Monthly Archives: December 2017

‘100 Days in Appalachia’ Nears One-Year Mark in Telling Untold Stories of Rural America

Sylvester Edwards, farmer, McDowell County, West Virginia. (Photo by Nancy Andrews/100 Days in Appalachia.)


If collaboration is a way for journalists to investigate the scale of a global story or focus on a patchwork of community blocks, there’s most certainly a place for it in looking at the world through the eyes of Appalachia.

“We’re not a local media outlet and we’re not a regional media outlet. We’re a national outlet about the region and with the region.”

100 Days in Appalachia is a collaborative partnership focused on reporting on a region that is more complicated than commonly portrayed by the reporting trope of “Trump’s America.” Through the partnership, the project seeks to tell the complex story of Appalachia’s people, places and lives and to look at issues through the lens of what they mean for the region.

100 Days in Appalachia is a collaborative project connecting WVU’s Reed College of Media, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and The Daily Yonder.

It was a project that was in planning stages for years, and finally came to fruition thanks to an important catalytic event.

“I think it’s sort of funny how we spent a couple years planning and planning and planning and then we just jumped in and did it. And I’m not sure that we would have benefited from any more planning than the 24 hours we took after the election to just start,” Dana Coester says.

Coester is the creative director and executive editor of 100 Days in Appalachia, based at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, where she’s also creative director of the WVU Media Innovation Center. She says the election was a catalyst to get things moving.

“‘Let’s just do something. Let’s just do something right now, let’s respond to this.’ Because everybody was talking about Appalachia,” Coester says. “And then we just dove into that. We wanted it to be very assertive, and narrate what was happening nationally, but through the prism of Appalachia, because in a way Appalachia was a metaphor for everything anyway.”

“We’re not a local media outlet and we’re not a regional media outlet. We’re a national outlet about the region and with the region,” Coester says.

National attention for the project and the audience that’s building from outside the region is shifting the perspective on Appalachia both nationally and internationally according to Coester.

She highlights readership by journalists and politicians as a indicator of the broader impact the project is having. Especially when some of the most viewed content from the project represents a “polarized spectrum of audience.” Those pieces include a video series “Muslim in Appalachia 360° series and an interview with “the most interviewed coal miner in America.” These projects reflect a sense of in-depth reporting in the region that will hopefully contribute to the day-by-day work of rebuilding audience that Coester considers part of their work.

“As part of the Democracy Fund work, in 2018 we’ll be conducting a series of community engagement activities throughout the region to more formally measure impact, attitudes and trust,” Coester says. “We are learning that the national media landscape over the past few years has in a way “trained” audience members to view content and outlets through polarized contexts — that you must be one thing or another on a political spectrum. Breaking that expectation and rebuilding trust is part of the challenge we’re trying to address, one piece of content at a time and through these community engagement efforts.”

Market Failure to Market Success

100 Days combines original reporting, content from writers and creators in the region, and partners republishing and amplifying each other’s work. It’s a combination that’s carried the project through 100 days and into almost a year of coverage come January.

Tim Marema, the editor of the Daily Yonder and the vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies, says that the success of and need for a project like 100 Days reflects a market failure for information in Appalachia.

“We have the same needs as any part of the United States for good journalism but we don’t have the market that supports and attracts the kind of journalism we need commercially,” Marema says.  “So this partnership between a nonprofit and an educational organization and a public broadcaster is market intervention if you will, to sort of jump start the journalism we need.”

Marema says there’s a need for national journalism in and about Appalachia, but there’s also a need for what 100 Days provides.

“It’s easier to let somebody else’s brain dictate your story when you are from the outside, and I think that people who are in the region have a better sense of what’s been covered, how it’s been covered, and what needs to be covered. And I think you need both, both rooted in the region and national as well.”

Contributing editor Lovey Cooper echoes that sentiment.

“I think in DC there is a lot of the idea that ‘If anything is going to matter it has to come through our lens first’ and we’re challenging that kind of thing, and saying that that’s definitely not the case,” Cooper says.  “It’s important to tell these stories with a sense of local history and local context and local nuance.”

Cooper is a recent addition to the team. She previously worked in DC covering policy at a couple different outlets focused on education.

“This really is a model that I think works for this kind of reporting,” Cooper says. “Because our project’s just such a wide region, it just makes sense to do things this way, to work with people who actually are living on the ground and in these small towns who we probably couldn’t physically get to come into an office and report for us.”

Support for 100 Days comes from Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the Democracy Fund with WVPB and WVU’s Reed College of Media contributing. As the project moves forward, exploring long term business models is a priority. 2018 will bring experiments in events and sponsored content with exploration of scaling the model to other regions. Coester highlights the power of cultural identity as an impetus to experiment with reader sponsorship.

An Experiment

Coester says the project works because of an engaged team that trusts and gives each other the runway for experimentation even when results are not immediately tangible. She says the partners are in frequent communication to work out the details of amplifying each other and republishing each other’s work.

“It’s messy. Everything works, sort of,” Coester says. “We work, day and night. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and also one of the funnest things I’ve ever done. This is why I went to journalism school.”

For organizations thinking of trying their own take on a project like 100 Days in Appalachia, Coester highlights that experimentation and risk tolerance are part of the deal.

“I think if you’re going to do a startup and you’re going to try to be experimental, and you’re going to try to be assertive, then give yourself permission to stumble in that,” Coester says. “There’s a big difference between newsroom operations of something that’s been in existence for a couple decades, and something coming out of nothing. So I think just being comfortable with that is essential.”

The experimentation and collaboration is paying off for 100 Days. The project is regularly publishing content about the region that goes beyond the surface observations and stories we’ve heard before. Coester says that pitches from potential contributors have grown and they now have to work hard to keep up with responding to them all. The project is leveraging the expertise of its different partners to try new stories and kinds of storytelling. The project’s photo profile series “100 days, 100 voices” by photographer Nancy Andrews strives to depict “the varied faces, passions, issues and opinions from around the region.” Coester highlights upcoming work about the role that religion plays in communities and politics as an example of digging deeper into topics that have regional significance.

“You’re in competition with everybody and that’s the natural thing for media,” Coester says. “But when the industry is as distressed as it is, and when a region is as distressed as [Appalachia] is, this seems like a really good way to create a network [where] the benefits can spread to more people.”

Heather Bryant is a journalist and the founder and director of Project Facet, an open source infrastructure project that supports newsrooms in managing the logistics of creating, editing and distributing content, managing projects and facilitating collaborative relationships. She spent her last year studying collaboration between newsrooms as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.

By Heather Bryant

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

Building an Author Website: The First Step to Publishing

If you’re like most writers I know, you probably dream of getting published. But as I’ve worked with writers for the last six years, I’ve found that most are woefully unprepared for what publishing actually takes, and this means that either they never figure out what it takes to get published or when they finally DO get published, they find themselves disappointed with the process and with how many books they sell.

How do you prepare for getting published though? There are several steps, but the first step is building an author website. In this article, I’m going to share a step-by-step guide to building a simple author website yourself that will support all of your publishing efforts.


Why Building a Website is the First Step You Should Take BEFORE You Get Published

As book sales move more and more online, a website where you can develop a relationship with your readers is essential. It doesn’t matter if your book is being published by a big traditional publisher or if you’re self-publishing. You need a website.

Why is having an author website so important? Why not just focus on free and easy platforms like Facebook and Twitter for your book marketing efforts?

  • Social media doesn’t sell books, but an email list does. You might think email is an old school way to sell books and that it can’t possibly work, but the numbers say something very different. In fact, 66 percent of people say they have made a purchase because of an email they received compared to only 20 percent of people who have purchased something from a Facebook post and six percent from Twitter. I’ve been watching this trend for years, and every statistic I’ve ever read has shown me that email is far and above the best way to get your audience to buy your book.
  • The best place to build your email list is on a website.
  • How then do you build your email list? Through your website. In fact, a simple, single-page website with an email opt-in form is enough to completely change your publishing success.
  • You OWN your website. You don’t own your social media following. Facebook does. Twitter does. Instagram does. And they can change the rules any time they want, like when Facebook changed their algorithm to only show a fraction of people’s posts. Or when Instagram did the same.

“But I’m Not Tech Savvy”: Why Anyone Can Build an Author Website

If the idea of building a website is intimidating to you, though, it shouldn’t be. I’ve built over a dozen websites and helped other writers set up a few dozen more, many in just a few hours, and even though I’m pretty savvy, it doesn’t mean you have to be to setup a simple author website.

Anyone can set up a simple author website in just a few hours if you know the right steps and don’t get overwhelmed by all the options out there.

At the same time, when I built my first website, it took me weekbecause I was doing it on my own, with no one to guide me through the process. My hope is that this guide will make the process simple enough that anyone can build a website.

10 Steps to Building an Author Website

If you read this article from start to finish and follow each step, you will have a great author website.

1. Choose Your Platform

You have many options when it comes to building a simple author website, but there are only three that I recommend.

Self-Hosted WordPress. My personal favorite is a self-hosted WordPress website (which is very different from a free website). I’ve been building websites on WordPress for almost ten years, and it combines ease, flexibility, and full control over your site.

You have to pay to host your website if you choose this option. That costs about $50 a year through Bluehost, which is the hosting company I recommend (you can click here to setup your WordPress website through Bluehost). Note that this includes a domain name, normally $12 a year. This is the least expensive, highest value option available.

WordPress has a number of free themes that allow you to quickly change the entire look and feel of your site. You can also purchase a paid theme (we use Divi at, and it’s amazing). Choose Self-Hosted WordPress (via Bluehost).

(HINT: I usually go with the Basic plan, paid yearly, with no add-ons. Bluehost and any other hosting service you choose will likely pitch you several add-on services for an extra cost. Personally, I always say no to all of them.)

Squarespace. If you’re not going to get a self-hosted WordPress, then Squarespace is a great second option. They have beautiful design and make it incredibly easy to set up and get started. Squarespace costs $12 a month to get started, about three times more than a self-hosted WordPress website, but they include a lot of features under that price. Choose Squarespace. (free). Not to be confused with a self-hosted WordPress website (e.g., is like the free, “light” version of a self-hosted WordPress website. If you want to get started quickly and for free, this can be a good option. I would still recommend Squarespace over—and a self-hosted WordPress website over both—but this can be a way to ease yourself into building an author website. Plus, it’s fairly easy to export and transfer to a self-hosted WordPress website when you’re ready to up your game. Choose

Which Website Platforms to Avoid:

  • Weebly. I’ve see a few good author websites built on Weebly, but most look clunky.
  • Wix. Every author website I’ve seen built on Wix looks like it’s from 2005. Plus, their branding will be on every page. You should be advertising your writing, not your website platform.
  • GoDaddy Site Builder (or any host’s native site builder). Hosting companies are good at hosting, not creating software for building websites.

2. Register Your Domain Name

A domain name is the URL where your website lives, e.g. When people type it into their browser, they will arrive at your website. All three of the platforms I recommended above allow you to register a domain name through them, but you can also register through a third party like Google Domains or (although I do recommend registering through the platform you choose above).

Your domain name is one of the first branding decisions you make as you build your website. The challenge is that as the Internet expands, more and more domains are registered and the best ones become scarce. How do you find one that’s both available and right for you? Here are a few important tips:

  • Look around before registering. Your first choice for a domain may already be taken, so it’s important to search before getting to far into the website building process. You can use Google’s Domain Search tool to quickly look through different domain options (HINT: Once you find your perfect domain, don’t register it on this tool. Instead, register it through the platform you chose above. You can always transfer domain names, but it’s an extra step that can be a little complicated.)
  • Use your first and last name (e.g. If it’s available, that is. If you write under a pen name, then your pen name would be the domain name, and if your name is difficult to spell, then you might consider writing under a pen name. If your name is not available, you can use a .me, .us, or .net domain, but I wouldn’t use .org unless you write religious or service books. I would not use a middle initial in your domain name. You can also append a word to the end of your name, like or Not as good as your author name, but it can still work.
  • Don’t use your book title as your (main) domain name. Because what will you do when you write another book. It’s fine to have a simple landing page or a basic website for each book you write (like this one), but not for your main author website.
  • Don’t include dashes in the domain. Adding a dash in between your first and last name is an easy way to get your name if it’s already taken, but it makes it a little harder for people to find you. Plus, in my opinion, it doesn’t look very good.

Other Domain Search Tools:

This handy tool:

3. Find a Few Author Websites to Model Yours On

Before you get deep into the design process, find a few author websites you like to model yours on. Here are a few author websites I recommend checking out:

As you look at their sites, take notice of the main elements of each site. Here are some of the most important elements:

  • Header. The image, logo, or name at the very top of the site. Don’t be overwhelmed if you have no idea how to make images look as awesome as the sites above. These authors all have design teams, but you can easily make simple but awesome looking images with a free tool like Canva.
  • Featured Banner. Often authors will have an image with their latest book featured as the first thing you see when you visit their site.
  • Email/Newsletter Sign Up Form. This is the most important section of the site, since your email list is the main way you develop a relationship with your readers. Building your email list is the number one best marketing step you can take for your writing. I really like Brad Thor’s site especially because his newsletter sign up form is above the fold.
  • Menu. This is where you’ll get an idea of the main pages. You’ll almost always find an About page, a Blog, a Books page, and a Contact page.
  • Endorsements and Reviews. Do they have any featured endorsements from well-known authors or reviews?
  • Social media channels. Do they link to any of their social media profiles? Which channels do they feature, e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest?

4. Install WordPress

From here I’m going to assume you’re setting up your website with Bluehost on WordPress

After setting up your new Bluehost account and registering your domain (see steps 1 and 2 above), it’s time to install WordPress on your domain.

1. If you haven’t done so already, after you sign up for Bluehost, you will be able to register your domain (see steps 1). If you missed this step, you can also register afterward from the Bluehost dashboard so don’t worry.

Author Website Bluehost Install

2. On the Bluehost dashboard, click install WordPress.

Bluehost WordPress Install

What’s really happening here: When you sign up for hosting, you’re basically renting a computer, just a computer that’s set up to broadcast to the internet. Your domain is kind of a like a folder on that computer, and when you install WordPress, you’re basically installing an application on that folder.

3. Click continue WordPress installation.

4. On the next page, select the domain you registered earlier in the dropdown. Leave the directory form blank.

Building an Author Website: WordPress Installation

5. Enter your login credentials. Next you’ll be asked to create login credentials (username and password) for your new website. These are really important to keep in a safe place, but you’ll also get an email with them.

6. It will install for a few minutes. After it finishes, visit your new domain’s wordpress admin screen, e.g. Make sure to bookmark this page for the future.

That’s it! You did it! You now have a new website! Congratulations!

5. Familiarize Yourself With WordPress

WordPress is fairly easy to use once you find your way around, but it can sometimes be intimidating to new users. Here are a few things to take note of:


This is your home base, where you can see your website’s back end at a glance and access all your settings and pages.

Admin Header Bar

At the top of your screen is an admin bar with a few helpful buttons.

  • + New. Creates a new post or page.
  • Edit. If you’re on a post or page you want to edit, you can click the edit button here to make changes.
  • Home / Dashboard button. If you’re on the dashboard, you can click this to get to your website’s home screen. If you’re on your website, then you can click this to go to your dashboard.

Dashboard Menu

This is the main way to create pages and access all the settings on your site.

  • Posts & Pages. Posts are for your blog and usually include comments. Pages are for site-wide pages, like your About page, Books page, or Contact page.
  • Appearance. There are several menu items under this that control the appearance of your site:

Theme. Change your theme here. We’ll talk about themes in a moment.
Customize. Depending on your theme, you can preview some appearance customizations here.
Menus. The menu on the front of your site is created and controlled here.
Widgets. These are things that appear in your sidebar, like an email sign up form or an image of your book cover and link to your book’s Amazon/Barnes and Noble page.

  • Plugins. One of the things that makes WordPress so great is the huge community of developers building free and paid plugins to extend your site’s functionality. I’ll mention which plugins I recommend in a moment, but this is where you will install, activate, and configure them.
  • Settings. There are a few settings you should configure at the start.

General. This is where you can change your site name and tagline, choose your time zone, and set your email address. You can leave these as the default, but I would change your time zone.
Writing. This affects how the page and post editor looks. You don’t need to change anything here.
Reading. This affects your homepage and how many posts display on your blog. We’ll come back to this screen in a moment to set your homepage, but you don’t have to do anything now.
Permalinks. This affects the URL structure, and I would highly recommend changing it to “Post Name” setting.

Plugins I Recommend Installing

There are a few plugins that are essential, in my opinion.

  1. Jetpack. Gives you great features like visitor stats, hacker protection, and spellcheck.
  2. Akismet. Blocks spam comments. Connect with your account and choose the free plan.
  3. Sumo. Allows you to easy add sharing to your posts and pages, that thing that floats on the side of your post with sharing icons. Also gives you powerful email subscription tools. It’s free, but you have to create an account with Sumo after you install.
  4. Contact Form 7. Create a contact form here and then copy and paste the shortcode that it gives you onto a new page that you create and title Contact.


  1. SEO by Yoast. Analyzes your pages and teaches you how to write so that Google can better find your website. Very cool!
  2. Google Analytics by Yoast. Google Analytics is the best free tool for tracking your website users. First create a free account here, then connect to your website with this plugin.

6. Choose Your Theme

Themes drastically affect the way your site looks, so finding the right one for you is important. However, there are so many great free and paid themes it can be overwhelming. Here are a few I recommend.

Free Themes for Author Websites

PageLine. This free theme gives you a huge amount of control over every element of your website, and the best part is that you don’t need to know any code to use it. You can download it here or install it from your Appearance > Themes page.

Recommended Themes for Author Websites

You get what you pay for, people always say, and while that’s somewhat true for blogs, I think you can go a very long way with a free theme. Personally, I used PageLines for this very website for years. BUT there are a few things free themes aren’t the best at. They tend to be slower to load, for example, and not as feature rich as some paid themes. Plus, the two themes below are really cool.

Divi. If you prefer a “What You See Is What You Get” editor for your website, Divi is amazing. It allows you to edit font sizes, colors, spacing, and more all from the user-facing side of your site. After using many different themes for years, this is the theme we settled on for The Write Practice. You can get Divi here.

Tribe. A premium theme built by author Jeff Goins, this theme gives you what you need to build an author website and nothing else. Perfect if you want something simple but functional. You can get Tribe here.

Custom Themes. Alternatively, you can hire a web designer to build you a custom theme. This is a great option if you don’t have an eye for design and/or don’t have the time to do it. Designers cost anywhere between a few hundred bucks to $1,000 for an experienced designer to $3,000+ for a high-end designer.

7. Create Your Header

Headers can be a simple logo, like ours on The Write Practice. Or an image of the author’s name like Elizabeth Gilbert’s site. Or a full width image like Gillian Flynn’s site.

Building an Author Website: Elizabeth Gilbert's Header

Building an Author Website: Gillian Flynn's Header

You can hire a designer for this, but it’s easier to create these on your own with Canva than you’d think. Here’s how:

  1. Before you can start, you need to find out the dimensions your header needs. This is determined by your theme, so check your theme’s settings. For reference, Elizabeth Gilbert’s header is 308 px wide by 29 px tall (px stands for pixels, which is the most common unit of measurement for websites).
  2. Go to, create a free account or log in with your Facebook account, and then select “Use custom dimensions” (see screenshot). Building an Author Website: Creating a Header on Canva
  3. Enter your dimensions (e.g. 308 by 40, since Canva doesn’t allow dimensions smaller than 40).
  4. Create your logo! I recommend keeping it simple for now with just your name on a white background.
    Building an Author Website: Creating a Header with Canva 2
  5. Last, download your image (preferably as a PNG file) and then upload it into your theme!

8. Add Your Core Pages

After you install your theme, don’t obsess over the design right now. It takes a long time to get a website looking the way you want it to, but for now just focus on getting the broad elements setup. Your number one goal, remember, is to build your email list, so getting the simplest website possible to start collecting email addresses is ideal.

Home Page. Your website will default to displaying a blog, but for your author website, I recommend creating a custom home page. Take a look at Step 2 for the elements you’ll want to include here: for example, a featured book image (which you can create with Canva), email list sign up form (which we’ll talk about next), endorsements/testimonials, and link to your blog. A good model for this to start is Jeff Goins’s home page, because it’s fairly simple, text based, and doesn’t require a lot of image design work.

About Page. One of your most visited pages, this is where you’ll share a short bio. As you write your About page, remember that new readers don’t care about you; they care about themselves and the books they like to read. Don’t write out your full life story. Share only the information your reader will be interested in to discover whether or not your writing will be a good fit for them.

I like Brad Thor’s About Page as a good model for this, especially his strong brand tagline: “Brad has been called ‘the master of thrillers,’ and ‘America’s favorite author.’ His bestselling novels have been published in over 30 countries.”

Books Page. Simple a page with images of all your books and links to where readers can buy them. TIP: Embed Kindle instant book previews so readers can start reading your book right from your website. Here’s how.

Contact Page. Give readers the ability to contact you by creating a page with a contact form. Start by installing the plugin Contact Form 7 if you haven’t already. A “Contact” menu item will appear on your dashboard menu. Create a new contact form or use/edit the default one that’s pre-installed. Copy and paste the shortcode into a new page that you title Contact.

Editing the Menu

Depending on your theme, the menu on your site may automatically add each page you create. Either way, it’s a good idea to create a custom menu so you can have more control over what the menu includes. Here’s how:

  1. On the dashboard, go to Appearance > Menu.
  2. Click the button to create a new menu.
  3. Add the pages or custom links you want (e.g. Home, About, Books, Contact).
  4. Click the box to choose where the menu will appear, usually primary menu or secondary menu.
  5. Save it and then go to your homepage to make sure it looks like you want it to.

9. Set Up Your Email List

Your email list is one of the main reasons you’re doing all of this, and your newsletter signup form could be considered the most important element on your website.

First, you have to choose an email newsletter provider. Here I usually recommend Mailchimp, because it’s free for your first 2,000 subscribers. Mailchimp is a great company, and a very friendly service. That being said, personally I find it to be a little clunky and hard to use. We use Convertkit, and while I highly recommend them for authors, it’s a paid service and it can be pretty expensive. Your email list is a good place to invest, though. This should be one of your first upgrades.

Assuming you’re using Mailchimp, you can learn how to create your first email list and sign up form here.

10. Celebrate!

You did it! You created your author website! And if you followed these instructions, it should have only taken you a few hours of work.

Next, you can learn how to write the perfect blog post or simply rest in the glow of your accomplishments!

Do you have an author website? Share a link in the comments so we can see what you’ve created! 

Have a question or did you get stuck? Before you leave a comment, try Googling it or asking your hosting company for help. If you’ve already done that, feel free to leave a comment!

By Joe Bunting

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

Tone in Writing: The Uplifting Tone Your Writing Needs to Reach Your Readers


Do you write a blog? Mentor other writers? Parent a tiny version of yourself?

Then you’re a coach!

While you may not work in a classroom or on the field, odds are you practice some form of teaching and coaching that impacts the lives of others. You might even be doing that right here at The Write Practice—if you’re in a writing group giving feedback and sharing your critique with other writers, you’re a writing coach.

And since you’re a writer, you might blog about it, consider blogging about it, or write books and other content designed to help people.

Being a know-it-all, I’ve always assumed I was a good teacher and coach. I’ve often taken that attitude into blog posts and book chapters, and then wondered why I received negative comments and feedback.

I’m learning a tough lesson about successful teaching and coaching: Tone is everything.

Because if we coach with the wrong tone in writing, we might not be coaching at all, but driving our readers away!

Don’t Be Mean, David!

Last year, I wrote a book for my subscribers called The 10 Reasons Quit Your Book.

The idea behind the book was to hit writers where it hurts: the lack of response to their work.

As a writer and teacher of creative writing for over ten years now, I have a pretty good idea why some stories work and other stories do not. I’m not perfect by any stretch, but I’ve failed enough times (and seen others fail) to know what makes a reader think, “Meh.”

I shared 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book with a fellow writer and judge of last year’s Winter Writing Contest. She enjoyed it and found its teaching useful, but shared a critique that really struck me.

“Your tone,” she wrote, “is rather negative, and this might deter readers.”

In other words, my tone in writing was mean.

And it would almost certainly turn readers off to my message, and to me.

Tone in Writing: The Coach’s Dilemma

I’ve found this to be a challenge with all kinds of “coaching.” How do we identify failure in our readers while encouraging their success?

It’s a tough balance. Most of our readers are probably failing at something that we are not (we may be struggling, but not nearly as much as our readers are).

But your success is the reason you’re writing the coaching post!

  • You’ve lost weight, but your reader is still struggling with diet/exercise.
  • You’ve made a million dollars, but your reader is still living check-to-check.
  • You’ve mastered story structure, but your reader doesn’t know why structure is so important.

See how this gap between master and student can lead to an alienating tone?

This is especially hard because online coaching isn’t relational. We often don’t know our readers personally. Instead, they’re often busy browsers with five minutes to absorb our words of wisdom. If every one of those words isn’t carefully designed to empower them on to victory, we will almost certainly alienate them, probably through a “negative” tone.

So how do we adopt a tone in writing that won’t alienate our readers? What tangible step can we take to achieve this?

The answer — and how simple it is — will amaze you.

3 Steps to Employ the Power of “You”

The secret to mastering a “welcoming” and “positive” tone is in our careful use of pronouns.

In education, teachers use “gradual release” to help students master a new subject. In short, it works like this:

  • I do (model)
  • We do (guided practice)
  • You do (independent practice)

In our coaching, we need to use the same structure, but with a few twists.

1. Start with first-person singular

First, always begin your coaching with first-person examples, using “I,” “me,” and “my.”

This is especially true when giving non-examples, or examples of failure.

One thing I did right with 10 Reasons was begin with an example of my own glaring failure. Then, throughout the book, I referred back to it as a reminder that I am far from perfect and have failed at the concepts before.

This is a great way to build trust with your reader before launching into the concept you wish to coach.

2. Teach the concept in first-person plural

Then, teach the content or concept using the first-person plural: “we” and “us.”

Put yourself alongside the student. Be with them and let them see themselves as on the winning team while learning.

There is a huge difference between a learner who is “below” and a learner who is “with.”

When a student is allowed to see the teacher fail, recover, and pass on this hard-earned knowledge, it makes a world of difference. That is why it’s wise to lead from a humble position, seasoning our role as Coach with the reality of our Humanity.

Then, and only then, can you deploy the trickiest of pronouns: “You.”

3. Use “you” positively

Be positive and patient with “you”

“You” is a powerful word. Unlike “we,” which subtly brings the reader into our midst, “you” keeps the reader separate and alone. It is the most dangerous pronoun, and we are wise to treat it with great care.

Unfortunately for me in 10 Reasons, I wasn’t so careful.

“Non-examples” are often fun stories to tell. They are examples of failure — easy to laugh at, difficult to empathize with. And in 10 Reasons, I often used the pronoun “you” in those non-examples!

In even the most vanilla of moments, associating “you” — who is our precious reader — with anything negative can have a powerful and discouraging impact.

And my tone in writing came off as negative, as a result. While my fellow judge pressed on through the book, I can’t count on a stranger to do the same.

So in my revision of 10 Reasons, I’m choosing to wait until the time is right before unleashing this tricky pronoun.

At the end of each chapter, I reveal the “Story Secret” that leads to success.

Only here, once the bad examples and negativity have passed, do I use “you.”

Your readers want to get better. They want to win. 

And they’ve come to you not just for content, but hope. Give it to them by casting them as the hero once you’ve finished the harsher points of teaching.

Trust me: This works! I’m about three chapters into my rewrite of 10 Reasons, and I’m noticing incredible differences in the overall flow and feel of the book.

Wait until the end, and wait until “you” can be positive.

We have to be patient with “you,” and only use it once the time is right. Otherwise its coaching power will turn negative and scare our valuable readers away.

Don’t Be Cynical

One final thought on tone must be mentioned, and it has to do with negative humor.

When giving non-examples, it’s often fun to use clever imagery and go for the laugh. Yet in coaching, readers aren’t reading our work for the humor (unless you’re Jon Acuff); they’re reading because they’re hurt, they’re failing, they’re struggling, they’re vulnerable — they’re any number of things that make them a little uneasy.

Put simply, they’re fragile.

So take a lighter approach to humor, especially when incorporating humor into non-examples; we might end up making fun of our readers’ failures without knowing it!

I’m also guilty of writing with a “tough love” tone, using bold words and blunt syntax, thinking of myself as a hard-talking football coach.

Yet most of my readers (creative writers) don’t want a football coach — they want a monk with publishing credentials!

Therefore, despite our zeal for great storytelling, we need to lead our readers with the gentle hand of a mentor, not the sour yell of a frustrated coach


What Do “You” Think?

So as this post on coaching comes to a close, let me ask you: What do you think? Are pronouns, especially “you,” really so powerful?

You may have already noticed, but I largely refrained from using the word “you” until now.

Up until this point, I’ve extensively given personal examples of failure and recovery. I’ve also delivered my core principles — primarily about pronouns and tone words — in the first-person plural.

“We” are mastering this together. This will help “us” reach “our” readers better.

Probably the most important thing a coach can realize is that learning never stops. I will always be a learner. The moment I finish writing this post, I will go back to my role as a learner, reading other great posts at The Write Practice.

It’s also wise to remember that our readers can offer us more than we think. I’ve often found something in the comments of my posts that challenges what I’ve written, or asks a question and exposes a flaw in the way I taught a concept. This is a good thing, a beautiful thing, for a coach to receive.

Humility is perhaps the powerful quality of a great coach, whether they’re a writing coach or a coach of any other kind. A great coach realizes that it is through failure that he or she learns, and humbly passes that on to his/her community. Great coaches are great teammates and learners, and don’t consider their wisdom something to be lorded over others.

So what do you think? Do you want to be a great coach and impact many lives around you?

I know I do. And I’m confident you do, too.

Have you ever had a coach, or coached someone in something you’re good at? How did they or you adopt a helpful tone? Let us know in the comments.

By David Safford


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Getting Into Character: Fiction Writing Exercises

fiction writing

Writers are not actors, but sometimes we need to get into character.

To truly understand the nature of a character, a writer must step into that character’s shoes. You can use character sketches and descriptions while you’re creating a character, but the character will remain two dimensional until you can get into the character’s head and understand what makes them tick.

It’s harder than it sounds. Your first impulse might be to act like a puppet master, pulling the character’s strings and controlling every action and line of dialogue. But what you really need to do is scoot over and get in the passenger’s seat. Let your character do the driving and ride along as an observer. And that’s exactly what today’s fiction writing exercises will help you do.

Tips for Getting Into Character

Many artists and creative people talk about entering “the zone.” This is a state of mind in which you’re running on automatic pilot. Your right (creative) brain is fully engaged and your left (logical) brain is snoozing with one eye open. It is in this state that people often get lost in an activity, lose track of time, and produce some of their best creative work.

When you’re getting into character, it’s best to be in the zone. Tackle these fiction writing exercises when you’re calm and relaxed and willing to let your imagination override your logical thinking.

Fiction Writing Exercises for Getting Into Character

Exercise #1: Chat

Launch your word processing software and start a conversation with your character. Most of us have engaged in online chats or text messaging. This is the same idea. If chat is not a comfortable medium for you, then try composing emails back and forth between you and your character.

Before you start, you might want to come up with a list of questions to ask your character. Also, this is a great exercise to use when you get stuck in a story that doesn’t want to move forward. Simply chat with your characters to find out what’s holding them back from taking the next step.

Your chat might look something like this:

WRITER: You’re just sitting there, doing nothing. What’s your problem?

CHARACTER: I don’t know what to do.

WRITER: What are your options?

Exercise #2: Stand-in Situation

Take your character out of the story you’re writing and put the character in a difficult situation. Think of riveting scenes from books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen or use scenes from your own life.

A few quick ideas for scenes that will reveal how your character handles challenges:

  • Your character is late for an important meeting and trying to hail a taxi when there’s a sudden distraction. This could be an accident in the street, a beautiful man or woman walking by, or an emergency phone call from a desperate friend or family member. Does your character hop in the cab and head to the meeting or stop to help?
  • Your character’s arch-enemy is in grave peril and the only person around who can save him is your character. Does your character let the enemy die or save his life?
  • Your character has been grossly betrayed by a close friend or family member. Does your character forgive, seek revenge, or walk away?

Notice that all these scenarios test the character’s integrity. This is a great way to get a handle on what kinds of choices your character makes. Remember: people are not perfect and characters needn’t be either. The most interesting characters are easy to relate to, and that means they are flawed in some way.

Exercise #3: Monologue

Monologues are a great way to get inside your character’s head, especially if the story you’re writing will be in third person. This is your chance to let your character’s voice be heard.

Write a piece in first person from your character’s perspective. Choose a general theme for the monologue and start writing in the character’s voice. Some ideas for themes:

  • The character is relating a significant event from his or her past: the loss of a loved one, a major life transition, or one of those everyday moments that change everything or stay with you forever.
  • The character is faced with a serious challenge or decision and is discussing the options and what the effects of either choice might be.
  • The character is in the middle of an emotional crisis and is overcome by grief, rage, envy, or some other intense feelings.

In a monologue, you can include action cues, but try to write them into the dialogue. For instance, if the character starts crying, make that evident through the narrative. If you’re feeling really brave (or if you’re an actor at heart), try recording yourself reading and acting out the monologue. That will add another dimension and allow your character’s speech, intonation, and inflection to come through.

How to Use These Exercises

Try to pinpoint any areas where you’ve stepped in and taken over. Maybe your character said something that you normally or frequently say. Or perhaps the character did something that is out of character and reflects your behavior more than the character’s behavior. You can edit and revise until you feel your piece has truly captured your character’s attitude and personality.

Later, when you’re working on your story, you can revisit these fiction writing exercises to see if there are any clues about your character that you want to use. You may also use these exercises as you’re writing a story to help you get a better grasp on your characters.

As always, the most important thing when working through creative writing exercises is to have fun, and keep writing.


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Writing Tips: Do It Anyway


From a distance, writing looks like one of the easiest jobs in the world. You get to set your own hours. You’re not tied to a place of employment. And you spend your days making up stories.

However, writing is anything but easy. It can be thrilling, exhilarating, daunting, and exhausting. Sure, sometimes it’s easy. But sometimes it’s really hard. Sometimes you think you’re not cut out for it. Sometimes you want to give up.

But you do it anyway.

Writing is Hard: Do It Anyway

Writers can face difficulties at every twist and turn in the writing process.

You don’t know if the words are going to come out right. You don’t know if your ideas will be any good. The blank page is intimidating. Put some words on it anyway.

Sometimes a project is cruising along and then you hit a brick wall. Other times you push through a project that’s difficult from beginning to end. Sometimes you want to walk away. Work on it anyway.

You might fail. Your poem could falter. Your story could suck. Your memoir or essay could be a dud. Write it anyway.

Your poems and stories might get rejected by literary magazines. Agents might decline to represent you. Publishers might pass up your manuscript. Submit your work anyway.

Bookstores might decide not to stock your book. Readers might decide not buy it or read it. Publish it anyway.

People might read your book, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to like it. Share it and promote it anyway.

Your first book could tank. It might get bad reviews, low sales, or it could go completely unnoticed. Write another one anyway.

You may never be able to realize your ultimate dream of quitting your day job and becoming a full-time writer. Keep writing anyway.

Why Should We Do It Anyway?

Everybody writes for different reasons. I don’t write because I want to write. I would be lying if I said I love writing. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I dread it. I write because I have to. It’s just part of who I am.

Some people write because there are stories and poems inside them that need to come out. Some write because they have feelings they need to express. Some write to share their ideas. Some use writing to process and articulate their thoughts.

And some write for sheer love of the craft.

If you’re compelled to write — for any reason — then you should face the hurdles and setbacks, the insecurities and doubts, with determination. And write anyway.

What challenges do you face in your writing? Have you ever wanted to give up? Why do you keep writing?


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Creative Writing: Skill vs. Talent

skill vs talent

Is effective and compelling creative writing borne of skill or talent?

There has always been much debate about whether artistically inclined trades are a matter of learned skill or inherent talent.

On the one hand, there is the belief that some are born with an active and imaginative right brain and are therefore better able to manifest creativity. On the other hand, some argue that creative skills can be learned and mastered.

When it comes to creative writing, I believe that skill and talent work together. In fact, I would argue that almost every writer whose work is worth reading has some combination of both acquired writing skill and natural talent.

Creative Writing: Developing Skills

We are taught basic grammar and comprehensive writing in school, and each of us learns how to form a coherent sentence or paragraphs by applying these teachings. We must learn our letters, and there is no artistic talent required to memorize a set of symbols that represent sounds. Throughout our formative years, we are educated in language, including reading, writing, and comprehension.

Some of us loved those classes. We were drawn to the written word, to novels and short stories, poetry, and thought-provoking articles and essays. We welcomed the opportunity to build better writing skills. We trudged over to the school library during recess and experienced glee when the Scholastic newsletters arrived. Books! Stories! We absorbed them, and they etched into our psyches until we too yearned to spin tales and dreamed of the day when our own names would appear under a feature story headline or on the spine of a best selling — or dare I say — Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Yet there were those who balked at the thought of opening, let alone reading, an entire book. They preferred math or science, or perhaps art, or maybe they’d rather park themselves in front of a TV or video game console. Their reports and essays came back with low marks and someone said they lacked talent, something we aspiring writers had in droves. But what is talent if not love of one’s craft?

Developing Talent

When I graduated high school and was faced with the dilemma of what to study in college, I shunned the idea of majoring in English, because I was already a voracious reader and several teachers had called me a gifted writer as well. Why study something I already had a knack for?

But a few years later, when no other major felt quite right, I finally checked off the box for English with a concentration in creative writing. Skill and talent combined to drive this choice. I finally realized that the very reason I should study writing was because I was already good at it. By majoring in English, maybe I could become great.

It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. In the semesters that followed, I studied the classics and learned writing nuances from my instructors and peers, discovering subtleties that never would have come to my attention otherwise. I learned the value of editing and revising, and I learned the merits of voice and style. Thankfully, I was given opportunities to explore areas of writing I never would have touched on my own: proposals, screenplays, and chapbooks. I even learned how to master the creative writing process.

It’s Not Skill vs. Talent; It’s Skill and Talent

I suppose artists, musicians, and other creative persons follow a similar path — a passion honed through years of learning and practice. When people suggest that writing cannot be learned, that grammar is unimportant, and storytelling or character development is the end-all-be-all of great writing, or that a writer’s creativity is magically manifested at birth, I am given great pause. For it is pride in one’s craft and true dedication that will result in truly wonderful writing: a seamless integration of love and passion, talent, and yes, all those mechanical writing skills that must be learned.

So what’s more important in creative writing — skill or talent? I say we need a healthy balance of both. What do you think?


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How to Empower Your Writing With a Brilliant Epigraph


Frankly, I didn’t know much about epigraphs until Amanda Forbes Silva, a gifted essayist who gave a little talk about them at a writing workshop, brought them to life for me. Had I been asked, I would have likely confused epigraphs with epitaphs and epigrams, and maybe even the epiglottis, which is apparently some kind of valve that covers the glottis during swallowing, and once malfunctioned somewhere in my throat a few years ago, nearly taking me out.

After a short primer, just to get us on the same page with a working understanding of the epigraph, and a little confessional angst, you will have a couple of practice challenges to engage your new friends.

An Introduction to the Epigraph

The epigraph is simply a well-chosen quotation, set at the beginning of a text. Epigraphs can open essays, books, chapters of a book, or even each story in a book—any writing, really, which suggests its theme.

They can, however, do so much more.

Chosen well, an epigraph offers the writer a kind of “power” to grab the reader quickly, and efficiently. If editors give the writer just a few opening paragraphs to “sell” their work, it seems to me that the perfect epigraph—short, surgical, brilliant, the very first thing seen in the work—is a terrific first contact.

Someone (and I believe it was Toby Lichtig, in The Guardian) put it this way: a good epigraph will make the reader want to “open the door” to the writing inside. It will act as a kind of “shadowy third figure,” somewhere between the author and the reader, drawing the reader in by raising interest, expectations, even questions as to what lies ahead.

One of my favorite authors does just that.

In his Bright Lights, Bright City, Jay McInerney writes the story of the dissipation of a young man in Manhattan. Here is the epigraph that opens the work, from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said.
“Gradually and then suddenly.”

In her book, The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin, Rosemary Ahern finds that many authors seem to follow at least one fairly common strategy in deploying epigraphs, and often all three together: be brief, be funny, be wise. I think McInerney hits all three. His epigraph is brief (and sets the text in motion), it is funny (darkly) and it is insightful (ask any bankruptcy attorney).

Epigraphs With Creative Twists

There are many very interesting, and even tricky, deployments of an epigraph. One of my favorites is F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. He takes a fictional character named D’Invilliers from his first novel, This Side of Paradise, and then quotes that fictional character as the author of the poem he then uses as the epigraph at the beginning of The Great Gatsby.

It sounds complicated, but here it is:

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too.
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”

As Dennis Johnson, co-founder of Melville House publishers, put it, there is something “devastatingly mischievous” about the subverted power and authority of the fictional epigraph.

Very cool. And while there are certain conventions, even “rules,” which the writer should understand, the larger point is simply how much fun a writer can have with the epigraph.

But they can also serve important structural needs, as I discovered in my recent writing. Here’s the angst part of the story, the dreaded roadblock along the way, and how we tried to break through.

Epigraphic Choices: A Case Study

I recently collaborated with two other authors to write a series of short stories. Although we had more than enough material for the collection, we soon had a problem.

Our collection of “mostly, mostly true” short stories is about the haphazard misadventures of a bunch of boys, the collection stuffed, as we say in our introduction, with “too much fun.” Although we added some language in our forward warning the readers that “too much” is a concept we didn’t understand then, or even now, we felt we needed something else—something to bring a little more order to the collection.

After all, one of our early readers suggested we might want to sell the book by the pound. Ouch.

So we did a little trimming, then more. That was necessary, but, as they say, not sufficient.

We next set out to organize the stories into several sections, or logical groupings, like disciplined courses in a fine restaurant. This was good, too.

But the book still cried out for a little creative “epigraphic power.” Something to ease the way into lots of stories.

Finding the Perfect Epigraphs

We began by asking the kind of questions which, when calling on the epigraph, you should, too. A single, book-wide epigraph? Or how about section epigraphs? Or maybe an epigraph for each story?

The answer for us was pretty easy: we needed to harness our epigraphic power to build focus, so we chose to flag each of our six sections with an epigraph. After all, the whole idea was to build a little focus, and not continue our tradition of “too much.”

We thought six a good balance: a single epigraph better suited a novel, which this wasn’t, and an epigraph per story seemed (once again) too much. But we also thought our very first epigraph, which flags our “By Way of Introduction” section, would really do the heaviest lifting, as would any “solo” epigraph. Here it is:

“It was an especially wonderful time to be a noisy moron.”

Bill Bryson said this in his wonderful book about growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s (which is our setting) called The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. We thought it really hit the mark.

Brief, funny, and a great thematic gateway, this epigraph lets the reader know that this will not be a book about boy geniuses. It served, we think, as a pretty good overall “thematic gatekeeper” for the book, giving the reader an honest hint as to what this journey would be all about, but still leaving room for a few more in succeeding sections. And it also seemed to give the reader another clue: the “feel” of the book would be pretty PG-13, a signal we wanted.

I will share just one more epigraph from the book. School was a target-rich place for us to find stupid, and our stories in this section prove it. Of course, rather than actually reading things which would make us smarter, we figured MAD Magazine would be the better ticket. This seemed a good epigraphic sectional choice:

“MAD has been a chronicler of American life unlike any other publication. In fact, I would argue that you can use this book as the text for teaching 20th Century American history—providing, of course, you were being home-schooled by circus clowns.”

Well, we thought that was just about perfect. This quote is from John Facarra in his introduction to MAD for Decades.

Did These Choices Work?

Take a few minutes, and think about our choices critically. Did they draw you in, and make you want to “open the door” to our stories? Did they create interest? In short, were they an effective “gatekeeper?”

In your own work, you may be dealing with story ideas similar to ours, stories about the everyday “writ small” which could use a little boost from a few well-chosen epigraphs. Or maybe you’re working on the next great American novel, and just one muscular epigraphic gem, well-chosen for the beginning of your book, will do the trick.

Whatever your writing, try a few out, and see what they can do for you. In our case, the book was effectively “a done deal,” the epigraphs conscripted to save the day, after the fact. But a powerful quote can also serve at the beginning of a writer’s journey, as an epigraphic inspiration.

However (and whenever) epigraphs come to your writing desk, just have fun with these little miracles. Maybe these two practice challenges will stir your interest.

Have you ever used epigraphs in your writing? How did you choose the perfect ones? Let us know in the comments.


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What Not to Do When NaNoWriMo Ends

Writers across the globe spent a frenzied month neglecting their laundry, sneaking writing time at lunch, and compulsively checking their word counts. Whether you won, lost, or didn’t participate at all, here’s what NOT to do the day after NaNoWriMo ends.


I always sign up for NaNoWriMo, even when that nagging voice in my head (or the reality on my calendar) says that there is little chance I’ll finish 50K this month because of other deadlines, illness, travel, or family commitments. I’ve finished 50K several years, but not this one. It’s okay. Any new words, revised words, or learning that has moved me toward my writing goals are wins.

3 Things NOT to Do When NaNoWriMo Ends

If you find yourself exhausted from the NaNoWriMo frenzy, here are a few things NOT to do in the aftermath today.

1. Don’t give up

I often finish a thirty-day challenge and think, “I’ve earned a day off. I’ll start again tomorrow or next week.” Then I wake up six years later and wonder where the time has gone.

In a Paris Review interview, author Haruki Murakami described the importance of a daily routine for writers when he said, “The repetition itself becomes the important thing.”

Small daily progress yields a large increase over time. Open your current project or a new one and write today, even if it’s only a hundred words. Keep your momentum going.

2. Don’t ignore the lessons learned

The first time I completed NaNoWriMo, I wrote a terrible, sprawling YA time-travel-coming-of-age-mystery-thriller novel (No, that’s not a marketable genre). I pantsed the whole thing and it was a mess. I tried to straighten out the story several times in revision, and I even paid for help from a editor.

We ended up scrapping the existing structure and nearly 40,000 words. I emerged with a cast of terrific characters, two scenes, and a ton of knowledge about what did and didn’t work for me as a writer. It was painful, but probably necessary to learn what I needed to learn.

Take a minute to reflect on your experience. Consider the act of writing as well as the story you produced. When you were most energized? What obstacles slowed you down?

Think about which scenes worked and which ones sagged. Notice patterns and plan to practice intentionally to reach your goals this week.

3. Don’t crawl back into the cave

My favorite part of NaNoWriMo is the community spirit it engenders. Keep in contact with those who inspire you to keep following your dream. Find a group that will cheer you, challenge you, and hold you accountable.

Encourage a writer to keep going, and you’ll find you’re inspired as well.

The Secret of NaNoWriMo

Here’s the thing: the last day of NaNoWriMo isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.

Back to the quills and keyboards!

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo? What are you planning to do today to progress toward your goals? Share in the comments!

By Sue Weems

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How to Use Allusion Like a Master Storyteller

Don’t write “on the nose.” Writing doesn’t have to be direct. You don’t have to make it easy for your reader to understand what is happening. Instead, use allusion: make a suggestion or a hint of your meaning. Let your reader think.


The only thing you need to do with your nose is blow it if you have a cold.

The Problem With Writing on the Nose

“What are you talking about? What is writing on the nose? I write on paper or use my computer. I don’t write on my nose.”

“Writing on-the-nose means putting a character’s fullest thoughts and deepest emotions directly and fully into what she say’s out loud.”

— Robert McKee

Real life is often not direct. There is subtlety and hidden meaning in people’s words and actions. There is what is said, and there is subtext, what they really mean.

Direct writing eliminates subtext, and the unsaid is said directly.

On the nose writing is boring as there is no suspense. If I can tell how the story will end, I will stop reading or stop watching a movie.

A writer might write directly in a first draft. However, it enriches a story to allude to meaning, as it is natural in real life and gives your reader a chance to think.

Allusion, the Solution

Wait. What is allusion?

Allude: suggest or call attention to indirectly; hint at, refer to, touch on, suggestimply, mention (in passing), make an allusion to

Allusion is the solution to writing on the nose. Rather than telling your reader exactly what is happening and what they should think about it, allusion allows you to give your reader hints so they can draw their own conclusions.

Not sure you should use allusion in your writing? Here are five reasons that might convince you:

  1. Allusion creates suspense because readers gather information gradually rather than learning it all at once.
  2. It is not boring because readers get to think through what’s happening rather than being handed all the answers.
  3. It is realistic because real life is not usually direct.
  4. It gives dialogue and action hidden meaning.
  5. It is fun! Readers love mystery!

Have you ever NOT been able to put a book down when you started reading it? Was it because you HAD TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED? (I wasn’t really yelling there, at not least at you.) Finding out what happened is in all capital letters to show you the URGENCY of wanting to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

If you are writing on the nose, the reader won’t have to keep reading, because you told them everything directly. But if you use allusion in your writing, your readers will have to keep reading to find out what the story means.

An Exception to Allusion

Robert McKee in his book Dialogue says that nonrealism is the exception, a place where writing on-the-nose is a good thing.

“Nonrealism employs on-the-nose dialogue in all its genres and subgenres . . . as characters become more archetypical and less dimensional.”

If you are writing nonrealism, write your story as on the nose as you like. If you are writing in most other genres, though, practice allusion so you can convey your meaning with subtlety.

Catch the Meaning in This Example

I recently wrote a story about a friendship. In this excerpt, what am I alluding to about the friendship? Read it and then I will ask questions after you read it.

When my coffee mug had a slimy film on the bottom from the soured milk, she said, “You can’t teach this year. Someone complained.” She pulled out a piece of paper folded in half to fit into her handbag that was too small. She put the paper on the table between our empty coffee mugs.

The milk had a slimy film on the bottom. The milk was soured. What do you think this meant?

What do you think the reference to the handbag being too small meant?

What do you think it meant that she put the piece of paper between the coffee mugs?

The soured milk was hinting at a friendship that had soured. The handbag being too small referred to her thoughts being too small. The piece of paper that was placed between the coffee cups meant that what was written on the piece of paper had become between the friendship.

I could have written. “My friendship wasn’t the same anymore after she showed me the paper.” But the imagery makes a stronger impression because it creates mood and feeling.

Hinting at meaning in a story brings depth and strong images. It gives the reader a chance to think about what has happened or is about to happen.

Another Kind of Allusion

In a creative writing class I took at college, the professor asked if we thought the protagonist, the woman in the story, thought about her husband. I raised my hand and shared over five references in the story where she professed her love for her husband. I took her proclamations literally and missed the references to her being in love with someone else. She kept professing her love to hide her affair.

Allusion can involve saying one thing and meaning another. I read the story literally, though. I took the protagonist’s professions of love literally and missed the hidden meaning.

The author was hinting at the affair by having her proclaim her love so many times.

The Story Beneath Your Story

When you write a story, there is the story you are telling and there is the hidden meaning.

“A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond what’s obvious to everyone on the street.”

—Robert McKee

Write your stories to be like life, but give them depth and meaning by alluding to the truth. Trust that your readers are smart people who will catch your clues. Keep the readers turning the page.

When you write, do you try to write directly, or do you hint at meaning through subtext? Let me know in the comments.

By Pamela Hodges

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

Literary Crisis: Why a Crisis Will Make Your GOOD Story GREAT

So you wrote a story or a novel or a book. You’re proud. You’re excited. Visions of publishing dance in your head. Then you go back and read your story or novel or book, and you think, “Well, this is good and I feel proud of it. But it doesn’t match up to the stories/novels/books I know and love.”

You wrote a GOOD story, but not a GREAT one. Worse, you don’t know why. In this post, I’ll explain exactly what to look for to make your good story great.


How I Wrote a GOOD but not GREAT Book

Last October, I finished the book I had been working on for over two years. After I finished, I read it, and while I thought it was ok in some parts and really good in others, there was something missing. It was GOOD but definitely not GREAT.

And I had no idea why my book wasn’t working. I spent a month trying to figure it out. That month turned into two, which turned into four. I still hadn’t figured out what was wrong.

Honestly, there were moments when I thought I would never figure it out. I worried the book would never be published, that the years of work would be wasted. I thought about all the readers waiting for the book, how flaky I would look when I told them that I had decided not to publish the book because it wasn’t any good. I was sinking into depression over it.

My author friends couldn’t understand why I didn’t just publish it. “You’ll write another book that will be better. Just publish this and get started with your next one.” It was good advice. I knew that if I were in their shoes, I would say something similar. But even as I didn’t know how to fix the book, I couldn’t let it go either.

The Secret to Great Books

I had a breakthrough in February when I went to the Story Grid workshop in New York City led by Shawn Coyne. He’s Steven Pressfield’s editor, the author of The Story Grid, and the creator of the Story Grid podcast.

I went to the workshop skeptically—attending mostly because my friend Tim Grahl was helping to run it. I had read the book before and listened to a few podcast episodes, but I honestly wasn’t expecting to be radically transformed by the workshop. I’ve been studying writing and storytelling for over a decade. I thought I might get a few good tips, but I didn’t believe Coyne or anyone else would have that much to teach me that I hadn’t heard before.

I was wrong. The workshop completely changed my writing and editing process. Since then, the Story Grid has become my go-to framework for story.

I also finally knew why my good book wasn’t great. I finally understood why my story wasn’t working.

My story lacked a literary crisis.

Why Literary Crisis Is the Foundation to Your Story

You may have heard that in a good story your protagonist must make a decision. I knew this, but what I was lacking was how to set up that decision. The story crisis is the moment where your protagonist is placed into such a tight spot that he or she has to choose, and importantly, that decision carries so much weight that there is no turning back from it.

In other words, a story crisis is drama.

Have you ever been reading a book when you find yourself thinking, “There’s no possible way this character can get out of this situation! This is just too bad. They’re in way over their head, and there is no getting out of it.”

THAT is a literary crisis. And readers love this moment. Why? Because we want to know what happens next!

A crisis sets up a knowledge gap, and readers become desperate to fill that gap. It’s in moments like this that readers are tempted to skip to the last page in the book just to find out if everything turns out ok (not that I’ve ever done that, of course).

Where Crises Happen in Your Story

Every scene must have a crisis. Every act must have a crisis. And every book must have a crisis.

Crises are the foundation of your story.

Crises are questions, they’re dilemmas, and since they’re happening in a character’s head, they usually occur “off screen.” In other words, they’re implied but not specified. BUT you the writer still need to know what the literary crisis is in every story you write.

Where does the literary crisis occur? Coyne puts the crisis directly in the middle of your story. In the Story Grid framework, it goes:

  • Inciting incident. There’s a problem.
  • Progressive complication. The problem gets worse.
  • Crisis. The problem gets so bad that the character has no choice but to deal with it. Again, usually this happens off screen.
  • Climax. The character makes his or her choice and the climax is the action that follows.
  • Resolution. The problem is resolved (for now at least).

A good example of this is the film Gravity (which is amazing, if you haven’t seen it). Sandra Bullock’s character’s problem is that everything is trying to kill her. The progressive complications get worse and worse until *spoiler alert* everyone is dead except for her.

This is where many writers would stop. They would show her struggle to survive and resolve it by eventually getting to a place where she does, in fact, survive.

But what makes this story GREAT rather than good is that her character reaches a crisis. Finally, it becomes clear that she is definitely going to die. She is faced with a best bad choice situation: take her life into her own hands and end her own life OR keep fighting to survive even though she will suffer and almost certainly die anyway. (If you’ve seen the film, this is that moment when George Clooney reappears.)

This crisis is so important because it gives the character the chance to make a choice. Fighting for survival isn’t a choice. Who wouldn’t fight to survive? But when it becomes easier to stop fighting than it is to just die, then it leads to the crisis.

The Two Types of Story Crisis

In The Story Grid, Coyne says crises are always a choice that your protagonist faces, and they come in two easy-to-follow formulas:

  • Best Bad Choice. The best bad choice crisis is easy to understand. Just think of that game “would you rather.” You’re given a choice between two horrible things. Which do you choose? For example, would you rather leave the love of your life at a party with another guy, or let her humiliate you as she flirts with him? See? Drama, right?
  • Irreconcilable Goods. There is another, somewhat less stressful way to create a crisis. Irreconcilable goods are two values that don’t work together. For example, love vs. money. Both are good, but like oil and water, they don’t mix. Another example: you get into your dream college, but if you go you have to leave your high school love. Other examples: comfort vs. adventure, personal happiness vs. the happiness of others, and success vs. family.

You can recognize these situations in your own life, right? We’ve all been through these crisis moments, and the choices we make in the midst of them carry outsized consequences when compared to most of the little decisions we make in our lives.

In my own writing, I use these two formulas to write great scenes, but also to audit scenes, stories, and even whole books I’ve already written to make sure I’m setting up a big enough story crisis.

For example, in the memoir I’m working on, I realized it wasn’t working because I didn’t have any clear crises. Things just happen. I didn’t set up clear literary crises, and therefore the choices my character was making didn’t matter. Since the book is a memoir, I couldn’t manufacture story crises, and so I had to pull them out of my actual experience.

One that I discovered in the first act of my story was a Best Bad Choice story crisis. In Paris, I wanted to live the “writer’s life,” where I hung out in cafés, drank coffee and wine, soaked up the atmosphere, people-watched, and wrote my book. But when my readers gave thousands of dollars to make me take on crowdsourced adventures, I had to choose between either refunding them money and being embarrassed or giving up my comfortable, “writerly” trip for an uncomfortable (but maybe more interesting) one.

I was able to take a dilemma that I was experiencing privately and turn it into a literary crisis that centered my story.

Want to see a crisis in action? Watch this. (My favorite is the woman at 7:06.)

Make Your Story Great

Is your story risky enough? Is your protagonist making life and death decisions? Is he or she making decisions at all?

How can you heighten the risk of those decisions? How can you put him or her into a best bad choice or irreconcilable goods situation?

If your character is just going along with everything, your story might be good, but it will never be great.

Have you ever faced a best bad choice or irreconcilable goods crisis? Tell us about it in the comments.

By Joe Bunting

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing