Thursday, May 25, 2017

What I Learned as a Journalist, Book Doctor, Ghostwriter, and Publicist

By the time I was five years old, I already knew what I was going to be when I grew up. Disillusioned with my previous fantasy careers of zookeeper and cowgirl, I set my sights on something much more attainable.

*deep breath*

I was going to be a famous writer.

Simple enough, right? As you’ve probably guessed by now … not so much.

Thankfully, there are many ways to earn a living as a wordsmith while you work toward becoming the next Stephen King. (Note to Mr. King: don’t worry; you’re still safe.) And, best of all, each one of them will teach you something valuable you can apply to your writing career.

This guest post is by J.H. Moncrieff. Moncrieff writes psychological and supernatural suspense novels that let her readers safely explore the dark corners of the world. She won Harlequin’s search for the next Gillian Flynn in 2016. Her first published novella, THE BEAR WHO WOULDN’T LEAVE, was featured in Samhain’s CHILDHOOD FEARS collection and stayed on its horror bestsellers list for over a year. The first two novels of her new GhostWriters series, CITY OF GHOSTS and THE GIRL WHO TALKS TO GHOSTS, will be officially released on May 16, 2017. When not writing, J.H. loves visiting the world’s most haunted places, advocating for animal rights, and summoning her inner ninja in muay thai class. To get free ebooks and a new spooky story every week, check out her Hidden Library. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Since not everyone will choose such a roundabout path to literary fame and fortune, here’s some of my hard-earned wisdom for you.

What Being a Journalist Taught Me About Writing

Journalists get to do cool stuff. They have adventures—investigating crime scenes and covering fires and staking out biker gangs in the back of a cop car. My journalism career gave me endless story fodder, but it also taught me a few lessons I’ll never forget.

  • Treat writing like a business. Journalists have to worry about these little things called deadlines. When an editor gives you one, you meet it. Meet your deadlines or you don’t get paid. Surprisingly, it’s an easy choice to make.
  • How civilians, police, and reporters really react. As someone who writes mysteries, suspense, and other novels dealing with death, this knowledge has been invaluable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read manuscripts where people act in bizarre ways: cops hire civilians and give them guns, reporters surround a home and scream questions at the parents the second a child goes missing, and so on. My experience has ensured I won’t make the same mistakes.
  • Sources are everything. If you write police procedurals, talk to a cop. If your protagonist is a doctor, see if you can follow some friendly neighborhood physicians on their rounds. Does someone find a body in your story? Spend a few minutes asking a forensic anthropologist what it would look and smell like. You don’t have to write what you know, but you better know what you write.
  • Kill your darlings. Journalists follow the inverted pyramid formula—the most important stuff goes at the top and trickles down from there. This practice stems from the days when stories were cut to fit newspapers, so articles often lost a few lines from the bottom. One thing journalists learn in a hurry is to write lean. There’s no room for extraneous information. If it doesn’t advance your story, kill it.

What Being a Book Doctor Taught Me About Writing

Book doctors perform the same function as substantive or developmental editors. Simply put, they’re hired to fix your book. The only difference is that agents and editors are usually the clients instead of writers.

  • Editors are essential. Many writers believe they can edit their own work. Take it from me—a professional editor who has a copyeditor and three proofreaders check her stuff—you can’t. With publishing budgets being what they are, it’s worth hiring your own editor before you submit your manuscript, or before you put that book up for sale. It will save you a lot of heartbreak.
  • Pick a side. The great majority of the stories I’ve worked on were fatally flawed because the writer couldn’t decide which story to tell. I’ve seen romances with no romance, horrors that weren’t scary, thrillers that were actually food memoirs in disguise, and historical fiction with no plot. So much hassle can be avoided if a writer gets really clear about what the story is before beginning work on the first draft.
  • Kill your darlings. Book doctors have to be tough. We’re not there to be your buddy or pump up your ego; we’re there to make your story better. I can always tell which authors will go the distance. They’re the ones who thank you for your hard work, lick their wounds, and crawl back into the trenches to emerge with a much better second (or third, fourth, or fifth) draft. The ones who pout, scream, accuse us of being jealous of their talent, or pull the silent treatment? They don’t get far.

[Want to land an agent? Here are 4 things to consider when researching literary agents.]

What Being a Ghostwriter Taught Me About Writing

Over the last few years, ghostwriters have become synonymous with James Patterson, but the truth is, tons of books—even bestselling books—were written by ghosts. Lots of people have interesting stories to tell, but may not have the ability to put it all together. That’s where ghosts come in.

  • Writers’ block is a myth. When writers are slacking, they often point fingers at their muses or lack thereof. “I wasn’t inspired,” or “The story wasn’t speaking to me.” When you have to sit down every day and put your emotions, heart, and talent into a story that isn’t even yours, you quickly learn how little inspiration has to do with it. Writers can write anything if they put their mind to it and stop making excuses.
  • Not everything you write will be a masterpiece—and that’s okay. Perfectionism is not an option for ghostwriters. You may be asked to write characters you hate, plot developments you feel are unrealistic, and settings that are less than authentic. Perhaps you’ll be hired to write a tell-all book you secretly believe is a complete fraud. It doesn’t matter. People enjoy reading lots of different books, and few of them are perfect. It can be strangely freeing to write something you have no personal attachment to.
  • Kill your darlings. Ghosts don’t get to have darlings! You may think you’ve come up with the most profound turn of phrase ever, but that’s not your job. Your job is to sound like the client. And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter how clever you were. That gem is going to end up on the cutting room floor.

What Being a Publicist Taught Me About Writing

If you want to be a successful writer, you could do a lot worse than become a publicist. During my years promoting everything from Halloween parties and museum exhibits to genealogy conferences and musicians, I’ve gained some valuable insights.

  • 9% of writers are doing social media wrong. The endless “Buy My Book” Facebook updates, the spammy automatic messages on Twitter, the passive-aggressive blog posts that bemoan your latest defeat at the hands of the publishing industry? They’re not helping you.
  • Relationships are everything. Want someone to buy your book? Be their friend. Get them to like you. But not because they’ll buy your book, because you genuinely find them interesting and want to communicate with them. Use social media to connect to people in an authentic way, and book sales will follow. You can’t fake sincerity. At least not for long.
  • Clarity is crucial. If a reporter calls, wanting to know more about what I’m promoting, I don’t ramble on for twenty minutes about the background of everyone who’s ever worked on the project. I sum it up in a sentence, a sentence designed to suck them in and make them say, “Tell me more.” A lot of writers hate elevator pitches and query letters, and I get it—writing them is like being stuck in the seventh circle of hell, but they’re so important. People have short attention spans, so grab ’em while you got ’em.
  • Kill your darlings. Publicity is about trying different things until one of them works. It might take ten, or twenty, or even thirty ideas until you hit on the right combination of public appeal and client approval. You have to keep moving, and keep pitching, until that wonderful moment when all the stars align. If you get stuck on the first idea you come up with, it’ll never happen. You’ll never see the magic.

What have your jobs taught you about writing? I’d love to hear your stories!

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 2.57.50 PM

The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
most recent updated edition online at a discount.

Freese-HeadshotIf you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at




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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Your Writing Platform: Letting Readers Know the (Sort of) Real You

A woman once drove more than 100 miles to meet me at a book signing. She carried with her copies of every novel I’d written, along with a special present, one that was so personal, so closely aligned to my tastes and loves that I almost felt as if she’d been spying on me.

Of course, all she’d done was read my books, which—much as I might resist the idea—reveal a great deal about me. It’s impossible to write good fiction without millions of specific details, and every detail comes from within the writer.

Which leads in a roundabout way to the sticky challenge of social media for writers—particularly novelists. We all hear a lot about the importance of platform building these days. Genuinely engaging through social networks creates a bond with your readers that can turn them into life-long fans. But after pouring so much of yourself into your writing, social media can feel like jumping naked into a hot tub with a bunch of strangers.

Intimacy, however, is a critical part of succeeding on these networks, where followers are easily fatigued by overt marketing attempts. And beyond your own focus on building your platform, amid the chatter and noise that bombards us all day long, the intimate online space created by a novelist for her readers can be a haven—for both reader and author.

So how can you share enough of your personal life to connect, while still drawing boundaries between what is public and what is private?

The Illusion of Intimacy

Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert is a genius at creating intimacy on her Facebook page. She posts inspiring tidbits from her life and the things people send her. She asks questions. She replies to visitors. This makes us believe we know her, gives us the sense that if we lived in the same town, we’d probably be friends.

We seem so alike. We find we think about the same things. We yearn the same way. And somehow, that is true for many of her more than 1.6 million followers. Whether that’s intimacy or the illusion of intimacy hardly makes a difference.

The problem for Gilbert and the rest of us who pour ourselves into fiction or memoirs is that in many ways our work is already intimate. We might not be willing to share our private lives any more overtly on the public stage. The implicit pressure on these platforms to always offer more can start to feel like a game of strip poker in which you’ve never had a winning hand.

How, then, to navigate this delicate balance?

Here’s the thing: We don’t really know Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s evident that she likes yoga and travel, as well as inspiring women to live authentic lives. But what does she talk about with her husband late at night? Has she had a fight with her mother lately? One of her tenets is authenticity, so her voice online is very much the same voice found in her books and when you hear her speak. I’m sure her friends recognize that voice very easily. And yet, it’s only a sliver of the real Gilbert.

As a shy young writer who was suddenly thrust into public speaking situations that terrified me, I created an author persona to cope with the terrifying tasks of attending conferences and book signings. Author Barbara would wear a particular wardrobe that Real Barbara never wore, and by simply donning that costume, I could stride out into the world as a professional.

Creating an illusion of intimacy via your blog or social media accounts is the same kind of trick. You have to find something—or really, several somethings—to talk about in an authentic way.

[How to Improve Your Writing Platform (or Author Platform) in 30 Days]

Your Online Persona

I genuinely love food and cooking, gardening, painting, hiking, travel—all things that pertain to my books, but also my life. I post recipes and photos of beautiful dishes I’ve made, and talk about the tomato harvest.

What I do not post: much about my children, my partner, the family member with substance abuse problems, health issues, etc.

How can you create a persona for yourself? A few tips:

Study the social media profiles of writers you admire. Look, too, at the online platforms that suit their voice. You don’t have to be everywhere, but try to find the best places to reach your own audience. Younger readers love Instagram, while Facebook’s demographics are creeping upward all the time. Where and what do your favorites post?

Choose a focus or approach. What subjects related to your books will allow you to be authentic and genuinely passionate?

Are you funny? Writer Mary Strand, author of the romantic comedy Cooper’s Folly, has mastered a comedic voice and shares a lot about her kooky athletic life, which involves a slapstick number of injuries accrued annually.

What things do you genuinely like to talk about? What would you discuss with friends? Jennifer Weiner loves “The Bachelor” and live tweets during episodes. Maggie Stiefvater draws her characters and posts them on Instagram and Facebook. These are ways to share things that you like or know or do personally without sharing anything that’s truly personal at all.

Revel in your imperfections. A sense of intimacy requires a certain amount of imperfection. Who likes to hang around with somebody who gets everything right all the time? I post about recipes that flopped, my smelly dog, my messy house.

Write it out. You’re privy to fiction—so write a character sketch of your public persona. Assign her a secret name, perhaps, and create some boundaries. What are you comfortable sharing? What is best left offline?

Avoid oversharing. It’s one thing to say you have a messy house because you’ve been on deadline, but quite another to post photos of what’s literally hidden in your closets. If in doubt, don’t use it.

Engage your audience. Offer readers a chance to reply by prompting them with a question or asking for their opinions. Always reward them with your replies and acknowledgment. Creating the illusion of intimacy will reward you tenfold with a ready-made community who can be mobilized when you have a new byline or book. It’s worth the time to cultivate it well.

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more. 
Order the book from WD at a discount.

Barbara ONeal FeaturedBarbara O’Neal ( is the bestselling author of more than 40 books, recipient of seven RITA Awards and an inductee in the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. This article originally appeared in the October 2016 Writer’s Digest.









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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How I Got My Agent: Author Michael Haspil

I dreamed of being a writer for most of my life and, although I had undertaken efforts in screenwriting, it wasn’t until 2009 that I decided to commit and try my hand at being a professional author. Always on the hunt for excellent ideas, I kept a journal near my bed so I could write down particularly vivid dreams. One morning, I woke with a doozy. I didn’t remember the dream as a whole, just the overall concept and one line: “I used to hunt vampires for the NSA, now I work vice.”

This was it. This was the one.

Haspil_headshot FeaturedGraveyard ShiftThis guest post is by Michael Haspil. Haspil is a geeky engineer and nerdy artist. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, he had the opportunities to serve as an ICBM crew commander and as a launch director at Cape Canaveral. The art of storytelling called to him from a young age and he has plied his craft over many years and through diverse media. He has written original stories for as lon gas he can remember and has dabbled in many genres. However, science fiction, fantasy, and horror have whispered directly to his soul. When he isn’t writing, you can find him sharing stories with his role-playing group, cosplaying, computer gaming, or collecting and creating replica movie props. Lately, he devotes the bulk of his hobby time to assembling and painting miniatures for his tabletop wargaming addiction. Michael is represented by Sara Megibow of the KT Literary Agency and Adrian Garcia of the Paradigm Talent Agency.

In high school, I was editor of our literary magazine and a theater nerd. No one expected me to pursue a career in the military. They all thought I would be an author. I’ve been a play-it-safe adult, but in this case I was so inspired and excited I had to make a change. I was so sure I could succeed that I actually quit my day job.

To say I was naïve is a massive understatement. I undertook the task of turning that one line into the novel that would become GRAVEYARD SHIFT. As I reworked the novel through subsequent drafts, I achieved a point where I thought it was good enough to send out and began a long query process. I lost count of how many agencies I queried. To my excitement, I received requests for pages from many of them. However, the rejections came later. I estimated that my concept was sound, or at least intriguing enough to get me through the door. Since that’s always as far as I got, I rightly assumed I needed work on my craft.

In the fall of 2009, I attended the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold conference. I remember now, with an ironic smile on my face, that I brought miniature business card-sized CDs of my novel, just in case an agent or editor wanted it right then and there. As you might expect, my experience was somewhat different.

I went to a standing-room-only presentation called, “How to Avoid the Slushpile.” The industry information presented was eye opening and disheartening. At day’s end, I drove home in a funk, aware of the colossal dragon that guarded my path to being a professional author.

[5 Important Tips on How to Pitch a Literary Agent In Person]

I stood at the kitchen trashcan and threw away all the little CDs I’d been so proud of a day before and contemplated not returning to the conference. In the morning, I made the best decision I could. I made myself a strong cup of coffee and drove back. That dragon wasn’t going to slay itself. And, if I didn’t know how to do it, then I was damn sure going to learn.

Over the course of the next year, I joined the Pikes Peak Writers, the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and attended every single workshop they offered. I became active with three critique groups and entered as many contests as I could. I even placed in some of them. All the while, I reworked my novel.

It paid off in 2011 at the Colorado Gold conference.

I signed up for a workshop with an editor from TOR, Moshe Feder. We worked through our pages and he responded extremely well to my work. The next day, I had a scheduled pitch session with him and it was one of the strangest in my experience. I hardly pitched at all! Since he was already familiar with my concept, I answered questions about my world building and further elaborated on the story. When he requested the full manuscript, I emailed it to him moments after the pitch session. (Pro-tip: It pays to have a completed manuscript when you’re pitching.)

Elated, I regaled my critique partners, all of whom were also attending the conference, with tales of my achievement. Laura Main and Anita Romero, from separate critique groups, both said the same thing, “You need an agent right now.”

Sara Megibow of KT Literary, who I had already researched, was at the conference. She had the passion and drive I was looking for. Though her agency rejected an earlier draft, this time would be different. Not only had I significantly reworked the novel since submitting it, I was coming at it from a different angle and with editorial attention. I made plans to attend her presentation “Bang, Zoom, Pow! The First Thirty Pages” and since I pitch much better in person than on the page, I thought I would try to speak to her after her talk.

During the presentation, Sara made numerous gaming, science fiction, and fantasy references and jokes. Long before she’d finished, I knew she was the agent for me. However, I wasn’t the only one with the idea of conducting impromptu pitches after her talk. Quite the line assembled. I exercised my patience and waited. I told her Moshe was interested and asked if she would consider representing me. Sara requested that I also send her the full manuscript.

When I got home, I fired it off to her, clapped my hands, and contemplated my next novel. I’d finished this one, and it was well on its way to publication, or so I believed. (You’d think somewhere along the line I would stop being naïve. You’d be wrong.)

[Want to land an agent? Here are 4 things to consider when researching literary agents.]

Alas, Sara passed on the story. She wasn’t sure it was the right story for her in that iteration, which is agent-speak for she didn’t love it as it was and it still needed editing. Nevertheless, she left a sliver of a window open. Months passed as I waited for the fateful response from TOR. Nothing came. Ever the optimist, I did a major re-edit of the novel and incorporated Moshe’s notes from the workshop. My inbox mocked me with its lack of emails from TOR.

Then, early in 2012, I got the email. It certainly looked like an offer. I forwarded it to Sara and asked again whether she would consider being my agent. It is very important to Sara that she represent the author and not just a single work and that she meshes well with her clients. We had several conference calls to discuss my vision for the series, other works, and to make sure we were the right fit for one another. About a week later, after Sara had checked out my reworked iteration of the novel, I signed with her. It has been the best decision I’ve made in my writing career.

We’ve battled many lesser wyverns and drakes since, but this summer, that big original dragon is going down. In July, my debut novel, GRAVEYARD SHIFT, about an immortal pharaoh and his vampire partner who must ally with an unsavory cast to thwart an ancient conspiracy, will hit bookstores everywhere.

My advice to aspiring authors: Attend conferences. Not only will you get to meet people in person, but you will open yourself up to a wealth of information in a relatively short amount of time. In just a weekend you can download the type of information it would take you months to accumulate on your own. Most importantly, a conference lets you feel out different agents for one who might be a good fit, sit at their tables for a meal, or schmooze at the bar, and interact outside of a formal presentation. The publishing process is a lot lengthier than many of us would like; a good agent and partner will have to be there every step of the way. You must have the same goals and personalities that mesh well with each other.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 2.57.50 PM

The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
most recent updated edition online at a discount.

Freese-HeadshotIf you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at



The post How I Got My Agent: Author Michael Haspil appeared first on

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Monday, May 22, 2017

New Agency Alert: Root Literary

Reminder: New literary agents are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list. In this case, Holly Root and Taylor Haggerty are not new agents, but they are at a brand new agency started by Holly: Root Literary.

Haggerty Taylor featuredRoot Holly featured About Holly and Taylor: Holly Root is the founder of Root Literary, which opened in 2017. Prior to opening her agency, she worked at Waxman Leavell Literary, Trident Media Group, and William Morris. Based in Los Angeles, her clients include #1 New York Times bestsellers, international bestsellers, RITA winners and nominees, and numerous titles named to Best Books of the Year lists by Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post, NPR, the American Library Association, RT Book Reviews, Kirkus, and Amazon. She represents authors of commercial fiction for adults and kids, as well as select nonfiction. Visit for more information about her list.

Taylor Haggerty is a literary agent at Root Literary representing commercial fiction for kids and adults. She focuses mostly on young adult and middle grade fiction, romance, and women’s fiction. Prior to joining Root Literary when it opened in 2017, she worked at Waxman Leavell Literary and Gersh in Los Angeles. Visit for more information on her recent sales and releases.

They Are Seeking: Actively seeking commercial and upmarket fiction for adults, teens, and middle grade, along with select nonfiction. Does not represent screenplays, poetry, novellas, short stories, or picture books.

How to Submit: Send a query letter and the first 10 pages of your manuscript in the body of an email to

All material should be pasted in the body of the email. No attachments. Only electronic queries for completed, full-length works will be considered. Once you submit a query, you will receive an automated response confirming receipt and noting the current turnaround time.

Holly and Taylor work very closely, often passing projects back and forth and occasionally signing clients together, so they welcome queries addressed to the agency in general. If you are specifically querying one of them, include that agent’s name in the subject line of the email.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 2.57.50 PM

The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
most recent updated edition online at a discount.

Freese-HeadshotIf you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at


The post New Agency Alert: Root Literary appeared first on

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Weekly Round-Up: Writing Realities

Every week our editors publish somewhere between 10 and 15 blog posts—but it can be hard to keep up amidst the busyness of everyday life. To make sure you never miss another post, we’ve created a new weekly round-up series. Each Saturday, find the previous week’s posts all in one place.

wr_iconGuess Who’s Coming to Writer’s Digest

We’re excited to announce “Worth a Thousand Words,” a new recurring column from cartoonist Bob Eckstein. Read his 5-Minute Memoir from the March/April 2017 Writer’s Digest to learn more about Eckstein and his art.

Real World

We all have different writing interests and inspirations, but it’s easy to forget about our motivations—the real reasons we write. So why do you write? Join Reedsy’s #IWriteBecause campaign and answer that question.

You’ve surely heard the advice to “write what you know,” but what does that mean for you? Find out in Fiction, Brought to You by Real Life.

Here’s a short story writing technique you may not have heard of before: expansion, or a broadening of the perspective of the world beyond what is typically expected in short fiction. Learn more in A Shocking (and Fun) Short Story Writing Technique.

7 and 7 (and 6)

We’ve all been pulled in by a good mystery at some point. The suspense created by questions—Who did it? What’s going to happen?—keeps us glued to the page and the screen. 7 Tips on Writing Great Mystery and Suspense Novels explains how to create that pull.

Check out the latest installment of 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far for the seven things author Andrew Roe wishes he knew from the beginning of his writing journey.

No matter your genre, characters are a constant. Here are 6 Tips for Creating Believable Characters That Win Over Readers.

Agents and Opportunities

Meet agent Anna Sproul-Latimer of Ross Yoon Agency: She wants to read about love, connection, endurance, gentleness, happy surprises, redemption, cuckoo hobbies, unforgettably good people from history—and also death and outer space. But make sure you read her advice and pet peeves before querying!

Poetic Asides

Learn all about the poetic form cyrch a chwta. Can you guess from the name where this form originates?

When you’re done learning about a new form, check out the WD Poetic Form challenge and try a French form, the rimas dissolutas.

For this week’s Wednesday Poetry Prompt, write a “pieces” poem.

The post Weekly Round-Up: Writing Realities appeared first on

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Write What You Know: Fiction, Brought to You by Real Life

“Write what you know” is a storied piece of advice so often given that fiction writers are probably sick of hearing it. Yet, like most clichés, it exists for a reason—that reason being its profound practicality and common sense.

Michele_Campbell_CREDIT Sigrid Estrada FeaturedIt's Always the Husband_COVERThis guest post is by Michele Campbell. Campbell is a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School, worked at a prestigious Manhattan law firm before spending eight years fighting crime as a federal prosecutor in New York City.

Her novel, IT’S ALWAYS THE HUSBAND, was published by St. Martin’s Press in May 2017.

Photo credit: Sigrid Estrada

I adore historical fiction and aspire to one day write a book set in Tudor England or in Virginia during the Civil War. Yet, I also know that doing good research is extremely challenging and time-consuming, and what’s more, research will only get you so far. As an author, you still need to bring yourself and your inner life to bear on your material in order to build a world that speaks to the reader.

The flip-side of “write what you know” is another familiar aphorism about writing—“all novels are autobiographies.” Taken together, these two old war-horses point to a secret truth that all fiction writers understand: No matter the genre we work in, or the heights of imagination and inventiveness to which our stories soar, we are always, at some level, writing about ourselves.

This is especially true for me, because I’m a former prosecutor, and I write crime novels. I also have the good fortune to live in a quaint New England college town, and my new novel, It’s Always the Husband, is set in a fictional quaint New England college town. If the three building blocks of novels are plot, character and setting, then I’ve drawn two out of the three (plot and setting) directly from my personal experience. Some might say that makes me lazy, but I think it makes me smart, and not because I’m trying to avoid doing research. (Though maybe I am, just a little.)

[New Agent Alerts: Click here to find agents who are currently seeking writers]

There is an amazing alchemy to the process of writing a novel. Paul Simon once said that the process of songwriting, when it’s really working, feels like taking dictation, and to me, writing fiction is the same. But that magical process of letting go, and allowing fictional characters to speak through me, can only happen if I have the sort of complete and intimate knowledge of their reality that comes from having lived it myself.

Let’s start with the background that I bring to my fiction. I had the privilege of serving as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York for eight years, specializing in narcotics and gang cases. My office had jurisdiction over the ports and the airports that service New York City, and we got all the biggest drug cases. I’m not talking about some kid selling baggies of dope on a street corner, but the largest and most violent drug cartels in the world. The job was non-stop adrenaline, including overseeing arrests and search warrants, going to court, trying cases, and working directly with DEA, FBI, and other investigative agencies.

Now, you might ask, what does this have to do with writing a novel about three freshman roommates at an Ivy League college who become fast friends, then frenemies, and then one of them gets murdered? Kind of everything, because a crime is a crime.

It’s Always the Husband moves back and forth in time between the three roommates’ freshman year at (fictional) Carlisle College, and the moment, twenty years later, where the lifeless body of one of them has washed up on the riverbank downstream from their old stomping grounds. The first half of the book tells the story of the intense, toxic relationship that forms among these three profoundly different young women when they’re thrown together in the pressure-cooker environment of an Ivy League college. A terrible tragedy at the end of freshman year leaves them with a dangerous secret. Twenty years later, older but perhaps no wiser, they return to the scene of the crime, and one of them turns up dead. Then the police descend, and that’s where my prior professional life comes in.


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I worked a lot of cases in my old job, and I knew a lot of cops. The hard-boiled police chief with a soft spot for the victim whose investigation dominates the second half of my book is drawn from my interactions with real-life law enforcement. Everything from his mindset to his personal life to the specific procedures he follows (or doesn’t) in collecting evidence comes from that kernel of real-life experience.

This police chief is convinced the husband did it. Well, he has good reason to be, since the vast majority of murders are committed by friends or family members of the victim. In my professional experience, the cops generally identify the killer right off the bat, and the investigation is just the slow, laborious process of gathering evidence to prove it in court. (That’s not to say that the husband did it in this book, where the best friends are also suspects. You’ll have to read it to find out.)

Channeling this character, with his prejudices and his flashes of insight, was made possible by years of real-world experience. Fiction, brought to you by reality.

The same thing is true for the setting of my novel. Anybody can drive through the college town where I live and describe its physical setting. But having spent a decade there, I understand its life. The way the institution of the college influences the town. The fact that everybody knows each other. The concept that privacy is hard to come by and secrets are hard to keep.

This knowledge seeps into the pages of my novel and gives it, I hope, an authenticity that goes deeper than simply describing the color of an oak tree in autumn or the way the ivy grows on the old brick dormitories.

What advice does this suggest for other writers? Simply to make sure that there are aspects of your book that you know to the bones. Maybe there is a character inspired by your own mother. Or maybe you are a devoted baker, and your heroine is a pastry chef. It can be a place, an occupation, a way of life.

The point is this: Knowing something profoundly and deeply will free you to write about it in an engaging and authentic way, and in an original voice. Aspiring authors sometimes fear sharing the premise of their work in progress, on the grounds that somebody might “steal their idea.” I don’t think anybody should worry about this. The fact is, if you write from your own life, only you can write your book.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Announcing WD Special Guest Artist Bob Eckstein

Starting in the July/August 2017 Writer’s Digest, we’re thrilled to announce the debut of a new recurring column from cartoonist Bob Eckstein, called “Worth a Thousand Words.” Eckstein’s illustrations regularly appear in the pages of such acclaimed publications as The New Yorker and The New York Times, and we couldn’t be more excited to now share his talents with the readers of WD. So, look forward to a future filled with funny cartoons!

In the meantime, check out the 5-Minute Memoir below that Eckstein penned for the March/April 2017 Writer’s Digest, along with its accompanying illustration.

BobEckstein_Featuredfootnotes cover bob eckstein









Bob Eckstein is a writer and cartoonist for The New Yorker and The New York Times, and has also written for New York Daily News, Atlas Obscura, Reader’s Digest, GQ, MAD and others. His latest book, Footnotes From the World’s Greatest Bookstores, is a New York Times bestseller and was selected by The Wall Street Journal as one of the Most-Anticipated Books of Fall 2016.

Solving the World’s Most Cliché Writing Question

By Bob Eckstein

I was recently asked on a podcast, “Where do you get your inspiration?” The question gave me a wave of anxiety. The last time I felt that way was back in eighth grade, when my teacher, Mr. Readron, said our total grade would be based on answering one question. He passed out sheets of paper and announced, “Explain the history of the world.” We sat there in stunned silence, frozen in mental rigor mortis.

As a writer, cartoonist and comedy nerd, my inspirations stem from a universe of sources. Charles M. Schultz … Charles Addams … Charles Grodin. Dozens of The New Yorker cartoonists. Hundreds of The Odd Couple episodes. Thousands of things my grandmother said. The zillion things in your lifetime that make you scratch your head and question the status quo.

I’m able to be less ambiguous discussing specific points in my career. To inspire my new book, Footnotes From the World’s Greatest Bookstores, for which I illustrated 75 bookstores in under a year, I decorated my studio with the work of others. I printed out pictures from favorite childhood illustrators such as Robert Cunningham and Robert Weaver, and visited museums in Chicago, New York City and London—bringing home postcards from their respective gift shops. While nothing in the book blatantly looks like the artwork it was inspired by, such images raised the bar in color, quality and work ethic. For the writing, I reread my favorite novels, asking myself what made the stories so compelling.

DrunkCartoonWDOriginal cartoon by Bob Eckstein.

I’ve been a humorist for a long time, penning pieces for the likes of SPY, MAD, National Lampoon, GQ and Playboy. The key is to tell your story first and try to be funny second. With humor, inspiration can be anything, everything and everyone. Jerry Seinfeld. Garrison Keillor. SpongeBob. Old “Bob and Ray” recordings. My 12-year-old nephew who, when asked how his first school dance went, replied, “It was a trainwreck.” The woman sitting opposite me on the subway, wearing a sweatshirt with the word Special in glitter letters, who proceeded to vomit.

Or Lee DiFazio. Lee was a stoner who was sitting next to me on that monumental day in Mr. Readron’s class when we were asked to write that kooky essay. This tall, dangly Black Sabbath fan didn’t fret, but immediately scribbled something in pencil. To the astonishment of the class, after two minutes Lee took his sheet of paper and his denim jacket to the front of the room, dropping his final report on Mr. Readron’s desk. He then walked out and was MIA for the rest of the week.

Mr. Readron was a bald man who dressed like he was in a black-and-white movie. He looked like a janitor. Before my junior year he was the school janitor. He was funny and unorthodox in his teaching methods. About 60 seconds after Lee’s departure, Mr. Readron rested his elbows on his desk. The whole class stopped to watch what he’d do. He lifted the paper and, with a straight delivery, read Lee’s opus: “John Kennedy shot Abraham Lincoln. The End.” He placed the paper down, leaned back in his chair and went back to chewing his pen.

Lee’s economic summary of world history inspired one of my favorite cartoons: George Washington chasing Abraham Lincoln with a machine gun, with the cautionary banner, “When Kids Learn History on the Streets.” I drew it 32 years after that memorable morning. One learns much in the most unexpected ways—and that day it was an unparalleled lesson in comedic timing.


BobEckstein_FeaturedBob Eckstein is a writer and cartoonist for The New Yorker and The New York Times, and has also written for New York Daily News, Atlas Obscura, Reader’s Digest, GQ, MAD and others. His latest book, Footnotes From the World’s Greatest Bookstores, is a New York Times bestseller and was selected by The Wall Street Journal as one of the Most-Anticipated Books of Fall 2016.

[Cartoon Caption] Original cartoon by Bob Eckstein.




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