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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, September 28, 2014

BLOCK-BUSTING: 14 Never-Fail Tricks Every Writer Needs to Know

by Ruth Harris


Can’t get there from here?

Something’s wrong but you don’t know what.

You’re chasing your tail in an endless loop with no off-ramps in sight.

You’re stalled out at a dead end in a dark, scary forest.

Happens to every writer and no one knows why, but your book—and you—have come to a screeching halt. You’re out of ideas, out of gas, and you and your manuscript are stranded in a dead zone.

The (boring) characters zombie-walk through the plot. Oh! There’s a plot? What plot? You can’t make sense of what you’ve created or, if you can, you wonder why you thought having your MC fall into a cootie-infested tar pit on the far side of the Planet Ding-Dong was a good idea in the first place.

You look in the mirror and ask yourself Now what? but you have no answer. Despair and panic set in. Self doubt gnaws. Maybe like Stephen King throwing away the manuscript for Carrie, you’re poised to Select All and hit the delete button.

Get a grip.

The book is your book. The characters are your characters. The plot is your plot. You created this mess—which means that you have the answer. You just don’t know it. At least not right now.

Whether it’s a glitch or a gully, here are are fourteen ways to get that book—and yourself—going again. Some are quick and easy. Others take time and effort. Some are probably familiar. Others might be new to you.

In my (long) experience, at least one of them will help get you going again so think of this as a punch list. If one strategy doesn’t work, try another. And then another. Don’t give up until you find the one that gets you moving again.

1. A body in motion is a mind in motion. 

Get up, move around and do something physical. Almost anything. Old advice but, time and time again, movement jolts the fatigued brain and gets it moving again.

  • Take a walk.
  • Fold laundry.
  • Pull weeds.
  • Hit the gym.
  • Walk the dog.
  • Do the dinner prep.
  • Get on your bike.
  • Run a few errands.

Lots of writers including me find that mild diversion combined with a physical component that gets you out of your chair and away from the computer screen allows that blocked thought or idea to emerge from the dark pool of the unconscious.

2. Brainstorm. 

With a trusted friend/colleague/partner. On the phone. Via email or even twitter. Over dinner. With a glass of wine or a verboten calorie-dense dessert.

Chances are in the course of conversation, either you or your friend, cyber or otherwise, will come up with a clue or maybe even the answer and at least nudge you closer to making forward progress.

3. Begin at the beginning. Again. 

 The beginning is often where the problem resides. Perhaps you’ve told too much (often my own problem)—or not enough. Re-read carefully, more than once if necessary, question everything as you read, make notes, and the solution that was out of reach might reveal itself.

Maybe you need to move a scene, a paragraph or delete some dialogue if, like me, you’ve told too much and have left yourself nowhere to go.

If, on the other hand, you’ve skimped on the set up, you might need to add material that you know but your reader doesn’t.

4. Reverse Outline. 

 Steve Jobs said that you can only make sense of thing when you look back. SJ was right about a lot of things (Gee. Really?) and his observation certainly applies to writers and manuscripts-in-trouble.

The online writing lab at Purdue University offers a useful guide to reverse outlining which will help you clarify the weedy tangle in which you’re enmeshed yourself.

5. Mini changes-big results. 

Maybe all you need to do is see your book in a different font or on a different screen or in a different place.

If you’ve been working on your laptop, read your manuscript on a tablet. Or vice versa.

Work at home? Go to a coffee shop and take another look at that ms. Work in a coffee shop? Go to the park and give it another shot.

Write in Times Roman? Switch to Helvetica or even Comic Sans. Increase the font size or decrease it because sometimes the simplest change up makes all the difference and will let you see the stumbling block in a way you didn’t before.

6. Analyze your characters. 

You don’t need to be Dr. Freud, but perhaps there are too many and some of them need to be combined. Or maybe there are too few or too sketchily presented and require expansion and amplification. Do you need new characters or do the existing ones require a makeover?

Do you need an antagonist? A buddy? A helper? A mentor? A liar? A betrayer? A shape-shifter? A dog, a cat, a robot, a refugee from another century?

Does the good guy suddenly do a switcheroo? The bad guy turn out to have a heart of gold? Maybe a male character should be female (or vice versa)? (That particular trick bailed me out of a big-ass mess in Brainwashed.)

We’re talking fiction here so you are free to invent whatever/whoever you need to energize your book and yourself.

7. Plot Rehab. 

If too much happens, you have a clutter problem that will confuse your readers (and maybe yourself) and needs to be streamlined and clarified.

Not enough happens? Add incidents and possibilities. Don’t worry about going too far because you can always modify later. The point is to get from not enough to just right.

A mind-mapping app like Scapple (Mac only, $15, 30-day free trial) or FreeMind (FREE and available for Windows/Mac/Linux) can be useful and help you see connections you might have missed. For more choices, LifeHacker lists the five best mind-mapping apps.

To take another, more structured approach, a beat sheet like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat can help you bring order to the chaos. The ever-inspiring Jami Gold lists solutions to plotting dilemmas that will help whether you’re a plotter or pantser.

8. Take a second look at the setting. 

Is your setting, real or invented, working for you? Victorian London, contemporary Shanghai, a remote planet in alternate galaxy all have their place in fiction and should be thoughtfully exploited. 

If your setting is meh, your book will be, too.

Downton Abbey wasn’t a raging success just because of the plot and characters. Mad Men didn’t hook viewers only because of the booze, cigs and sex. Ditto Game of Thrones and Scandal.

In all of these super successes, the setting is as important as the characters and, in a way, becomes a character itself. Make sure your setting is doing some of the heavy lifting for you.

9. Do some more research. 

Some writers hate research, others (like me) love it. I couldn’t have written A Kiss At Kihali without the Internet. Newspaper articles about poaching and the near-extinction of rhinos and elephants initially triggered my interest but I needed much, much more info to write the book.

Thanks to Google, I got the scoop about African animal orphanages, criminal poaching gangs, wildlife conservation, Kenyan weddings, elephant and rhino veterinary, animal psychology and communication.

Whatever you want to research, odds are the Internet can come to your rescue. No more trudging to the library—everything available in the comfort of your own computer.

Live sources are invaluable. People love to talk about what they do. All you have to do is ask. Tap your network, pick up the phone and introduce yourself, send an email.

Research is a goldmine of info and inspiration, often invaluable when you find yourself stuck. Use it.

10. Rethink genre. 

The book you started as a romance has somehow veered off into darker territory and all of a sudden you’ve run out of gas. Or else you began what you thought was going to be a mystery but suddenly it’s giggles and guffaws and you’re lost and have no idea what to do next.

No wonder you’re stuck. Lots of times writers don’t know what they’re doing until they do it and books have a way of taking on a life of their own no matter what the clueless, lowly writer might have in mind.

If you step back and reconsider, you might realize your romance is really Gothic Romance or Romantic Suspense. If that’s the case (and it’s entirely possible), the book will come into sharp focus again and you will have a route out of the doldrums.

If your mystery turns into a giggle-fest, you might have a comedy-mystery instead of the complicated puzzle you originally had in mind.

Be flexible. A rose is a rose is a rose until, all of a sudden, it’s an orchid. Or even poison ivy. For a writer, roses, orchids and poison ivy all come brimming with possibility.

11. Write the blurb and/or log line. 

Both require concentration and, at least IME, need to be constantly reviewed, rethought and rewritten. The blurb and log line will strip your book down to essentials. In the process, you will gain a clear focus and perhaps even a renewed perspective on your work.

At minimum, you will come away with an elevator pitch. (For more on how to write loglines and blurbs, check Anne's post on Hooks Loglines and Pitches and Ruth's Tips for Writing that Killer Blurb.)

12. Writing prompts. 

They’re all over the net, they’re free and they can jolt you out of your doldrums. Just the right word or push in a new direction can make the difference. Choose from random subjects, first lines, random dialogue and quick plot generators.

Writer’s Digest lists hundreds of prompts to help get you out of your funk.

For an irreverent approach, there are writing prompts “that don’t totally suck” to help you get moving again.

13. Sleep Perchance To Dream. 

If you’re stuck, chances are you’re preoccupied or even obsessed with your dilemma. You’re running in circles and getting nowhere except frustrated. Why not let your unconscious do the work while you sleep?

I’m still surprised at how often I wake up with the answer to a block that’s been bugging me. I’m also often surprised by how shockingly obvious the solution is in retrospect.


How come I didn’t figure it out a week ago? How come the answer came to me when I was asleep? Maybe a psychiatrist could explain it but my own conclusion is that’s just the way the unconscious works.

Take advantage!

14. Run A Spell Check. 

 I know this might sound weird, but sometimes seeing words—your own words—in isolation and out of context can trigger new ideas. 

I have no idea how or why this works. 

Perhaps it’s the repetitive aspect or maybe the alternate suggestions spell check kicks up but the simple act of going through your manuscript in this disjointed way can give you a new perspective and a new idea.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you tried any of these tricks to get a book's momentum going again? I've done the spell-check thing and it works for me too! ( I thought I'd invented it myself.) And getting outside for a walk always helps. I think I do most of my writing when I'm walking around Los Osos. People see me chanting the stuff to myself so I won't forget, and I'm sure my neighbors think I'm totally nuts. What works for you when your WIP is stalling out?....Anne 


Based on secret, real-life psychiatric experiments conducted by the CIA. Zeb Marlowe, a scarred survivor of the experiment, and Jai Jai Leland, the beautiful widow of a man who didn’t survive, must stop a nuclear threat that puts the world's security at risk. 

ONLY 99c for a limited time!

With a plot that hurtles forward at electric speed, BRAINWASHED takes place on the beautiful islands of the Caribbean, in Damascus and Ireland, the Philippines, Canada, Washington, DC--and in an underground torture chamber located on Victor Ressid's secluded private estate.

"BRAINWASHED delivers the goods: thrills, gut-churning suspense, nightmarish terror. Ruth and Michael Harris have delivered another great read and sure bestseller. I dare you to put it down!" --Bob Mayer, former Green Beret and million-copy bestselling author of AREA 51


SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th.

For NEW WRITERS! THE FICTION DESK NEWCOMER'S PRIZE ENTRY FEE £8. First prize £500, second prize £250. Short fiction from 1,000 - 5,000 words. Writers should not have been previously published by The Fiction Desk, and should not have published a novel or collection of short stories in printed form. Deadline October 31st.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31.

Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. Choose from Romance, Thriller, Crime, Horror, Science-Fiction and Young Adult. 4,000 words or less. The $25 entry fee is steep, but the grand prize is $2500 plus a trip to the annual conference, and the prestige is awesome. Deadline October 15th.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

10 Things that Red-Flag a Newbie Novelist

by Anne R. Allen

Beginning novelists are like Tolstoy's happy families. They tend to be remarkably alike. Certain mistakes are common to almost all beginners. These things aren't necessarily wrong, but they are difficult to do well—and get in the way of smooth storytelling

They also make it easy for professionals—and a lot of readers—to spot the unseasoned newbie.

When I worked as an editor, I ran into the same problems in nearly every new novelist's work—the very things I did when I was starting out. 

I think some of the patterns come from imitating the classics. In the days of Dickens and Tolstoy, novels were written to be savored on long winter nights or languid summer days when there was a lot of time to be filled. Detailed descriptions took readers out of their mundane lives and off to exotic lands or into the homes of the very rich and very poor where they wouldn't be invited otherwise.

Books were expensive, so people wanted them to last as long as possible. They didn't mind flipping back and forth to find out if Razumihin, Dmitri Prokofitch, and Vrazumihin were in fact, all the same person. They were okay with immersing themselves in long descriptions and philosophical digressions before they found out what happened to Little Nell.

The alternative was probably staring at the fire or listening to Aunt Lavinia snore.

But in the electronic age...not so much. Your readers have the world's libraries at their fingertips, and if you bore them or confuse them for even a minute, they're already clicking away to buy the next shiny 99c book.
Whether you're querying agents and editors or you're planning to self-publish, you need to write for the contemporary reader. And that means "leaving out the parts that readers skip" as Elmore Leonard said.

Agents and readers aren't going to want to wade through a practice novel. They want polished work.

All beginners make mistakes. Falling down and making a mess is part of any learning process. But you don’t have to display the mess to the world. Unfortunately easy electronic self-publishing tempts us to do just that.

But don't. As I said two weeks ago, it takes the same amount of time to learn to write as it did before the electronic age.

Here are some tell-tale signs that a writer is still in the learning phase of a career.

I'm not saying these things are "wrong". They're just overdone or tough for a beginner to do well.

1) Show-offy prose

Those long, gorgeous descriptions that got so much praise from your high school English teacher and your critique group can unfortunately be a turn-off for the paying customer who’s digging around for some kind of narrative thread or reason to care.

People read novels to be entertained, not to fulfill the needs of the novelist. If you're writing because you crave admiration, you're in the wrong business. The reader's right to a story—not the novelist's ego—has to come first.

If there's no story, no amount of verbal curleques will keep the reader interested. Give us story first, and then add embellishments. But not too many.

Also, even though it may be really fun to start every chapter with a Latin epigraph from Ovid's Metamorphoses, unless it’s really important to the plot, this will probably annoy rather than impress readers.

Ditto oblique references to Joyce's Ulysses or anything by Marcel Proust. People want to be entertained, not take a World Lit quiz. (And yes, I went there myself. Originally, every chapter title of The Gatsby Game was a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nobody cared.)

2) Head-hopping

Point of view is one of the toughest things for a new writer to master. Omniscient point of view is the hardest to do well, because it leads to confusion for the reader.

But a lot of beginners write in omniscient because they haven't mastered the art of showing multiple characters' actions through the eyes of the protagonist.

But be aware that third-person-limited narration (when you're only privy to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist) is the norm in modern fiction (with first person a close second in YA.) If you use anything else, your writing skills need to be superb or you'll leave the reader confused and annoyed.

And you'll red-flag yourself as a beginner.

3) Episodic storytelling

I think nearly every writer's first novel has this problem. Mine sure did.

I could never end it, because it didn’t actually have a single plot. It was a series of related episodes, like a TV series—the old fashioned kind that didn't have a season story arc.

Critique groups often don’t catch this problem, if each episode has a nice dramatic arc of its own.

Every piece of narrative has to start with an inciting incident that triggers ALL the action in the story, until it reaches a satisfying resolution at the end. It's called a story arc.

If you don't have a story arc, you don't have a novel. You have a series of linked stories or vignettes. But novel readers want one big question to propel them through the story and keep them turning the pages.

The writer who blogs as Mooderino has a great post on why we want to avoid episodic narrative, even though it worked with some classics like Alice in Wonderland.

4) Info-dumps and "As you Know Bob" conversation

When the first five pages of a book are used for exposition—telling us the names of characters, what they look like, what they do for a living, and details of their backstories—before we get into a scene, you know you're not dealing with a professional.

Exposition (background information) needs to be filtered in slowly while we're immersed in scenes that have action and conflict. This takes skill. The kind that comes with lots of practice.

Another big clue is info-dumping in conversation, often called "as-you-know-Bob":

"As you know, Bob, we're here investigating the murder of Mrs. Gilhooley, the 60-year-old librarian at Springfield High School, who may have been poisoned by one Ambrose Wiley, an itinerant preacher who brought her a Diet Dr. Pepper on August third…."

Thing is, Bob knows why he's there. He's a forensics expert, not an Alzheimer's patient. Putting this stuff in dialogue insults the reader's intelligence, since nobody would say this stuff in real life. (In spite of the fact you hear an awful lot of it on those CSI TV shows.)

5) Mundane dialogue and transitional scenes that don't further the action.

All that “hello-how-are-you-fine-and-you-nice-weather” dialogue may be realistic, but it’s also snoozifying.

Readers don’t care about “realism” if it doesn’t further the plot. As James Patterson, the bestselling author in the world says, "realism is overrated." Readers want "just the good parts."

That also means skipping the trip from the police station to the crime scene and the lunch breaks when nothing happens except the MC doing some heavy musing and doughnut chomping.

Ditto the endless meetings or arguments where people come to decisions after tedious deliberation. Those are an exception to the rule of "show don't tell." Let us know the outcome, not the snoozerific details.

Just make a break in the page and plunge us into the next scene.

6) Tom Swifties and too many dialogue tags

The writer who strains to avoid the word “said” can rapidly slide into bad pun territory, as in the archetypal example from the old "Tom Swift" boys' books: "'We must run,' exclaimed Tom swiftly."

They were turned into a silly game in the 1960s, promoted by Time Magazine, which invited the public to submit outrageous Tom Swifties like:

"Careful with that chainsaw," Tom said offhandedly.

"I might as well be dead," Tom croaked.

So we don't want to go there by accident. Bad dialogue tags may have crept into your consciousness at an early age from those Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. The books were great fun—I adored them myself—but they were written by a stable of underpaid hacks and although the characters are classic, the prose is not.

"Said" is invisible to the reader. Almost any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself.

Very often the tag can be eliminated entirely. This allows your characters to speak and THEN act, rather than doing the two simultaneously.

Not so swift:

"We must run," exclaimed Tom swiftly.

Better, but awkward.

"We must run!" said Tom, sprinting ahead."


"We must run!" Tom sprinted ahead.

7) Mary Sues

A Mary Sue is a character who’s a stand-in for the writer’s idealized self, which makes the story a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author, but a snooze for the reader.

Mary Sue is beautiful. Everybody loves her. She always saves the day. She has no faults. Except she’s boring and completely unbelievable. For more on this, check out the post on Mary Sue and her little friends I wrote last month.

8) Imprecise word usage and incorrect spelling and grammar 

Unfortunately, agents and the buying public aren't your third grade teacher; they won’t give you a gold star just to boost your self-esteem.

Spelling and grammar count. Words are your tools. 

If you don’t know the difference between lie and lay or aesthetic and ascetic and you like to sprinkle apostrophes willy-nilly amongst the letters, make sure you find somebody who's got that stuff under control before you self-publish or send off your ms. to an agent.

Nobody is going to "give you a break" because it's your first novel. Practice novels belong in a drawer, not the marketplace. If people are spending their money and time on your book, they deserve to have a professional product.

Electronic grammar checks can only do so much. And they’re often wrong. Buy a grammar book. Take an online course. Not everybody was a good student in elementary school, but you'll need to brush up on your skills if this is going to be your profession. Even a good editor can’t do everything.

9) Clichéd openings

People who read a lot (like agents and editors) have seen some things so often they immediately get turned off. Even if it's a perfectly good idea. The problem comes when a whole bunch of people have had the same good idea before you.

The most common is the “alarm clock” opening—your protagonist waking up—the favorite cliché of all beginning storytellers, whether short story, novel, or script. There’s a hilarious video on this from the comedians at Script Cops They say, “78 % of all student films start with an alarm clock going off.”

Here are some other openers too many writers have done already:

  • Weather reports: it's fine to give us a sketch of the setting, but not more than a sentence or two.
  • Trains, planes and automobiles: if your character is en route and musing about where he’s been and where he’s going, you’re not into your story yet. Jump ahead to where the story really starts.
  • Funerals: a huge number of manuscripts—especially memoirs—start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement. If you use this opening, make sure you've got a fresh take.
  • Dreams: we're plunged into the middle of a rip-roaring scene, only to find out on page five that it's only a dream. Readers feel cheated.
  • "If only I’d known…" or "If I hadn't been..." starting with the conditional perfect seems so clever—I used to love this one—but unfortunately a lot of other writers do too.
  • Personal introductions: starting with "my name is…" has been overdone, especially in YA.
  • Group activities: don’t overwhelm your reader with too many characters right off the bat. 
  • Internal monologue: don’t muse. Bring in backstory later.
  • The protagonist looking in the mirror describing herself: In fact, you don't need as much physical description of the characters as you think. Just give us one or two strong characteristics that set them apart. Let the reader's imagination fill in the blanks.
  • Too much action: Yes, the experts keep telling us to start with a bang. But if too much banging is going on before we get to know the characters, readers won't care. 
If you use one of these openers in an especially clever and original way, you may get away with it. But be aware they are red flags, and many people won't go on to find out what a great story you have to tell.

For more on this, Jami Gold has a great post this week on how to avoid cliches in your opener.

10) Wordiness

There’s a reason agents and publishers are wary of long books. New writers tend to take 100 words to say what seasoned writers can say in 10. If your prose is weighty with adjectives and adverbs or clogged with details and repetitive scenes, you’ll turn off readers as well.

Remember a novel is a kind of contract between writer and reader. If you are writing to fulfill your own needs, not those of the reader, you're breaking that contract. They'll feel cheated.  And they will probably let you know.

If you’re still doing any of these things, RELAX! Enjoy writing for its own sake a while longer. Read more books on craft. Build inventory. You really do need at least two manuscripts in the hopper before you launch your career.

And hey, you don’t have to become a marketer just yet. Isn’t that good news?

For more on this, Sarah Allen has a great post this week on Top 7 Mistakes that Make Your Writing Look Unprofessional.

How about you, scriveners? What mistakes did you make when you were starting out? As a reader, what amateurish red flags make you start to feel nervous about buying a book?


I have a new boxed set! My three Boomer Books are now available in one boxed set. The intro price is only 99c!
That's 33c a book!
 Available at Amazon USAmazon UK, Amazon CA, Inktera, Nook, Kobo, Scribd and iTunes 

The Boomer Women Trilogy

The Leaders of the Twenty-First Century was the original title for the manuscript that branched into three and became Food of Love, The Lady of the Lakewood Diner and The Gatsby Game. It would be a terrible title, of course, because it sounds too dry and pretentious for a bunch of comedies. 

But the phrase has excellent comic credentials. It comes from Mickey Mouse himself. The original Mickey Mouse Club TV program always signed off with the inspiring proclamation that the show was "dedicated to you, the leaders of the twenty-first century!" 

When my little girlfriends and I giggled in our basement "rec rooms," mesmerized by the addictive new show, it never occurred to us the announcer wasn't talking to us as much as to our brothers. We didn't see any women leaders around us, but somehow, the magic of Disney was going to propel us all to new heights. My best friend planned to be a doctor and I wanted to be a famous writer. Or maybe princess of the world. 

The heroines of these three novels, Congresswoman Rev. Cady Stanton, Princess Regina of San Montinaro, diner owner Dodie Hannigan Codere, rock star Morgan le Fay, and sporting goods CEO Nicky Conway are powerful yet vulnerable (and I hope funny) women who represent those Baby Boomer women who watched the Mickey Mouse Club with me. 

Our mothers, who fought WWII on the home front only to be lured out of the workplace to a life of suburban housewifery, often saw our generation as entitled and self-involved. But as my character Dodie Hannigan said in the first version of the manuscript: 

"We're called Boomers, but it wasn't us that did the booming—that was our parents. We just showed up nine months later and got plunked in front of those brand new TVs." 

We were born at the dawn of the television age to become Madison Avenue's most coveted "target demographic." Advertising campaigns and kid-centric programming made us the first generation to be given a collective identity separate from family or community. 

And for good or ill, they made us who we have become: women who have demanded to be treated as equals by the other half of the human race. 

I know it's still something of a taboo to write novels—especially romantic comedies—about women "of a certain age," but Boomer women have been breaking rules since the Mickey Mouse Club proclaimed our destiny. I hope you'll enjoy their stories.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Secret to Publishing Success in the Era of Social Media: Teaming with Your Fellow Authors

by Anne R. Allen

Jon Stewart said on the Daily Show on August 27, (with heavy irony, of course) "Everybody uses Social Media as a weapon; that's what it's for."

He was, as usual, uttering spot-on truth disguised as a joke. Lots of people DO seem to use social media as a weapon, whether it's to shame an ex, brag about themselves, gang up on a perceived miscreant, or bully people into action.

But that's not how to use social media if you want to succeed in publishing.

As I have said before, social media should be used for making friends, not direct marketing, bullying, or personal horn-tooting. (A little tooting is okay, but make sure it's sandwiched between lots of helpful stuff.)

I think writers should be making friends with other writers, not just the people they perceive to be their "target reader demographic" (although that is always wise as well.)

This may be the opposite of what you're hearing from some marketing gurus, but hear me out—

I'm not telling you to MARKET to other writers. That's pointless, annoying, and a great way to make enemies.

NOTE: NEVER market through a personal Direct Message or an @ message, ever. And anybody who spams my email with a newsletter I never subscribed to: I WILL remember you. And not in a good way. (I'm sure the spammers don't read this blog. They probably skim my info from FB groups or Goodreads. Do not do this.)

But writer friends can be helpful to you in a lot of more important ways than as one-time customers for a book. 

So get out and meet them. Especially authors in your own genre. Other writers aren't your rivals; they're your colleagues.

I see a lot of pre-published writers talking trash about the stars of their genre, giving them rotten reviews or making disparaging remarks on forums. Oddly, this seems especially true of literary writers, as Stephen Almond wrote recently in Poets and Writers , but I see it in all genres. This is old-school thinking that can backfire, big time.

When you trash superstars, you're also trashing all their fans. That's a whole lot of your potential readers you've just alienated.

Some authors even try to knock another writer off the spot ahead of them on the bestseller list, as if selling books were a contest or a "reality" TV show.

There was a huge scandal a few years ago when a bestselling trad-pubbed author was caught leaving sock-puppet one-star reviews on "rival" authors' books. He seemed to think that by bringing down other authors' books, he would get more readers of his own.

That either/or thinking is ridiculous. If somebody liked one military thriller, they're likely to buy another. They're not going to read one and say, "Okay, I'm done with thrillers. Now I'll go buy me some chick lit."

In response to a recent nasty bit of bullying of an established author by a vicious plagiarist using sock puppets, David Farland wrote a list of "Standards of Excellence for Writers" that's worth a read.

In the era of social media, other writers can contribute a lot to your own marketing, so play nice.

One caveat: There are ways authors should NOT team up for marketing purposes. Beware "author rings" that trade reviews! It's against Amazon's TOS and can get you kicked off the site for life. It is also unethical. As David Farland says, "many people are getting positive reviews by giving positive reviews. I’ve seen them swapping openly on Facebook. This is just as illegal as buying reviews any other way, and it’s just as bad."

But there are lots of ethical ways to team up for book promotion. Here are some:

1) Guest Blogging

I first met Ruth Harris when she made a comment on this blog and I recognized her as a favorite author. I immediately asked her to guest. When I saw she didn't have her own blog yet, I asked her to make her contribution permanent.

I know this blog wouldn't have the success it's enjoying now if I'd tried to do this all on my own. Partnering with a seasoned, bestselling author who also worked behind the scenes at several Big Five houses has made this blog what it is.

When I needed guest posters this summer, I looked for other bloggers who appeal to our readers. Those bloggers almost all have "how to write" and "how to blog" books: books that could be seen as competition for my book HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE.

So do I treat them as rivals? Nope. I invited the authors of HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL, BLOG IT, and PLANNING YOUR NOVEL, to guest for us.

That meant that fans of Janice Hardy, Nathan Bransford, and Molly Greene came over here and discovered this blog. And Janice, Nathan and Molly got introduced to this blog's audience.

We all grew our subscriber lists and increased our book sales.

2) Spotlights and Interviews

I will always be grateful to the many, many author-bloggers who have interviewed me and spotlighted my books. Not all of them are published yet, but they all have valuable blogs that are read by people I want to tell about my books.

And when they are published, you can be sure I'll remember them and do what I can to help their careers.

One interview came up in a Google search a year later and got my book NO PLACE LIKE HOME noticed by the features editor of More magazine, which led to an interview that has done a huge amount to raise my profile with my target readers who may NOT be on social media.

3) Tweeting and sharing book news and blogposts.

If I love another author's books and see they're on sale, I will spread the word on social media. I also always tweet a link to a good blogpost.

And smart authors do the same, no matter how high up they are on the food chain.

Superstar Anne Rice shared a link to this blog on her FB page last week. I haven't read one of her books since Interview with the Vampire. But now, I just may pick up her new LeStat book…

So many of you are wonderful about tweeting and sharing this blog. I know who you are. I stop by your blogs when I have time, and tweet and share them too. And when you get book deals or publish a book, I'll spread the word.

4) Forming a multi-author joint blog, collective or even your own publishing house.

Some of the highest profile writing blogs, like Writer Unboxed, began as joint-author blogs of just two or three aspiring authors. As their careers grow, so do their blogs. Sometimes authors in the same genre who blog together will also join up for an anthology or boxed set, like the Embracing Romance group, who plan a Valentine's historical anthology.

We ran a piece about the international publishing collective Triskele last year. Banding together for cover design, formatting and marketing has worked very well for this group of hardworking, successful authors.

Two veteran trad-pubbed authors who have gone indie made news last week by forming their own crime fiction publishing house, Brash Books

5) Joint Promotions

This is a biggie.

In his bestselling book on marketing, LET'S GET VISIBLE, David Gaughran says the best forms of ebook promotion are:

1. A sale promoted through a bargain newsletter like BookBub, ENT, KNT, EBUK, Fussy Librarian etc.

2. A guest post on a major blog

3. A joint promotion.

#1 can be a gamble—sometimes an expensive one—but #2 and #3 simply involve getting together with your friends you've met on social media. You can put together a joint promotion with dozens of other authors, or just two or three.

It can be an anthology, a multi-author sale, or a boxed set. 


Authors have discovered that if they band together with other authors in their genre, they can offer a sampler that expands readership exponentially.

The first joint promotion I was involved with was the super-successful INDIE CHICKS ANTHOLOGY. Twenty-five women writers contributed short essays about their publishing journeys, and we all included a sample from one of our books that linked to the buy page for the complete novel.

The anthology came out when I was going through my grueling launch-five-novels-in-three months marathon three years ago. I was a little out of my depth, but they were all so kind that many of the "Chicks" have become permanent friends. I know the anthology had a lot to do with my initial success when I re-started my career. 

Multi-Author Sales

My books first started to hit the bestseller lists when I did a joint promo with nine other Rom-Com authors I met in a Chick Lit Facebook group. We all chipped in for an ad and ran 99c sales on our books for a holiday weekend. We all brought in our own fans and they got to know the other writers' work.

We were very lucky to have a tech-savvy member who put up a landing page for us. It linked to our websites and buy pages. We all promoted it on our own social media pages and it was simple and very effective.

Boxed Sets

The joint promo that's having the most spectacular success right now is the limited edition multi-author boxed set.

A nice benefit of ebooks is they can be easily bundled so a set of multiple novels that is as easy to deliver to your ereader as one book. That means boxed sets of complete novels can be sold a give-away prices (they're usually only offered for a limited time.)

Some of the biggest names in indie publishing have collaborated in boxed sets that have made the NYT and USA Today bestseller lists, like the Deadly Dozen that featured some of the biggest names in indie publishing and made the NYT bestseller list. Now every one of those authors can put "NYT Bestseller' on their Web pages and they've all gained thousands of new readers.

For more on boxed sets, there's a great post by Jason Kong at The Book Designer blog, and another by James Moushon at the E-Book Author's Corner.

And I'm very honored to announce that I was invited to join five bestselling comic mystery authors in the SIX PACK OF SLEUTHS boxed set that debuted this month. I'm in awe of all these fantastic authors. Dani Amore/Dan Ames, who's a veteran of this kind of promo, is a big fan of the boxed set. He says they're great because "an author can receive a lot of exposure for little invested money."

More on our boxed set below.

So play nice with your fellow authors. Don't spam or trash-talk. Make friends. It's amazing how being helpful and friendly can have a great influence on your bottom line.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you ever collaborated with other authors on an anthology, joint sale, multi-author blog, or boxed set? Have you collaborated in some other way? What was your experience? Have you ever bought a multi-author boxed set? 



Six Award Winning Bestselling Authors bring you a Six Pack of Sleuths DEATH BY SARCASM by Dan Ames writing as Dani Amore MIAMI MUMMIES by Barbara Silkstone THE PERFECT WEDDING by Sibel Hodge, SADIE’S GUIDE TO CATCHING KILLERS by Zané Sachs (the demented alter-ego of author, Suzanne Tyrpak) BEING LIGHT by Helen Smith, FOOD OF LOVE, by Anne R. Allen

Six Pack of Sleuths is available from:

all the Amazons

Happy Reading!
This set is featured on Kindle Books and Tips


The Central Coast Writers Conference One of the best deals around in a weekend writer's conference. And it's held on the Cuesta College campus in beautiful San Luis Obispo, CA. Mystery writer legend Anne Perry is the keynote speaker. See you there! September 19th-20th

SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

For NEW WRITERS! THE FICTION DESK NEWCOMER'S PRIZE ENTRY FEE £8. First prize £500, second prize £250. Short fiction from 1,000 - 5,000 words. Writers should not have been previously published by The Fiction Desk, and should not have published a novel or collection of short stories in printed form. Deadline October 31st.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30th.

Steamy Romance Anthology. No Fee. Fast Foreword is open for submissions for their "Holiday Hot Romance Anthology" Holiday-themed steamy romance or erotica. 3,000-8,000 words long. If the work has been published elsewhere, you must include bibliographic information and hold all publication rights. Deadline September 20th.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Biggest Mistake New Writers Make and 5 Ways to Avoid It

by Anne R. Allen

It's been an exciting week for the blog. Marketing expert Penny Sansevieri named us to the Top 30 Websites for Indies and blog guru Molly Greene named us to her list of must-read "leaders" in self-publishing. (I'm only recently self-published—and most of my work is still with a small pressbut I'll wear the "indie" label proudly.)

We also got some lovely kudos from superstar author Anne Rice, who linked to the blog from her FB page and said her readers were "deeply grateful" for our tips and insights. Very gracious of her.

I also heard from the producer of a new film about The David Whiting Story which is the subject of my novel The Gatsby Game. It's encouraging to know Hollywood is interested in David's case again.

All that, along with getting interviewed by the women's magazine More about my novel No Place Like Home have made me feel pretty good about the way my career is heading.

But no way have I forgotten how it felt to be down at the bottom of the publishing ladder, trapped on the query-go-round, desperately hoping for the smallest bit of encouragement. Sometimes I have nightmares that I'm still there. I'm still the same person with the same insecurities.

The difference: time. It takes way, way more time to learn to be a successful writer than anybody ever tells you.

I recently found some old diaries from fifteen years agoa time when I was about to give up writing. I'd had seven rejections in one dayincluding the return of a full manuscript with no explanation. (I know that still happens, and I wish agents knew how that can throw the most optimistic writer into pit of despair.)

What I didn't realize thenwhich my present self can see so easily, is...I wasn't ready.

Of course I had no idea of that. I thought I was more than ready. I had a degree from a fancy college. I was a voracious reader. I'd worked in bookstores most of my life. I'd also spent years in the theateracting and directingso I knew how to build a character. My grammar skills were excellent. I'd been in writing critique groups for years.

I didn't realize those things had very little to do with writing commercially viable fiction. 

Unfortunately, I'd made a promise to myself that I was going to have a book published by...some birthday or other. I honestly can't remember the number, but I had established an ironclad deadline in my mind. 

The closer I got to that deadline, the more desperate I felt. Sometimes I'd send out ten queries a day. I spent tons of money on conferences, pitching unpolished books to agents and editors who tried to be kind, but I could see by their faces I was doing something wrong.

My mistake?

Trying to start my career too early.

Here's what I didn't understand: nobody wants to read a rough draft. And even your tenth draft is probably rough if you're a newbie. Your story idea may be great, but wading through a beginner's writing vs. reading professional work is the difference between grading a student paper and picking up your favorite author's book for a relaxing evening.

This morning I saw a perplexed FB post from a new writer who had just got a bunch of negative reviews on her new self-published book. A click-through to her Amazon buy page showed a book full of errors, typos and formatting problems. It also had an amateurish cover. On top of this, the author had apparently put out a request for "5-star reviews" on social media, All anybody could tell her was: unpublish, get an editor, and learn about the business.

Here's the thing—even if your writing is polished—you're unlikely to get readership, much less an agent or publisher, unless you know something about the business of getting your work into the marketplace. You don't ask for reviews without offering review copies and you never demand a certain type of review.

So if you've got a "career plan" with ironclad deadlines like mine, make sure it includes the steps of writing several books and educating yourself about the business first. That's true whether you're planning to go the traditional route or self-publish. The rules are a little different, but both paths require business savvy and insider knowledge.

But I sure do relate to the huge pressure you're feeling to get this career on the road, NOW:

Why we rush

         You’ve got the external pressure:

  • From your mom, who thinks the fact you’ve written 80,000 words of anything is so amazing she’s already written up the press releases.
  • From your significant other, who wants to know when exactly his/her years of sharing you with that manuscript are going to start paying a few bills.
  • From your friends, who don't understand how you can spend all that time writing and have nothing to show for it. "How long can it take to write a book anyway? My mom can type 55 words a minute!"
  • From your critiquers and betas, who are so tired of helping you revise that WIP …AGAIN, they’re screaming “Send it! Away! Immediately!”
  • From self-publishing gurus who say "every minute you're not published, you're losing money."

    And the internal pressure:

  • From your battered self-esteem and those eye-rolls you get every time you tell somebody you’re "pre-published," and you’re only working at the cafe until you make it as a writer.
  • From artistic insecurity: you won’t REALLY know you have talent unless you’re validated by having a published book.
  • From financial insecurity: it’s tough to pay off the loans for the MFA when the only paying writing gig you’ve had since you got the degree is updating the menu for your brother-in-law’s food truck.
  • From your muse, who says: "This is pure brilliance. The world totally needs this book!" 

So what do we do to get the pressure to let up?

1) Realize the "rush" is an illusion

If you're feeling pressure to rush, remember it's all in your head, like my "ironclad deadline."

Yes, at the beginning of the e-publishing revolution, some of the biggest self-publishing gurus said stuff like "every day your book isn't published, you're losing money." I think the gurus intended to speak to traditionally-published mid-listers who had out-of-print backlists.

Unfortunately, it became a mantra for all the beginning writers with practice novels in their files.

Whatever the reason for the advice, it's not wise to follow it any more. The "bubble" in which the random amateur's 99-cent self-pubbed ebook could make the big time has deflated.

You're probably making better money working at the coffee place than what most writers make, even if they're traditionally published, so if you're writing because you're pressed for cash, choose another profession. It takes years to build the readership that can provide you with a living wage.

2) Get lots of feedback 

There are many ways to get free feedback before you get to the editing stage, as we detailed in our August posts on editing, critique groups, and beta readers. Most of them didn't exist when I was starting out. There are now online critique groups and beta reader connection sites. There's also self-editing software. Use whatever technique works for you, but don't write in a vacuum.

Another great innovation is story-sharing sites like Wattpad and Readwave. Some of the work on those sites is polished, professional stuff by well-known authors. (Long-time trad-pubbed author Elizabeth S. Craig has taken to Wattpad with good results.) But a lot of the writing on these sites comes from beginning writers who are still learning their craft. It's a way to be read and find fans while you're in that awkward stage I was in for so long.

If you're looking to go the traditional publishing route, preparing your manuscript by using any of these may be all you need to polish your work for an agent. In fact, some agents have picked up books right off Wattpad.

I have to stifle myself when I see comments from new writers who say they won't use a beta reader or editor, and they won't even query an agent because, "I'm not going to change a word of my novel for anybody. I write to please myself, not follow a bunch of phony rules."

Then they lament that agents or reviewers won't "give them a chance."

These people are deliberately choosing to remain amateurs and not enter the professional marketplace. Not that there's anything wrong with that. As I have blogged before, writing can be a wonderful hobby.

But for goodness' sake don't take up the time of agents, acquisitions editors, or reviewers with raw, unedited stuff you're not willing to work on.

I'm not saying you should change your book after every comment you get from a reviewer or critiquer. Far from it: you should ignore most of it. And even professional editors can fail to "get" every kind of writing. But do be aware that readers have expectations, and if you want to be read, you need to write for the contemporary reader, not just your own ego.

Musicians need to learn to master their instruments. Truckers need to learn to drive big rigs. Golfers need to learn to swing a club. Writers need to learn to craft words and sentences into a story. Learning takes time.

3) Practice, practice, practice

Easy self-publishing doesn't mean the learning process has been shortened. Learning to write narrative takes way longer than most people realize. (It took me about a decade longer than I expected.)

Self-publishing guru Kristine Kathryn Rusch put it this way:

 "Do you remember how much work you had to do to learn how to read a novel? It took you years to get to “big” books of more than 20 pages...It’s much easier to read a novel than it is to write one. Why do you think that writing a good one is possible on the very first try? If you want overnight success, this is not the profession for you. If you want a writing career, then learn it... It takes practice, practice, practice, learning, learning, learning, and patience, patience, patience.

And the wonderful Kristen Lamb also reminds us of this a lot. She often points out that Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours equal pretty much the length of time it takes to write three books. (That's how many polished novels I had before I got my first publisher.)

 " ...all you indie/self-pub authors who put your first book up for sale and you haven’t sold enough copies to buy tacos? Keep writing. 10,000 hours. 3 books. Traditional authors? Three books. Rare is the exception."

4) Write and publish short fiction and creative essays

Remember you get great practice from writing short stories, essays, and novellas. They are the best way to get yourself noticed now and they'll be a goldmine later on. One of the biggest regrets of my career is that I spent so much time working on unpublishable novels instead of short pieces that would be valuable to me now.

Short fiction is having a renaissance and we should all be writing more of it. (I have an article on this coming in the November issue of Writer's Digest.)

Short stories and creative nonfiction pieces are easier to get published and you may even get paid or win a money prize. Which can get all those pressuring voices in your head to shut up.

This can include guest blog posts, which will get your name known and make you Googleable: all-important in the digital age.

5) Learn the business

We don't just need to learn to craft book-length narrative, which involves a steep learning curve. We also also need to be savvy about the business we're trying to enter. These days, being an author means not only knowing how to write, but understanding the business of publishing as it exists NOW. (As I say above, this can mean different things depending on how you publish, but every business path has rules.)

For all of you who are screaming "No! No! I just want to write. I'm not going to corrupt my soul with any of that crass commercialism," scroll up to my link to the post on writing as a hobby.

You're choosing to be an amateur. Many happy writers have good reasons for writing for recreation rather than business. Just be clear on your goals.

I wasn't. I queried for years without having a clue about genre or where my books would fit in the marketplace. I was firmly entrenched in the delusion that somebody could "just write" and be a professional author.

I knew you couldn't run a restaurant and "just cook" or a own a dress shop and "just buy pretty clothes." But I didn't want to accept that writing is a business.

So now I'm grateful that all my rotten queries got rejected. Even when I got those seven rejections in one day.

This is the simple truth: we have to become professionals before we join an industry. Any industry.

This post isn't meant to discourage anybody. It's meant to urge you to learn to be the best writer you can be—so you can have that career you've always dreamed of—not one unpolished book languishing in agents' slush piles or on book retail sites, unwanted and unloved.

You owe it to your book to do it right.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you feel pressured to get published? Did you self-publish before you were ready? Have you decided to be a happy amateur and leave all those pressures behind? If you're farther along in your career, what advice do you have for newbies who feel the pressure to publish before they have several books ready to go? 


I got a crash course in the publishing business when my first novel, Food of Love was accepted by a small UK publisher in 2001. Not only did I have to learn about promoting my own books, but I was invited to live and work with the company, which was located in the English Midlands, near the legendary Sherwood Forest. The setting and colorful cast of characters provided the perfect backdrop for a mystery novel. That novel became Sherwood Ltd., published by MWiDP in 2011. It is now available in a brand new e-edition, from Kotu Beach Press.

And it's only 99c for two weeks on AppleNook, Kobo, Inkterra Amazon USAmazon UK, Amazon CA, etc.  
It's also available in paper at Amazon  US and Amazon UK.  

This second book in the Camilla Randall Mysteries follows Camilla's hilarious misadventures with merry band of outlaw indie publishers in the English Midlands. Always a magnet for murder, mischief and Mr. Wrong, she falls for a self-styled Robin Hood who may or may not be trying to kill her. It follows Ghostwriters in the Sky, but can be read as a stand-alone. 

I like this book. I REALLY like this book. It's not yer typical whodunnit, nor is the protagonist anything like a cop. Ms. Allen has crafted a wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills to suspicion of everybody in the book. Good on her! Editorially, the book is also refreshingly well-done and all but devoid of grammatical or other such gaffes. This was obviously written by an intelligent woman who is also a fine story-teller. My congratulations to her...David H. Keith


It's #4 in the Camilla Randall series, but it's easily read as a stand-alone. Set in the gorgeous wine country around San Luis Obispo, it's what one reviewer called 
"A fun, witty and charming novel about the rich and the less so."
It's available on Amazon US and UK in both regular and LARGE PRINT
Amazon has it on sale right now for $10.79 and £5.99


The Central Coast Writers Conference One of the best deals around in a weekend writer's conference. And it's held on the Cuesta College campus in beautiful San Luis Obispo, CA. Mystery writer legend Anne Perry is the keynote speaker. I'll see you there! September 19th-20th

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

Steamy Romance Anthology. Fast Foreword is open for submissions for their "Holiday Hot Romance Anthology" Holiday-themed steamy romance or erotica. 3,000-8,000 words long. If the work has been published elsewhere, you must include bibliographic information and hold all publication rights. Deadline September 20th

WRITER'S DIGEST POPULAR FICTION AWARDS. Early Bird fee $20. Stories up to 4000 words in six genres Science Fiction/Fantasy,Thriller,Young Adult, Romance, Crime, Horror. Early Bird Deadline September 15th.

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