dramatic their character arc will be. So don’t hold back. Make your character miserable. And then when they finally succeed, your readers will stand up and cheer.

What’s the biggest problem you can think of to give your main character?

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5 Tips for Writing Critique Group Success

5 Tips for Writing Critique Group SuccessThinking about joining a writing group, or starting your own?

A supportive and insightful group can help you become a better writer and put you on the path to getting published.

But a disorganized group can squelch your enthusiasm to write and leave you feeling confused.

To stop the writing group headaches before they began, follow these crucial tips.

1. Choose (or start) a group that specializes in your genre.

One of the biggest mistakes most writing groups make is embracing every form of writing you can think of: essays, screenplays, nonfiction, poetry, romance novels, you name it.

On the surface, it sounds like a golden idea. Very open and egalitarian. Everyone can contribute. It’s great, right?

In reality, not so much.

The problem is that when anyone can bring anything, the quality of feedback drops like a rock. Real insights are few and far between, because everyone ends up talking in generalities. No one is a specialist.

Here’s a better idea: team up with writers focused on writing the same kind of thing you write. If you write romance, find a group of romance writers. If you write mystery, find a group of mystery writers.

You’ll get higher quality feedback in a group that’s focused on one genre. Other members will be better educated in current trends, best-selling works, and established conventions in your genre. And that will help you become a better writer.
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7 Keys to Irresistible Plots

Is there a simple way to make the plot of your story irresistible, so that your readers keep turning pages, desperate to find out what happens next?

Yes. Every irresistible plot contains seven key elements that help catch the reader’s attention and hold it to the very last page.

These keys are so universal that you’ve seen them hundreds of times before, even if you didn’t recognize them. In fact, you’ll actually find these plot keys hidden in the spelling of the word FICTION.

F is for Flaw

In a well-crafted story, something is already wrong even before page one. It could be a dysfunctional relationship, an unhealthy situation, or an unresolved trauma haunting the viewpoint character. Or all three at the same time.

Creating a character who is perfectly fine at the start of the story robs you of opportunities to put your character in deeper and more complex trouble over the coming pages.

But starting the story with a character already suffering a certain amount of misery gives them more room to grow — and helps make your story irresistible.
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Is Your Story Stuck? 5 Questions You Need to Ask

Are you writing a novel or story and feeling stuck? Do you have the sneaking suspicion that your story went off the rails somewhere? Not sure what to do with your characters?

Don’t worry. You can fix practically any story problem just by asking yourself five simple questions:

1. Who’s really driving the action in this story?

Sometimes, we start writing a story with one character in mind, but a few chapters later, a different character takes over. That can leave you feeling stuck, and you may not even know why.

To find out if this is your problem, make a quick list of the main characters in your story. Then ask yourself this:

  • Who has the strongest, clearest, most specific goal?
  • Who has the most to lose?
  • Who appears in the highest number of scenes?
  • Who could be (or has been) hurt the worst?

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The Ultimate Guide to Character Motivation (Part 2)

ultimate guide to character motivation part 2Why do heroes and villains do what they do?

In Part 1 of this article, we explored Greed, Revenge, and Acceptance, three of the most powerful motivations in literature.

Now, let’s find out how you can you can create fascinating characters driven by the need for Identity, Love, or Survival.

I is for Identity

Who am I? That question lies at the core of countless stories.

A character driven to establish their identity often begins the story in a negative place, and then has a moment of clarity that tells them why they need to fundamentally change who they are. This is a common motivation for characters just starting out in life who strive to become someone better. It also works for mature characters who have fallen from grace and need to redeem themselves.

Young adult characters trying to establish their identity often come into conflict with parents, teachers, and friends who are growing in different directions.

Identity is also the motivation driving a character who is heir to a “throne” (literal or figurative) that he or she doesn’t want. The character often casts off the fate that has been preordained for them and sets off on their own path, to establish their own identity.

Identity can also be a rich source of conflict when society imposes a stereotype on a character, telling them that they have to “be” a certain way. Consequently, the character must struggle to prove their individuality. This can be a tricky motivation to pull off without falling into clichés. But if done right, it can be deeply moving.

In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, the heroine begins as an ordinary shopkeeper who has always regarded sorcerers with undisguised awe. But when her newfound magical powers make her a sorceress in her own right, she struggles to fit into her new identity.

Identity also often plays a part in heroic characters who are trying to make the world a better place, whether by improving society, elevating humanity, or stamping out a widespread problem. In many cases, the character’s true motivation arises from their personal quest to establish or change their identity.

L is for Love

Where would fiction be without characters motivated by love?

Romantic love is by far the most common type in fiction. But it’s also important to remember that “love” in the truest sense can also extend to the love of your friends, your family, your hometown, your country, or any other person, place, or thing.

Love is a powerful motivator. You can make any character go to great lengths simply by threatening someone, something, or someplace that the character loves.

This happens all the time in my books. Greyson, the love interest, must risk his life and even his mortal soul to save the heroine, Dru. Of course, because she also loves him, she just as often saves him in turn. These characters are series regulars, so their love is a continuing source of conflict.

Don’t write off love as a motivation for villains, either. A villain motivated by love can become not only a tragic figure by the end of the story, but also completely sympathetic and unforgettable to the reader.

S is for Survival

One of the most primal motivations, survival is at the core of most action-driven stories. For pulse-pounding excitement, not much can beat watching a sympathetic character struggle to survive against overwhelming odds.

In any science fiction, fantasy, horror, or adventure story featuring a monster with gnashing teeth, the motivation is starkly clear: don’t get eaten. It’s as simple as that.

The survival motivation also kicks in whenever a character becomes lost in the wilderness, shipwrecked, or otherwise stranded far from civilization. Plus, anytime a character is imprisoned, kidnapped, taken hostage, or captured, survival is at the core of your story.

In my Dru Jasper series, the characters are constantly faced with monsters, demons, evil sorcerers, and other deadly forces of darkness. Even though the series takes place in and around the city of Denver, there are plenty of dark alleys, abandoned warehouses, and even the isolated valleys of the nearby Rocky Mountains where the heroes must struggle to survive.

Survival can also be used metaphorically when a character’s career or marriage is at stake. The threat of losing a job or a spouse can feel like a threat to their survival, and drive a character to extremes. What new facets of the character will be revealed when they come face-to-face with their own mortality?

Exercise: What Motivates Your Character?

Pick a character from your story and ask yourself these questions. Write down the answers in your notebook. Think in terms of hypotheticals: what could happen in your story, compared to what’s actually happening. That will get your brain primed to come up with new ideas.

1. What would this character learn or change about their own identity, if they could? How might society expect them to behave in a way that goes against their nature?

2. Who or what does this character love more than anything? A friend, family member, or romantic interest? Who or what would this character do anything to save?

3. What could threaten this character’s life, if not literally, then metaphorically??

To recap, the most powerful motivations are: Greed, Revenge, Acceptance, Identity, Love, and Survival.

Think about one of your favorite stories or books. What motivates the villain? How about the hero?

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7 Keys to Creating Bloodcurdling Monsters

How to Create MonstersScience fiction, fantasy and horror stories are full of monsters. But one of the toughest jobs a writer has is coming up with creatures that are new and interesting.

When I sat down to write my urban fantasy novel A Kiss Before Doomsday, I knew that the bad guys would be undead creatures. But today’s readers have seen countless undead foes. How do you put a brand-new spin on such an old idea?

The Secret to Making Monsters

The secret to creating compelling monsters can be found in the word itself. MONSTER makes a useful acronym:

  • M is for Mind
  • O is for Origin
  • N is for Need
  • S is for Sketch
  • T is for Take On
  • E is for Eat
  • R is for Relationships

To create a truly unique, complex monster, look carefully at each of these aspects, then ask yourself questions and write down the answers. By the time you finish, you’ll have a monster that’s not only frightening, it’s also fascinating.
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6 Easy Steps to Planning Out Your Novel

Even if you hate the idea of writing an outline or synopsis, you can still figure out a plan to help you finish your novel fast, avoid major revisions, and beat writer’s block forever.

It’s surprisingly easy. Here’s how to do it.

First, turn off your computer and set aside your notebook. For this exercise, you going to need a pack of index cards. Regular old 3 x 5 cards will work just fine.

Wait — index cards? Really?

Yes. It may sound clunky, but writing on small cards actually makes it easier to plan out your story.

With cards, you can throw away or rearrange your ideas instantly. Plus, small cards force you to focus your thoughts. When you only have a few square inches to work with, you need to be succinct, and that boosts your creativity.

Here’s what to do:

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3 Secrets to Writing Vivid Settings

3 Secrets to Writing Vivid SettingsThere are three elements that make up every story: people, problems, and places.

To form a good story, those elements need to be in balance, because each one affects the others.

That’s why you need to put as much effort into the places in your story—your setting—as you do for your characters and your plot.

Here are the three best ways to make that effort pay off, so that your setting comes alive. Continue reading

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5 Books That Will Inspire You to Be a Writer

The Pulp JungleAre you planning to write a book in 2020?

Want some writing inspiration and wisdom from authors who have written dozens or even hundreds of stories and books?

Check out my list of the five most inspiring books about writing over at Civilian Reader.

P.S. Do you love free stuff . . . like books, for instance? Want a chance to win one? Get my author newsletter.

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