Tag Archives: writing

2014 Pennwriters Conference


I am pleased to announce that registration for the 27th Annual Pennwriters Conference is now open. Kami Garcia, NYT Bestselling Author of Beautiful Creatures and the Bram Stoker nominated Legion Series, is the Friday Evening Keynote. Meredith Mileti, Author of Aftertaste, is the Saturday Luncheon Keynote. Phil Sexton from Writer’s Digest is the Keynote for the Friday Networking Lunch. Jason Pinter, Editor In Chief of Polis Books, is the Friday Published Penns Luncheon Keynote.

Meet with 13 literary agents and editors and pitch. Choose from over 50 + workshops. Pre-conference writing intensives Story Structure using SAVE THE CAT with Jessica Brody , Revision using The Book Architecture Method with Stuart Horowitz, and Building Your Author Brand with Lisa Kastner.

Space is limited. Register soon!


Charli Mac

Using Writing Contests to Improve One’s Game

Long before my first book was published, I was hard at work, putting the manuscript through some very vigorous paces.

Since it was my first book, I wanted a litmus test before I started flinging it at agents. I wanted to toe the waters of publishing before plunging in. I wanted to feel my way cautiously through the dark instead of bumbling through it.

Publishing had become my sport. Was I ready to query agents? Was my manuscript ready? I ‘d be going up against some pretty tough competition. I couldn’t go out on the field unprepared so I practiced…by competing.

Confused? Don’t be. What I mean to say is I entered my manuscripts into writing contests.

Entering contests helped me to do all that and more. Besides learning the rules of formatting and preparing submissions, besides the dubious joys of preparing several synopses, I received invaluable critique, peer-based feedback, and lessons in surviving rejection. These experiences helped me to grow from an amateur hobby writer into a more polished professional who had her eyes on the prize.

Once I had completed the first draft, I decided to spend a full year entering every competition that fit my manuscript. As a result, my synopsis and first chapters were submitted to perhaps a dozen different novel writing contests. Several contests—especially those offered by writers groups whose main objective is to help writers improve their craft and get their writing up to publishable standards—returned entries with heaps of comments on the pages as well as score sheets that provided me with the litmus test I wanted. (Houston Writers Guild and our very own Pennwriters are both excellent examples.) While other contests offered critique for a fee, I was able to avoid extra cost by simply choosing the right contests.

Contests also provided great feedback. Currently, my “betas” are readers, not writers or others in the publishing business. While reader feedback is very valuable, it lacks the aspect of knowledgeable constructive criticism. Back when I was a newbie writer, I had zero access to a writer’s critique group. When I began competing, the judges became my circle of well-meaning peers. Thanks to the feedback , I made some excellent revisions. (I also ignored a lot of personal opinion, just like in a real group.)

My favorite “feedback” example: I failed one contest quite miserably because my formatting stunk. While the formatting kept me on the sidelines, I got the opportunity to be evaluated by a third judge who spent a great amount of time commenting and suggesting ways to improve. She admitted the formatting mess was too great to ignore but said I was so close—I had a real chance with this book. That encouragement was my candle in the window.

Best of all, participation in writing competitions steeled my heart against the slings and arrows of rejection. I failed to place in many of the contests. Not seeing my name on some of the results letters was a little disappointing. However, actually seeing my name on a few of the results letters was a huge boost.

I started with honorable mentions. I made recommended changes and revisions and tweaked my synopses. I earned a second place, complete with a gorgeous ribbon and—gasp!—a check. Eventually, I won first place and grand prize overall in a contest I never dreamed of winning.

Grand prize. Say it out loud. I do, whenever I need one little victory to heal the sting of a rejection. Dealing with anonymous judges is far less personal than dealing one on one with agents. Writers new to the game may find it easier to hear a “no” from a contest before they hear one from their dream agent (mine rejected my query twice. I guess once wasn’t enough?)

Perspective. That’s how I would sum up my entire contest experience. In 2007 I had much to learn about writing, and thanks to the critiques, I knew what direction to follow. I needed peer review; many writers and editors gave me the feedback and encouragement I craved. I won some, I lost some, and I learned the rules of the rejection game. It made querying a lot less abrasive.

A writer who is unsure if that manuscript is ready for an agent would do well to take a chance at entering a contest or two. If you want to play the publishing game, you need to practice first—and a writing competition may just be the perfect scrimmage for your manuscript.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” in a frame over her desk. Visit Ash’s blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com for news on her newly released urban fantasy “Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde” (Pink Narcissus Press 2012).

This article first appeared on the Query Tracker blog.

Headlines and Hooklines: Writing a Press Release

Yesterday morning I thought I’d do something nice for my book…so I sent out my press release to almost a dozen newspapers around my area, hoping someone will pick up my story and run with it.

I know this sounds a little intimidating to novice writers (and perhaps a few not-so-novice ones as well.) Press releases sound like terribly official and extremely elevated forms of publicity. Celebrities and experts and gala events get press releases…not us.

But did you ever try writing one? It’s really not that bad—and it can do your book a world of good.

A press release is free publicity.

Reporters for media outlets love them because they provide content. You, as a writer, should love press releases because they tell the audience exactly what you want them to know.

Even if you don’t need a press release yet, it’s a good writing exercise. We’ve practiced writing log lines and queries and elevator pitches. With that practice came ease and familiarity with simmering our 90k word masterpiece into pure concentrated glory. Use this as another writing exercise so, when the time comes to finally make an announcement, you can rip out a press release and send it to your editor so fast her head will spin.

Exercises like these often help writers find new focus in their manuscripts, as well. Writing a press release provides a sort of goal for the work-in-progress—how you want your book to be viewed once it’s released into the world.

A Press Release is NOT an Advertisement.

The key to writing an effective press release is to keep in mind who your target is: the journalist.

Weird, right? It’s not necessarily the publication’s audience. Just as a query letter is designed to snare the agent, a press release is meant to snare the journalist and get him to explore your story further. A press release is a huge billboard that says THERE’S A GREAT STORY HERE! and it lures all the news-hungry journalists over to see what’s going on.

Advertisements are for customers, not for journalists. Journalists aren’t looking to shop—they are looking to write articles for their publication.

Never exaggerate or hard-sell your book. Write the press release as if you are an objective reporter who found a news-worthy topic. Share an overview of the book and a general bit about the author. Keep it clean, keep it short, and keep it sharp. Don’t give a journalist the excuse to skim or, worse, pass on it.

Anatomy of a Press Release

Traditionally, a press release has a few main sections: the headline, the lead paragraph, the body, the boilerplate, and the close.

Headline: the title of your press release. This is the eye-catcher, the sparkling summary, the hook. Write it as you would a hook sentence. Inspire curiosity and an intense need to read further. You can also add a subhead, which is in smaller type below the headline. It’s another sentence or two providing more information—and more hooks. They aren’t always included but since this is an exercise for some of you, go the distance for extra credit. Make those hooks sharp.

Lead Paragraph: This should be informative, nothing more. This is the spot for the who-what-where-when of the press release. If you’re promoting fiction, you have a little wiggle room. Make it interesting but make it tight.

Body: Use this paragraph to elaborate and support your news. Provide examples and author quotes and remember: you are still trying to sell this story to a journalist so write like one. Keep it clean of adjectives and sales pitches and puffed-up claims.

Boilerplate: otherwise known as the biographical section. Write a bio for yourself, much the same way you’d write in an agent query letter. Say good things about yourself, your accomplishments, or your relevant qualifications. Direct the audience to a website or point to other resources that might elaborate on the subject of your book. Again, keep it short (but make it sweet.)

Close: Your contact information. That way a reporter knows who to call to get his next story.

Additional Essential Elements

The press release also has two more details to include in order to maintain proper structure. I’ll list the parts we already discussed and slip in the missing lines in bold face.







# # #


Release Information: generally written as “for immediate release” but can also be altered to fit your needs by writing, for instance, “for release after XXX date”.

# # #: Tells the reporter this is where the printable text ends.
That’s all there is to it, folks. Use this template to plug in your information and away you go. You and your book are newsworthy!

Helpful Tips

There’s a few extra nuggets of wisdom to remember.
• Use your headline as your email’s subject line.
• Keep it to one page– 400 to 500 words is the sweet spot.
• Write it in third person.
• Research your target publications and tailor the release to keep it audience-specific.
• Keep it factual. You sell yourself by giving the facts and making them interesting. No one wants fluff unless they are shopping for pillows.
• Cast a wide net—approach newspapers, online news publications, and radio stations. Can you think of other places that might promote you by reporting about your book?

That’s really all it takes to write a successful press release. It’s a unique writing exercise that gives us the opportunity to create another effective marketing tool for our books. There is a world full of free press out there—and now you know how to grab some of it.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” in a frame over her desk. Visit Ash’s blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com for news on her newly released urban fantasy “Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde” (Pink Narcissus Press 2012).

This article first appeared on the Query Tracker blog.

Conquering the Cliche

Whether a plotter or a pantser, a novice or a pro, every writer will eventually do the same exact thing—and that’s stare at the screen, fingers poised over keyboard, planning a character’s next move.

How you handle your character’s next move will set you apart from the rest of the writing masses. Genre matters not; length matters not. What matters is whether or not that next move is a cliché.

A cliché is any expression, idea, or element that has been overused to the point of losing its original intent or effect. There are the obvious clichés, namely those turns of phrase that get used over and over (whoops, that was cliché). They are comparisons and references and descriptions that are so overused that they render the very language empty and boring.

While clichés are most often recognized as those annoying catch phrases, they can also relate to larger things like character and dialog and plot. Clichés are wicked little buggers that weaken our writing and writers should do their best to find them—and fix them.

Do The Unexpected

Clichés are often found hiding in plain sight (another cliché) whenever we let our characters act naturally—and these are the clichés that doom us to failure (probably cliché).

By acting naturally, I refer to the character doing what feels perfectly natural to us. I like to call it “First Response Syndrome”, an unhealthy story condition wherein the character acts upon his/her first—and therefore natural—response to a situation or stimulus.

When a character does exactly what we expect them to do, remember this—every other reader on the planet (cliché) is expecting them to do it, too. And that’s kinda boring.

Say your character is waiting for a bus that doesn’t seem to be slowing down for her stop.

• The natural response is to let her wait safely on the curb so she doesn’t get flattened.

• The unexpected action would be if the woman takes off her shoe and throws it at the bus, cracking the windshield. That’s more interesting.

• More interesting, still, would be if the character jumped into the middle of the street and made the bus driver slam on the brakes (technically a cliché but you know what I mean).

Do the unexpected.

Of course, there’s a difference between unexpected and ridiculous. You wouldn’t have an arthritic ninety-year old grandma jump into the street to stop traffic. (Unless, of course, we only thought she was a ninety-year old grandma but was instead an escaped acrobat who’s on the lam (cliché) and wearing a disguise. That is so not cliché.)

But, as I said–ridiculous is not a good thing and you don’t want to pull the reader out of the story. You just want to keep them on the edge of their seat (cliché).

Actions aren’t the only things that can be cliché in this fashion. Dialog can be cliché, too, even when it doesn’t contain any overused expressions. Any character who says what we expect them to say suffers from First Response Syndrome and is in dire need (cliché) of a rewrite. Don’t allow your teen protagonist to be a carbon-copy (cliché) of every other teen you know. Forbid your villain the pleasure of twisting his mustache and howling his favorite mu-hahaha laugh (no matter how cool it sounds, it’s cliché.)

Breaking The Habit

It takes effort to break a bad habit (cliché) like writing in cliché. However, the story will reap the rewards (cliché) if you can train yourself to spot them and fix them by doing the unexpected.

For instance, doing the unexpected may cause your character to come to a realization about themselves or someone else. An unexpected response may lead to heightened emotions. An unexpected response may tell the reader something about a character’s makeup that would otherwise take pages of description—in short, an unexpected response would show a quality that the writer might otherwise be compelled to tell.

Try this exercise: select a portion of your manuscript and print it out. Using a highlighter, mark everything that seems it might be cliché—look for those expressions that are done to death (cliché), scour your dialog for trite or dull responses, and mark off every reaction to a stimulus.

Then, evaluate each instance of highlighted text. Think of a different way to write over those overused phrases. Add color to dialog using emotion and fresh language. Make your character do the exact opposite of their original response.

Do any of the rewrites heighten tension? Make the character seem more interesting? Take the story in a new direction? If it’s more interesting to you as the writer, it’s going to be more interesting to the reader, as well.

What a lot of us fail to realize is that sometimes our stories get rejected not because our writing is bad but because our work is clichéd. Good isn’t acceptable anymore—our work has to be great.

Our characters need dialog that is fresh and original and our characters have to be ready to do the unexpected. Thinking past the first response will add an element of surprise and excitement to your work—and a reader who has to keep reading to find out what happens next is the reader that stayed hooked.

A hooked reader—that’s not a cliché… because that never gets old.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” in a frame over her desk. Visit Ash’s blog for news on her newly released urban fantasy “Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde” (Pink Narcissus Press 2012).

This article first appeared on the Query Tracker blog.

Welcome Our New Pennwriters Area 6 Representative Charli Mac

I am pleased to announce that Area 6 member and Philadelphia native Charli Mac has volunteered as our new Pennwriters Area 6 Representative.

She is eager to meet fellow Area 6 members, organize events and activities, and help other writers meet their goals.

Welcome Charli here in the comments or via the contact page, and be sure to tell her about your writing projects and interests, and how you’d like to put your Pennwriters membership to work.

By Popular Demand: New Pennwriters Philadelphia Critique Groups Starting this August

From the desk of Lisa Diane Kastner:

Beginning in August 2010, the Philadelphia Critique Group will be held twice a month:

1. The second Saturday of each month at 3 PM
2. The last Tuesday of each month at 7 PM

Both meetings will be held at 525 S. 4th. St., 240A, Philadelphia, PA on 4th Street between Lombard and South.

This change is in response to requests from local writers for critique group meetings held during the week.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me at lisadkastner [at] gmail [dot] com

Thanks and I hope to see you at a group meeting.

Thank you, Lisa, for continuing to support the writers of southeastern Pennsylvania!

BOOK IN A DAY with Debra Dixon, September 25, 2010


Date: Saturday, September 25, 2010

Time: 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Location: Crowne Plaza Hotel – Pittsburgh Airport / 1160 Thorn Run Road, Coraopolis

Cost: $125 for Pennwriters members; $150 for nonmembers
(Lunch is included in the workshop fee)

Workshop Details:

Pennwriters Area 3 will host a “Book in a Day” interactive workshop with bestselling author Debra Dixon on Saturday, September 25, 2010 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza, Pittsburgh International Airport, 1160 Thorn Run Road, Corapolis.

This intensive full-day seminar will draw from Dixon’s popular how-to book “GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, the Building Blocks of Good Fiction,” which is in its sixth printing, and “The Hero’s Journey.” She will show you how to put together the important elements of a book and its plot skeleton.

There will be a one-hour hot buffet lunch at noon. In addition, Dixon’s books will be available for sale. Registration for the workshop will begin at 8:30 a.m. For those planning to stay at the hotel overnight, special room rates are available. You must register by Friday, Sept. 3. Make sure you mention Pennwriters when registering at the hotel.


Pay online -or- if you prefer to mail in your registration and payment, send payment by mail ON OR BEFORE WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2010 using the mail-in registration form here.

Book Endorsements:

GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict (1996)

“This book belongs on every fiction writer’s bookshelf. Anyone who has ever had a story to tell and is dying to get it down on paper will find guidance and inspiration in GMC. The presentation is clear, immediate, and relevant to all writers–from novices to seasoned professionals. Experienced author Debra Dixon has done a magnificent job of demystifying the toughest aspect of fiction writing: that of a giving a story shape, form and urgency.”

— Susan Wiggs, RITA® Award winning author of over 40 novels and novellas.

When You’re the Only Cop in Town (2002)

“Not only a great resource, but a great read. I wish I’d had this book when I started writing. Highly recommended.”

— Jenny Crusie, New York Times bestselling author

“Debra Dixon delivers again! Facts, details, perspective, the life of the small town cop. It’s all here–everything the suspense and mystery writer needs.”

— Deborah Smith, New York Times bestselling author

“When You’re the Only Cop in Town is my new Bible! An indispensable reference–no writer should be without it! Don’t even start your small town crime story without this comprehensive guide!”

— Maggie Shayne, New York Times bestselling author

About the Speaker: Debra’s a bestselling author currently at work on her eleventh book, and has served as Vice-President for Romance Writers of America, an organization of over 9,000 writers. In 2003 RWA honored Debra with the national Emma Merritt Service Award, recognizing her contributions to writers and the organization.

Her published work has been awarded the Georgia Romance Writers’ “Maggie,” A Little Romance Magazine’s ROMY, Colorado’s Award of Excellence, the Kiss of Death Award for best suspense of the year from RWA’s Mystery/Suspense Chapter, and she’s received a Romantic Times Career Achievement Award for Innovative Series Romance. Her published books have been recognized as finalists for the Virginia Holt Medallion, Romantic Times Best Loveswept, and the National Readers’ Choice Award for romance fiction.

In addition to speaking at numerous regional and national conferences, Debra developed and continues to teach a novel writing courses for the University of Memphis as well as one-day writing workshops across the country. In late 1996, Gryphon Books For Writers published Debra’s first writing “how-to” book based on her popular GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict workshop. That book is now in its sixth printing. In late 2002, Gryphon published Debra’s second non-fiction book WHEN YOU’RE THE ONLY COP IN TOWN, a writer’s guide to small town law enforcement.

Debra lives in the South with her husband and son. When she’s not working in publishing or corporate America, she moonlights as an award-winning quilter. The current home-remodeling-project-that-will-not-end began because Debra thought it would be nice to have a quilt studio for her art. Learn more about Debra and her work online at www.debradixon.com.

For more information or to receive a workshop registration form, contact Area 3 Representative Annette Dashofy.