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Writing

Featured Client: Alise Versella | Writer’s Relief

Click on the video above to hear about Alise’s experience with Writer’s Relief!

Alise Versella is a Pushcart-nominated contributing writer for Rebelle Society, but when she first started writing, she was just like any other poet without publication credits. Then she met author David Henry Sterry at a writers’ conference, and he encouraged her to submit work to Writer’s Relief. That decision changed the course of her career as a poet. Now Alise has an impressive (and growing) list of credits in literary journals such as Crack the Spine, Entropy, Enclave, The Opiate, and Penumbra Literary and Art Journal, just to name a few. She recently published her poetry collection When Wolves Become Birds (Golden Dragonfly Press).

Read on and watch the video to hear how Writer’s Relief’s expert targeting helped Alise move from rejections to acceptances and build her publication credits!

In Alise’s Own Words

Back in 2018, I met David Henry Sterry and his wife, Arielle Eckstut, at the Rutgers Writers’ Conference. He edited my poetry manuscript, which would soon become When Wolves Become Birds. He liked what he saw, but I was for the most part an unpublished poet. He was the one who told me about Writer’s Relief, and so I took the leap and submitted my work to them.

I remember that acceptance email—how I had an actual response as to which poems of the submitted group were well liked. Not many people say anything about the work, so I was sold. Here were people I didn’t know telling me this was good work and that they’d help me place it.

With the help of Writer’s Relief, poems I had rejection after rejection for were finally accepted. Since that first acceptance with them, I have had twenty-eight more. I have seen my work published in literary magazines—physical copies that hold weight in my hands…that sit on my bookshelf…that smell of ink and acid-free paper. A long-dreamt dream come true! I have a book now—a full collection with an actual press—and the previously published poems list is lengthy on the acknowledgments page, which gives me great pride.

Working with Writer’s Relief gave me confidence. They celebrate with me and they keep me going when the rejections come. It all goes back to the beginning: “This is good work.” If you believe that, and you find the people to support you and help you, the literary magazines will see that too.

Thank you, Writer’s Relief, my quasi family in an industry that is often daunting.

More About Alise

Alise Versella has also been published in Academy of the Heart and Mind, Circle Show, COG Magazine, Poydras Review, Ultraviolet Tribe, What Rough Beast, Steam Ticket, Elephant Journal, and Wrath-Bearing Tree, among others. Alise has worked with author Francesca Lia Block and Women’s Spiritual Poetry, whose latest anthology, Goddess: When She Rules, raised money for the Malala Fund. Kirkus has called her “…[A] boundlessly energetic and promising technician [who] crafts a unique blend of the symbolist and the confessional; a talented, promising newcomer.” Alise performs at local coffeehouses in southern New Jersey and has taught poetry workshops at local libraries and schools.

To learn more about Alise and her writing, visit her website and follow her on Instagram.

 

 

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Writing

3 Comma Mistakes To Avoid (And The Easy Fixes!) ∣ Writer’s Relief

3 Comma Mistakes To Avoid (And The Easy Fixes!) ∣ Writer’s Relief

Let’s pause briefly (get it?) to consider the comma. While the comma is one of the most common types of punctuation—it’s also one of the most misused. As the grammar police sit stakeout behind a paragraph on Run-On Road, a sentence missing much-needed commas will whiz by when it should be pumping the brakes. Other times, a sentence stuffed like a clown car with way too many commas will crawl slowly, painfully along. Thankfully, the grammar gurus at Writer’s Relief have tips on how to avoid the most common comma mistakes and offer the fixes you need to know.

3 Comma Mistakes And The Easy Fixes

Unnecessary Commas: Who Let All These Commas In?

Some writers follow the “it feels like a pause should be here” rule when placing commas. But this line of thinking can result in too few commas or too many, depending on how often the writer feels the need to take a breath. Instead, there are actual grammar rules that dictate whether or not a comma is necessary.

Commas should not separate a verb from its subject.

Incorrect: Brooke’s box of fire-breathing chameleons, was placed next to the door.

Correct: Brooke’s box of fire-breathing chameleons was placed next to the door.

Note: A verb would be preceded by a comma only if that comma is one of a pair framing a parenthetical phrase.

Commas should not separate a verb from its direct object.

Incorrect: Erinn knew then, what the fire alarm meant.

Correct: Erinn knew then what the fire alarm meant.

“What the fire alarm meant” is the direct object of the verb “knew.” The verb and the direct object should not be separated, unlike Brooke and her box of dangerous fire-breathing chameleons. They should definitely be separated, and Brooke should get something less dangerous, like a goldfish.

Comma Splice: This Run-On Should Be Run Off!

A comma splice creates a type of run-on sentence. This occurs when a comma is incorrectly used to connect two independent clauses. These clauses should instead be separated into two sentences, linked by a semicolon, or linked by a conjunction.

Incorrect: Christina sells goldfish, Brooke never purchased a fish.

Correct: Christina sells goldfish. Brooke never purchased a fish.

Also correct: Christina sells goldfish; Brooke never purchased a fish.

Also correct: Christina sells goldfish, but Brooke never purchased a fish.

Note: A comma would be used before “but” only if the two clauses could be independent sentences. This leads us to our next common comma mistake. And also leads us to wonder what Brooke has against goldfish.

Commas Before All Coordinating Conjunctions: And Yet…

Writers sometimes assume a comma should always appear before certain words: and, but, for, nor, or, yet, so. However, a comma should only be used when the coordinating conjunction is connecting two independent clauses that could stand on their own as sentences. If they cannot, then a comma should not be inserted.

Incorrect: Bailey tried to speak goldfish, but never mastered the skill.

Correct: Bailey tried to speak goldfish but never mastered the skill.

The phrase “never mastered the skill” is NOT an independent clause, so a comma is not required. This article can help you identify whether or not your clauses are independent. And Bailey shouldn’t feel bad—goldfish is a difficult language to learn. It’s all about how you shape the bubbles.

Bonus Comma Rule: The Oxford Comma!

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is the comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more things before the word “and” or “or.” When a sentence includes a series of people, places, or things, using the Oxford comma makes it clear just how many items you are listing and resolves any potential confusion or ambiguity. Without the Oxford comma, you may inadvertently suggest a connection between the last two items listed that does not actually exist.

Example: Brooke went for a stroll with her new pet alligators, Nathan and Pat.

Without the Oxford comma, it would seem that Brooke has finally chosen less flammable pets and named them Nathan and Pat. But we happen to know Nathan and Pat, and we are almost 100% certain they are not alligators.

Oxford comma example: Brooke went for a stroll with her new pet alligators, Nathan, and Pat.

Aha! Now we see that Brooke is walking her pet alligators, while non-alligators Nathan and Pat accompany her from a safe distance. And it is also clear that Brooke still has questionable taste in pets.

Pause And Think When Using Commas

These are the most common comma mistakes that writers make—fortunately, they are all easy to fix! For more great grammar tips and advice, be sure to check out this article: Writers: Get The Best Grammar Tips And Answers—Ask Writer’s Relief!

 

Question: What is the most common comma mistake you’ve seen?

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Writing

Halfway Through 2021: The Best Books so Far | Writer’s Relief

Halfway Through 2021: The Best Books so Far | Writer’s Relief

We’re nearly halfway through the year! While you’re adding to your TBR list, Writer’s Relief has found a list of the best books of 2021 (so far) in this article on bbc.com. Choose from great picks like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun and Joan Didion’s Let Me Tell You What. Which books will you be reading, and which books do you think should have made the list?

See the entire list of the best books of the first six months of 2021 here.

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Writing

Writing Prompts: Here’s Your Story’s First Sentence | Writer’s Relief

Writing Prompts: Here’s Your Story’s First Sentence | Writer’s Relief

Writer, if you want to be inspired by something a little more challenging than typical writing prompts, try this! The publishing experts at Writer’s Relief know the first few sentences can make or break your short story or novel. This is where you need to capture your audience’s attention and intrigue them enough to continue reading. It’s important to learn how to write a great first line, but this time, we’ve done the work for you! Try these first sentence writing prompts and write the sentences you feel would come next.

First Sentence Writing Prompts

We were the last two people on earth, but we couldn’t speak the same language.

As rain pounded against the cabin’s window, the man’s last candle began to flicker out.

Kayla was claustrophobic and hated bright colors, so when dozens of clowns began boarding the already crowded bus, it was the last straw.

Stuck on the roof of the office building without a cell phone, Vince tried waving to cars on the roadway below.

Recently engaged, Catherine never expected her sixth-grade boyfriend to show up at her door twenty years later to say that they had technically never broken up.

It was the end of the world—again.

After the last incident, we knew Grandpa would be banned from the grocery store.

The town had been without rain for three years, but now the clouds were starting to look gray.

The ballet was beautiful, but I had tickets to see a heavy metal band, so I was pretty sure I was in the wrong theater.

The fog machine at Shannon’s party was stuck on full blast.

Daniel was excited but also concerned to see he had 250 new text messages on his phone.

I clung to a large piece of debris and continued floating down the flooded street.

Walking through the doorway, we emerged in a different time.

After everything that happened, I’ll never be able to look at peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the same way.

The man sitting beside Joe on the train looked more like a homeless person than a bounty hunter.

Someone had to be let go from the company, and Pat had to make the final decision.

It had been five years since his husband went missing, so Dave was shocked to see him sitting in the café.

Dear reader, I wish I could tell you where I am.

I had grown accustomed to living next door to aliens.

The doctor told me I had amnesia, but I couldn’t remember what that was.

Bringing home the stray cat seemed like a good idea at the time.

We opened the ice-cream shop on Tuesday, and the third Ice Age began on Wednesday.

The bluegrass band needed a new jug player, and I happened to own a good jug.

If you enjoyed reading these first sentence writing prompts, here are more great first lines:

Memorable, Must-Read First Lines From Our Favorite Books

Classic First Lines Rewritten For The Pandemic

 

 

Question: Which first sentence writing prompt will you try first?

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Writing

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

By Maeve Maddox

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The origin of this expression lies in literary criticism. The term represents a contract between reader and writer.

In recent years, however, the phrase has escaped from literary criticism and is used in a variety of contexts that have little to do with the original meaning. A web search brings up numerous examples in which the term seems to serve only as a round-about way of saying that something is unbelievable.

I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief.
Translation: I don’t believe that the reports you have given are accurate.

Deciding to bake these cookies will require a willing suspension of disbelief.
Translation: You may not think the ingredients are very appealing, but go ahead and try the recipe.

I can’t exactly suspend my suspension of disbelief now though, so I head off with Pelletier to hike Cathedral Rock.

The writer has had his aura read by Pelletier, who believes that hiking Cathedral Rock will cause his aura to change dramatically.
Tentative translation: I can’t admit I’m skeptical about the existence of auras, so I go through with the hike.

The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his two-volume autobiographical and critical work, Biographia Literaria (1817). The term originates in his discussion of the poetry collection he published with William Wordsworth in 1798.

The collection, called Lyrical Ballads, is credited with ushering in the Romantic era of English literature. The previous era, the Age of Enlightenment, elevated Reason and Skepticism above unquestioning belief. Religion, the supernatural, sentimentality, and excessive emotion were special targets of intellectual contempt.

Coleridge, with his penchant for high emotion and the supernatural, recognized that in order to draw an “enlightened” reader into his fantastic fictional world, he needed to employ a certain technique. His goal was to create a level of human interest and believability in his characters that would inspire his readers with a “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

One of the poems included in Lyrical Ballads is “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem I learned and loved in high school, but which doesn’t seem to be taught much anymore. Looking it up for this post, I found that it still gives me goosebumps.

Coleridge immediately places the reader in a recognizable situation. A man on his way to a wedding has his arm grabbed by a ragged old man who could be a beggar. The wedding guest, all dressed up for the occasion, is understandably annoyed and shakes him off, but the old man, a sailor, holds him with his “glittering eye” and launches into his eerie tale. Coleridge has hooked his readers and, by interweaving realistic physical descriptions with the supernatural elements, enables us to believe in the reality of the old man’s harrowing tale.

Why is it that a reader of Little Women cries when Beth lies dying, or viewers experience breath-stopping fear when watching a movie and the protagonist moves towards the alien creature’s hideaway?

Apparently, according to psychologists, when we give ourselves up to a narrative, we turn off the part of our brain that assesses reality in the ordinary way. We react to what we are seeing—on the screen or in our mind’s eye as if it were really happening. We are acting on “poetic faith.”

As long as the writer doesn’t introduce something jarring, something that would wake the brain’s critical thinking systems, readers can ignore the fact that what is happening to provoke our emotions is not really happening at all.

As for the ubiquitous use of “a willing suspension of disbelief,” unless a writer is discussing a movie, play, or novel, the term is probably best eschewed.

On second thought, perhaps even writers of reviews need to think hard about exactly what they mean to convey by this ten-syllable mouthful. Here’s an example from a review of the True Grit remake:

It’s a movie about melancholy, though much more than that, and it asks for more than the usual suspension of disbelief.

Translation: There is a lot about this movie that is unbelievable or unrealistic.

Want to improve your English in five minutes a day? Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!

Keep learning! Browse the Expressions category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:

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Writing

How to Become an Author: Your Complete Guide

So you want to become an author…

Well, I have good news and bad news.

The bad news first:

Writing your book won’t be easy. If you’re in the middle of that right now, you know exactly what I mean.

But here’s the good news:

All that work could open some amazing possibilities for you:

In this extensive guide, my goal is to give you an honest look at how to become an author—using lessons I’ve learned from nearly 50 years working with some of the top publishers in the world.

Having written 200 books, including 21 New York Times bestsellers, I’m confident I can advise you in your writing journey.

Want to write a book but don’t know where to start? Click here to download my ultimate guide to writing a book for FREE.

What You Will Learn

Everything I cover in this step-by-step post on becoming an author:

    1. DON’T Try to Become an Author Until You’ve…
      …Studied the Craft and Polished Your Skills
      …Written and Published Things Shorter Than a Book
      …Joined a Community of Writers
      …Started Building Your Platform
    2. Writing Your Book
      Create a Writing Schedule You Can Stick to
      Identify Your Target Audience
      Research and Plan
      Keep Your Day Job
      Become a Ferocious Self-Editor
    3. Landing a Publishing Contract
      How to Get an Agent
      Selling a Publisher
      Editing Your Book
    4. Whether to Self-Publish
      An Overview
      How to Set Your Manuscript Apart
      Choosing the Right Company
      The #1 Killer of Self-Published Books

How to Become an Author in 4 Steps

1. DON’T Try to Become a Writer Until You’ve…

I get it. You’re antsy. You’re ready to pen your bestseller right now. You’ve heard of writers who scored with a million-seller on their first try.

Throttle back. Those stories become big news because they’re so rare. Don’t bank on winning the lottery. If you want your book (and your message) to go anywhere, make sure you’ve:

…Studied the Craft

There’s no need to write by trial and error anymore. Your best bet is to follow proven methods.

Here’s a list of my favorite 12 books on writing to get you started.

The competition has gotten so fierce, you do yourself a favor if you learn how successful authors write before you try to get a look from a publisher.

…Written Things Shorter Than a Book

You shouldn’t start your writing career with a book any more than you should enroll in grad school as a kindergartner. A book is where you arrive.

Start small, learn the craft, hone your writing skills, write daily.

Journal. Write short stories. Write a newsletter. Start a blog. Write for magazines, newspapers, ezines. Take a night school or online course in journalism or creative writing.

Bottom line: Work a quarter-million clichés out of your system, learn what it means to be edited, become an expert in something, build your platform (more on that below), and only then think about writing a book.

…Joined a Community of Writers

how to become an author

how to become an author

Think you can do it alone?

Almost every traditionally published author I know is part of a helpful community. That’s one way they deal with:

  • Frustration
  • Discouragement
  • Procrastination
  • Wanting to quit

I’ve written 200 books, and at this stage, community means I can bounce ideas off colleagues when I need to.

When you first become a writer, another pair of eyes on your work can prove invaluable. Ten pairs of eyes can be even better.

Join a writers’ group. Find a mentor. Stay open to criticism.

One caveat with writers’ groups: make sure at least one person, preferably the leader, is widely published and understands the publishing landscape. Otherwise you risk the blind leading the blind.

…Started Building Your Platform

When you eventually pitch agents and publishers, one of the first things they’ll do is conduct an Internet search for your name.

They’re looking for authors with a platform. If platform is a new term to you, it simply means the extent of your influence—how many people are interested in what you do? So start building yours now.

Bottom line, to become a published author you’ll need your own author website.

Add a blog and invite readers to comment, then interact with them. Join your favorite social media platforms and interact with readers there regularly.

Publishing short pieces can boost your name recognition.

With all the social media vehicles available, building a following has never been easier.

2. Writing Your Book

Most people never get this far. Writer’s fear leads to procrastination, and few ever make it to the first page.

To avoid this, you need a plan like the following:

Create a Writing Schedule You Can Stick To

Successful writers show up and do the work whether or not they feel like it.

Writer’s block is no excuse. In no other profession could you claim worker’s block.

Carve out at least six hours a week to write. You won’t find it, you’ll have to make the time by sacrificing something else. Lock these hours into your calendar and keep them sacred.

You’ll get a lot done when you finally plant yourself in your chair.

Identify Your Audience

Once you’ve determined your genre, identify the readers you want to read your book. Agents and publishers need to know the audience you’re targeting so they can market your book.

But resist the temptation to say it’s for everybody. Naturally, it’s tempting to wonder who wouldn’t want to read our work. But the truth is, that kind of thinking makes you look like an amateur.

Even mega-bestselling books don’t appeal to everyone. They’re written to specific audiences, and if they cross over to other markets (like the Harry Potter Young Adult titles—which have become vastly popular to adults as well), that’s a bonus.

Research books in your genre. You should read dozens and dozens of them to learn the conventions and expectations of readers. And who are those readers?

  • Primarily Male or Female?
  • Age Range
  • Educational background
  • Hobbies
  • Lifestyle

Get to know readers by regularly interacting with them through your website, on social media, or in person.

Research and Plan

To give your manuscript the best chance to succeed, don’t skip this step. Excellent preparation can make or break your book.

Two main ways to prepare:

1. Outline.
Regardless how you feel about outlining, you need an idea of where you’re going before you start. If you’re writing a novel, you’re either an Outliner or a Pantser (who writes by the seat of your pants. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you must outline.)

On the fiction side, Pantsers write by process of discovery—or as Stephen King puts it, they “put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”

If you’re an Outliner and a novelist, you’ll benefit from Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. But if you’re a Pantser, check out this post. It’ll teach you how to work within a structure without actually outlining.

2. Do the research.
Great stories can be sunk with less than solid research.

If your character drives 10 miles east out of the Chicago Loop—as I once read in a bad novel, he’d better be in an amphibious vehicle, because he’d be in Lake Michigan.

Immerse yourself in the details of your setting. Accuracy adds flavor and authenticity. Get them wrong and your reader loses confidence—and interest.

Research tools:

  • Atlases and World Almanacs offer geography and cultural norms and can provide character names to align with the setting, period, and customs. If your character flashes someone a thumbs up, be sure that means the same in his culture as it does in yours.
  • Encyclopedias. Buy your own, access one at a library, or find one online.
  • YouTube and online search engines can yield tens of thousands of resources.
  • Use a Thesaurus not to find the most exotic word but that normal one on the tip of your tongue.
  • Interview experts. People love to talk about their work, and that often leads to more story ideas.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

I didn’t become a full-time freelance author until I had written and published nearly 90 books. A veteran author advised me that my freelance income ought to be around three times what I made at my job before I considered going solo.

Why so much?

He listed everything I would have to pay for: insurance, retirement, benefits, travel, equipment, office supplies—in short, everything.

Your job doesn’t have to keep you from writing. Keep it and write after hours.
Why?

  1. You’ll have steady income—one less thing to worry about—while trying to build your writing career.
  2. You’ll be forced to be productive with limited hours.

How big a sacrifice is that for your writing dream? How badly do you want to become an author?

Become a Ferocious Self-Editor

This section is so important that it has the power to determine whether your manuscript sells—or slides into the editor’s reject pile.

Get serious about self-editing.

Editors know from the first page or two whether your manuscript is worth pursuing. I know that doesn’t sound fair or even logical. You’re thinking, It took me months, maybe years, to write hundreds of pages and you didn’t even get to the good stuff!

How could they do that to you? Why did they?

First, the good stuff ought to appear from word one. And if they see 15 needed adjustments on the first two pages, they know the cost of editing three or four hundred pages of the same would eat whatever profits they could hope for.

To avoid the dreaded “Thank you, but this doesn’t meet a current need” letter, your manuscript must be lean and mean and a great read.

My 21 rules of ferocious self-editing:

  1. Develop a thick skin. If you can’t take a critique, this may be the wrong pursuit for you.
  2. Avoid throat-clearing—scene setting, description, philosophizing—anything that slows getting to your story or your point.
  3. Choose the normal word over the obtuse.
  4. Omit needless words.
  5. Avoid subtle redundancies, like: “She nodded her head in agreement.” Those last four words could be deleted.
  6. Avoid the words up and down, unless they’re needed for clarity.
  7. Usually delete the word that. Again, use it only when necessary.
  8. Give readers credit. They understand more than you think.
  9. Avoid telling what’s not happening. If you don’t say it happened, we’ll assume it didn’t.
  10. Avoid being an adjectival maniac. Good writing is a thing of powerful nouns and verbs, not a plethora of adjectives.
  11. Avoid hedging verbs like smiled slightly, almost laughed, frowned a bit, etc.
  12. Avoid the term literally when you mean figuratively. [NOTE: I literally died when I heard that.]
  13. Avoid too much stage direction, describing every action of every character ad nauseum.
  14. Maintain a single point of view (POV) character for every scene.
  15. Avoid clichés, and not just words and phrases, but situations—like beginning your story with a character waking to a jangling alarm clock.
  16. Resist the urge to explain (RUE). If a character enters a room, we need not be told he came through the open door.
  17. Show, don’t tell. Telling: John was cold. Showing: John turned up his collar and faced away from the biting wind.
  18. People say things; they don’t wheeze, gasp, sigh, laugh, grunt, or retort them.
  19. Specifics add the ring of truth, even to fiction.
  20. Avoid similar character names. In fact, avoid even the same first initials.
  21. Avoid mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes, like overusing ellipses, italics, boldfacing, exclamation points, etc.

3. Trying to Land a Publishing Contract

Becoming a published author isn’t easy. But let me show you the available options and suggest the best practices to increase your chances.

Acquiring an Agent

Once you’ve finished your manuscript and have ferociously self-edited it until you’re happy with every word, your first step in trying to land a traditional publishing deal (in other words, one where the publisher takes all the financial risk and also pays you) should be to try to land an agent.

There may seem a dichotomy, especially if you write for altruistic reasons—you have a mission, a passion, a message, something you want to share with the world. Yet agents and publishers appear to base their decisions solely on the bottom line.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t share your passion. They simply must make a profit to stay in business—even faith-based publishers who are all about ministry.

Though it’s hard to find an agent, it’s also rare to get traditionally published without one. Most publishers will not consider unsolicited manuscripts, though some allow you to submit at writers conferences or with the recommendation of other clients of theirs.

Check The Writer’s Market Guide and The Christian Writer’s Market Guide for agents and publishers.

An agent can make your life a lot easier.

Besides the instant credibility of an agent’s approval, evidence that your writing has survived a vetting process, you also get valuable input and coaching on how to fashion your query and proposal from someone who understands the publishing industry, knows the players and who’s looking for what, and has experience pitching publishers.

Obviously, there are good and bad agents. Whom can you trust? Credible agents welcome scrutiny. Check with their clients. Ask:

  • Were you happy?
  • Did you feel taken care of?
  • Were they pleased with the results?

Feel free to ask agents:

  • How do you like to work with an author?
  • Have they succeeded in my genre?
  • And any other question you have.

Once you compile a list of agents who seem to be a good fit, follow their submission guidelines. They’ll likely ask for a query letter, synopsis, proposal, and perhaps a few chapters.

If any ask for any sort of reading fee or other payment up front, eliminate them as candidates and do not respond. Agents make their money when they sell your book to a publisher.

Check out the submission guidelines for any agent by going to their website.
You may be asked for:

1. A query letter

This is just what its name implies—a letter querying the interest of the agent in your book idea.

Four parts of an effective query letter:

a. Your elevator pitch

This is a summary of your book’s premise, told in the time it would take the editor to reach his floor if you happened to find yourself in the same elevator. So it has to be fast and easily understood.

The elevator pitch for my very first novel:

“A judge tries a man for a murder that the judge committed.”

While today I might have added a few more specifics, that either interested an agent or an editor, or it didn’t. Fortunately, it did.

b. Your synopsis

In a paragraph, tell what your nonfiction book is about and what you hope to accomplish with it. Or tell the basic premise of the plot of your novel. The synopsis would naturally go beyond the elevator pitch and tell what happens and how things turn out. Don’t make the mistake of trying to tease an agent into reading your manuscript to find out what happens. Tell him up front.

c. Your target audience and why they’ll enjoy your book

Agents need to envision how to pitch it to publishers, but be careful not to oversell. They know the business better than you do and will not be swayed by your assurance that “everyone will find this amazing.”

Tell what readers it’s intended for.

d. Your personal information

Sell the agent on yourself. What qualifies you to write this book? What else have you published? What kind of platform have you built? Where can they read your blog? Include your contact information.

Other query letter tips:

  • Keep it to one page, single-spaced, and 12 pt. serif type.
  • Don’t gush—let your premise speak for itself.
  • Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to a T.
  • Have someone you trust proofread your letter. Any typo on such a short document makes you look like an amateur.

A great example of a query letter, with a breakdown of why it works, by Brian Klems of Writer’s Digest.

2. A book proposal

Most agents want only this. Succinctly describe your idea, your goal being to make them want to read your manuscript in its enentirety as soon as it’s ready. For nonfiction, include every major issue you’ll cover and the basics of what you’ll say about it. For fiction, synopsize the plot.

Three trusted colleagues have produced masterful works on how to write book proposals:

Michael Hyatt: Writing a Winning Book Proposal

Jane Friedman: How to Write a Book Proposal

(Jane also has great material on query letters.)

Terry Whalin: Book Proposals That Sell

Proposals contain components such as:

  • Premise
  • Elevator pitch
  • Overview
  • Target audience
  • Chapter synopses
  • Marketing ideas
  • Endorsements
  • Your analysis of competing books
  • Up to three sample chapters

Every word should be designed to pique an agent’s interest in seeing your entire manuscript.

Want to write a book but don’t know where to start? Click here to download my ultimate guide to writing a book for FREE.

Connecting with the Right Publisher

how to become an author

how to become an author

Should you choose to approach publishers on your own (without an agent):

  1. Precisely follow their submission guidelines.
  2. Personalize your cover letter to each.
  3. Avoid flattery and obvious sentiments like, “I’ll do anything you say, make any changes you want, meet any deadline…” Just express that you look forward to hearing from them.

A rule of thumb:

If you’re writing fiction, most publishers require a complete manuscript before offering a contract.

Many writers come up with great ideas, and some produce promising starts. But few see their way through to the end. They want to know you can finish.

If the publisher offers input for the rest of the writing, you’ll have a much better chance of success if you can accommodate their wishes.

Professionally presented manuscripts follow these submission guidelines:

  • Use Times New Roman font (avoid sans serif fonts).
  • Use 12-point type.
  • Left-justify your page. (This means your text should be aligned at the left margin, but not the right. This is also called “flush left, ragged right.”)
  • Double-space your page with no extra space between paragraphs.
  • Each paragraph should be indented one-half inch.
  • One space between sentences.
  • Microsoft Word .doc or .docx file format.
  • 1” top, bottom, and side margins (or whatever is standard in your Word program).

Editing Your Book

Though you’ve already spent countless hours editing your own work, be ready to do more.

Once a publisher accepts your manuscript, they assign an editor to suggest changes, maybe major ones.

Develop a thick skin and avoid defensiveness. You can argue your points, if necessary, but remember, they’re on your side and want the best finished product. A published book is not a solo. It’s a duet between the writer and an editor.

Let them do their job. Keep an open mind and remain easy to work with. They’ll remember.

4. Should You Self-Publish?

Exhaust your efforts to traditionally publish before resorting to self-publishing. Even honest self-publishing executives would advise this. Why? Because with traditional publishing, the publisher takes all the risks, and you’re paid an advance against royalties and royalties based on sales. So nothing comes out of your pocket.

With self-publishing, however, you pay for everything, and packages can cost upwards of $10,000. Even so called co-op publishers, who ask you to cover only publicity or invest in an initial press run, require a significant investment.

Back when self-publishing was referred to as “vanity publishing,” you could always tell a self-published book from a traditionally published book due to schlocky covers, boring titles, the word by before the author’s name on the cover, a misspelling of the word Foreword or Acknowledgments, too much copy on the front and back, sans serif typeface and interior design, shoddy editing and proofreading, etc.

Admittedly, the game has changed.

Publishing your own book is vastly different than it used to be. Your end product can now look much more professional, and your price per book much more reasonable.

Print-on-demand technology allows for low-cost printing, so you can order as few as two or three books at a time for the same cost per book as you’d pay if you were buying hundreds.

So, you no longer need to store countless copies in your garage or basement. And self-published books look nicer these days too, because writers have demanded it.

How to Set Your Self-Published Book Apart

If you go this route, realize that it falls to you to advertise, promote, and market your own book. And though you’re earning profits after expenses, not just a royalty, don’t assume this will net you more money per copy. You’ll be amazed at the expenses required before you see income. But of course it happens.

It’s also rare that a self-published book finds its way to bookstore shelves outside the author’s home town.

(The hard truth is that it’s not easy for even traditionally published authors to place their books in bookstores. Experts say as few as one percent of all published books can be accommodated by bookstores and that the rest must be sold through other channels like the Internet, direct mail, and by hand.)

To give your self-published title the best chance to succeed, you need to invest in:

  • A great cover, which will involve purchasing a photo or artwork, type design, and layout
  • Inside layout, type design, and typesetting
  • Editing (resist the urge to use a relative who majored in English or even teaches English; book editing is a specific art)
  • Proofreading (same caveat as above; friends and loved ones who are meticulous spellers are not enough; there are myriad style matters to deal with)

Each of these elements will dramatically increase the professional look of your final product and, thus, your hope of selling more books. Do NOT skimp on them.

If you’ve ever built a house without a contractor, you have an idea of how complex this can be to do right.

So despite that many self-published authors swear by it and believe it’s fairer to the author than traditional publishing, I maintain that traditional remains the ideal—except for those unique titles targeted to deserving but very limited audiences.

Choosing the Right Company to Self-Publish Your Book

More than 2 million books are self-published every year in the United States alone, so there are many companies to choose from. But sadly, many are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

They’ll let you create a poor product and tell you it’s great.

They’ll “award” you a contract, telling you their publication board has “evaluated” your manuscript and “found it worthy” to be published.

They’ll tell you they’re “not a subsidy publisher” or “not a self-publisher” or “not an independent publisher.”

But they’ll use another euphemism to justify the fact that you’re paying “only for promotion” or “only for [this many] copies,” or “only for…” something else, when the fact is that the fee will cover all their costs and will include their profit.

They’ll imply they can get your title before the eyes of every bookstore owner and manager in the country. They might even give examples of a few titles of theirs that have sold in some stores or even made some bestseller list.

But they can’t guarantee your title will be sold in any store. Because that list your title is on that is “available” to every store owner and manager is merely a master list of all the books on some distributor’s internet site of every title in their catalogue. That means your book will get no personal attention from a salesperson and no more emphasis than any of the tens of thousands of other titles on the list.

Such companies are using you as little more than a content generator, pretending to have “chosen” your book from among the many they have to choose from, when the fact is they would publish anything you send them in any form, provided your accompanying check clears the bank.

Be wary of any company that:

  • Doesn’t take seriously the editing and proofreading of your book
  • Lets you commit embarrassing typos
  • Allows the word by before your name on the cover
  • Over-promises what you should expect in the way of personal sales representation, public relations, marketing, distribution, and advertising

That said, when you do need to self-publish, legitimate companies with proven track records are ready and eager to assist you. Do your homework and go beyond an internet search, which will likely turn up beautiful websites for countless companies putting their best foot forward.

Find previous customers and ask about their experience. You want a company who will answer every question straightforwardly and without hesitation. If you feel hard-sold, run.

A litmus test question for the publisher: ask if they would advise you to exhaust your efforts to traditionally publish first. I asked this of the head of WestBow Press™, a division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan, and he said he always advises customers that this is the ideal route.

That kind of refreshing honesty bodes well for a company.

The #1 Killer of Self-Published Books

When writers run out of money to invest in their book, too often the first place that suffers is the content itself.

Writers may understand that they are not experts in cover design, layout and typesetting, marketing and promotion, warehousing, distribution, and sales. But they overrate their writing and editing and proofreading abilities.

So, they invest in those other services and cut corners on editing and proofreading.

What they wind up with is a handsome product that looks like a real book but reads like the manuscript that made the rounds of the traditional houses and was rejected.

You must determine what will set you apart in a noisy marketplace.

That certain something that will set you apart is what it has always been:

Writing quality.

Having been in the writing game for 50 years and an author for more than 45, that is something I am able to tell you with certainty.

To use an ancient adage, cream rises. Readers recognize quality.

You or your agent may be looking for a deal from a traditional publisher. Or you may have chosen to self-publish online, in print, or both.

Regardless, you want your manuscript to be of the highest editorial quality you can make it.

What does that mean?

It means you must:

  • Learn the craft and hone your skills. Rigorously study writing, do exercises, write stories, ferociously edit your work. It can all pay off. Just as with physical exercise, the more the better, but anything is better than nothing.
  • Recognize that writing well is much harder and more involved than you ever dreamed. If you thought writing was merely a hobby, this realization could crush you. So, to push through, remember why you wanted to become a writer in the first place: you have a message, and people need to hear it.
  • Don’t trust friends’ and relatives’ flattery. Sure, they’re great for encouragement, or keeping you from quitting. But when you need solid input on your writing, their enthusiasm won’t translate to sales.
  • Accept criticism and input from people who know what they’re talking about. Find an experienced writer or editor who’ll offer honest feedback on your work. Join a writers group. Attend writers conferences. Get a mentor.

If you really want to become an author, it can be done. Don’t allow the magnitude of the process to overwhelm you. You’ll know you’re ready when you’re willing to carve the time from your schedule to write. You won’t find the time; you’ll have to create it.

Something on your calendar will have to give so you’ll make the time to write. What’ll it be? What you’re willing to sacrifice will tell you how important your writing dream is to you. Welcome to the journey.

Want to write a book but don’t know where to start? Click here to download my ultimate guide to writing a book for FREE.

Categories
Writing

A Willing Suspension of Belief

By Maeve Maddox

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The origin of this expression lies in literary criticism. The term represents a contract between reader and writer.

In recent years, however, the phrase has escaped from literary criticism and is used in a variety of contexts that have little to do with the original meaning. A web search brings up numerous examples in which the term seems to serve only as a round-about way of saying that something is unbelievable.

I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief.
Translation: I don’t believe that the reports you have given are accurate.

Deciding to bake these cookies will require a willing suspension of disbelief.
Translation: You may not think the ingredients are very appealing, but go ahead and try the recipe.

I can’t exactly suspend my suspension of disbelief now though, so I head off with Pelletier to hike Cathedral Rock.

The writer has had his aura read by Pelletier, who believes that hiking Cathedral Rock will cause his aura to change dramatically.
Tentative translation: I can’t admit I’m skeptical about the existence of auras, so I go through with the hike.

The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his two-volume autobiographical and critical work, Biographia Literaria (1817). The term originates in his discussion of the poetry collection he published with William Wordsworth in 1798.

The collection, called Lyrical Ballads, is credited with ushering in the Romantic era of English literature. The previous era, the Age of Enlightenment, elevated Reason and Skepticism above unquestioning belief. Religion, the supernatural, sentimentality, and excessive emotion were special targets of intellectual contempt.

Coleridge, with his penchant for high emotion and the supernatural, recognized that in order to draw an “enlightened” reader into his fantastic fictional world, he needed to employ a certain technique. His goal was to create a level of human interest and believability in his characters that would inspire his readers with a “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

One of the poems included in Lyrical Ballads is “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem I learned and loved in high school, but which doesn’t seem to be taught much anymore. Looking it up for this post, I found that it still gives me goosebumps.

Coleridge immediately places the reader in a recognizable situation. A man on his way to a wedding has his arm grabbed by a ragged old man who could be a beggar. The wedding guest, all dressed up for the occasion, is understandably annoyed and shakes him off, but the old man, a sailor, holds him with his “glittering eye” and launches into his eerie tale. Coleridge has hooked his readers and, by interweaving realistic physical descriptions with the supernatural elements, enables us to believe in the reality of the old man’s harrowing tale.

Why is it that a reader of Little Women cries when Beth lies dying, or viewers experience breath-stopping fear when watching a movie and the protagonist moves towards the alien creature’s hideaway?

Apparently, according to psychologists, when we give ourselves up to a narrative, we turn off the part of our brain that assesses reality in the ordinary way. We react to what we are seeing—on the screen or in our mind’s eye as if it were really happening. We are acting on “poetic faith.”

As long as the writer doesn’t introduce something jarring, something that would wake the brain’s critical thinking systems, readers can ignore the fact that what is happening to provoke our emotions is not really happening at all.

As for the ubiquitous use of “a willing suspension of disbelief,” unless a writer is discussing a movie, play, or novel, the term is probably best eschewed.

On second thought, perhaps even writers of reviews need to think hard about exactly what they mean to convey by this ten-syllable mouthful. Here’s an example from a review of the True Grit remake:

It’s a movie about melancholy, though much more than that, and it asks for more than the usual suspension of disbelief.

Translation: There is a lot about this movie that is unbelievable or unrealistic.

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Categories
Writing

The Joyful Writer Video Course Is Now Available!

My new video course, ‘The Joyful Writer,’ is now available for purchase!

CLICK HERE FOR THE JOYFUL WRITER VIDEO COURSE

And thanks so much to everyone who has emailed me in the past couple of days and let me know that this is exactly what you need at this time. 🙂

Much love,

Lauren

P.S. The Joyful Writer is only $79 until this Friday, June 25. After that it goes up to $119, so if you know you want it, jump on it before the price goes up!

Categories
Writing

The Book of Accidents: Virtual Tour Announcement!

So, The Book of Accidents is out on July 20th — holy crap, one month away?! — and I will be appearing at various bookstores in support of it! The trick is, like most authors during the Quarantimes, I’ll be appearing at these bookstores from the comfort of my own li’l writing shed, rising as a virtual ghost, a veritable digital specter, crawling into your internet to talk about books and horror and birds and apples. It’ll be great! And you don’t even have to leave your house. And why would you want to leave your house? THE WORLD IS A HUNGRY MOUTH. Safer instead to come meet me on the plains of 1s and 0s, yes? Yes.

The especially cool news is, I’ll be appearing at these bookstores with a handful of very wonderful authors, truly some of my favorite writers and people, so I expect that the ensuing conversations will be a gosh-dang monkey-fridgin’ delight.

Here is that schedule (also viewable in the above graphic) —

July 20th, 7pm EST, in conversation with Aaron Mahnke, as part of a joint bookstore event between three PA bookstores: The Doylestown Bookshop, Let’s Play Books, and the Midtown Scholar. (If you want signed, personalized books, then buy from one of these stores, if you please.) Register for that event here.

July 21st, 7pm EST, chatting with Paul Tremblay for The Strand / Metaverse NYCC, NYC. Register for that event here.

July 22nd, 6pm EST, conversing with Stephen Graham Jones for The Fountain Bookstore, in Richmond, VA. Register for that event here.

July 23rd, 7:30pm EST, hanging out with Delilah S. Dawson for the University Bookstore, in Seattle, WA. Details here.

July 28th, 8PM EST, visiting with Kiersten White for Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, WI. Register for the event here.

And finally, July 29th, it’s me and Cassandra Khaw, chatting at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. Register here.

Obviously, I ask that if you partake in an event, you try to buy a book from the hosting bookstore! (They should all have signed copies available, with a number of signed bookplates at each.) They are kind enough to run these and provide the infrastructure and the support, and of course bookstores are a mighty wonderful part of the BOOK ECOSYSTEM. If you like books and authors and stories, then supporting an independent bookstore is an essential component. I also hope you’ll consider buying the books of the conversing authors, all of whom are amazing goddamn authors and whose books demand your eyeballs. You will be rewarded with excellence.

And most of them will ship books right to you.

As to whether or not I’ll be doing any in-person events, it’s not likely for this specific release window, given that things are still up in the air — lots of airline cancellations, plus the rise of the delta variant, plus the differences in COVID numbers and protocol state to state, makes that tricky. But, I’m not averse to doing an in-person event at some point soon, either, because I am a vaccinated human* who is happy to meet other vaccinated humans! If I have such an event where we may orbit one another’s flesh sacks in three-dimensional space, I will surely put it here on this blog. So I remind folks that subscribing is always a good idea, if you’ve not done that.

I’m also doing a virtual chat at the Jacksonville Public Library this week — 6/23. You can find details for that event here.

Hope you’ll check out the book! If you don’t, I die!

MORE AS I KNOW IT.

*sack of wizard-cursed apples

Categories
Writing

Want to Improve Your Writing? Stop Keeping Yourself Small!

In my last article, Why Are Writers So Susceptible to Toxic Ideas About Creativity? I talked about how easy it is to fall prey to the never-ending anxiety loops of the brain when we are disconnected from our own hearts. When you’re almost totally in the brain space, writing becomes much harder than it needs to be.

If this is you, you’ll know this is you, because writing just isn’t any fun anymore. It feels difficult and fills you with dread and makes you feel badly about yourself. This is the result of letting the brain run your creative show, and there is another result that is rarely talked about, but has an extremely damaging effect on writers.

This is the fact that when you become prey to the constant worry and anxiety loops in your brain, the natural response is to shrink and contract in fear. So, what ends up happening is that you are shrinking and contracting on such a constant basis that you end up working from an orientation of smallness in the world.

“Working from an orientation of smallness,” means that you pull your energy in, all the time, and as a habitual response to the world. This is different from the periodic recharging that is normal and healthy for so many introverts. Working from an orientation of smallness is a defensive and protective reactionary response that is unconscious and debilitating. Simply put, it keeps you small and it keeps your creativity suppressed.

I talk more about this in-depth in the video below:

I’m launching a new video course, called the Joyful Writer, in just a couple of days, and one of the core concepts I’ll be teaching in this course is how to use different visualizations and interactive exercises to shift yourself from an orientation of smallness to joyful expansion.

If this video in the series is speaking to you, make sure you sign up for my mailing list HERE to get all the updates and announcements on the new course.

Also, make sure you check the first two videos in the series for more info

Video #1: One of the Biggest (and Most Dangerous) Myths in the Writing Community

Video #2: Why Are Writers So Susceptible to Toxic Ideas About Creativity?

As mentioned, I’ll be launching the course in the next couple of days. Please send any questions you might have about the course HERE. I would love to get them answered before the launch and no question is too big or too small.

See you soon!

Lauren Sapala is the author of  The INFJ Writer, The INFJ Revolution, and the creator of Intuitive Writing, a six-step online video course for INFJ and INFP writers who struggle with writing. She is also currently offering a free copy of her book on creative marketing for INFJ and INFP writers to anyone who signs up for her newsletter. SIGN UP HERE to get your free copy of  Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers.