Monday, November 12, 2018

Top 10 Paths to Auto-Rejection: How NOT to Write a Query Letter

Learn how NOT to get a positive response from literary agents: Avoid these 10 paths to auto-rejection when you’re writing your query letter.


Want to get rejected? These 10 approaches to your query letter will shut down your submission in a hot second.

  1. Queries that have typos in the first sentence
  2. Queries that start with a nugget of wisdom: “Every step we take in life moves us in a direction.”
  3. Queries with very small type, florid or unconventional fonts, and whacky background colors are frowned upon. You can assume that just about everyone in publishing suffers from eyestrain.
  4. Queries longer than one page.
  5. Queries with overcomplicated directions for replying: “I’m going to Tortola for the next three weeks. If you need to reach me, please call my cell number. Don’t leave a message at my home number because I won’t get it until I return.” A simple street or email address will do.
  6. Queries with all the agents in New York in the “To” line
  7. Queries that start: “I know how busy you are, so I’ll get straight to the point and not take up too much of your valuable time.” By writing this, you’ve already taken up a full sentence of my valuable time.
  8. Queries that make grandiose claims: “My novel will appeal to women, and since there are 150 million women in the United States, it will sell 150 million copies.”
  9. Queries that read: “I’ve worked very hard on this novel.” Does that fact alone make it a good novel?
  10. Queries that declare: “I have written a fiction novel.” Every novel is fiction. When an agent sees the above sentence in a query, they quickly draw the conclusion that a writer who doesn’t know that a novel is, by definition, is a writer who isn’t ready to be published.

On a more positive note, a good query:

  • doesn’t state the obvious—if it does, agents will think your book is all “telling,” no “showing”
  • is never longer than one page—if it is, agents will think your book is overwritten
  • is not about you—if it is, agents will think your book will be too navel-gazing to invite the reader in
  • never sounds generic—if it does, agents will think your book won’t have a unique or appealing voice
  • makes the book sound interesting—if it doesn’t, agents will know the book isn’t.

Now that you know what not to do, try your hand at a query letter that meets these criteria instead.

Excerpted and adapted from Your First Novel Revised and Expanded Edition © 2018 by Ann Rittenberg, Laura Whitcomb, and Camille Goldin, with permission from Writer’s Digest Books.

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from Writing Editor Blogs –

Stan Lee’s 1947 Guide to Writing and Selling Comics

In 1947, when the late comics legend Stan Lee was in his mid-20s and was just rising to notoriety, he contributed an article to Writer’s Digest called “There’s Money in Comics!” In the article, Lee shares his comics writing secrets—including idea generation, working with artists and publications, laying out the writing with the images, and breaking into the comics market. His advice is still invaluable today. Read on to check out the full article from 1947.

There’s Money in Comics!

by Stan Lee
Writer’s Digest, November 1947

Well, what are you waiting for? They’ve been publishing comic magazines for more than 10 years. They’ve been buying scripts for these magazines from freelance writers for that same length of time and paying good rates for them. There are 92 comic magazines appearing on the stands every single month—and each magazine uses an average of 5 stories. It’s a big field, it’s a well-paying field, and it’s an interesting field. If you haven’t tried to crack the comics yet, now’s the time to start.

Original cover, Writer’s Digest November 1947

No matter what type of writing you specialize in—adventure, detective style, romantic stories, or humorous material, there is some comic magazine which uses the type of story you’d like to write. And, once you’ve broken into the field, you’ll find that your assignments come to you at a fairly steady pace.

The pay is good. A competent writer can write about 10 pages a day for $6 to $9 per page, depending upon the strip he is writing and the quality of his material. So, this comic field certainly bears a pretty close scrutiny from any writer who’s interested in receiving meaty checks, and in receiving them often. (And I’ve yet to see the writer who isn’t interested!)

“But I’m not good at drawing! How can I work with an artist on a comic strip?” How often I’ve heard that said by writers.

Look! You don’t have to be able to draw flies! You do need an imagination, and the ability to write snappy dialogue and to describe continuity. And what writer won’t lay claim to those talents?

Comic strip writing is very comparable to radio writing, or to writing for the stage. The radio writer must describe sound effects in his script, and the playwright must give staging directions in his play. Well, the comic strip writer also gives directions for staging and sound effects in his script, but HIS directions are given in writing to the artist, rather than to a director. He must tell the artist what to draw, and then must write the dialogue and captions.

A sample page from a script of “The Blonde Phantom” follows. This is an actual page, just as it was typed by Al Sulman, the writer. You will notice that the page is roughly divided into two sections, the left-hand section containing the instructions for the artist, and the right-hand section containing the dialogue. There are no set rules as to margins and borders, the important consideration being to make sure that the script is written clearly and can be easily understood by the editor and artist.

One interesting aspect of writing a comic is seeing how the artist finally interprets your script. Syd Shores used the copy above to draw one page for “Blonde Phantom Comics,” issue #15. As you can see below, the artist relied on the instructions that Sulman typed on the left side of the script.


5 Elements of a Good Comic Script

But there’s more to comic strip writing than just knowing on which side of a page to type artist’s instructions. Let’s try to analyze some of the factors which go into the making of a good script:

1. Interesting Beginning.

Just as in a story, the comic strip must catch the reader’s interest from the first. The very first few panels should show the reader that something of interest is happening, or is about to happen.

2. Smooth Continuity.

The action from panel to panel must be natural and unforced. If a character is walking on the street talking to another character in one panel, we wouldn’t show him horse-back riding in the next panel with a different character.

There ARE times when it is necessary to have a sudden change of scene or time, however, and for such times the writer uses captions. For example, if we have Patsy Walker lying in bed, about to fall asleep in one panel, and want to show her eating breakfast in the next panel, the second panel would have an accompanying caption reading something like this: “The next morning, after a sound night’s sleep, Patsy rushes to the kitchen to do justice to hearty breakfast.”

Thus, by the use of captions, we are able to justify time and space lapses in our panels.

[Bob Woodward Gets to the Bottom of Things: Timeless Investigative Journalism Techniques (from Writer’s Digest 1996)]

3. Good Dialogue.

This is of prime importance. The era of Captain America hitting Red Skull and shouting “So you want to play, eh?” is over! Today, with the comic magazine business being one of the most highly competitive fields, each editor tries to get the best and snappiest dialogue possible for his characters. In writing a comic strip, have your characters speak like real people, not the inhabitants of a strange and baffling new world!

4. Suspense Throughout.

Whether you are writing a mystery script or a humorous script, the same rule applies: Keep it interesting throughout. Any comic strip in which the reader isn’t particularly interested in what happens in the panel following the one he’s reading, isn’t a good comic strip.

All of the tricks you have learned and applied in writing other forms of fiction can be used in comic writing insofar as holding the reader’s attention is concerned. But remember, giving the reader well-drawn pictures to look at is not enough; the reader must WANT to look at the pictures because he is interested in following the adventures of the lead character.

5. A Satisfactory Ending.

An ending which leaves the reader with a smile on his lips and a pleasant feeling that all the loose strings of the story have been neatly tied together can cover a multitude of sins. It has always been my own conviction that a strip with an interesting beginning, good dialogue, and a satisfactory ending can’t be TOO bad, no matter how many other faults it may have.

Writing a Comic That Will Sell

One point which I can’t stress too strongly is: DON’T WRITE DOWN TO YOUR READERS!  It is common knowledge that a large portion of comic magazine readers are adults, and the rest of the readers who may be kids are generally pretty sharp characters. They are used to seeing movies and listening to radio shows and have a pretty good idea of the stories they want to read. If you figure that “anything goes” in a comic magazine, a study of any recent copy of Daredevil Comics or Bat Man will show you that a great deal of thought goes into every story; and there are plenty of gimmicks, sub-plots, human interest angles, and the other elements that go into the making of any type of good story, whether it be a comic strip or a novel.

Another important point to remember is: The only way you can learn about comics is by reading them. So far as I know, there are no schools which give specialized courses in comic strip writing and no books which can be of too much help to you. Constant reading of the various comic magazines is the only way to develop a “feel” for what constitutes a good comic strip.

Another consideration of prime importance is: Decide which comic magazine you want to write for before you do any writing. The various magazines in the field have editorial differences which are almost always amazing. A story which Timely Comics would consider exciting might be deemed too fantastic by True Comics, Inc., and Classic Comics, Inc., would have very little use for the type of story preferred at Fiction House! Each comic publishing company has its own distinctive formula, and the only way to really grasp this formula is to read the magazines.

Navigating the Comics Industry

Most everybody knows something about the organization and workings of an ordinary fiction publishing company. But to most people, writers included, a comic magazine publishing outfit is cloaked in mystery. Let me tell you a little about how a comic house operates so that you’ll have a better general knowledge about this large but comparatively unknown field.

The guy you’re most interested in at a comic publishing house is the editor. “How does he differ from editors of other types of magazines?” Here’s how: The editor of comics is more of a coordinator. He not only considers the merits of a script, but also who is going to draw it and whether it is written in a manner that will suit the artist’s style of drawing.

If the artist who draws Hedy De Vine has difficulty drawing crowd scenes and specializes in close-up shots of beautiful women, then the editor of that magazine must be careful not to buy Hedy scripts which call for many characters in each panel and for many long shots.

It’s the editor’s task to make sure that the scripts he buys are perfectly suited for the artist to whom they are given, and also to ensure that the artist interprets the writer’s script exactly as the writer intended it.

Of course, there are some artists who write their own scripts, but they are in the minority. The average artist, even though he may be capable of writing his own script, because of his long-standing familiarity with the character he draws, would still prefer to have a writer write the script for him so that he can concentrate entirely upon the drawing.

Therefore, you, as a writer, should acquaint yourself with the style of art work which is used in the script you are interested in writing. And then slant your story in such a way so that particular style will blend in perfectly with your story. The writers who concentrate on such details are the ones who attain top recognition and top rates in the phenomenal comics field.

Selling Your Comics

Now then, here you are, a fairly accomplished writer interested in trying your hand at the comics. What type of writing is your forte? Is it adventure, teenage humor, fantasy, true crime? Select your favorite comics magazine and write to the editor to get a list of the magazines he edits, and, if possible, his story needs. After receiving the list of magazines he sends you, head for the nearest newsstand and look them over. Select the one that appeals most to you and for which you think your style is best suited.

But up till this point your preliminary work is just beginning. You’ve not got to read every copy of this magazine you can lay your hands on. Suppose Georgie is the magazine you selected. Get old copies of Georgie, get current copues of Georgie, and leave an order for future copies. Read that strip until you feel you’ve known Georgie personally for years, and can anticipate what each Georgie story will be about after reading the first page. Live with Georgie for days—get the Georgie formula down pat—and then…

Send some synopses of Georgie stories to the editor. Make them the same types of stories which had been appearing in all the issues you read. Not the same PLOT, jus the same TYPE of story.

Should your synopses click, you’ll get an order for a Georgie story from the editor. He will tell you how many panels to write per page, how many pages in length to make the story, and other relevant information.

Now it’s up to you. If you write a perfectly satisfactory story (and there’s no reason not to, if you’ve studied the magazines long and carefully enough) there’s an excellent chance you’ll be asked to do more stories on the same character—and later on, perhaps, additional stories for still other characters.

So, those of you writers who are itching to crack new markets have a market waiting for you that’s just made to order. It may seem a little complicated, but the rewards are well worth any time you may spend learning the comic style. I’m sure you won’t regret spending the time—I didn’t!

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from Writing Editor Blogs –

What’s the Weirdest Place You’ve Ever Written?

Here, author Lisa Freeman shares some of the weirdest places she’s ever written. In preparation for this article, we also asked our Twitter followers to share the strangest places they’ve penned a story or article. Find their answers below Lisa’s story.

Anywhere can be my writing zone if I’m willing to give up the idea that it has to be comfortable. Writing is often a combative experience. I find myself fighting the elements, hunting down a place to work like a desperate conquistador searching for gold. I will not stop until I find it. This quest has led me to some very weird places.

Years ago in Culver City, there used to be an ice-skating rink on Sepulveda Blvd. It was a landmark in Los Angeles with a giant statue of a girl doing a layback spin, arms high over her head. Kids from all over town, including one of my daughters, would converge for lessons after school. The parking lot was notoriously famous for fender benders caused by parents rushing to drop off their car pools or trying to fit large SUVs in the last compact space.

On the typical 98-plus degree afternoon, I would be schlepping my parka, scarf, and wool blanket, dripping in sweat. I entered the rink, relieved by the icy air and stink of French fries and hot chocolate. Thankfully, my daughter was in her figure skating phase, which provided me with enough time to write my first YA novel, Honey Girl. If ice-skating weren’t such a wicked sport, I would have encouraged her to continue and go pro, just for a consistent space to work.

Once my daughter was on the ice, I donned my gear and ordered a large Styrofoam cup of hot water. It cost me $1.00 since I brought my own tea bags. To the sound of six teachers in different sections yelling to students, I carefully hiked up to the top bleacher, with nods and hellos to the cliques of moms I passed. It took me two years before I realized that the thermoses they were drinking out of were filled with hot toddies, screwdrivers, and scotch. Finally, I understood why they were having so much fun.

6 Pitfalls to Avoid When Writing LGBTQI+ Characters in Teen Fiction

There was only one electrical outlet, and I sat next to it, bundled up with fingerless gloves and a wool ski hat. Once my laptop got warm, it was downright cozy. A 90-minute class and practice after allowed me to float into my story. But every half hour or so I gave myself permission to look up and wave at my fearless daughter. Then, I would fall back into my novel, dreaming of Hawaii in 1972 on a warm tropical day, leaving the frigid air far behind.

The theme of cold in my weird places continued when I ended up in Idaho one winter with some friends who skied black-diamond runs. Since I can barely snow plow, I happily opted out knowing I would have uninterrupted writing time. I searched for a table by a sun-soaked window to watch the snowfall. Unfortunately, it was Christmas Day. There wasn’t a chair to be found.

I looked upstairs, where it was even more crowded, and wandered into the women’s bathroom. It had at least 20 independent rooms that served as stalls. I quickly found an unused one way in the back, locked the door, and set up my office. The toilet made an excellent research table. The floor became my chair and the jacket over my lap became my desk. I worked for over two hours. When I finally came out of my writing stupor and heard the flushing all around me, I was so freaked out, I had to leave.

I’ve written at rainy funerals, Rosh Hashanah services, and in the Matterhorn line at Disneyland. But the weirdest place I’ve ever worked was next to an enclosed MRI machine while my daughter had a scan done. It was a precautionary medical procedure after she was rear-ended on the freeway. She was stiff, but moving, another mother’s prayer answered. Maybe that’s why I could entertain the space to write in. As I put on a pair of headphones that resembled the kind workers on tarmacs use to direct planes, I watched my daughter bravely disappear into the tube until only her toes were visible.

The voice of a technician came over the speaker into the small room. There would be five scans that would take at least half an hour. That day, I thought 30 minutes of writing time was something to celebrate, even under such sketchy conditions.

Then the sounds began.

First, a bass-y ching-ching-ching reverberated under my skin. I immediately thought, maybe this isn’t the best place to write, especially when a flashing light reflected out of the MRI machine and the jackhammering sound started. But it was too late. I was committed.

The air conditioner blasted, turning the room into a refrigerated vault. I tried to use Riptide Summer, the second book in the series I was editing, to warm my thoughts, but this time it didn’t work. Then a new sound, a da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da, pounded like the opening chords of The Beatles’ song Helter Skelter. I looked at what I was writing. It resembled a crossword puzzle, fragmented with gaping holes, but I continued. Come on, I told myself. You’ve been to heavy metal concerts louder than this.

And then it happened. The machine gun patter began to fade. I no longer felt like I was inside a dryer, spinning. As I wrote, I thought, is this craft or insanity? I used the noise, I used the worry, I used the agitation, and I used the fear I felt for my daughter, tossing it onto the page, unpacking all my feelings into a character’s voice, word after word. The tension in the back of my neck released as this unpredictable twist of falling into the groove freed me. I didn’t know if I’d use any of it, but it didn’t matter, because I was writing.

We also asked our Twitter followers to share their weirdest writing spots. Here are some of their answers:

Where is the strangest place you’ve ever written? Share your odd locations in the coments below.

Lisa Freeman is an author, actress, and teacher best known for her Honey Girl series of novels–HONEY GIRL (2015; Sky Pony Press) and RIPTIDE SUMMER (2017; Sky Pony Press). She grew up amidst the Hollywood scene and emerged as an actress in such films as Back to the Future, Back to the Future II, and Mr. Mom. She earned her MFA and Pedagogy in the Art of Writing degrees from Antioch University and now resides in Santa Monica, California, only miles down the road from State Beach, where her Honey Girls novels take place. You can visit her at

Can you impress us in 1500 words or fewer? Enter the WD Short SHORT Story Competition!

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from Writing Editor Blogs –

2018 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 12

For today’s prompt, write a disaster poem. Disasters can be epic and involve earthquakes, fires, and violence. But disasters can also be epic and involve spilling red wine on a white carpet or saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment. Whatever your disaster, have fun poeming today.


Do You Have a $1,000 Poem?

The 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards has extended its deadline to November 19, 2018.

And the winning poem receives $1,000 in cash!

Find the complete guidelines and available prizes here, but the competition is open to all poets for poems of 32 lines or fewer. Rhyming poems, non-rhyming poems, haiku, limericks, and so on.

Click to continue.


Here’s my attempt at a Disaster Poem:


Not everything is a disaster:
For every broken window
or heart, there is a group
of people dancing in a subway
car or throwing a surprise
birthday party. Children find
a puddle and splash in it.
Maybe they’re mud-covered,
but stains mark the moments
when things went sideways,
but people kept on keeping on.


Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market, in addition to writing a free weekly newsletter and a poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine. He tries to avoid making mountains out of mole hills. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

2018 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 11

For today’s prompt, write a forgiveness poem. Earlier this month, I shared an apology poem prompt, but it’s one thing to apologize; it’s something else entirely to forgive someone, whether they’ve apologized or not. That’s the point of this prompt: forgiveness. Write about forgiving. Or write about not forgiving. If you’re stuck, maybe write your forgiveness poem as a response to your apology poem.


Do You Have a $1,000 Poem?

The 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards has extended its deadline to November 19, 2018.

And the winning poem receives $1,000 in cash!

Find the complete guidelines and available prizes here, but the competition is open to all poets for poems of 32 lines or fewer. Rhyming poems, non-rhyming poems, haiku, limericks, and so on.

Click to continue.


Here’s my attempt at a Forgiveness Poem:

“forgive & forget”

i want to forgive
& i want to forget
but i don’t think i’m ready
to do either yet

so maybe i’ll forget
that i want to forgive
& forget being mad
& just try to live


Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market, in addition to writing a free weekly newsletter and a poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine. Despite his poem today, he does believe in forgiveness. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.

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from Writing Editor Blogs –

Saturday, November 10, 2018

2018 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 10

For today’s prompt, write a teenage poem. Many of you have experienced being a teenager. Some people reading this may actually be teenagers. And maybe one or three of you are looking forward to being a teenager yourself. Lots of potential angles to take in this one.


Do You Have a $1,000 Poem?

The 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards has extended its deadline to November 19, 2018.

And the winning poem receives $1,000 in cash!

Find the complete guidelines and available prizes here, but the competition is open to all poets for poems of 32 lines or fewer. Rhyming poems, non-rhyming poems, haiku, limericks, and so on.

Click to continue.


Here’s my attempt at a Teenage Poem:


sometimes i think i’ll never grow
older than fifteen & i sigh
as i do with answers unknown
because i’m sure i’ll never grow
bolder as i grow older though
i don’t know if i want to try
sometimes i think i’ll never grow
older than fifteen & i sigh


Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market, in addition to writing a free weekly newsletter and a poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine. As a teenager, he was the lead singer for a band named The Oval Teens, which basically played Brainiac covers. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.

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from Writing Editor Blogs –

Friday, November 9, 2018

What’s the Big Idea? 20 Out-of-the-Box Writing Exercises & Story Starters

Fresh out of story ideas? Generate your next big concept with these 20 out-of-the-box writing exercises and story starters, created by the editors of Writer’s Digest.

Every story starts as a concept: a microscopic kernel of a premise that can, if properly nurtured, unfurl into a fully matured narrative in your head. But sometimes fresh ideas are hard to come by, and it’s awfully hard to write a novel if you don’t have anywhere to begin. The Writer’s Digest editors (Tyler Moss, Jess Zafarris, Robert Lee Brewer, Amy Jones, Baihley Gentry and Jeanne V. Bowerman) took it upon ourselves to fertilize your mind with the following writing exercises—guaranteed to germinate a story in even the most arid cerebral soil.

20 Out-of-the-Box Writing Exercises & Story Starters

1. Try “X Meets Y”

A popular formula for enticing agents in a query, this classic equation has traditionally been used as a marketing tool after your manuscript is finished to compare your book to other titles. But when reverse-engineered, it can actually be used as a device for idea generation as well. Start by listing out some of your favorite movies, TV shows and books, then look for ones that are the least like each other. Plug them into the formula, and you’ll soon be getting odd combos like “Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Back to the Future,” “Anna Karenina meets The Hate U Give” or “Pirates of the Caribbean meets A Game of Thrones.” Some mixes may seem dissonant on the surface, but in fact, the more the variables contrast, the more room for a distinctly novel story idea.

2. Roll the Dice

In an interview in the September 1997 Writer’s Digest, Diane Ackerman said, “Creativity by its nature has to do with gambling, taking chances, insinuating yourself into darker corners that haven’t been explored.” In the spirit of taking chances, roll two six-sided die. Whatever number comes up, write down the first word you can think of with that many letters. Repeat 12 times. Incorporate these 12 words into a story or scene and see where it takes you. Take it up a notch by using one or more 20-sided die and rolling 20 times.

6 Fiction Writing Exercises to Try When You’re Traveling

3. Observe the World Around You

In the October 2018 Writer’s Digest, bestselling Annihilation author Jeff VanderMeer discussed ways in which writers can position themselves to draw inspiration from the world around them. In that interview, he said, “I could, right now, learn a lot more about what’s going on in my front yard in a way that might lead to character, or plot, or narrative. I try to be open to the idea that story is all around us.” So, here’s your task: Take him at his word. Go for a walk around your neighborhood and be wholly present. How would you describe the way that leaf feels against your fingertips? What could that vanity license plate say about a character? Why is the neighborhood association so damn insistent that every house on the block have Christmas lights? Get out in the world and let the story come to you.

4. Flip the Script

As a young fiction writer studying Shakespeare, I was inspired to write a short story based off of Hamlet. Specifically, we discussed how Hamlet takes forever to act on his idea of getting revenge for the death of his father. In the very first act of the play, he is called upon to get revenge, but it takes until the final scene of Act V to carry it out. So I flipped the script and wrote a short story involving an instantaneous act of revenge via road rage. Remember: You don’t have to flip the entire story, but consider the actions of one character and think, What if he or she acted in a completely contrary fashion?

5. Expand the Quote

Make a popular adage or proverb the driving force of your story. A few examples include, “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” “better safe than sorry,” “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and “all good things must come to an end.” Choose one and either write a story that confirms the adage or proverb, or write a story that seems to contradict that sentiment. If you’d rather use a line from another story or play (or even a popular quote), do that as well. Who knows? The proverb, adage or quotation may eventually turn into the title.

6. Fictionalize a Real Life

Here’s an approach stolen from last October’s “WD Interview” subject, bestseller Curtis Sittenfeld: Use the well-documented life of someone in the public eye—a politician, a musician, a movie star—and loosely base a novel on their biography. Sittenfeld’s book American Wife, a fictional account of a First Lady, was inspired by Laura Bush. Now she’s working on a novel about Hillary Rodham (who historically rebuffed Bill Clinton’s offer of marriage a number of times before finally accepting), asking the question, “What if she declined his marriage proposals and then went on her own way?” There are endless opportunities for you to do something similar. What if Hitler had been accepted into art school? What if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated? And because these prompts are only supposed to serve as inspiration for a story (unless you want to write a fictional biography), you don’t have to worry about doing extensive research. Just use your subject’s life as a rough outline, then change their name and alter their path wherever you see potential for lucrative storytelling.

7. Rip from the Headlines

Pick up a copy of a newspaper or news magazine you don’t normally read, or head to the website of a newspaper from a city you don’t live in. Read the headlines, but not the stories connected with those headlines. Jot down the ones that are strange or unexpected, or the ones that make you want to read the story below. Now, create the stories and characters that belong with these headlines. Develop a world where your versions of the stories are all interconnected in some way.

8. Investigate Stray Facts

Try this journalistic trick: Reporters are always on the lookout for an original story, whether from an anecdote heard at a dinner party or a strange detail from a documentary that they decide to investigate further. Use the same method to excavate fiction ideas. When I lived in Cincinnati, I took a tour through a series of empty subway tunnels under the city (they were from a mass-transit project that was abandoned during the Great Depression). Certainly an interesting premise for a magazine piece—but also a promising start to a novel about vampires who freely move about the city under cover of darkness. Another example: After reading an article on the devastating environmental impact of almond farming in The Atlantic, I created a character who got rich developing a sustainable system for watering nuts. Such quirky plot points will make your narrative more unique, and give it a foothold in reality.

9. Write a response

One of the age-old ways new stories are found is through the act of responding to another story. A few examples include John Gardner’s Grendel (about the antagonist in the heroic poem Beowulf) and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West in response to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Anne Rice even wrote The Vampire Lestat as a response to her own Interview With the Vampire. These are overt responses, but many writers also write more subtle replies to—and interpretations of—the stories they loved (or hated) reading.

10. Explore the Library

When was the last time you went to the library? Bring a notebook with you, and spend time strolling among the stacks. Choose a genre or topical category outside of the one(s) you typically write in, and select a book you haven’t heard of with an interesting title. Open each one to a random page and write down the most compelling sentence from that page. Repeat with three to five additional books, in the same section or a different one. Which elements can you combine from each one of those sentences to form a new story in your genre?

11. Try New Things

Even though writing is the very best pastime there ever was (duh), it’s not the only hobby out there. The mind-stretching benefits of playing outside your comfort zone—take a cooking class! Learn beat-boxing! Water ski!—will diversify your knowledge base and enrich your creative potential. For me, this technique manifested in a hands-on tree-climbing lesson from the founders of the world’s largest professional tree climbing company (because yes, that is a thing) and a magazine byline about the experience—but your adventure could easily be spun to flesh out a new character’s background, craft a setting or build a story premise.

12. Unlock Your Senses on a Hike

In an 1890 journal entry, John Muir wrote, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Go on a hike, preferably somewhere without too many other hikers. Find a quiet place to sit—somewhere you find beautiful. Sit on the ground and meditate for a moment: Close your eyes, sit up straight and breathe deeply for 10 slow counts. Then, tap into your senses. With your eyes closed, listen closely to the sounds around you. Touch the ground with your hands, feeling the earth and the leaves below you. Open your eyes and focus on minute details in rocks and tree bark. Observe stillness and motion. Write down your observations and incorporate them into a setting for a scene in a novel or story. Even if the setting isn’t in that precise location, let your characters experience their own surroundings with the same depth and detail as you have in yours.

13. Search New Studies

Pull up your web browser and go to In the search bar, type in “New Study.” Scroll through the legions of recent results, and chances are you’ll find a number of articles on new findings and reportedly groundbreaking research that can serve as excellent story starters. (This is another technique I use to cultivate freelance writing ideas that’s easily adapted to fiction.) Doing so right now, I see headlines like, “New Study Is the Most Successful Attempt to Gene Edit Human Embryos So Far.” Sounds to me like that premise has potential for a sci-fi short story about bioengineering. Here’s another: “New Report: You Can’t Work Your Way Through College Anymore.” The article describes how the rising cost of college tuition has made it harder for students to try to support their education while also working a job. That right there could be the concept of a YA novel: A college freshman has to take on a bizarre side job to help pay for school—working as a personal assistant to one of the university’s eccentric benefactors.

14. Focus on the Miniature

Sometimes the hard part of starting a story (any story) is the overwhelming sense of possibility—so put some blinders on and focus in on the microscopic level of your new story. Instead of worrying about plot, zoom in on the setting (a calm, foggy morning by the river that cuts through the city), then on a character (man emerges from the shadow casting a look over his shoulder) with a problem (followed by a very out-of-place black bear). Once you’ve got this small foothold, the fun part of investigating how we got to this point and sharing what happens next can happen.

15. Meet Your Neighbors

How well do you know your neighbors? I’ve lived in the same condo for four years and I know a few names, a few occupations and pets, but that’s about it. I often have groceries in my hand or am running out the door with no time to talk. But what if I did stop to chat? I might find out the older gentleman in the bottom condo unit is a former researcher used to working 80-hour weeks and is now struggling not only with retirement, but with the effects of his work. Or that the woman living alone on the second floor is surprisingly secretive about why she moved to town. Not only will you get to know your neighbors, but you might also come away with an interesting story idea. Let your imagination run wild as you fill in the blanks.

16. Rip from the Headlines

Pick up a copy of a newspaper or magazine you don’t normally read, or head to the website of a newspaper from a city you don’t live in. Read the headlines, but not the stories connected with those headlines. Jot down the ones that are strange or unexpected, or the ones that make you want to read the story below. Then, create the stories and characters that belong with these headlines. Develop a world where your versions of the stories are all interconnected in some way.

17. Eavesdrop

No sneaking required: Flip through radio stations on your morning commute or while running errands, never lingering for more than a few seconds per station (NPR or talk stations are best for this, though any type will do!). Take the snippets of conversation you hear as a starter, and let your imagination loose: Who is talking? What are they conversing about and why? What is the time period (in this fictional scenario) and current events influencing what’s happening?

18. Go on a Trope Treasure Hunt

As writers, we’re encouraged to eschew formula and overused tropes. But let’s be serious, it’s practically impossible to write a story that is wholly and completely original—and even if you manage it, you may find the effort fruitless since many readers enjoy encountering their favorite tropes in fiction. Go to and scavenge the site. You can use the search bar to look for your favorite characters, books, movies or TV shows to find out what tropes are listed for each one, as well as other stories in which those tropes appear. You’ll discover that nearly every character, story concept and symbol is connected to dozens of other stories in a vast array of mediums. Select three to four tropes and combine them to see what new story ideas they can help you generate.

19. Artwork Inspiration

Take a trip to an art museum and wander around until you find a portrait or scene that is interesting to you. Try to pick a subject you’re not familiar with. If you chose a portrait, spend time creating the backstory of how the person came to be sitting for the portrait. Did she accomplish a great feat, or is he there by way of being a friend to the artist? Is the person an adventurer who is being forced to sit in order to satisfy a wealthy patron before embarking on a new journey? Or, if you chose a scene, imagine how it came to be and what happened after. After your trip, feel free to research your subject, the painting, and the artist and incorporate that into your imaginings.

20. Visit the Flea Market

Take a trip to a nearby flea market or antique mall to search for the ‘artifacts’ of your next story. Look for things like old books with names or notes written in them, a fancy porcelain dish with a chip on the edge, a pocketknife with a name engraved but wearing off from use, old daguerreotypes of a group of people, etc. Collect a random assortment of things you find interesting or unusual. Use your finds to create a character or even a cast of characters. How are your characters connected? What story does the ‘artifact’ convey about the character(s), and what could have happened to the characters that their prized possessions could end up in flea market years, or even decades, later? This could be the start of your next historical or generational novel.

Learn more in the January 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest with Michael Lewis, and subscribe to get WD all year long.










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