Monthly Archives: January 2022

How to Write a Hook by Thrilling Your Reader With Danger

If you want your readers to not just pick up your book, but keep turning the pages, you need to learn how to write a hook that will draw them through the story so they never want to put it down. Try baiting your hooks with the thrill of danger to keep your readers on the line.

Reading are tantalized by the scent of danger in our stories, and we’re able to enjoy it from the safety of our beds or beach chairs.

A good book that pulls us in deep might make us feel like the danger is real, and we often experience it as such, but we can indulge ourselves in it and savor that vicarious thrill because we’re in a protected zone.

Today, we’re going to explore how to use hooks baited with danger to snag and hold reader interest.

Danger Excites Readers with Action

Sometimes the most delectable danger in fiction is subtle and conveyed by covert means, as in psychological suspense. But more often, danger and action go together, the kind of action that carries risk.

For instance, a car moving down the street is action, but there’s no inherent danger attached to the movement, so it does nothing to hook the reader. But with a few adjustments, we can make that moving car into something dangerous indeed.

Put a small child behind the wheel, a four-year-old playing around in the driver’s seat who happened to release the brake. Or maybe the automobile is squealing along with six cop cars in pursuit. Maybe it’s three o’clock in the morning, the streets are deserted, and the car is the only thing that’s moving, pinning the protagonist in its headlights.

It takes more than action to create the danger hook. It must be action that makes you sit up and take notice.

“Reading fiction gives us the thrill of danger without the risk. Give your readers the indulgence of that vicarious thrill.

Remember Reader Expectation

Most of us can recognize action when we see it on the page, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that sort of danger hook—bullets flying, villains chasing, karate chops raining down.

That type of clear and present danger provides a strong hook to carry the reader forward, but it fades fast, so you need to be ready with another hook.

In this article, I’ll spend time focusing on the more subtle varieties of danger hooks. As always, it’s vital to consider genre and reader expectations when crafting your danger hook. Different types of readers will perceive the hook in different ways. You want to be sure you’re baiting your hook to capture your target audience.

Ask yourself—will my core readers feel danger when they read this sentence? When a reader picks up a suspense or thriller, for instance, they expect to encounter danger. Readers make assumptions based on their expectations, so if I ended a scene like this:

“He knows where to find me.”

Seasoned readers of suspense fiction will attach sinister meaning to the phrase. They will find it dangerous, while readers who don’t normally read taut mysteries and thrillers won’t necessarily process it the same way.

Taken at face value, there’s no danger hook—he knows where to find me. So what?

Use the Right Bait to Reel in Your Reader

As you increase the number of hooks in the passage, the tension builds and the pacing accelerates. Be sure you are using an appropriate amount for your audience (or the appropriate type of tension). Cozy readers aren’t looking for a fast-paced adventure, so scale back. Always think about who you’re writing for, and write to that target.

While most readers will respond favorably to a degree of danger in their story, make sure you dial it up or down to suit your audience. And the focus will change, as well. “ The amount of tension in your story depends on what your readers expect.

For example, readers who prefer a more literary tale will want to focus on the character’s emotional response, while readers who are expecting a light romance or caper will be more interested in getting to what happens next.

Let’s Take a Look at Some Examples

“Decorations had to be set up, food had to be arranged. She wanted the room to be as nice as possible for the two hundred CCCBA members who’d been looking forward to the party for months.” Fast, Jeffery Deaver

Do you see the danger here? No, I didn’t think so. I use this as an interesting example of how the danger hook works in context, depending on reader expectation and information flow. As it stands, there is no danger, and no hook. However, when I show you the hook that opens the story:

“They were just about to see the octopus when she received a text alerting her that two hundred people were going to die in two hours.”

Now you see the danger. It’s not only in the hook contained in this opening sentence, but when Deaver closes the later scene with my first example, the innocuous paragraph turns deadly dangerous—those two hundred people at the party are going to die.

Notice how he weaves in a number of Raising Question hooks, too. Who’s going to die? How are they going to die? What can be done to stop it happening? What’s with the octopus?

Here Are Some More Examples:

“A few miles to the east as the crow flies, in a lost village in the Sabarthes Mountains, a tall, thin man in a pale suit sits alone at a table of dark, highly polished wood.” Labyrinth, Kate Mosse

This example opens the second chapter in the book. Nothing has come before to set it up, as in the last example, but because readers who pick up Labyrinth are expecting a tense story full of peril, they’ll read danger into this sentence, making it a pretty good hook. Note how the author threads in words that impart a somber tone—lost village, pale suit, dark polished wood.

“’You’ve heard of Pavlov’s dogs,’ the man said. He wore a blood-streaked apron and a crooked smile. ‘These fellows put them to shame.’” Furrows, Joslyn Chase

The danger can be inherent, like the runaway car I mentioned earlier, or implied, like in the above example. This paragraph is the opening to a horror story, so when the reader sees the blood-streaked apron and crooked smile and thinks about animals trained to salivate at the ring of a bell, danger alarms go off.

“When I get to the steps of my lakeside home, the door is open. I slowly walk in, my hand reaching for the phantom weapon at my side, everything about me extended and tingling as I enter the strange place that used to be mine.” The Dark Snow, Brendan DuBois

This is the story opener, and though nothing much is actively happening, we feel the danger along with the protagonist.  And, again, we have hooks working in tandem with other hooks. The opening raises many questions which the reader will want to have answered, drawing him forward into the next paragraph and beyond.

5 Tips for How to Write a Danger Hook

If you ask, “Will my target reader feel danger when reading this sentence or paragraph?” and can answer in the affirmative, you have a danger hook. But there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure you’ve made it the best it can be.

  1. Use strong verbs and surprising actions.
  2. The danger can be inherent or implied.
  3. Always keep reader expectations and genre considerations in mind.
  4. If you use the same danger/action hook again, later in the story, you’ll have to escalate or innovate or the effect will be diluted.
  5. When using a danger hook for the opening of a story, it has nothing to stand on, no prior context to draw upon, so it must stand on its own merit.

A Case in Point

Let’s examine the ending of a scene from my thriller, Nocturne In Ashes. What if I’d written it like this in my first draft:

A radio call came through, but no one picked up.

Okay, not terrible, but it’s a waste of a good opportunity for a strong danger hook. Let’s see what we can do to shape it up.

In the empty Explorer, the radio squawked, but no one picked up.

Now we’ve got a strong and descriptive verb—squawked. And the Explorer is empty, a word that implies desolation and perhaps something gone horribly wrong, given the context and the genre, which gives us a flavor of the setting. Here’s the published version.

“In the empty Explorer, the two-way radio squawked, demanding attention. No one heard and no one answered.” Nocturne In Ashes, Joslyn Chase

Now, we’ve got the terms “two-way radio” and “demanding attention,” which carry implications to the reader’s brain. One party is urgently attempting to reach another party without success. “No one heard, and no one answered” drives home the possibility that something dire is happening. Danger is in the air.

Look for Opportunity

If you haven’t built hooks into your manuscript, don’t despair. On revision, look for opportunities to create or strengthen hooks. And remember to use hooks in combination with other hooks. So far, we’ve studied the Raising Question hook and the Danger hook, but there are many more.

If you want to learn more about hooks, a great resource is Mary Buckham’s book Writing Active Hooks.

Have fun with this. Remember what it felt like to create a sense of danger in the games we played as children. Go play with some danger hooks and reel in your target readers.

How about you? Do you love stories with a flavor of danger? Do you see how the Danger Hook might strengthen your writing? Tell us about it in the comments.

By Joslyn Chase


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Relationship Thesaurus Entry: Giver and Taker

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite—derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth—or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

The purpose of this thesaurus is to encourage you to explore the kinds of relationships that might be good for your story and figure out what each might look like. Think about what a character needs (good and bad), and build a network of connections for him or her that will challenge them, showcase their innermost qualities, and bind readers to their relationship trials and triumphs.

Description: In this codependent relationship, each party gets something that they need, but in an unhealthy manner. The giver goes to great lengths to please and help the taker, often sacrificing their own needs, desires, health, and mental well-being to serve the other person. This can result in the giver being abused, neglected, taken advantage of, or otherwise mistreated by the taker. In the end, they both benefit, albeit dysfunctionally: the taker gets someone to care for them while the giver gets what they need (gaining the taker’s approval, finding purpose in serving them, etc.).

This dynamic can be found in any pairing—between spouses, friends, a parent and child, coach and athlete, boss and employee, etc.

Relationship Dynamics:
Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict.

The giver struggling to say no to the taker, no matter how selfish the request
The giver making excuses for the other party, even taking the on the blame for the taker’s actions
The giver finding their identity as a caregiver or in relationship to the other person (instead of having their own individual identity)
The giver sacrificing their own needs in favor of the taker’s
The giver being unaware of their own needs or being unable/unwilling to communicate them
The giver experiencing frequent stress or anxiety due to never knowing where they stand with the taker
The giver playing the peacemaker—doing whatever it takes to mend the relationship after an argument
The giver taking personal responsibility for the taker’s happiness
The giver believing that no one can care for the taker like they can
The taker guilting, bullying, or manipulating the giver into doing something for them
The taker mistreating the giver, then attempting to make up for it with through gifts or gestures
The taker expressing dissatisfaction with how a giver is doing things
The taker controlling every aspect of the giver’s life
The taker becoming jealous if the giver gives their time or attention to anyone else (including their child, parent, sibling, etc.)
The taker showing little or no interest in the giver’s true needs or desires
The taker refusing to negotiate or compromise with the giver (my way or the highway thinking)

Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship
The giver wanting to be treated as an equal while the taker wants to be in charge
One party wanting out of the relationship
The taker demanding something the giver is uncomfortable doing
The giver wanting to care for someone else (a child, for instance) while the taker wants all of the giver’s attention
The giver wanting to believe or embrace something the taker doesn’t agree with
The giver needing a mental break from caregiving, but the taker refusing to comply
The giver wanting a level of autonomy that the taker is unwilling to allow

Clashing Personality Trait Combinations:
Controlling and Rebellious, Perfectionist and Flaky, Extravagant and Thrifty, Cruel and Oversensitive, Manipulative and Weak-Willed, Pushy and Independent, Needy and Apathetic

Negative Outcomes of Friction
Physical abuse
Emotional abuse
The taker’s self-esteem plummeting
Fear of losing the relationship keeping the two together in an unhealthy relationship
Children seeing the dysfunction and continuing it in their own relationships
The giver feeling isolated, having no one to confide in
Either party turning to substance abuse as a coping mechanism (or increased use, if it’s already part of the equation)

Fictional Scenarios That Could Turn These Characters into Allies
A “rock bottom” scenario in the relationship that requires changes be made if they are to stay together
Working together to help a mutual friend, the taker’s boss, or someone who needs help
A medical emergency that requires the taker to adopt the caregiving role and the giver to accept the taker’s help to return to health
A spiritual awakening that causes a change in one or both parties, causing them to want to heal the relationship

Ways This Relationship May Lead to Positive Change
Either party seeing an example of a healthy relationship and wanting it personally
Regaining a healthy relationship through self-revelation and therapy
Either party leaving so they can focus on their own health and well-being
Children seeing the dysfunction and vowing to do things differently in their own relationships

Themes and Symbols That Can Be Explored through This Relationship
Beginnings, Deception, Depression, Enslavement, Family, Freedom, Friendship, Health, Hope, Instability, Isolation, Journeys, Love, Obstacles, Perseverance, Sacrifice, Suffering, Transformation



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How Memoir and Autobiography Differ

By Liz Alterman

A few years ago, I told a friend that I’d nearly finished writing a memoir. She knew that it focused on the period my husband and I—both in our mid-to-late forties—were laid off simultaneously and struggling to get our careers and marriage back on track. Yet that didn’t stop her from suggesting “a surprise pregnancy cliffhanger ending.”

That’s when it occurred to me that not everyone knows that memoir, derived from the French mémoire, meaning “memory,” is a work of nonfiction. Even when people are aware that this genre is rooted in fact, they often think it is interchangeable with autobiography.

While these first-person narratives have plenty in common, they’re also quite different. Where do they overlap and how are they dissimilar? Let’s take a look.

Both Tell the Story of the Author’s Life

Autobiographies usually unfold in chronological order, beginning from early childhood and continuing through present day. They can certainly include flashbacks as the story evolves, but most follow a linear path.

Memoir, on the other hand, typically focuses on a snapshot in time or a life-defining period rather than spanning the author’s entire life. They shine a spotlight on an aspect, such as an illness, an unusual childhood or career, and include reflections on how those circumstances shaped them, often culminating in a lesson learned or a message that leaves readers feeling their time investment was worthwhile.

Memoir can be a collection of essays unified by a common theme or occurring within a set window of time, like Annabelle Gurwitch’s You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility, which centers around the author’s living situation after her marriage ends and her child leaves for college. Memoir can also told through verse as Jacqueline Woodson does in her National Book Award winner Brown Girl Dreaming.

Both Seek to Enlighten

Autobiographies are crafted to illuminate the early beginnings, education, and career of a famous person, such as an historical figure. Examples include The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, which details the author and lecturer’s challenges and journey to overcome them, or The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which showcases the inventor and founding father’s wit and irreverent wisdom as he lays out his life story.

Memoirs can be written by anyone who believes they have a tale to tell. Consider The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs, an American poet who shares her final months as a mother facing terminal cancer, or The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, chronicling the author’s far-from-ordinary childhood which fosters a lifelong resilience.

Autobiographies Focus on Facts While Memoirs Focus on Feeling

While many autobiographies showcase the author’s character and personality through the tone and events described, they may have a more journalistic feel, covering all the facts readers would hope to learn about the subject.

Memoirs embody a more voice-driven approach, engaging the reader on a personal level. They’re not as date-time-and-place driven, but rather explore scenes and memories that hang together to support a larger message or theme that offers readers insight into their lives.

How Do You Decide?

If you’d like to share your life story and are wondering which genre—autobiography or memoir—better serves your purpose, there are a few ways to determine the right option.

Is there a single incident that set others in motion that molded you into the person you are today? Do you have a theme or message you wish to impart through a collection of vignettes? If your answer is yes, memoir would work well.

Memoir requires that the author dig deep emotionally so readers can relate and empathize. Writing a memoir can serve as a catharsis or a way to come to terms with a difficult time or situation, which can be healing. Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourttold NPR’s Terry Gross how writing his beloved memoir shifted his perspective.

I’ve gone back [to Ireland] a number of times, but always with a chip on my shoulder, a sense of anger. I got a lot of the stuff out of my system by writing the book, and I feel much more comfortable…” McCourt explained.

If you’re more interested in preserving your history in an orderly timeline with an array of anecdotes at various ages and stages and enjoy research and fact-checking dates, try autobiography.

You can also ask yourself: “What’s my goal?” Do you hope to publish this story or share it only with friends and family? Considering your target audience may help you decide the better vehicle for your story.

Whether you choose to write an autobiography or a memoir, it will likely require a great deal of time and effort, so starting out with a clear idea of which style best suits your narrative can help serve as a roadmap. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t change course once you begin.

Either way, capturing your life story is a way to preserve your legacy and enlighten readers at the same time.


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Relationship Thesaurus Entry: Fling

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite—derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth—or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

The purpose of this thesaurus is to encourage you to explore the kinds of relationships that might be good for your story and figure out what each might look like. Think about what a character needs (good and bad), and build a network of connections for him or her that will challenge them, showcase their innermost qualities, and bind readers to their relationship trials and triumphs.

Description: A fling is a casual, sexual relationship between two people. Unlike one-night stands, a fling is more than one encounter, but wouldn’t be considered an affair because it lacks emotional attachment. Flings generally happen between two people who want something fun and ‘in the moment’ rather than to invest in each other with the intent of building something more.

Relationship Dynamics:
Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict.

A relationship based upon physical attraction and sexual desires
Choosing a partner who is fun in bed but not “marriage material”
Enjoying casual sexual encounters with no expectation of other involvement
Getting together only when the timing works out (often at the last minute)
Keeping conversation superficial to avoid getting too personal
Not discussing the future, just enjoying the present
Minimal contact between encounters
Making no commitments or demands
Not probing for information even when a partner seems interesting
Avoiding situations that could lead to vulnerability or openness
Experimenting sexually if it’s fun and consensual
Leaving once a sexual encounter is over
Enjoying teasing and innuendo
Becoming worried if there’s too much common ground
One person realizing they might be developing feelings
Knowing deep down it’s time to break things off, but finding excuses not to
Asking questions that are more personal (suggesting investment)
Reading into certain actions and seeing intimacy (which may or may not be the case)
Having deeper feelings about the other person (but keeping them a secret)
Feeling jealous of the partner’s other relationships and hiding it
Pretending it’s a casual encounter yet doing things considered intimate (cooking a romantic dinner, sharing feelings, getting personal, etc.)
A relationship where one person is emotionally invested while the other is not

Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship
One person wanting to end things while the other does not
One partner pushing to try a committed relationship ‘to see what happens’
Wanting to expand the fling to include others but the partner does not
Both wanting something more, but one partner’s fears are preventing it
One participant pressuring the other to try things they aren’t comfortable with
One wanting to transition to a friendship, but the other liking things as is
Wanting to stay in touch after a fling ends but the partner does not
Threats to expose the fling if the other tries to end it
A partner who likes taking casual pictures or video together, but the other doesn’t want any evidence of the fling

Clashing Personality Trait Combinations: Gossipy and Private, Apathetic and Passionate, Controlling and Timid, Mischievous and Humorless, Irrational and Sensible, Affectionate and Inhibited, Needy and Independent, Honest and Evasive

Negative Outcomes of Friction
Being unable to go back to a previous relationship before it became a flingArguments about whether to continue or end things
One party disclosing the fling to others without consulting their partner first
The fling being discovered, damaging reputations and causing fallout (at work, with family, etc.)
Being blackmailed or threatened by the other person or a third-party
Awkwardness in social or professional situations when partners run into each other
Losing a mutual friend who chooses a side when the fling ends badly
Becoming fixated on swaying the other person to want the same thing
Reduced self-esteem or feelings of regret (if the fling was a mistake)
An increased fear of commitment
Becoming used to having a mental wall of distance which makes it harder to be vulnerable in other relationships

Fictional Scenarios That Could Turn These Characters into Allies
Mutually wanting to turn the fling into a committed relationship
A pregnancy
Both knowing this relationship could ruin lives if discovered
Working together to keep the fling a secret
Bonding over pressure from outsiders to be in a committed relationship
A mutual friend needing their support
One party experiencing personal difficulties and the other stepping up to help
A shared traumatic experience, or discovering common ground regarding a past one
Both parties coming out of bad relationships simultaneously
Both people agreeing that they are better off as friends

Ways This Relationship May Lead to Positive Change
Discovering layers of someone that go beyond what one previously knew
Getting to experience what clear boundaries are if this isn’t typical
Self-reflecting on one’s relationship choices to better understand what one wants
Learning the pros and cons of an uncommitted relationship
Exploring what one wants from a romantic partner and feeling safe to experiment
Feeling empowered to end an unhealthy relationship
Being able to safely process after-affects of a bad relationship, so baggage isn’t carried forward to the next committed relationship
Feeling empowered to make decisions that are right for them, not others
Discovering that a fling isn’t a good fit and so being able to focus fully on what is wanted and needed

Themes and Symbols That Can Be Explored through This Relationship
A fall from grace, Betrayal, Coming of age, Crossroads, Deception, Depression, Freedom, Friendship, Hope, Innocence, Instability, Journeys, Loss, Love, Mystery, Pride, Purity, Rebellion, Recognition, Refuge, Religion, Stagnation, Transformation, Vanity, Vulnerability



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Writing Magic in a Real-World Setting

By Liz Keller Whitehurst

For centuries, people have been spellbound by magic and the supernatural. Ghosts, curses, talking creatures, portals to alternate dimensions…there’s just too much creative fodder for authors not to plumb those depths. Over time, mainstream fantasy has given way to many other genres—particularly those where magic is being used in a real-world setting.

Melding the fantastic with the everyday definitely has its challenges, but it can be done. Whether you’re writing magical realism, fabulism, or an undefined genre in a similar vein, you’ve got to thread the needle when it comes to blending magic with the real world. Here are some tips on how to do that.

The First Rule of Magic is Containment

Creativity guru Julia Cameron uses this concept in her Artist Way work, but she certainly didn’t coin the phrase. What does the first rule of magic is containment mean?

Keep the mystery.

The best magic is always shrouded in mystery. Here’s where “show, don’t tell” is your best friend. Don’t explain too much of your magic or how it works to your readers. Readers love to figure out what’s going on in a story, to feel the frisson of wondering, is there a logical explanation for this or is something more going on? Leave them wondering. Do the same with your characters, especially the ones who observe the magic rather than create it. What do they think about it? How do they try and explain what’s happening?

A Little Magic Goes a Long Way

Integral to the idea above, don’t overwhelm your reader with too many magical or fantastical events. If you do, you’ll ruin the mystery. Season your writing with it. Don’t make every character a part of the magic or even include it in every scene. Less is more.

Magic Has to Make Sense

Whenever you decide to include magical elements or events, be certain of two things. First, you, as the writer, are very clear about what is happening and how it’s happening. You clearly understand the parameters, the ins and outs of the magic. As we discussed earlier, you do not reveal all of this to your reader. But it’s crucial that you “get it.” Also, the magic must be organic to both your story and/or character, not come out of left field. If it looks like you just threw it in, you’ll break what one of my writing teachers called the narrative dream. You’ve crossed the line. The reader’s suspension of disbelief will evaporate.

Make Your World Real

To successfully incorporate magic into your real-world setting, your first job is to clearly establish the world in which the magic occurs. Creating a detailed, concrete setting is key. And that starts with the five senses.

Sensory details ground your readers so they have their bearings. Fill your writing with specific details about how this world looks, sounds, smells—be it New York City or a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Make your fictional world accessible and relatable. As much as possible, make the setting so vivid that it becomes like a main character. Setting as character will anchor the magic and create credibility for whatever might then happen.

Make Your Characters Real

Your main characters should feel real, also. Strive to create strong, multi-dimensional characters readers feel like they know, so any magic they create is just one dimension of their complex character. They should have flaws, insecurities, and events from their past that have molded them into who they are in the current-day story. Understand what their emotional range is so you can write realistic and consistent responses to the things that will happen to them.

Your main characters should feel real, also. Strive to create strong, multi-dimensional characters readers feel like they know, so any magic they create is just one dimension of their complex character. They should have flaws, insecurities, and events from their past that have molded them into who they are in the current-day story. Understand what their emotional range is so you can write realistic and consistent responses to the things that will happen to them.


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“Perfect to Me”: How Self-Editing Can Take Your Novel to the Next Stage

By Michelle Barker

Part of the trick of hiring an editor is knowing when your manuscript is ready to hand over to them. There’s no point submitting a draft that you already know has POV issues or structural problems. The ideal situation I like to be in when I deliver my manuscript to an editor is that I think it’s perfect. Of course, it never is, but “perfect to me” means I’ve done everything I know how to do. That way, the editor will teach me something.

There are three main types of edits: developmental, line, and proofreading. At each stage, an author can do a lot of self-editing to create a “perfect-to-me” manuscript.

The Developmental Stage

A developmental edit tackles big-picture issues: plot, structure, characterization, point of view and the like. It can be hard to see where a novel isn’t working on a substantive level. Sometimes you know it’s not working but can’t figure out why. In both cases, I find it helpful to work through structural exercises.

List the major structural elements that should appear in a novel and fill in the blanks. You can go as basic as three-act structure (inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.) or you can get more detailed with something like a Save the Cat beat sheet. It amounts to the same thing: a novel must build momentum and it does this by hitting certain pivotal moments. If while doing this exercise you discover you’ve skipped a step or two, that’s probably where your problem lies.

Literary agent Hannah Sheppard boils this process down to a single sentence: When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe). Try filling it in. If you can’t, you’ll know there’s a problem.

One of the most common developmental issues I encounter as an editor is the protagonist’s lack of a strong, measurable goal. This goal needs to power the main character through the whole manuscript. One way to test this is to write a synopsis of the novel. Yuk, I know. A synopsis shows flaws. It’s a scary process. If you can’t boil your story down to a few pages that clearly trace a protagonist’s quest for a goal, you’ve got trouble.

Another thing a synopsis will reveal is causality (or the lack of it). If you find yourself connecting plot elements with the words, “and then,” (as opposed to “but,” or “therefore”), your story won’t be building the momentum it needs to hold a reader’s attention.

Has your protagonist done something at the end of the novel that he couldn’t have done at the beginning? If not, you have a character arc issue.

I could write an entire piece on point of view—and indeed, many editors have. Go read a few of them. I will say one thing here. It seems like it would be easiest to write in omniscient so you have access to every character’s thoughts. In fact, it’s the hardest POV to master.

Don’t be tempted to add new business to a novel to solve an existing problem. Often, you simply haven’t delivered on the promises you’ve made.

Most clients I deal with believe one developmental edit is all their novel needs. In fact, it takes several passes to wrinkle out developmental issues. Writing a novel is (or should be) like building a house of cards. Remove one card and half the house topples. Developmental edits are hard for that reason. As soon as you solve one problem, you’ve created five others. You should not expect this to be a quick and simple job. Most writers are in too much of a rush. Good work takes time. A novel benefits greatly from smoking on the shelf for a month or so after a major edit. Indeed, time might be the best editor of all.

Sometimes clients are tempted to skip the developmental stage. Because they’ve worked for so long on their novels and have used beta readers, they believe they can jump straight into a line edit and (bonus) save some money. Skipping the developmental stage is like building a house on sand. Even when I’ve worked for a year on a novel and finally decide it’s ready to send to my publisher, the first thing they do is assign me—you guessed it—a developmental editor.

Line Edit

Once the developmental issues have been tackled—and only then—it’s time to move onto a line edit. The most useful self-editing tool I can suggest before you send your work to an editor is to read the entire novel out loud in as short a time span as you can manage. The errors your eyes glossed over will sound like nails on a chalkboard to your ears. Missing words, repetitions, logical flaws, sheer boredom—I’ve encountered all of these in my own manuscripts, even after reading the work countless times in my head. I never noticed the flaws until I heard them.

A line edit is the most expensive editing job of the three. The worse shape your novel is in, the more you’ll pay. A line editor won’t fix developmental flaws. We’ll make suggestions, sure. We will move sentences and change words, but if the book is fundamentally flawed, that’s like repainting a room when the walls need to come down.

 When I’m reviewing my own novel at this stage, I’m looking for certain things:

  • Is every scene grounded in physical and/or sensory detail?
  • Have I noticed pet words or phrases repeating themselves ad nauseum? The common offenders include: of course, just, very, little—as well as all those useless generic gestures that do nothing to develop character: laughing, smiling, looking, shrugging, nodding.
  • Does every scene contain tension? Does every chapter end with it?
  • Have I let the novel sit? Yes, I’ve mentioned this twice now. That’s how important it is.


Proofreading comes at the end of the process. All the other issues should have been fixed by now. If you’re still finding problems with grammar and verb tenses—or worse, structural issues—your novel isn’t ready to send to the proofreader.

Run your manuscript through a spell- and grammar- check. If your novel contains complicated spellings of proper names, use the find/replace functions to make sure you’ve been consistent. Even if you’ve proofread until your eyes are crossed, I guarantee a proofreader will catch things you’ve missed. Don’t skip this stage, especially if you’re self-publishing.

It’s tempting to assume that because a manuscript seems perfect to you, it’s good enough and doesn’t need an editor. Never in my life have I handed over a manuscript to an editor and been told there’s nothing wrong with it, nor have I ever delivered that news to a client. Writing is a learning process, and because every story is different, they each have something to teach us about the craft.


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How to Make Money as an Author: Important Tips for a Writer’s Success

What are your goals for being a published author? Do you want to know how to make money as an author? Or a living? And if you do, how much do you really want it? Because the depth of your desire will determine your path and your success.

In our modern world, I believe it is possible to make a living as a novelist—if you go the indie route, maintaining control over your creative work and garnering a much larger chunk of the profits than you’ll get from signing contracts with most major publishing houses.

Things in the publishing industry have changed dramatically over the last decade or so. Once upon a time, in the days before I started writing, I imagined life as an author would consist of days spent in simple solitude, making up stories and sending off manuscripts to agents and publishers.

I’d start my next book while waiting in pleasant anticipation for someone to buy my previous work and take care of all the technical details involved in publishing it—editing, cover, marketing, book signings, and so on.

Let me tell you about the two pivotal events that radically shifted my perception.

Death of One Dream, Dawn of Another

Shortly before I started my writing career, I took a job with our regional library system and had the good fortune to meet Kristine Kathryn Rusch at a staff training conference.

I listened to Kris give a presentation about the changes in the publishing industry and it devastated me. Publishing—as the world had known it—was dying and nearly dead. It seemed my dream of being a published author was shattered before I even started.

It’s not that I didn’t believe her, it’s just that self-publishing seemed so complicated and beyond my skill set. I didn’t believe I could pull it off. I decided to go with a traditional publisher, no matter how stiff the odds.

And then it happened.

I clearly remember sitting at my kitchen table, listening to a three-part episode of the Story Grid podcast which explored and compared traditional publishing versus indie. When Shawn Coyne revealed that marketing the book is the fiction writer’s responsibility—regardless of the publishing route taken—I felt the earth move under my feet.

This came after he’d already explained the vast differences in maintaining creative control and profit margin. The marketing stuff is what I really didn’t want to worry about and if a publisher isn’t going to do that for me, yet take control of my content and most of the profits generated by my book, what good are they?

Indie publishing seemed like an impossible mountain to climb, but that day, sitting at that kitchen table, I vowed I’d learn how and make it happen.

Turns out, it’s far easier than I ever dreamed.

What You Will Learn in This Article

If you’re reading this and you’re set on following the traditional course, I wish you luck. However, this chapter won’t be your best source of information. I’m not going to cover anything about query letters, agents, or synopses.

I’m also not going into detail about the technical aspects of self-publishing—how to get your book up on a book platform like Amazon, Draft2Digital, etc. Throughout the self-publishing process, Google and YouTube are your friends and if you need more formal guidance, there are plenty of programs to choose from—like those offered on The Write Practice—to help you learn what to do.

While you won’t find the technical nitty gritty here, I am going to share some of what I’ve learned about setting yourself up for success as an indie publisher.

If that sounds good to you, read on.

Build a Solid Product

Once you’ve finished writing your book, you need to take off your writer’s hat and assume the role of editor and marketer. Your book is now a product to be packaged and promoted. If you’re in the indie author business, all of that is up to you.

Don’t worry—each part of the process is something you can do and can even be fun. Let’s take a look at the five important pieces.

“ Do you want to know how to make money as an author? Master these five important pieces of the editing  and publishing process.

1. Editing

Full disclosure—I won’t have a lot to say about the editing process. My mentor, Dean Wesley Smith, has always cautioned me stringently about allowing my work to be edited. He’s been with me since I began writing and he taught me to write a clean draft using a cycling process and to let my individual voice shine through.

When he gives me a writing assignment, he also gives me a very short deadline so that I won’t have time to fuss over it and rewrite. He says the creative voice in the back of a writer’s brain is the storyteller. Give it free rein and get out of its way. Rewriting involves the front brain critical voice which will often pull out what makes a writer’s words unique and interesting.

Since I plan my stories before I write them, I’m fairly confident all the necessary structural elements will be in place. I don’t engage in a lot of editing. I use ProWriting Aid to help point out grammar issues (commas always sneak in where they don’t belong) and at times I’ve hired a copy editor to check for simple errors.

Once I’m sure my story’s structure is sound and the manuscript is free of grammatical errors, I read it aloud and listen for flow. Do the words fit together well and convey the tone I want readers to feel? Are there awkward sentence constructions I should fix? What about unnecessary adverbs or sticky words I can eliminate?

I pay special attention to chapter endings and openings. Have I written past a cliffhanger or forgotten to include one? Have I neglected the kinds of vital details in my openings that pull readers from the end of one chapter into the beginning of the next?

Have I used the tools in my writer’s toolbox to create suspense throughout the story?

I know my book will be competing with a million other books and it needs to come up to a professional standard. The same will apply to you, whether you self-edit or decide to hire an editor.

2. Formatting

As I mentioned, you want your book to be on a par with the current bestsellers—the professionals—in mystery, thrillers, and suspense. That means you can use those bestselling books as examples. Examine them and imitate what works for your own book.

How can you do this? Open up a bestseller and notice the interior layout.

Observe important details like:

  • The size of the margins and font
  • The location of elements such as page number, author name, and chapter titles
  • The type of font
  • How the title page looks, the organization and formatting
  • The content included in the front matter of the book—and back matter

You can hire someone to design your layout, but I prefer to do it myself. That way, if I need to change anything in future, I don’t have to go back to the formatter. I like being in control over the parts of the process.

There are a number of methods for formatting. I used Scrivener to format most of my books. Many writers I know swear by Vellum, but it’s only available on Apple products and I run a PC.

Dave Chesson recently released a new tool called Atticus and I used it to format the last two books I published. It’s simple to use, puts out a professional-looking product, and has a lot of great features. That’s what I’ll be using for the foreseeable future.

However, you choose to format, make it look good. Also, make it look like it should be placed along with other comparable titles in your genre.

3. Cover

If your cover doesn’t grab a reader, nothing else will. It’s your book’s first impression and must appeal to your target audience—readers of mystery, thrillers, or whatever type of suspense you’re looking to publish. You want to draw readers in to read the blurb or your opening lines.

Again, study the book cover design of bestsellers in your genre. Imitate what’s working for them. When it comes to the front cover, make sure it looks professional and appeals to the emotions. Remember, readers are looking for an experience, not a list of plot points.

If you look at the bestselling mysteries and thrillers, you’ll notice that most of the front covers include some kind of punchy tagline or quick testimonial, usually near the author’s name.

They also make use of genre-related subtitles which help search engines find the book more easily on platforms like Amazon.

Don’t clutter the back cover. It should include the sales blurb with a tagline above or beneath, and maybe a short bio. Leave some white space.

Whether you create your own covers or hire a professional, you can learn more about how to ensure your book cover sells in this article.

4. Sales Description and Editorial Review

Remember, your book is now a product that you want to get into the hands of eager readers of suspense fiction. That’s why you need an effective sales description, or blurb.

Put some effort into this—you will use it over and over in getting your book up on the various sales platforms, on your back cover, on your website, in your advertising or promotions, and elsewhere.

Sales writing draws upon a different sort of skill set than you used in writing your book. You’ll need to toot your own horn a bit and use buzz words like “edge of your seat,” “nail-biting suspense,” “riveting,” “gripping,” “heart-stopping,” “action-packed,” etc.

Readers of suspense fiction want an experience. They want to feel excited and intrigued. They want to experience a brush with danger while staying safe at home. Address that desire and appeal to those emotions, rather than falling back on plot points.

Here’s a basic pattern for an effective sales description using the blurb from my novel Nocturne In Ashes as an example:

Slammed by disaster, playing for her life!

With the death of her husband and son, concert pianist Riley Forte’s life and career shattered. Her comeback performance bombs, her sponsor pulls out, and she faces the tattered ruins of a once-happy life.

When Mt. Rainier erupts, isolating her in a small community stalked by a serial killer, it seems like the end of everything, but it brings a new chance for Riley.

If she can evade the clutches of a dedicated killer.

In a riveting action story filled with breathtaking suspense, Riley fights to hang on to the one thing she has left—her life, and the one thing she needs to turn it around—redemption.

Fans of Jeffery Deaver, Lisa Gardner, and Peter Robinson will be captivated by this page-turner. If you like a gripping, suspenseful tale, grab your copy of Nocturne in Ashes and prepare to burn the midnight oil.


A tagline is a pithy or hard-hitting one-liner that encapsulates the reading experience.

Slammed by disaster, playing for her life!


Share something engaging about the character or the story world in summary. No plot beyond first page events. No passive voice. Nail down the genre, if possible, and keep it succinct.

With the death of her husband and son, concert pianist Riley Forte’s life and career shattered. Her comeback performance bombs, her sponsor pulls out, and she faces the tattered ruins of a once-happy life.


If you introduced your character in the first paragraph, bring in the setting now, and vice versa. Hit something about the plot of the first chapter only, the hook to get your reader in the door and wanting more. Keep it short, two or three sentences at most. No passive voice.

When Mt. Rainier erupts, isolating her in a small community stalked by a serial killer, it seems like the end of everything, but it brings a new chance for Riley.


This is the plot kicker line — da da da dum! Summarize the stakes, infuse intensity. This is usually a one-liner, a tag, a punch. More will weaken the potency.

If she can evade the clutches of a determined killer.


This is your enticing summary and call to action. This is where you tell your reader why they should buy your book. It’s fine to use three or four lines here.

In a riveting action story filled with breathtaking suspense, Riley fights to hang on to the one thing she has left—her life—and the one thing she needs to turn it around—redemption.

If you like a gripping, suspenseful tale, grab your copy of Nocturne in Ashes and prepare to burn the midnight oil!

On the Amazon platform, there’s also a space for Editorial Reviews on the sales page of your book. Don’t neglect it!

Readers are influenced by what they read in this section, so it’s important to make it look professional and enticing. As soon as you have positive feedback from reviewers, post it here.

For more information about how to write a great sales description, read this article.

5. Promoting

In my opinion, when you only have a few published books, your focus should be on producing more, rather than advertising what you’ve got. It’s not cost-effective until you’ve got a decent backlist for readers to turn to when they want more of your work.

Imagine what would happen if you were a baker and you opened a bakery. It’s a lovely bakery, clean and shining with a cute little sign over the door and lots of well-lit shelves. But if a customer comes in and sees just one cake in the display case and nothing else for sale, they’re not going to feel confident about buying a slice of that cake.

At the beginning stages of your writing career, I don’t advocate spending your time and money on advertising or running a lot of promos. Focus on producing the next finished book. And then the next.

There is one thing that you should be doing, however, right from the start. And that’s building an email list. Make it a point to create engaging and regular content for the people who’ve entrusted you with their email addresses. They will stick with you as you grow and stand ready to buy your books when they come.

The real key to your long-term success is discoverability—getting your name out there—and probably the best way to do that is to fill your shelves with more titles for readers who like your books.

To learn more about discoverability, read this article or this book.

How to Achieve Long-Term Success

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing and publishing a few books as a hobby, to make a little extra income, or because you have just one or two stories you really want to write and that’s all. That might fit exactly with your idea of success.

There’s nothing wrong with writing part-time while working full-time to pay for living expenses. A great many well-known authors are doing it like this. That might be the kind of success you’re happy with, too.

“ A writer must decide on their own definition of success. This article can help you do this and strategize ways to gain writing success.

If your concept of success means being a full-time writer and supporting yourself and your family on what you make from writing novels, your desire for it must run deep and you’ll need to gear up for a long haul. I believe that kind of success is possible, but it may be a long time coming.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

If earning a living with your novels is something you aspire to, here are some key points to consider:

1. Define what you mean by “making a living.”

Put some numbers on paper and break it down. For example, if you aim to make $70,000 a year from full-time writing, you’ll need to bring in about $5,833 per month in book sales.

If you set your retail price at $5.99, that will yield about $4 a book. Divide $5,833 by $4 and see that you’ll need to sell 1,458 books a month.

If you have twenty books, that’s only seventy-three books per month, per title. With forty books, that drops down to about thirty-six books per title.

If you’re in the book business, the more books you’ve published, the better off you’ll be.

2. Twenty is the magic number

Many professional indie writers agree that once you reach twenty books on your list of published works, discoverability kicks in and sales start to pick up and move. That’s twenty novel-length books, which include collections, under the same pen name.

Patience and longevity are necessary ingredients. Get lost in the joy of writing and focus on telling stories and getting them into the hands of readers.

“ They say 20 published books under the same name is the magic number for discoverability. To achieve this, get lost in the joy of writing—and have patience.

Twenty books is a reachable goal, but it will take time. Make the mental adjustment and don’t be in a hurry.

3. Write what you love

If you get caught up in writing mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels—the kinds of books you love—you can maintain the passion for writing long-term and enjoy your life as a writer.

Thrillers and mysteries rank high on the list of popular genres, but you won’t be able to sustain the joy for the work if you’re solely writing to market. You’ll face burnout and worse—you risk losing the simple pleasure and satisfaction of telling a great story.

Stick with writing what you love.

“ If you want to make a career as a writer, you need to love writing. Focus on telling great stories that excite you, not ones that you feel forced to write because of the market.

4. Get good at business

You need to learn how to run a business, one detail at a time, during those years when you’re building up your inventory. Once you start making real money, you’re going to need to know how to manage it, how to shelter it from undue taxation. How to invest it.

Spend time educating yourself about the book business and intellectual property. Learn how to keep track of expenses and income, prepare for tax season, and how to structure your writing business to best serve your needs and maximize your earnings.

In addition, you’ll need to stay abreast of the changes in the publishing industry and adjust your business strategies accordingly.

I find Joanna Penn is a great source for help in staying on top of publishing industry changes and in looking to the future. Her podcast is fun, informative, and inspiring.

5. Continue to learn your craft

This is perhaps the most important aspect in your long-term success as a writer. There’s always more to learn, new skills to master.

Staying in a learning frame of mind helps sharpen the tools you already have in your writer’s toolbox, as well as opening vistas of opportunity for greater levels of skill.

And learning is exciting and motivating. When you learn a new technique, you want to use it, test it, develop it. Successful authors never stop learning, never stop discovering, and never stop reaching for ever higher levels of writing abilities.

The Write Practice is a superb place to continue your education as a writer.

Can You Earn a Living Writing Novels?

Yes! But as you can see, it won’t be quick or easy. If money is your primary objective, pick another avenue. Write for the love of writing, and the money will come.


We write in the suspense genres because those are the stories that stir our blood, pique our interest, and provide the satisfaction of a world put right and justice served by book’s end.

Consider that the job of a suspense writer is to read such stories and learn how to create something similarly stimulating and satisfactory. And to develop new skills and techniques for achieving this. And to sit down, put words on paper, and make it happen.

If that’s the job of a suspense writer (and it is!) the years spent in writing many books before seeing a financial return can pass in pleasure, excitement, and the joy of writing.

An effort is well worth making.

How about you? What’s your definition of success as a writer? Tell us about it in the comments.

By Joslyn Chase


Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

Premise: The First Step To Writing Your Book

One quick note before we begin: writing a strong premise is the first step to writing a book. The second step is structuring your book. To learn more about how to structure a bestselling, award-winning book, check out The Write Structure, my new book how to apply the timeless structure principles of bestselling stories to your book. You can get it here for a limited time low price.

What is a Premise? Premise Definition

Before we talk about why you should write a premise, let’s talk about what a premise actually is. For the purposes of our writing, here’s a definition of a premise for writers: A single sentence summary of the central plot or argument of a story, book, or other writing piece.

In the screenwriting world, this is called a log line, and the purpose is to take your whole idea and summarize it down to a single sentence.

By the way, if you’re curious, here are the dictionary definitions of premise:

  1. “A proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion,” according to
  2. “The fundamental concept that drives the plot,” according to Wikipedia
  3. When plural (premises), a property or building, e.g. “Get off my premises!”

As writers, we of course care most about the first two premise definitions. You can see, too, there are different definitions depending on if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. That’s because premises are extremely useful whether you’re writing stories or nonfiction.

But maybe you’re wondering why this matters. Here’s why you should start with a premise sentence.

Why You Should Write a Premise Sentence First: 5 Reasons to Write a Premise

Writing a premise first can change everything for your writing process. Here’s why:

“ Great stories come from simple, big ideas. They might look complicated to the reader, but they actually have a clear foundation.

1. A Premise Simplifies Your Idea

Most new writers have complicated ambitious ideas. However, great stories are simple! They might look complicated to the reader, but most bestselling books have a simple, clear foundation.

Complicated, ambitious ideas are challenging to actually finish, and if you’re a new writer, the most important thing you can do to practice and become a better writer is to finish your book!

That’s why if you’re writing your first book (or even your tenth), the best thing you can do is to simplify your idea.

And the best way to simplify your central idea is to write it as a single, sentence premise.

2. A Premise Becomes the Foundation of Your Book

You have to make a lot of decisions when you’re writing a book. Should you add a new subplot? Does this bit of research fit into your article?

A premise gives you a foundation upon which you can judge those decisions. If you’re not sure whether to add or remove something, you can ask, does this fit the premise? If not, delete!

3. A Premise Gets You Unstuck When the Writing is Hard

Writing is hard. Writing a book with hundreds of pages is even harder!

At some point during the writing process, it’s very likely you will get lost. You won’t know what to write next. You may not even know what your book is about anymore.

When that happens, you can come back to your premise and remember, “Oh yeah! That’s what my book is about!”

“A premise is the compass to find your way when writing your book gets hard

4. A Premise Helps You Get Feedback

Have you ever had someone ask you what your book is about and had no idea what to tell them? You start explaining, but then a few minutes in you watch as their eyes glaze over and they make an excuse to leave?

Here’s the thing: no one wants to hear a five-minute book idea. (That includes agents, editors, and publishers.)

Your premise becomes your elevator pitch, a quick way to describe what your book is about without boring the listener.

And that means, a developed premise can become an idea testing methodology, helping you get more feedback before it ever becomes a finished product.

And that will help you make your book better.

5. A Premise Can Get You Published

Did you know a single-sentence premise is one of the most important part of a book proposal and query letter?

A good premise can literally get you published.

I make every writer in our community write a premise when they’re first getting started with their book. What’s amazing is that months or years later, when they’re finally ready to publish, they tell me, “OH! That’s why you made us write a premise. You actually know what you’re doing!”

Well, yeah! “A good premise can literally get you published.

Now that you know why you should write premise, how do you actually write one? Let’s break it down into the three types of premises you might write:

  1. Premise for a story (novel, screenplay, short story)
  2. Memoir premise
  3. Nonfiction premise (book, article, essay)

Use the links above or scroll down to find the type of premise you’re writing. Let’s start with the premise of a story.

Premise of a Story: 4 Steps to Writing a Bestselling Story Idea

If you’re writing a story, whether a novel, short story, or screenplay, you must summarize your entire story concept into a single sentence. Here’s an example premise of an actual story, this one from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum:

A young girl is swept away to a magical land by a tornado and must embark on a quest to see the wizard who can help her return home.

You might be wondering, how do you take a whole story and turn it into a killer premise? You must have four things:

1. A Protagonist In Two Words

Compelling stories have engaging characters, and in your premise, you must identify and describe your protagonist, your central character, in just two words. Here’s the formula:

An adjective + a noun

What does that look like practically? Here are some examples of central characters from actual stories:

  • young girl = Dorothy Gale
  • rebellious survivalist = Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games
  • maverick vampire = Edward Cullen from Twilight
  • FedEx executive = Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away

Remember, you’re not giving away the entire character arc here. Instead just focus on two words that capture the heard of the central character.

“ A good premise describes the protagonist in two words. Ideally, these words will also suggest why they are ironic for their situation.

What if I have more that one main character?

If you have more than one main character, as is often true for love stories, for example, you can either describe both in two words or describe them as a couple, e.g. “star-crossed lovers” in Romeo and Juliet.

If you have more than two protagonists, you must either describe them as a group/team (e.g. “a team of teenage mutant turtles” or as perhaps even the realm or world itself (e.g. “the kingdom of Westeros”).

However, be careful about this as it can make the writing much more difficult. Keep in mind, George R.R. Martin has been working on A Song of Ice and Fire for more than twenty years and it still isn’t finished.

2. A Goal

Next you need to identify what the protagonists goal is. What do they want?

For example, Dorothy’s goal is to return home after getting swept away by a tornado. Katniss’ goal is to save her sister from the Hunger Games. Tom Hanks’ goal is to get off the deserted island.

What is your characters goal?

Note that their goal may change throughout the story, but you usually want to identify in the premise is  the one they have right after the inciting incident. (Not sure what that is? Check out our inciting incident guide here.)

3. A Situation or Crisis

Next, identify the situation, crisis, antagonist, or core conflict in the story.

Here you usually focus on one of two major story elements: the inciting incident or the climax of the story. If you’re not sure what the core structure elements of your story are, check out our guide on plot structure here.

Examples of this element from popular stories include:

  • A volcano erupts in Los Angeles (Volcano)
  • Swept away to a magical land by a tornado and must embark on a quest (Oz)
  • contest in which children must fight to the death (Hunger Games)
  • a hunter-vampire stalks Bella leading the entire Cullen family to defend her (Twilight)

Have more examples? Leave them in the comments and we’ll add them to the list!

Note: It’s ok to give spoilers!

4. The Special Sauce

Agents and editors at publishing houses receive thousands of pitches for books. Screenwriting agents and producers receive thousands of pitches and screenplays.

When I’ve asked them why the choose the books or screenplays to publish or produce, they inevitably say something like this:

There’s just something about the story. Something special that set it apart.

For the most part, I find this to be an unhelpful answer. However, after reading thousands of stories by professional and amateur writers myself, even judging more than a dozen writing contests, I sort of get it.

Winning, bestselling, blockbuster stories always are well written, highly crafted. But that’s not all that sets them apart. There’s also just something unique about them.

That thing might be a different way of looking at the world, a unique character voice, an interesting take on current events, a distinctive style, or some other aspect that sets it apart from the pack.

How do you figure out your special sauce?

I have no idea (apart from practice, which as you can probably imagine, I’m a huge fan of). However, the one thing I can say is the answer is not to add more complications. Great stories, and great premises, are simple!

“ A good premise contains a special sauce element—something that makes it unique. Writers don’t figure out their special sauce by complicating the idea, but presenting a new perspective on a simple one.

Now that we’ve covered how to write the premise of a story, let’s talk about how to write a premise for everyday life!

Premise for Memoirs: 4 Steps to a Bestselling Memoir Idea

As someone who has written a memoir, I tell all my memoir students that writing a book about your life is one of the hardest challenges you can take on as a writer.

You think it’s going to be easy. It’s your life after all.

The problem is that because you know what happened, simplifying it becomes almost impossible.

This is why premises are especially important for memoir writers. Let’s look at how to write them in four steps:

1. A Core Problem or Situation

Good memoirs are about one problem you faced in your life, one situation, event, season, or even day.

This is the biggest challenge, because how do you narrow your life experience down to a single problem or situation?

And yet, a book about your entire life story, from birth to the present, is much less interesting than it sounds.

Find the problem you were facing in your life, ideally a problem many others are experiencing even now, and focus your storytelling on that.

2. A Character (Likely You)

As with the novel premise, memoirs focus on a character, described in third person with two words:

An adjective + a noun

For example, in my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris, it was a “cautious writer.”

Do the same.

3. A Lesson Learned

Unlike novels, memoirs must convey some kind of life lesson. Some memoirs are completely focused on this, are more how-to/self-help books than narrative driven. Others focus primarily on the story, letting the lesson peak out only occasionally.

Nearly all memoirs, even the celebrity tell-alls, are about some kind of life lesson.

4. The Special Sauce

Anyone can write a memoir. What makes the published, bestselling memoirs is something different, something special. It’s hard to articulate, but usually for memoir they have something of the following:

  • Celebrity.” Bookstores are full of celebrity memoirs, from Michelle Obama to Justin Bieber to Will Smith. One editor, after she passed on my book, asked me why it couldn’t be more like Hilarie Ros Burton’s memoir, the actress from One Tree Hill. “Hmm,” I thought, “I can’t think of a reason.” Celebrities can also include social media stardom or being well-known in a small, but specific niche. However, most of us are not celebrities. So what other options do we have to make our memoirs special?
  • Authority. Are you an expert in your professional field? Are you a well-regarded expert in some niche? (Or do you want to be seen as one?) Writing a memoir, especially a more how-to, self-help driven memoir, can be a great way to both build and profit off of your authority.
  • A Unique Experience or Perspective. My friend Marion Roach Smith wrote an NY Times bestselling memoir based on the experience of her mother receiving one of the first Alzheimer’s diagnoses, a disease which was fairly unknown at the time. Have you experienced something no one else has? That might be your special sauce.
  • A Unique Voice or Style. Some voices are so unique, so impactful that they capture attention. It’s hard to say why. I think about Ernest Hemingway’s mentor, Gertrude Stein, who wrote one of the most famous memoirs of the early 20th century, or One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp (or for that matter, the memoirs of Annie Dillard—my favorite—and Anne Lamott, since we’re talking about variations of A names). If people say, “There’s just something about your writing style that I love,” then maybe this can be your special sauce.
  • Something else.Yes, I know this is vague and unhelpful. The problem is that no one can truly explain why some book ideas stand out and others don’t.

Don’t have any of these things? That’s ok! You can still write your memoir. You just might find that agents and editors aren’t very interested in it. As someone who’s memoir was rejected by dozens of publishers, many of whom commented on the strength of the writing and story, I will say your story is still worth writing!

The best thing you can do is your best, treat the writing like practice, and learn from it as much as you can so that you’re more prepared to write you next book.

Last, let’s talk about how to write a compelling argument for a nonfiction book, essay, or article.

Premise for Nonfiction Writers

For nonfiction writers, your premise is a two- to three-sentence summary of the main argument or narrative of the book. Here’s what Michael Hyatt says in his guide Writing a Winning Non-Fiction Book Proposal:

The premise is a two- or three-sentence statement of the book’s basic concept or thesis. Usually, it identifies the need and then proposes a solution.

Since this is the first part of every book proposal, it’s important to get it right. For example, for the last month I’ve been working and re-working mine for a book that I’m ghostwriting, trying to cast the right vision for our future book.

A compelling premise for a nonfiction piece must contain four things:

1. A Felt Problem or Situation

Great nonfiction books are about problems. You think they’re about solutions, but until you identify the problem that your reader’s are experiencing and demonstrate that you understand it, no one will trust you with their time and attention.

Furthermore, this problem must be felt by the reader. You might think that people have a problem with being too busy, for example, and that your book about saying no is perfect for them. But unless you describe the problem in terms people are actually experiencing, they won’t stay long enough to hear the solution to their “problem.”

2. A Person or Group with Authority

Who discovered the solution to the problem? You or someone else?

Once you identify the problem, briefly describe in a few words the person or group providing the solution.

This might be you the author, a case study, a profile, or the subject of the book.

3. A Solution or Method that Works

What is your unique method that you will demonstrate in this book to solve the problem?

Describe it in a few words.

4. Special Sauce

Finally, as with memoirs and novels, there must be something special, something unique that will set your book apart. Usually this will be one of the following:

  • Authority. Are you a leader in your field? Are you a well-regarded expert in some niche? (Or do you want to become one?) Writing a non-fiction book can be a great way to both build and profit off of your authority.
  • Unique Experience. Have you experienced something no one else has that you now want to share with others?
  • Proven Solution. Can you demonstrate real results with your solution to people’s felt problem?
  • A Large Audience. Do you already have a large following, whether through an email list, social media, or other following?

Don’t have any of these things? That’s ok! A book can be a great way to build up your authority and audience. However, you may have to pursue self-publishing.

Now, the Most Important Step: Test Your Premise to See If It’s GOOD

Writing your premise is just the first step. Next you have to test it to see if it’s interesting.

How do you test it? I learned this from Blake Snyder, the late screenwriter and author of Save the Cat.

Here’s what you do: you share it with people. You share it with your family and friends. You share it with co-workers and random strangers at your local coffee shop.

You ask them, “Hey, what do you think? Would you read this book?”

And if enough people say yes, then you might be ready to start writing. If enough people say no, on the other hand, then you might need to re-work your premise.

There are two objections I hear when I ask people to do this, though:

1. What if someone steals my premise?

What if people steal my idea? What if someone takes my idea and writes a book with it and becomes a famous bestselling writer, and I’m left out.

Honestly, this isn’t something you should be worried about, and here’s why. Because if two people started with the exact same idea, what would happen is they would write completely different books!

Don’t worry about people stealing your idea. Worry about your ideas not getting the feedback they need to get better. Worry about your ideas not getting written in the first place.

2. What if people hate my premise?

If that happens to you, I just want to say I’m sorry, but also that it’s a really good thing, it’s a good thing you found out now before you started writing a book, than after you finished.

Writing a book takes a really long time, hundreds even thousands of hours. It’s great to know if your idea isn’t working BEFORE you start writing rather than after.

However, there’s also a chance that they’re just wrong. As Jeff Lyons, author of Anatomy of a Premise Line says, “Try everything; listen to everyone. Follow no one. You are your own story guru!”

Examples of a Good Premise

Need more help on writing a strong premise? To practice writing a premise that will hook a reader, study how successful stories draft a premise. I like to look at IMDB or back covers for practice. You can see some examples I’ve pulled from these resources below (with some edits, if the name of the character is used post-production or publication instead of with a two-word description).


  1. A starving teenager voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games: a televised competition in which two teenagers from each of the twelve Districts of Panem are chosen at random to fight to the death. (The Hunger Games)
  2. After his son is captured in the Great Barrier Reef and taken to Sydney, a timid clownfish sets out on a journey to bring him home. (Finding Nemo)
  3. An ill-tempered, isolated retiree who spends his days enforcing block association rules and visiting his wife’s grave, has finally given up on life just as an unlikely friendship develops with his boisterous new neighbors. (A Man Called Ove)


  1. A chronicle of one woman’s one thousand one hundred mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent personal tragedy. (Wild)
  2. A married woman realizes how unhappy her marriage really is, and that her life needs to go in a different direction. After a painful divorce, she takes off on a round-the-world journey to “find herself”. (EatPrayLove)
  3. An idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question: What makes a life worth living? in a memoir that finds hope in beauty against insurmountable odds. (When Breath Becomes Air)


  1. The story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. (Hidden Figures)
  2. A revered journalist takes on an intellectual journey through the world of “outliers” — the best and the brightest, the most famous, and the most successful. He asks the question: What makes high-achievers different? (Outliers)
  3. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about publishing but were too afraid to ask in a funny, candid guide by one acclaimed author. (Before and After the Book Deal)

What Is Your Premise?

Do you want to write a book but aren’t sure where to start? Are you working on a book now and need some help refocusing?

Regardless of where you are in the process, it’s a good idea to spend some time writing a solid premise. You wouldn’t build a house without laying a strong foundation. In the same way, don’t start writing without writing a strong premise.

It might feel like an unnecessary step, but it will save you a lot of time in the long run. Give it a try! “Want to write a book but aren’t sure how to start? Try coming up with a one-sentence premise.

Have you written a premise before? Do you have one for your work in progress? Let me know in the comments.

By Joe Bunting


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4 Strategies to Help Writers Focus in a World of Distractions

By Colleen M. Story

If you want to reach your writing goals this year, you’ve got to get rid of one thing: distractions

They surround you at every turn, vying for your attention, and every time they succeed, they pull you away from what really matters—your writing.

This year, you don’t have to settle for less than what you want because of distractions. Try these four strategies to improve your focus and make your writing dreams come true.

1. Create a Focus-Inspiring Writing Space

It’s common to blame your lack of willpower when you allow distractions to disrupt your focus. But often the problem isn’t you—it’s the space you’re writing in. 

Take a second look at your writing nook. Does it inspire focus while you’re writing, or does it easily allow distractions? 

First, consider what’s nearby. If you’ve got your phone sitting on the desk, a television against the wall, or other people in the room, it’s going to be harder to focus. 

This year, create a writing space that does not allow distractions. No phones, televisions, radios, or other people are allowed.

This may not be easy to do, particularly if you have limited space in your home. But creating a focus-inspired writing space is critical if you want to get your writing done. Consider alternatives like a quiet space in the basement, your parked car, or even a rented office space. 

If you do have access to a private space in your home, spruce it up to be inspiring but not distracting. Make it a “phone-free” zone, so that you leave your phone out of it every time you walk into it. Then include pictures, knick-knacks, and colors that will help you sink into the dream world of your story and stay there until you’re ready to come out. 

2. Create a Focus-Inspiring Reading List

Here’s something interesting: In a 2016 study, researchers found that what students read in college directly affected the level of writing they achieved—even more than writing instruction and frequency.

What you read can affect not only how you write, but how motivated you are. If you’re serious about finishing or publishing your book this year, increase your focus by carefully choosing your reading material. 

First, read books in your genre. If you’re writing romance, read romance. Next, read books about writing. It will help increase your focus and your skills. Third, read books about building your platform and marketing your books. 

And finally, read books that will motivate you to achieve, whatever those books may be. Some people are motivated by biographies of famous writers, while others prefer how-to or self-help books. 

The goal is to feed your mind writing-related, inspiring information every day. By doing so, you’ll create a much more focus-oriented mindset toward your goals.

3. Spend Time With Others Who Will Help Increase Your Focus

Be honest with yourself—after you spend time with your friends and family, do you feel more or less inspired to go after your writing goals?

Do you charge to your writing table and pound out the next chapter, or do you plop down in front of the television to watch a boring sitcom? 

We all have people we enjoy spending time with who are likely to encourage distraction more than focus. But if this describes most people you spend time with, you could be hindering your writing progress. 

This is the year to make a change. Seek out a writing group in your area. If there isn’t one, consider starting one yourself. 

Then, find an editor or writing coach that will encourage you to focus on your writing. (Yes, it may cost money, but you’re worth the investment!) There’s nothing like an editor waiting on pages to inspire you to ignore distractions. If you’re not ready for an editor yet, partner with another writer who will be happy to read your material in exchange for you doing the same.

4. Create a Focus-Inspired Daily Environment

Here is where you can make the biggest impact on your writing dreams: your daily environment. 

If you aren’t finding it easy to maintain a writing practice, something has to change. That something needs to be your environment.

Not your willpower. Not your discipline. Your environment. 

You can have all the willpower in the world, but in the end, if your environment is not encouraging you to write, your goals will remain out of reach.

What you want to do is create the right conditions that will inspire you to write. Let’s look at one example. Jim has decided that he wants to write first thing every morning. To create an environment that will inspire him, he should: 

  • Set up his writing nook the night before. Clear off the desk so it looks inviting the next morning, and stick an inspiring quote to his laptop.
  • Schedule the coffee maker to make coffee (or tea!) 10 minutes before his writing time starts. Waking up to a pleasant aroma can encourage getting out of bed.
  • Set the alarm to wake him gradually to music or a brightening light. (A gentle awakening inspires hypnagogia, that state between awake and sleep when the brain is most creative.)
  • Place comfortable clothing by his bed that he can quickly slip into. 
  • Tuck his phone out of sight so he’s not tempted to check it until after his writing is done. Maybe hide the TV remote as well!
  • Set out his dishes (and cookware if needed) for a tasty breakfast he can enjoy once his writing time is finished. (This will provide a reward for sticking with his routine.)

You get the idea. The important thing is to make your environment work for you so that it’s as easy as possible to write when you want to. Make it nearly impossible to make another decision, and you’ll be more likely to follow through. 


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