Plagiarism in poetry is nothing new; it’s happened before. Those who are in-the-know on poetry news most likely have heard about the latest high-profile case of plagiarism in poetry. The poem “Gun Metal,” which was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize, and many other poems written by Ailey O’Toole have been found to plagiarize at least 11 other poets.
Cover for Grief and What Comes After by Ailey O’Toole
The news broke when a former colleague of the poet Rachel McKibbons found that “Gun Metal” too closely resembled McKibbon’s poem “three strikes” from her 2017 book blud. Rhythm and Bones Press cancelled the release of O’Toole’s upcoming chapbook Grief and What Comes After once the plagiarism accusations were brought to their attention. Online literary journals that have previously published poems by O’Toole have taken them down.
“We are hurt, we feel the pain & anger of those who have had work stolen,” the trauma-focused independent press said in a statement.
After the plagiarism accusations, McKibbons was granted access to the unpublished manuscript of Grief and What Comes After. She found that other poems in the manuscript plagiarize her work. At the time of writing this article, 10 other poets have found lines they wrote in “Gun Metal” and other poems by O’Toole, including: Christina Stoddard, Wanda Deglane, Amber Tamblyn, Hieu Minh Nguyen and Brenna Twohy.
Many of those whose lines were plagiarized by O’Toole are understandably hurt, especially because many of their lines describe trauma they endured. After having gone through harrowing experiences, how could O’Toole use their lines, and therefore their trauma, as a mask?
This isn’t to say that it’s not OK to be influenced by other writers and artists. In fact, it is arguably impossible to start writing verses of your own and know what good writing looks like without reading the work of others. Here are six tips on how to be influenced by and borrow from other writers without plagiarizing.
1. Don’t make any attempt to pass off others’ work as your own.
This tip is a bit of a no-brainer. You WILL get caught attempting to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Search engines and other online tools that check for plagiarism make sure of this. Not to mention, a lie like this can ruin your reputation in the literary world. Editors who find out your work is plagiarized will not want to work with you again, and they likely have friends that are also editors who they can warn about you too. Just don’t do it.
2. If you feel tempted to plagiarize, ask yourself whyyou feel so compelled to borrow in the first place.
Christina Stoddard (christinastoddard.com, whose final poem in her 2015 book Hive was plagiarized by O’Toole, says to ask yourself what borrowed lines are adding to your work that you wouldn’t be able to add otherwise. Why do you feel that you can’t find another way to say what needs to be said?
“Consider the possibility that your poem just isn’t fully formed yet. It might need a little more time in the oven,” she said. “Writing a poem is, as Stephen Dobyns put it, an attempt to put the best words in the best order. But what that means will be different from person to person. Find your best words and your best order, and you will always be writing in your own voice.”
Try using the words you feel compelled to borrow as an epigraph preceding the poem instead. This is an effective way to show that your work is in response to or inspired by certain words while showing where they came from (and avoiding plagiarism).
3. If you use inspiration from others, ensure that your work is original and transformative.
Many writers have heard the T.S. Eliot quote “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” from his 1920 essay collection The Sacred Wood. However, the second and perhaps lesser-known portion of this famous quote is “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
This portion of Eliot’s quote is also the rule of fair use. According to U.S. copyright law, the use of material that someone else owns the copyright to is permissible if the work is transformative. That is, any creative work that uses parts of another person’s work must be significantly different from the original. This is why parodies and novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are legal under copyright law.
In the case of O’Toole’s work, some lines were copied verbatim from other poets, some paraphrased lines from others and some were facsimiles of others’ lines with certain words replaced with synonyms. As this method of inspiration is not transformative, O’Toole’s is guilty of plagiarism.
Take the Tarfia Faizullah poem “Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh” from her 2014 book Seam as an example of transformative work. A note at the beginning states that the poem contains lines from Willa Cather’s Song of a Lark. Roman numerals indicate which lines these are. Under the lines from Cather, Faizullah adds her own original—and beautiful—thoughts that are inspired by Cather’s words. Reading Song of a Lark in Bangladesh and comparing it to this setting reimagines Cather’s words.
Taking inspiration from another writer still means that you need to do most of the work to create an original poem. Your influencer should serve as a call to action to incite your work rather than write most of it for you. Simply lifting from others is plagiarism; however, lifting and reshaping and adding your own words to the work of others is OK.
4. If borrowing lines, indicate which lines are borrowed and where they came from.
It’s common to find author’s notes at the end of a poetry collection, where they attribute lines that were borrowed from and inspired by others. It is fine to publish writing that has been influenced by others, as long as those that took part in the creation of the work are attributed.
Always indicate borrowed lines with an author’s note at the beginning or end of the poem. For a collection of poems, you can add this attribution to your author’s notes at the end as well. It is also preferable to indicate which lines are borrowed if they are not widely recognizable lines such as “T’was the night before Christmas.” You can offset these lines in your poem with italics, quotes or a statement in your author’s note.
For example, in her 2018 collection If They Come For Us, Fatimah Asghar states that her poem “A Starless Sky is a Joy Too” ends with a line from Nikki Giovanni in an epigraph at the beginning.
If borrowed words form the title of your work, indicate with an author’s note the source of your title.
Stoddard says that it is also wise to ask permission from original poet you intend to borrow from if they are still alive and honor their answer. “You cannot predict how they’ll feel about you using their work and your good intentions may not carry the day,” she says.
She adds that it’s also a good idea to be straightforward when submitting work to journal editors. “I’ve seen the idea floated around that when you submit a poem that invokes another work, you should offer to show the editors the original material you’re invoking,” she says. “Trying to behave ethically goes a long way.”
5. Ensure that poems modeled “after” another writer do not copy them.
Many poems in Ailey O’Toole’s manuscript state that they are “after” another poet. Yet these “after” poems paraphrase or plagiarize these poets. This is how to NOT write a poem after someone else.
When writing a poem after another writer’s work, create something that reacts to their work or emulates (but doesn’t copy) their style. You’re aiming to create something that can continue a conversation about their work and make the writer feel honored rather than cheated.
Take the Danez Smith poem “Litany With Blood All Over” from his 2017 book Don’t Call Us Dead, for example. At the end of the collection, Smith (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) states that this poem is after Richard Siken’s poem “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out.” As far as the content of the poems go, Smith’s poem doesn’t copy Siken’s poem in any way except that they are both litanies. Smith’s litany is unique to their own experience.
6. Try writing a cento, Golden Shovel or found poem to honor other voices.
Many poetic forms borrow from others, such as the cento, in which every line comes from another source. The title of a cento may also come from another source. As a result of the juxtaposition of the various lines and images, centos often create irony or humor. Had Ailey O’Toole titled her poem “Cento of Gun Metal” and tagged the list of people she borrowed from, her work would not be considered plagiarism.
A popular form of poetry that also uses words from other sources is the found poem. Words from anywhere can be used to create this collage of words—newspaper and magazine clippings, billboards, bathroom stall graffiti and more. The poet serves to curate these words and make sense of them together.
One type of found poem, the erasure, is created when a poet deletes words from a text in order to create something different and original. This is commonly done with a newspaper and a black marker to create “blackout poems.” When creating an erasure or blackout poem, remember to only retain half of the original text or less in order to avoid plagiarism.
As always, cite the original source of the words used. You may even use the name of the form in your poem’s title to indicate that you are using borrowed words, such as “Erasure of Wuthering Heights” or “Langston Hughes Golden Shovel.”
The bottom line is that you should always credit your sources and never try to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Your work should still remain original and respectful of those that you borrow from. When in doubt, simply choose the best voice there is: your own.
Using proper grammar, punctuation and mechanics make your writing correct. In order to truly write well, you must also master the art of form and composition. From sentence structure to polishing your prose, this workshop will enhance your writing – no matter what type of writing you do. Learn more and register.
Since its publication in 1843, Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol has become one of the most iconic holiday stories—perhaps even the most iconic—in Western literature. Not only has it been adapted countless times for the stage and screen, in reimaginings and retellings, but it is also credited with traditionalizing many of the Christmas celebrations we enjoy today.
Writers of all kinds have much to learn from this holiday classic. Discover the top four lessons you can apply to your craft, regardless of what genre, age group or form you’re writing for.
1. A rich and distinctive setting and tone can make your story more memorable and immersive.
As I mentioned before, Dickens’ story is largely credited with crafting our contemporary idea of a “traditional” Christmas celebration and the overall aesthetic associated with it. That is to say, A Christmas Carol quite literally inspired many of the celebratory traditions detailed in the book, transforming them from novelties to holiday staples, including many of the “traditional” seasonal dishes we enjoy, as well as the commonality of family gatherings, dancing, games, generosity, and the festive Christmas spirit.
Dickens managed this by leveraging a setting and tone that infectiously captured and more broadly popularized a revival of the Christmas holiday that was growing in Victorian English culture at the time.
For, the people who were shovelling away on the housetops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snowball—better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest—laughing heartily if it went right and not less heartily if it went wrong. The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence.
Apoplectic opulence. How’s that for a narrative helping of Christmas cheer?
Not only that, the setting is enhanced because it changes with Scrooge. Early in the tale, the streets are described as “Foggier yet, and colder. Piercing, searching, biting cold.” The bleakness even follows the bleak character: “Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern.” The setting is as forbidding as the protagonist. But by the end, both Scrooge and his surroundings have done a tonal 180 thanks to his night of forcible self-reflection:
“Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!”
Dickens was particularly skilled at setting distinctive scenes like this, but he’s far from the only author whose settings have a distinctive “flavor.” Recall how easy it is to picture the sights, smells and sounds at Hogwarts, for example, or in Rivendell, the West Egg, the Hundred-Acre Wood, or Sleepy Hollow.
While some readers prefer minimal descriptions, there’s no doubt that authors who spend the time spinning these distinctive tonal elements into their narrative—with more grandiosity like Dickens or more sparingly like Fitzgerald—are often fondly remembered for it. Elements like these also tend to do some of the legwork for those looking for easily-adaptable stories for screen and stage.
2. The Rule of Threes is a mighty useful storytelling device.
It’s in books, fables, jokes, slogans, ads, plays, movies, speeches, the Declaration of Independence. Three little pigs, three musketeers, three wise men, three acts, signing in triplicate, liberté, égalité, fraternité.
You know it, you love it—it’s the Rule of Threes.
Dickens’ three timely Christmas ghosts are among the most well-known uses of the Rule of Threes, and for good reason: Each one marks a different level of growth in old Ebenezer’s night of emotional transformation.
The ghosts illustrate the use of the Rule of Threes as a plot device. They aren’t just there to be three different characters: Their influence on Scrooge serves the story as a micro three-act structure in the macro three acts of the larger story, with the ghosts occupying the bulk of the novella as the second act. Each bring a different revelation as we build up to Scrooge’s revelation that his humbuggery will lead to everyone he knows celebrating his impending demise (not to mention the way-more-tragic demise of an adorable disabled kid) unless he embraces a major attitude adjustment.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you have to include three ghosts or characters or symbols in your story so blatantly. But there’s a lot you can do with threes in a story: Having your MC endure three trials can teach them a well-rounded lesson. Following a three-act structure, into which Joseph Campbell’s 17 steps of a hero’s journey neatly fit, can help you form your characters’ trajectory into a coherent beginning, middle and end that will satisfy your readers. Having two side characters to accompany your MC can help you create balance, suspense and richer perspective. The possibilities are endless.
3. “The intimacy of insight” helps when demonstrating character growth, and can make an unlikeable character more sympathetic.
Another benefit to the three-part journey is its suitability for unfolding believable character growth and change.
As you know, Ebenezer Scrooge is the protagonist of this story. He’s also a complete asshole—at least, at the beginning. And unlike many complicated antiheroes and sympathetic jerks from fiction, he’s not particularly likeable either. We all know, of course, that he decides to stop being a complete asshole at the end, and that the story is, at its core, about what leads him to that transformation. (Hint: It’s the charitable and familial spirit of Christmas.) “It’s the journey, not the destination,” and all that jazz.
Obviously this would not work if all we saw what the other characters in the story see: Ebenezer goes to sleep an asshole and wakes up not-an-asshole.
Therefore we need what David Corbett recently called “the intimacy of insight.” In his piece on writing antiheroes and unlikeable characters, Corbett explains that “we tend to judge less harshly characters who look at themselves and their behavior clearly, honestly and in-depth.” The intimacy of insight gives us the window-into-the-soul required to realize that Holden Caulfield and Dexter Morgan are more than a whiny little shit and a serial killer.
Scrooge seems impervious to empathy and incapable of self-reflection at the beginning of the story. So instead of initiating a transformative journey himself, he must be whisked away on a dreamy adventure in which self-reflection is hammered into his thick skull by magical Christmas ghosts.
And we, the readers, must see this played out. Because we’re granted the “intimacy of insight”—that is, we’re able to see Scrooge gradually learn why being a gigantic jerk to his impoverished employee with a disabled kid is bad, and why he would probably have a way better time if he embraced the generosity and celebration of the holiday season—his transformation is believable despite being fantastical.
4. Don’t be afraid to bend and blend genres if it serves your story.
A Christmas Carol is as much a ghost story as it is a Christmas story. In fact, its full title is titled A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. And the first words in the novel are “Marley was dead, to begin with.” (Heck of a way to start a cheery holiday tale, eh?) It also fits the bill of a fable, a deconstructed hero’s journey, an example of magical realism, and even a story of time travel, so to speak.
Dickens isn’t generally known as a writer of the fantastic or magical. I wrote my undergrad thesis on his work, which required me to read the vast majority of his novels, and I would categorize his most common story line as “Victorian orphan experiences a lot of dismal but oddly funny things and ends up mostly OK at the end.” Not much magic to be had there beyond the magic of his inventive prose. Occasionally another ghost will crop up, but they’re usually far more mundane.
But for a story about the power of the holiday spirit, Dickens busted out the fairy dust and jolly giants and grim reapers, embracing the fantastic to create the Ghosts of Christmas Verb Tenses and their time-traveling hijinks.
Sure, you could argue that much of that is in Scrooge’s dream-addled psyche, but this technique wouldn’t make sense in a more realistic story like Oliver Twist or Bleak House. For A Christmas Carol, it works. Dickens could have simply had Scrooge fall asleep and dream of his past, present and future without the help of his colorful trio of spirits—but it’s their presence and characterization that makes the story one of the most memorable holiday tales ever told.
Many authors fear that venturing too far beyond the conventions of a given genre can make a book difficult to sell—and that’s not entirely inaccurate. But if the historical fiction story you’re telling is better served by tossing in some sci-fi, go for it! After all, that’s how we ended up with the steampunk genre. Many authors have found great success from this technique, in fact: Douglas Adams mashes up comedy and sci-fi; Diana Gabaldon frames her historical romance with fantasy; Stephen King stitches suspense into all sorts of genres.
If you haven’t read or watched or listened to some variation of A Christmas Carol this year I highly recommend it. But this time, as you’re enjoying it, watch out for more writing lessons tucked within this classic tale—there’s far more to be learned than what I’ve laid out here.
Sometimes finishing a story is the most unsatisfying part of writing. No matter how hard you work on it, you may still feel something is missing. William Kenower discusses this dissatisfaction, the quest for perfection, and the importance of relinquishing your story to your readers.
I was seventeen, and I needed something new. I had just fallen in love for the first time, life’s horizon seemed a little brighter to me, and I was tired of all the heavy, self-pitying music I’d been listening to. I headed down to the used record store in Providence thinking I’d pick up a copy of The Court of the Crimson King by the band King Crimson. I’d seen the album once: it was brightly colored and vaguely psychedelic. Holding that image in my mind, I wandered into the store, began thumbing through albums, and plucked out what looked like the very thing I’d been searching for.
Apparently, I didn’t bother to read the title of the album or the artist because as soon as I got home and pulled it out of its brown bag, I discovered I had not bought The Court of the Crimson, but had in fact selected The Rise of Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars by David Bowie. It was as if I had hallucinated. Well, it’s different, I reasoned, and decided to give it a listen.
The first song on Ziggy Stardust is called “Five Years,” which is about how the world will soon be coming to an end. It’s apocalyptic, but the song’s narrator finds himself reflecting on all the different kinds of people in the world and how he, “never thought (he’d) need so many people.” I don’t know what Bowie intended when he wrote the song, but what I heard there in my living room, leaning into the speakers, enjoying Bowie’s theatrical voice and emphatic piano – what I heard was love; and not just for one girl, but for everyone. As soon as I heard this I found myself saying aloud to no one, “Thank you! Thank you!”
About thirty years later I was standing at the back of a crowded auditorium. It was the first night of a literary festival in Vashon, WA, and I was to give a short speech as a part of a pre-festival cabaret. I was extremely nervous. Though I had acted as a young man, I had never stood before a crowd of strangers as myself and told inspirational stories. My worry was so palpable that a woman standing beside me leaned over, laid her hand on my elbow, and said, “I’m sure you’re going to do fine.”
My name was called, I scurried through the crowd to the podium, and delivered this talk. Once I got going, once I got a few laughs, and once it became clear that no one was going to boo or march out, I enjoyed myself. There is something mysteriously electric about the performer-audience relationship. You feel the collective energy of all those people sitting in the darkness and it takes you somewhere you couldn’t have planned. The whole thing is alive and unique and then in the next moment they’re clapping and it’s over. You make your way back through the theater as if in a dream, still riding the energy you found on stage, and there’s the woman who had told you you’d do fine, and as soon as she sees you she says, “You wrote that for me, didn’t you?”
Sometimes finishing a story is the most unsatisfying part of writing. No matter how hard I worked on it, no matter how much I discovered, no matter how certain I am that it ended where it needed to end, I still feel something missing. When the idea for the story came to me there was a wholeness to it, a perfection even, that seemed to somehow have gotten lost in the translation to page. It happens often enough that I’ve had to make peace with this feeling, lest I ruin the story with unnecessary rewriting.
This experience is a consequence of being a reader as well as a writer. Listening to “Five Years” was not the only time a work of art has found its way to me at the perfect moment, answering some question I didn’t realize I had been asking. I always sense something holey when this happens, as if the poem or song or story was delivered by divine intervention to me—just to me—when I needed it most. That feeling doesn’t always last—I didn’t thank David Bowie every time I listened to Ziggy Stardust—but I don’t care. The discovery has been made, the question answered, and that’s enough.
What I feel I am missing at the end of my stories is the reader. Writers start stories, but readers really finish them. All those details we must leave out, all the fertile open space the details we leave in define, belongs to the reader. They will use their own imagination to add color and sound that I did not, and they will use their own longing to find in my stories what they need. When they find it, when the right story makes it way to the right reader, a circle is completed. Neither artist nor audience can see the whole circle, but we each feel its totality.
If you ever sense that nagging incompleteness at the end of your stories, remember that you are not just a writer, you are also an author. You write to share your work with other people, particularly strangers you’ll never meet. Remember that the final step, after you type The End, is to mentally give that story away, to fling it out your window like a homing pigeon, trusting it will know where to go, will know the perfect shoulders to land on, guided in its journey by the same light that brought the story to you.
For today’s prompt, write a set poem. Collectors often try to complete the set, though some break up the set. Some people set the record straight. Some things need to set (like glue or paint). I hope you’re ready to set the world on fire with your poems. Ready, set, go.
Build an Audience for Your Poetry!
Learn how to find more readers for your poetry with the Build an Audience for Your Poetry tutorial! In this 60-minute tutorial, poets will learn how to connect with more readers online, in person, and via publication.
Poets will learn the basic definition of a platform (and why it’s important), tools for cultivating a readership, how to define goals and set priorities, how to find readers without distracting from your writing, and more!
Very recently, it’s come to the WD team’s attention that there is a potential vulnerability in writer websites that use WordPress. Since our team has a few writers with personal websites, we checked out our WordPress-hosted websites. Half of us were okay; half of us were vulnerable.
But don’t worry!
There’s an easy way to check if your writer website is at risk. And there’s an easy fix if you find your site is vulnerable.
Write Effective Online Content
Whether using computers or phones, there are more people consuming online content than ever before. How to Write Online Content teaches writers how to write more effective online articles of all types. This includes news, feature articles, opinion articles, alternative story forms (listicles, charticles, Q&As), blog postings, and more!
There are likely others that work as well. But we wanted to get the word out as soon as possible to protect other writer websites.
Even if your site is safe, please be sure to spread the word to any friends and family who may have WordPress websites.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community, specifically working on the Market Books, WritersMarket.com, and maintaining the Poetic Asides blog. Thankfully, his WordPress site was already protected. Follow him on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer.
While this writing prompt is a great idea-generator for any age group, it’s adapted from the exercises in the online courses Writing the Picture Book and Writing the Middle Grade Book as a strategy for coming up with concepts and stories for children and middle grade readers.
Writing Prompt: Reminiscence
Choose an incident from your childhood that has made a lasting impression on your life: perhaps a memorable incident with your best friend or your confused feelings on the fi rst day in a new school. Write a scene or story based on this incident. Do not write the story as you remember it, however. Rather, recreate the story for fiction—changing the looks, gender, personality and circumstances of the people involved.
Post your response in the comments in 500 words or fewer.
November was a lot of fun! I wrote more than 30 poems. And I’ve already received a few chapbook submissions. To make it easier to catch up and/or just write poems, here are the 30 poetry prompts collected in one spot.
Each day gives a hint at what the prompt covers. Just click on the link if you need more details or would like to read a few example poems.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market, in addition to writing a free weekly WritersMarket.com newsletter and a poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine. He is always glad to have one more poem to write. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.
As fans eagerly await Season 3 of Netflix hit series Stranger Things, author Scott Hildreth offers three storytelling lessons and editing goals writers can glean from the show.
Sunday night at about 11:45 p.m., I turned off the TV. My wife was stacking dishes, cups and a popcorn bowl into the dishwasher. “I think this is what the kids call binge watching.”
We had spent the better part of two weekends watching the Netflix show Stranger Things. It was a fantastic experience.
We aren’t in our 20s any longer, so we struggled to stay up past midnight. We have jobs, so we couldn’t push through two seasons nonstop. However, we did manage sneak in a couple of episodes throughout the week. Then, on Saturday, after we finished yard work, we parked on the couch and plowed through the rest of the seasons. We have talked about the characters and scenes. We have used funny quotes in conversation and have recommended the show to others.
As I thought about this experience, it hit me: This is the passion we want from those who read our stories. We want them to push past bedtime, snatch a chapter here or there, and fight sleep to finish. In today’s reading environment it is more important than ever to keep readers hooked on our stories.
Ebooks and E-readers are convenient, but they create problems for the author — hundreds of other stories are one simple click away. If our storytelling allows the reader’s mind to wander, she will choose another book, and we may never get her back. It is imperative that we keep readers as hooked into our stories as my wife and I were when we binge watched Stranger Things.
What was it about Stranger Things that kept us from searching out another show? Why were we willing to put things on hold until we finished the seasons? As I thought about this experience, from the perspective of both a writer and consumer, I came up with three ideas.
1. Design chapters with the purpose of keeping the reader hooked.
Stephen King says that the paragraph is the basic unit of writing, “the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.” (SK, On Writing, p.134). This is true for the writer; no need to argue with the King. But, for the reader, the chapter is the basic unit. Most readers think one chapter at a time; as we read, we focus on the chapter endings. I even have my kindle set to show how many minutes are left in the current chapter. Because of this, we need to build chapters with the reader in mind.
The producers of Stranger Things developed each episode as a chapter in the story. Each ended with a scene that left the viewer wanting more. “Wait, we can’t stop here. One more show.” If it was late, we would say, “Let’s just watch the first five minutes of the next show, so we will know what happens.” You know what happened next; the opening scene sucked us in. One of us would say, “We can’t quit here. Ok — we have for just one more show.” An hour later, we faced the same dilemma.
The episodes didn’t all end with cliff-hangers. The characters were not always facing mortal danger. To be honest, it would have been easier to turn those off. We are smart enough to guess that the heroes wouldn’t die.
Instead, each chapter ended with a shift in the storyline or lingering questions. Something peaked our curiosity. We did not keep watching because we cared about the characters. We had questions and we needed an answers; something gnawed at us and wouldn’t let us walk away from the story.
To keep readers committed to our stories, it is crucial that we build chapters with these goals in mind. We need to remember that each reader has dozens of options. The chapter break, end of one and start of the next, is the perfect place to set the hook.
1) Look at the last pages/scene of the chapter and ask, “What is on this page that will compel my reader to turn the page and begin the next chapter?”
2) Look at the opening page of the next chapter and ask, “What is in the opening scene that will push the reader to keep going?”
2. Keep the tension by maintaining both macro and micro conflicts.
The mortal sin of fiction writing is creating a peaceful world. As James Scott Bell says, we must push our hero through a “doorway of no return,” (JSB, Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure) that moment when he is unable to go back to normal life. The rest of the story is made up of his struggle against various obstacles to achieve a goal.
In Stranger Things, the heroes are searching for a lost friend and stumble into a situation that, if left unsolved, would destroy their town. This is their macro-objective — the big crisis that must addressed for the story to end. We need to know, will they make the rescue and save the town?
But, as I think about what keeps a reader, or viewer, pushing through the story for hours, it is usually more than a single macro-conflict. The successful story-teller creates hooks throughout the story by introducing micro-conflicts. The author of Stranger Things included conflicts between characters, sexual/romantic tension, lousy weather, internal doubt, and even unconnected “bad-guys.” These micro-conflicts kept the viewer worrying about how each would resolve and how they might affect the larger struggle. Sure, the overall problem pushed the characters ahead and this is what makes the story. However, readers have short attention spans and many of options. Sometimes the macro-conflict is too large to hold their attention. As we write, it could be helpful to include a string of micro-conflicts to keep the reader engaged and concerned.
As often as possible ask, “What micro-conflict can I drop-in, and carry across several chapters, to keep the reader hooked.” Look at relationships, character flaws, new characters, or even back-story issues.
3. Don’t resolve too soon — force the reader to wonder how things will work out.
As we got to the last episodes of Stranger Things, the macro-conflict seemed worse. The micro-conflicts continued to swirl, and some had crept into the main storyline. I remember saying, “How are they going to tie up all these loose ends?” When questions like this gnaw at the reader, there was no way she is going to stop reading.
We want our readers to ask similar questions as they near the end of the book. We want them looking at the page count, or the Kindle percentage, and asking, “How is she going to get out of this mess in the last 10% of the book.”
Of course, we want a satisfying ending, an honest conclusion. We don’t want to introduce deus ex machina, a hidden clue, or unknown character. But, short of these cheap endings, we want to hold the tension until the last possible moment. In many cases, the reader can anticipate the ultimate ending. Most know that the detective will solve the crime and that the zombies won’t eat the whole army of good guys. But we can keep them wondering by whom, how, or at what cost, will the resolution come.
Rather than imagining the story line like an airplane, strong take off and gradual landing. Stories that hook readers and force them to stay up late, are more like roller-coasters — click, click, click, and a sudden drop to the end.
Ask, “How am I maintaining tension? Can I legitimately push this resolution later without cheapening the story?”
While we are on the topic of story resolution, keep in mind that the real power of a show that people binge watch is the transitions between seasons. The story resolves, but we have achieved something special when we create a moment at the end of the book that signals there is more to come. This pushes readers back to their favorite bookstore, or website, to buy our next book.
We must remember that the reader has many options. The screen and the page are different mediums, but we can learn a lot about storytelling from film-makers and TV shows that people binge watch. We do well keep our readers wanting “just one more chapter…” This build loyalty and a readership that keeps us in business.
Learn more about the craft and business of writing in these upcoming online courses:
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Many writers know they should be on social media. And many others are already on social media but not exactly sure if they’re doing it right. So, here’s a post on how writers can use social media to find more success with their writing.
I’ve collected 10 tips on how writers can use social media. I know these work, because I used them myself. And I know many writers who’ve found success employing them. So let’s get started.
Tip 9 below explicitly tells you to avoid hard-selling your wares on social media. But it can be done effectively when it’s done right. Which is why Writer’s Digest created Advanced Social Media Skills for Selling Books, a conference session video download led by Kristen McLean, a social media and data analytics expert who does this sort of thing for a living.
Learn the techniques and strategies that get results without driving away your connections.
How Writers Can Use Social Media to Find More Success
Put your writing first. It’s easy to forget while in the throes of building your personal brand that the writing should always come first. If you feel at any time that social media is blocking your writing, pull back. Thousands of followers can’t buy the book you didn’t write. Always let the writing know it’s your first love.
Try every platform. Don’t jump on every social media platform on the same day. But get a profile on Facebook. Then, jump to Twitter. Link up with LinkedIn. Make a move on Instagram. And every so often, try a new platform. Some will appeal to you; others won’t. But the only way to know is to try them out.
Be public. If you can’t get over the obstacle of making your social media profile public, then it’s going to be very difficult to use social media to find more success for your writing. That doesn’t mean you can’t find writing success, but social media won’t be much of a help. When you make your profile public, more people can find you…and that’s really the goal of this post. Making your profile private encourages obscurity. That said, only share things on your public profile that you’re comfortable sharing.
Brand yourself. Every social media platform provides writers with ways to brand themselves. Think about your avatar image. Craft a snappy bio and/or tagline that shares who you are and what you care about. Some sites give you enough room for a catchy sentence, while others afford you the ability to write a paragraph (or three). Use your creativity to differentiate yourself from every other writer on social media…while remaining true to your brand and your goals.
Be consistently active. This might mean you post once a day…or multiple times a day…or a few times a week. The main thing to keep in mind is that you need to be active. Because inactive accounts look like abandoned accounts. Stalker accounts look like abandoned accounts too. And well, stalkers are kind of creepy, right?
Find and follow good content providers. One trick to being consistently active is to find great content providers. Most social media sites make it easy to share content. So find and follow people who align with your writing goals. Also, find and follow literary agents, as well as magazines, websites, and book publishers that align with your writing niche(s). Plus, writers who write in your genre(s) are great people to find and follow too, whether they’re established or not.
Share great content. You might’ve picked this up from reading tips five and six, but it never hurts to point out the obvious. The great thing about social media is that you don’t have to write everything. You can see a great post and share it with your followers. This is called curating, and it can help you gain new followers if you do it well. Speaking of which, be sure to add your own comment when you share content. This helps personalize the content through your lens and includes you in the conversation if your “share” or “retweet” is shared or retweeted in kind.
Share your writing. Of course, create your own posts. But also, share links to your published writing and upcoming events. And don’t be afraid to share some of your unpublished writing, whether you’re looking for feedback or to build enthusiasm for an upcoming book.
Avoid being a used car salesperson. Let’s do a quick empathy experiment regarding social media. Ask yourself these questions: Am I joining social media to buy a bunch of stuff from other members? Do I want all my new “connections” on social media to immediately pitch me on a book or “opportunity” to send them money? If you answered yes to these questions, then please buy my forthcoming book on Amazon. If you answered no to these questions, then back off the hard sales pitches when you’re on social media. My assumption is that 99.9% of the people on social media would answer no these questions. You should assume that too.
Engage with your connections. Social media is at its best when people engage each other. So if you see a great post on a topic, don’t be afraid to like that post and leave a comment. To take this a step further, craft posts that encourage feedback from your followers. This is an excellent way to build deeper connections.
One final tip: Tailor your approach to each platform. While your writer brand should stay consistent across social media sites, savvy social media users know that how you use Facebook is different than how you use Twitter. And that Instagram requires a completely different approach. It can be a fun challenge. But remember my first tip: Put your writing first.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community, specifically working on the Market Books, WritersMarket.com, and maintaining the Poetic Asides blog. He can be found on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other social media sites. And, of course, follow him on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer.
Each year we scour the web for our annual 101 Best Websites for Writers, a comprehensive collection of online resources for writers.
Year after year, we review dozens of reader nominations, revisit sites from past lists, consider staff favorites and search the far-flung corners of the web for new additions—aiming for a varied compilation that will prove an asset to any writer, of any genre, at any experience level.
This selection represents our 2018 picks for the top sources of literary agent advice, manuscript and query help, publishing tips and more. These resources will provide you with great tips, advice and the support from agents and publishing professionals, and direct you to agents who are seeking submissions.
Right now, we’re seeking nominations for the 101 Best Websites for Writers for our 2019 issue. We’re looking for: online writing communities, publishing resources, agent advice, writing craft gurus, games for word nerds, genre fiction resources, and anything else you’ve found helpful. Submit your recommendations in the comments below, or give us a shout on Twitter using the hashtag #WebsitesforWriters.
Verify an agent’s reputability by searching this database of hundreds of literary and dramatic agents, all of which have met the AAR experience requirements, and adhere to bylaws and a Canon of Ethics.
Agent Scott Eagan of Greyhaus Literary Agency provides far more than just babbles on his blog. Gain a deeper understanding of agent and publisher processes, plus writing advice and thoughts on the industry from the perspective of an insider with more than 14 years in the business.
From tips on networking to query quandaries and more, this blog, written by agents at BookEnds, off ers advice galore on turning your book into a business. Make sure to check out the most recent edition of the BookEnds Publishing Dictionary (bit.ly/pubdictionary) for defi nitions of need-to-know industry terms.
Ensure your manuscript is query-ready with the inside scoop from an agent’s perspective. With expert advice alongside general tips on craft and productivity, info gleaned from Holloway Literary Agency will help you prepare for publication.
Longtime literary agent Janet Reid (a.k.a. “The Query Shark”) of New Leaf Agency doles out candid advice to readers’ questions on pitching, querying and revising. Don’t miss her Query Letter Help section— which includes a query letter checklist, diagnostics and more—before sending out your book pitch.
This site is a must, whether you follow the #MSWL hashtag or not. Find a record of all #MSWL tweets, plus hundreds of agents and editors with detailed bios, query instructions, and searchable “What I’m Seeking” lists, along with a Manuscript Academy podcast (manuscriptacademy.com/ ourpodcast) for complementary audio advice.
At Pub Rants, veteran agent Kristen Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency shares “polite rants about queries, writers and the publishing industry.” Th ese so-called rants, which date back more than 10 years, demystify the conventions of the publishing world.
QueryManager provides agents with a hassle-free method of responding quickly to authors—so when your manuscript is out on submission, you don’t have to constantly refresh your inbox for the status of your query.
QueryTracker is a must for researching literary agents and publishers— and for keeping careful records of who and when you’ve queried. You’ll be in good company: More than 2,400 authors have found their agents using QueryTracker.
A staple on our list, the blog at Red Sofa Literary, and Th e Red Sofa Chats, off er a glimpse into the lives of editors, agents and others, with posts covering the intersections of life and publishing, as well as traditional craft topics and query advice.
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