Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Writing Personal Essays that Sell

One market that many writers often overlook is that of the personal essay, article, memoir piece, or story. Whether you are a novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright or nonfiction author, this is a market that should be considered. It may increase your reading audience. I have some suggestions for helping you write personal essays that will prove marketable.

When I taught creative writing, one of the course requirements for students was to keep a journal. I feel it’s an excellent source of inspiration as well as a resource for writers.

What exactly is a journal?  It’s a record, an entry-book, kept regularly, though maybe not everyday. These entries are dated and honest. We can use journals to describe things, increasing our powers of observation. For example, we can describe places: houses, sidewalks, backyards, streets, cities. Consider your journal as a travelogue. Describe people, interesting or unusual, the ordinary too.

Jot down snatches of conversation. Think of your journal as a treasure trove or jewel box in which to place gems (quotes, pithy ideas, epigrams, insights, puns, nutshell wisdom). Write a little; think a lot.

Consider your journal as a laboratory for experiment. View your journal as a new wardrobe. Try on different styles. See what suits you, what fits and what doesn't. Think of your journal as a psychoanalyst's couch or a confessional. Explore your depths, dreams, fantasies, truths, sins. Regard your journal as a tape recorder attached to your brain. Record your thought associations, stream-of-consciousness.  Consider your journal as a confidante.  Much of your journal can provide fine raw material for future writing.

In your essay, move from the general to the specific. Describe vivid scenes and what they mean to you. Think of them as anecdotal. Chicken Soup, for example, likes dialogue. They want nonfiction that reads like a first person short story with a beginning, middle and end. Mix up sentence lengths to keep up interest level. Their guidelines are specific and if you choose to submit to one of their themed anthologies, follow their guidelines precisely. I’ve had my writing in a variety of these anthologies and was very pleased with their professionalism.

This is your story and it should represent your uniqueness as a human being. The personal essay can be humorous or emotional. But regardless, it must grip the reader. When you write to be published and paid, you must offer something of interest. You must not be dull or boring. So revise and edit where needed. Remember to be genuine, precise and avoid clich├ęs.

Here are some markets for first person stories. Be sure to read their guidelines carefully before you submit:



 (check their current calls)

(Reader’s Digest accepts a lot of short humorous true stories but competition is keen.)

(Canadian version)

Check the internet for a more complete listing of magazines that accept first person stories. For example, parenting magazines often buy first person stories. Check out travel magazines. Also don’t forget literary magazines such as:


 They often accept op-ed pieces and personal essays from writers. For example, The New York Times accepts both:


To keep up-to-date, check out blogs that list current calls for new anthologies as well as magazines and newspapers. Here’s my favorite:

Do you keep a journal at present? If so, does it prove helpful? If not, is it something you might wish to do in the future?

Your thoughts and comments are welcome here!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Memoriam 9/11: Hometown Heroes

A number of residents of my New Jersey hometown worked in Manhattan and died in the attack on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. One man who worked with elevators near the Twin Towers hurried to the disaster hoping he could help bring people to safety. He lost his own life in making this heroic rescue effort.
A neighbor who lived a few houses away from us described another act of courage and human concern. At the time that the first tower was attacked, our neighbor was with his supervisor, a man who was born and raised in our hometown. The two men saw what was happening from the vantage of an office window on the 102nd floor of the second tower. Our neighbor's boss immediately told him to get out of the building, that he would warn everyone else on the floor to leave immediately. My neighbor lived to tell the tale. His boss? Not so fortunate. He didn’t make it out.
The parents of these two courageous men who lost their lives trying to help others were also good, caring individuals. They continued to live in our town with heavy hearts. It is a terrible tragedy to suffer the loss of one’s child.
A memorial was erected at the civic center and a ceremony is held every year on September 11th. Ours may have been just an ordinary American town like so many others, and yet in its own way it is special because of the people who live there.
As a nation, we should neither forgive nor forget the murder of thousands of ordinary, innocent people on that fateful day when terrorists wreaked havoc on our country.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

In the Beginning: How to Create a Strong Narrative Hook

Good beginnings are crucial in capturing a reader’s attention. Every writer knows that a narrative hook is needed in any successful type of writing. Many readers pick up a book, glance at the first page, and if it doesn’t grab them, simply toss it aside. Of course, creating a good narrative hook for a novel or short story is easier said than done. However, here are a few suggestions that I believe will help to     interest readers in your novel:

Point of View:

One of the most important things in writing a successful work of fiction is to develop a unique voice. That does not mean that you must write from a first person point of view.
It is important to create a central character that your readers can sympathize and/or identify with. Whether writing a realistic or fantasy novel, if the reader can't care about the main character, then the reader won't believe or accept what follows.
Regardless of whether or not you use first person narration, try to stick to a main point of view which makes reader identification more likely. This viewpoint should be from the perspective of a major character in the story. This is one way of hooking your readers from the beginning. And it goes without saying that the main viewpoint character should be either the heroine or hero or both in a romantic novel. However, breaking the rules worked for F. Scott Fitzgerald when he used a secondary character as narrator in The Great Gatsby.

Element of Mystery:

Readers enjoy an element of mystery. Every good novel should have a plot that keeps the reader turning the pages, wanting to discover what is going to happen next. It's important to set up some sort of a question that can't be easily or immediately answered, a secret of the human heart that must be delved into. Prick your reader’s curiosity. This needs to be done in the first few pages and if possible from the first paragraph.

Start in medias res:

Start with a bit of intriguing, provocative dialogue or some piece of action. Get your reader involved in the plot from the beginning. Don’t begin with detailed description of people and place. You will lose your reader!
Don’t start with your main character getting up in the morning or doing anything mundane like tooth brushing. Long boring descriptions were fine for Victorian novelists, but remember that Dickens was paid by the word. Plunge the reader into the heart of the story from the beginning words.
When you do need to use description, keep it pertinent. Don’t overdo adverbs and adjectives. Use active verbs. Replace your “is”, “was” and “are” with action words whenever possible. Vary your sentence lengths and structures. You want your writing to be dynamic and exciting. Your reader must be quickly involved, must be made to care about what is happening.
Get your reader focused, placing your heroine and/or hero as close to the main action and problem as possible. Build suspense from the beginning by getting your reader into the thick of things. Weave details and necessary background information into the story as you keep the action of the plot moving along. Introduce the protagonists as early in the story as possible.

Make It Dramatic

Dramatize your story. Don't show, tell. I'm certain you've heard that advice many times before before! How to do this? Create meaningful, realistic dialogue for your characters. Each character should be an individual, talking a certain way to reflect a personal point of view, a unique way of thinking. Good dialogue leads to action and conflict between people with different viewpoints and goals.
Avoid stilted dialogue. One way to accomplish this is by reading your writing out loud. Remember readers have to accept the characters in your novel as real people.

Setting the Scene:

Although you don’t want to overwhelm your reader with too much detail from the outset, settings need to be vividly described so that they seem real. Think like a film director. Create your novel in scenes as if it were a movie.
Finally, take the time to write and rewrite the beginning sentences and paragraphs of your novel, recognizing that this is crucial. You probably won’t get it right the first time through. I confess I never do! I truly agonize over beginnings.
 Go back after you finish your novel or story and see if the opening could be more compelling. Ask some fellow writers and intelligent readers to look at your beginning and give an honest opinion.
Hopefully, these suggestions will help you create the perfect narrative hook that will compel readers to read your work from beginning to end.

Here’s the beginning of my novel THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER, a YA appropriate for both teens and adults. It’s got elements of mystery, romance and a paranormal edge:

When my mother talked about Lori, she always got a funny look in her eye — not ha-ha funny but strange funny. When I was little, I never understood. As I got older, I wondered more about Lori, but I hardly ever asked because it just seemed to make my mother sad.
Lori was locked away in my mother's past life like the things in the old attic trunk. I wondered about them too. But Mom would always say when I asked her to open the trunk that the past was best forgotten. Yet, every now and then, I would say something or do something that made her sigh and exclaim: "You remind me so much of Lori!"
Not long ago, I was sitting on the living room couch reading a novel I found on the bookshelf. My mother walked into the room and gasped.
"Something wrong?" I asked.
She stared at me for a moment and shook her head. "No, but for a moment, it seemed like I was looking at Lori. I remember when she read Rebecca. She loved to read old-fashioned romances."
"Mom, what happened to Lori?"
"Danna, I'd rather not talk about her. It only brings back sad memories."
"Sure, except I didn't bring it up."

As a reader and/or writer any comments, suggestions or input you would like to share are welcome here.