Career Advancement

Everyone who has a job, whether young or old, dreams of getting ahead. We want to move up the ladder, taking on more and more responsibility, being recognized for our work ethic, and earning more money in return.

Your characters need to do the same.

Imagine that your protagonist is a teen working as a dishwasher in a local café. As she scrubs dishes, she dreams of being a waitress or a chef or simply being the one who plates the food, but she has dreams. Now imagine how she’ll react when the boss gives her that desired raise!

Let’s say your character is a newly hired accountant in a busy firm. She looks around her and sees that not all accountants are equal. Some handle the tiny accountants that she does, while others manage the details for multimillion dollar firms. She’s got the credentials to do the job, but not the experience. How does she make herself more valuable? What does she do so the boss recognizes her skills?

Your task is to create a character that’s hired to do an entry-level job. It might not be glamorous, but it’s a foot in the door to greater things.

Think about how he feels before the interview, during the interview and after he is hired. Make a list of different words you can use to describe those emotions.

Put your character to work. Write about the day-to-day tedium of working the same job. What does your character do to make her life more interesting? How does she make herself stand out from others? Write about this.

What dreams does he have for advancement and how does he go about stepping forward? Does he simply approach the boss and plead his case? Does he work extra hard, often with a flourish, keeping his eyes ever alert?

What happens when she does talk with the boss? Does the boss initiate the conversation or does she? What words of encouragement are said? How does she respond?

Your task is to write this scene.

Have fun with this one.


Crafting a Good Query Letter


You’ve finished your first novel. Like every author, you’d love to see it published. But how do you go about getting an agent?

I wish I had all the answers!  I’ve been writing query letters for almost two years now. I’ve sent out over one hundred. So far I’ve managed to attract the interest of three agents, all of whom asked to read my manuscript. All have turned me down.

I also worked with an Author Coach and a published author to refine my query.

I’m offering what advice I have garnered.

Go to an agency’s website and browse through the list of agents. Read the bios and see what types of books each agent represents. Choose only those that are in your genre. Write down the name, carefully checking spelling, and follow all submission guidelines.

Address your query to the agent that best fits what you write. Begin your letter with a connection to that agent. For example: I was happy to see that you represent sci-fi work.

If your work is similar to something that has been published, reference that work, but make sure to emphasize what makes your piece different. For example: The Lost Martian is similar to Weir’s The Martian, in terms of location, but my protagonist is the last of her people.

This is your hook. You only get about three sentences to entice the agent with your opening, so be sparse with your words.

Your second paragraph is your opportunity to introduce your book. Make it as interesting as possible, but stay away from openings like “What if…” “Imagine…” and “Waking from a dream…” Think about what makes your story interesting and unique. Tell us something about the main character that makes us care about that individual and that would inspire us to read on. Give the agent enough details about key events that the agent begins to see the story arc, but don’t give away the ending. Save that for the synopsis.

Once you’ve got a solid paragraph, read what it out loud. Make sure all verbs are active, past tense. Even if your book is written in present tense, pitch it in past. If you belong to a writing group, share it and ask for ideas to make it better.

Your last paragraph is a short opportunity to explain why you are the most qualified to write your book. If you’ve had pieces published in something other than a local newsletter in which all submissions are included, then mention that. If this is a fiction piece and the only things you’ve had published were nonfiction, mention that.

Don’t say that you have no publishing credits. Don’t mention that you’ve entered contests unless you’ve won and don’t say that you’ve sent in pieces but haven’t had a thing accepted.

If you have a MFA or are working on one, mention that. If you have a degree in English or Creative Writing or Journalism, well, some sources say to mention it while others say not to.

Throughout, keep the tone professional. No joking around or trying to be silly.

Don’t say how long it took you to write it or that it’s your first book. Don’t mention that it’s been edited by your writing group or even by a paid professional. Don’t bring up screen rights of that you’ve received rejections. Don’t mention how much your family and friends loved it.

Don’t follow up with a phone call, but if you do get a nice rejection letter, be sure to respond with a polite thank you.

I hope this is somewhat helpful! I’ve rewritten my query letter many times. Whenever a professional offers suggestions, I consider them, and then find a way to incorporate them while keeping my tone intact.

Your task is to take a piece you’ve written, even if it is unfinished or a short story. Write a query letter that could be sent to an agent.

Have fun with this one.


How to Write a Synopsis

I am not proclaiming myself an expert, but rather sharing information which I’ve gleaned from meetings with agents.  I hope you find this useful.

  1. Keep no secrets: A synopsis is supposed to reveal everything, including the ending. Tell the agent what happens without trying to confuse or surprise. The basic purpose of a synopsis is to show your story’s narrative arc, which includes the rising action as well as a logical, satisfying ending.
  2. Format: One-page, single-spaced, Times New Roman, 1inch borders.
  3. Be clear on major points: Agents want to see that there is a beginning, middle and end. They also want to discover something unusual in your story, something perhaps that they’ve never seen before. Highlight those plot points in your synopsis.
  4. Don’t write in your character’s voice. A synopsis can be dry because it has to explain everything that happens in a small space. Strive for clarity. Parse your words. Don’t add guidance, such as “in the next scene,” “at the climax of the story” or “in a dream/flashback/flash-forward”.
  5. Whenever a new character is introduced capitalize the entire name and then use normal text from then on. Avoid naming too many characters: stick to those that are most crucial to the story.
  6. Use third-person, present tense: Even if your story is in first-person POV, the synopsis should be in third. Even if your story is in present tense, the synopsis should be in past.

I hope this will help!

Your task is to choose one of your longer stories and to write a short synopsis. It helps to practice and practice and practice some more!

Once you’ve written it, ask someone who is not familiar with your story to read it. From your paragraphs, does your reader know what happened in the story, from beginning to middle to end? If so, Yippee!  If not, rewrite.

Have fun with this one.

Secondary Characters


Before the story begins, not only does our protagonist know what she wants, has known what she wants and has struggled with getting what she wants, but her friends and family have also struggled with their desires.

The overlap is what concerns the reader. Secondary characters are not just in the story in order to allow for dialogue, but to impact what happens to the protagonist, in both positive and negative ways.

Consider the so-called best friend who feeds the protagonist gossip about the boyfriend that causes a breakup so that now the friend can date the boy. The friend has an agenda that negatively impacts the protagonist, causing pain and anguish and forcing her to do something that she didn’t want to do. Now it may turn out that the breakup was a positive step, especially if the boyfriend is hyper-controlling or abusive, but in the immediate, the pain of separation is real.

Your task is to think of secondary characters that could populate your story. Make a list of who these people could be and their relationship to the protagonist. For example, a young person might be influenced by a teacher, an adult by a boss, a sick person by a nurse and a contractor by an engineer.

Make another list of issues that each secondary character brings to the story. For example, the teacher might be emotionally drained due to the illness of her husband, the boss might be up for a promotion if a project is well-received, the nurse might be struggling with paying the rent and the engineer might have lost important designs. The more issues you come up with, the better your options become.

From both of your lists, choose one character and one overriding issue. Your next step is to list ways in which this issue will affect your protagonist.

Your background work is now done. When you write interactions between your protagonist and your secondary character, do not fill space with the issues. Instead, consider the feelings of the secondary character facing the issue, and how those feelings affect the ways in which that character talks to your protagonist.

Write a scene rich with dialogue. The protagonist wants something because all protagonists must want something or there is no story. She meets her friend. They talk. The protagonist is hoping to hear words of reassurance or advice, but the secondary character is consumed by her own desires.

Imagine how fulfilling the conversation will be and what each character gets out of talking to the other.

This will not be an easy task.

Have fun with this one.

A Special Object

Think back throughout your life until you discover an object that evokes a strong sensory experience. It could be your grandmother’s apple pie, climbing a backyard tree whose bark often scratched your skin, of hearing the sound of mourning doves and thinking of a baby crying.

For me, it would be my mother’s apple dumplings. She only made them once a year, which made them all the more special. She’d sit at the table to peel and core the apples. Often my siblings and I would hover, waiting until she began slicing, hoping that she’d give us at least one. Why was that slice so special? I never understood. I think it was the simple fact that my mother did it for me.

Make a list of at least three such images. Under each record the sensory memories invoked. Try to cover all the senses, even that of time.

Your task is to then write a story, either real or make-believe, that includes that trigger. Your character has to react in a logical way. If the trigger causes fear, then write it. Joy? Show us. Longing? Let us feel the desire building to a crescendo.

When you are finished, reread or allow someone else to read it. Allow yourself to fall into that moment of time. Do your words capture the feeling? If not, then make changes.

Have fun with this one.


The Stupidest Thing

Things happen.

Zippers get caught. Drinks get spilled. The dog steals the turkey. Kids fall and break bones.

The potential for disaster surrounds us. Every step is an accident waiting to happen. Whenever we slice open an envelope or handle a piece of paper, a cut is possible. We can fall whether going up or down stairs. Step in doo-doo in our own backyard or when walking down the street.

It happens to all of us, often when doing the stupidest things.

Your characters must have the opportunity to have accidents in order to be more human.

One thing we tend to forget as writers is that comic episodes relieve tension and allow for a temporary remove from danger. As long as the comedic event doesn’t completely derail the story, readers find them refreshing.

This is your task: Think of a character whose story you are working on. Make a list of accidents that could logically happen. Try to get at least ten things on your list.

Walk away for a bit to allow these ideas to bounce around in your mind. When one of them speaks to you, then jot down, in bullet form, how you see the event playing out. Think of setting, trigger, timing, and outcome.

Also think about how it will work in your story. Will it happen in the beginning, middle or end? If in the beginning, then it sets the tone for the entire piece. Is that what you want for your story? If so, then great. If not, then bury the scene further into the action.

There is a similar problem if the event ends the story. While an upbeat ending might be what you’ve been looking for, if it doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story, then your readers will be dissatisfied.

Your task is to either write an original story or to rework a familiar one. Add in an event that relaxes the tension just a bit. Don’t make it too long. Just enough to change the pace.

Have fun with this one.

Family Drama

Family stories are easy to write, whether there is love or hate driving  the relationships.

Think of someone that you care deeply about. What stories could you tell about that relationship? Choose one instance that is more than just giving hugs, something with some depth to it. Using bullet points, create a list of things that happened, things that were said, things that were done, how people felt and reacted. When you are finished, walk away.

After an hour, come back to your list. Using what you’ve got, could you turn the incident into a compelling story? If not, what could you tweak in order to make it more interesting?

Your next task is to choose a relationship that it testy. Pick one that is long-standing, as that will give you more meat with which to work. As before, use bullet points to create your list, the longer, the better. Focus on the triggers, those defining elements that caused an uproar, the juicier the element, the more tantalizing the story will become.

Walk away, as before. When you return and look at your lists, which lead to the more complex story? Which story would be more compelling to a reader?

Your task is to take a character from one of your stories and create lists for that individual. Make sure that you’ve got both positive and negative relationships.

Reread a scene that you’ve written that maybe isn’t working as well as you’d like. Think about your lists. What could you insert into the scene that would add intrigue and depth?

Rewrite adding in just one element.

When you reread this time, has the story been improved? Did the character’s actions and reactions make sense? If not, then edit! Keep working at it until you’ve got the story that holds interest and adds information about your character.

Have fun with this one.