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The Differences Between a Crime Novel, Mystery Novel and Thriller Novel

Every writer’s job is to give the reader what she wants in a way she doesn’t expect. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] (And it’s wise to remember that every agent and editor is foremost a reader, too.)

One of the first things to consider when setting out, therefore, is what kinds of expectations your story creates, so you can go about gratifying readers in surprising ways.

This is particularly true of writing in a genre, where conventions can seem ironclad—or all too often degrade into formula. And formula, by definition, surprises no one.

The suspense genres in particular have a number of seemingly hard and fast rules that a writer defies at his peril. And yet the most satisfying mysteries, thrillers and crime stories find a way to create a new take on those rules to fashion something fresh, interesting, original. In other words, while you don’t want to mistakenly pitch your cozy mystery to an agent who wants only high-octane thrillers, you also want to make sure that when you connect with that cozy-loving agent, she’ll be jumping to sign you because your cozy stands out from the rest.

Here’s a map to help you navigate subgenre subtleties.

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Mystery Novels

A crime is committed—almost always a murder—and the action of the story is the solution of that crime: determining who did it and why, and obtaining some form of justice. The best mystery stories often explore man’s unique capacity for deceit—especially self-deceit—and demonstrate a humble respect for the limits of human understanding. This is usually considered the most cerebral (and least violent) of the suspense genres.

Thematic emphasis: How can we come to know the truth? (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)

Structural distinctions: The basic plot elements of the mystery form are:

  1. The baffling crime
  2. The singularly motivated investigator
  3. The hidden killer
  4. The cover-up (often more important than the crime itself, as the cover-up is what conceals the killer)
  5. Discovery and elimination of suspects (in which creating false suspects is often part of the killer’s plan)
  6. Evaluation of clues (sifting the true from the untrue)
  7. Identification and apprehension of the killer.

[How to Craft Characters Scene by Scene]

Additional Reader Expectations:

The Hero: Whether a cop, a private eye, a reporter or an amateur sleuth, the hero must possess a strong will to see justice served, often embodied in a code (for example, Harry Bosch’s “Everyone matters or no one matters” in the popular Michael Connelly series). He also often possesses not just a great mind but great empathy—a fascination not with crime, per se, but with human nature.

The Villain: The crime may be a hapless accident or an elaborately staged ritual; it’s the cover-up that unifies all villains in the act of deceit. The attempt to escape justice, therefore, often best personifies the killer’s malevolence. The mystery villain is often a great deceiver, or trickster, and succeeds because she knows how to get others to believe that what’s false is true.

Setting: Although mysteries can take place anywhere, they often thematically work well in tranquil settings—with the crime peeling back the mask of civility to reveal the more troubling reality beneath the surface.

Reveals: Given its emphasis on determining the true from the untrue, the mystery genre has more reveals than any other—the more shocking and unexpected, the better.


Mystery Subgenres

Cozy: One of the ironic strengths of this subgenre is the fact that, by creating a world in which violence is rare, a bloody act resonates far more viscerally than it would in a more urban or disordered setting. Reader Expectations: A unique and engaging protagonist: Father Brown, Miss Marple, Kinsey Millhone. The crime should be clever, requiring ingenuity or even brilliance on the hero’s part to solve. Secondary characters can be coarse, but never the hero—or the author. Justice triumphs in the end, and the world returns to its original tranquility.

Hard-boiled: The hero is a cop or PI, tough and capable. The moral view is often that of hard-won experience in the service of innocence or decency. The hero tends to be more world-weary than bitter—but that ice can get slippery. Reader Expectations: A strong hero who can “walk the mean streets but who is not himself mean,” as Raymond Chandler once put it. A realistic portrayal of crime and its milieu, with detailed knowledge of criminal methods and investigative techniques. The style is often brisk and simple, reflecting the unpretentious nature of the hero, who is intelligent but not necessarily learned. Although the hero almost always sees that justice prevails, there is usually a bittersweet resolution. The streets remain mean; such is the human condition.

Police Procedural: A cousin to the hard-boiled subgenre, with the unit or precinct taking over for the lone cop. Reader Expectations: Much like the hard-boiled detective story, but with a larger cast and special focus on police tactics, squad-room psychology, station-house politics, and the tensions between the police and politicians, the media and the citizenry.

Medical, Scientific or Forensic Mystery: A refinement of the police procedural in which the protagonists—doctors, medical examiners, forensic pathologists or other technical experts—use intelligence and expertise, not guns, as their weapons. Reader Expectations: Similar to the police procedural, with extra emphasis on the physical details of analyzing unusual evidence.

Legal or Courtroom Drama: The crime is seen through the eyes of the lawyers prosecuting or defending the case. Reader Expectations: A meticulous rendering of criminal court procedure and politics, along with how police and prosecutors work together (or don’t).


In this genre the focus is on the contest of wills between the lawman hero and the outlaw opponent, and their differing views of morality and the aspects of society they represent. The greatest crime stories deal with a moral accounting on the part of the hero for his entire life, or provide some new perspective on the tension between society and the individual.

Thematic emphasis: What is a just society? The story world of the novel is out of balance, somewhere between a state of nature (where chaos prevails and those with money and/or guns wield power) and a police state (where paranoia prevails and the state monopolizes power). The hero hopes in some way to rectify that imbalance.

Other moral themes can include the challenge of decency, honor and integrity in a corrupt world; individual freedom versus law and order; and the tension between ambition and obligations to others.

Structural distinctions: There is seldom any “mystery” as to who the criminal is. Typically the story starts with a brilliant or daring crime, and then a cat-and-mouse game of wits and will ensues, with the tension created by the increasing intensity of the battle between the opponents. The underlying question is: Will the cops prevail before the opponent stages his next crime?

Given the similarity to war and action stories, the prose often tends toward the naturalistic.

Additional Reader Expectations:

The Hero: Usually a tough and capable cop (or vigilante) who believes in the society she defends despite its flaws, the crime fiction hero is often seen as an outcast but is revealed to be the most morally engaged character in the story.

The Villain: Routinely a tough and brilliant criminal who considers the system rigged and the society inherently flawed, he is often a kind of Luciferian rebel—the rogue individual par excellence—even if he commands a crew
or organization.

Setting: This genre gravitates toward urban locales, but suburban, rural and even wilderness settings have all been used to great effect. Let the setting ground the moral theme.

Reversals: Just as the mystery genre, by focusing on the search for truth, obliges numerous reveals, the crime genre, by focusing on battle, obliges numerous reversals—with the hero and the villain trading knockout blows and suffering serious setbacks to their respective plans.

[The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)]

The Noir Subgenre

Here, the criminal, or someone who is morally compromised—perhaps even a cop—serves as hero. The moral calculus is usually Bad vs. Worse.

Generally, the “hero” finds himself in some sort of desperate situation, or is tempted into one by an opportunity he sees as his last, best chance at the brass ring. The lure of sex or money routinely leads to violence and often betrayal. If the hero is a cop, the reader is never quite sure whether he’s going to solve a crime or commit one. Or both. Reader Expectations: The real allure is the psychology of temptation and desperation, the little guy trying not to drown. Readers expect plot twists, often based on the hero’s inability to see what he’s up against.


Where mystery stories represent the most cerebral of the three major suspense genres, and crime stories the most dramatic, thrillers are typically the most emotional, focusing on the fear, doubt and dread of the hero as she faces some form of what Dean Koontz has deemed “terrible trouble.” This genre is a hybrid of mystery and horror. However, the thriller also shares a literary lineage with the epic and myth. Monsters, terror and peril prevail.

Thematic emphasis: The dangerous world we live in, the vulnerability of the average person, and the inherent threat of the unknown.

Structural distinctions: The plot often proceeds along these lines:

A devastating crime is about to be committed, or has been committed with the threat of an even worse one in the wings.

The perpetrator is known, but his guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of his guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.)

The hero is under constant attack as she tries to definitively prove the perpetrator’s guilt and/or stop the next atrocity. (Note the difference from the mystery genre, where the villain typically remains hidden.)

Additional Reader Expectations:

The Hero: Given the relentless attack the villain inflicts, and the emphasis on terror and dread, the thriller hero must be vulnerable—not just physically but psychologically.

The Villain: In the best thrillers, the villain either targets the hero specifically from the outset or learns through the course of the story what his particular weaknesses and wants are, and targets them for ruthless attack.

Setting: Whether as small as a cottage in the woods or as large as the planet, the world the hero seeks to protect represents everything she values. The stakes are ultimate.

Thriller Subgenres

Epic Thriller: This usually concerns the threat of some catastrophe affecting whole communities, cities, countries, even the planet. The threat need not be total devastation—the assassination of a leader will do—but the effect of the action must be profound.

The villain can be a terrorist, a diabolical genius, or an ordinary person with an oversized grudge and a unique capacity for damage.

Given the scope of the threat, the protagonist must possess the skills to defeat the villain, and thus is often a soldier, a spy, a trained assassin, a cop, or a civilian with a special skill set. The action is brisk, even nonstop, and the climax needs to be both thoroughly foreshadowed (we need to know the basic parameters of the threat all along, and the measures being taken to stop it) and unexpected (plot twists are not optional—they’re required). This is a pull-out-all-the-stops genre. Reader Expectations: A diabolical plot, a superbly capable and motivated nemesis, a hero with an impossible mission, breakneck pacing, and clever but credible plot twists.

Psychological Thriller/Suspense: Here the threat is still diabolical but more contained, even intimate—usually targeting the protagonist and/or his family—and the hero is often a relatively “ordinary” man, woman or child. The pacing is a bit more deliberate, to reflect the ordinary person’s difficulty understanding the exact nature of the threat—and the enemy—and then struggling to respond. The third act, however, moves briskly. Reader Expectations: Emphasis is on the eerie over the sensational. Twists again are key, with chapters routinely ending in one disturbing revelation after another. Character is more important than pacing, but pacing can’t be neglected. This subgenre demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without explosions or car chases.

Supernatural Thriller: This subgenre is something of a hybrid, in that the nemesis presents an overwhelming threat—he might be Satan himself—and yet that threat is often focused on a single soul or a mere few, rather than the whole of mankind, at least within the story. Reader Expectations: An amplification of the powers available to the villain, whether the threat posed is truly spiritual or merely psychological in nature. Also, obviously, a credibly rendered menace from the spirit realm.

Stumbling into a mystery, thriller or crime story without understanding what agents, editors and readers expect is a recipe for disaster. Know what they want—and then find a way to gratify that desire in ways they don’t see coming. Your efforts will be rewarded with a resounding yes.

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david-corbett200art-of-character-200This guest post is by David Corbett, who is the award-winning author of five novels, the story collection Killing Yourself to Survive and the nonfiction work, The Art of Character. David is a regular contributor to Writer’s Digest. He resides in Northern California with his wife and their Wheaten terrier. Find him online at

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5 Tips for Better Book Cover Typography

Contributed by Reedsy.

A book’s cover is a key marketing tool, reflecting the contents of the book. As you might guess, the typeface of your book title and other cover text (the style and appearance on the page) are just as important.

First impressions count. Even if you’re not likely to pay a lot of attention to fonts on book covers, they make the difference between a book that will be picked up and a book that looks unprofessional, cheap, or simply misleading.

This post will dive into this crucial component of a book cover. Read on to find out how to handle book cover typography — and how to make yours stand out and sell your book.

1. Match the genre

All things considered, you want the appearance of your text to convey the message you are trying to get across. Whether that’s signaling that the book is a romance, a thriller, or an informative non-fiction book, the typography is going to be a crucial element of tying it all together.

For example, for Tara Westover’s non-fiction memoir Educated, a simple serif font is used for the title, and the subtitle (‘a memoir’) and author name are sans-serif (have noembellishments at the end of letters). Many say that serif fonts look more ‘trustworthy,’ and feel modern. This is because they are simple and matter-of-fact: all moods that a non-fiction book will want to elicit.

Readers of certain genres will, consciously or unconsciously, be expecting certain things from your book cover. Fantasy book covers are often home to sweeping calligraphy-style fonts, for example. Ilana C. Myer’s Fire Dance does this subtly — the embellishments on the ‘R’ and ‘N’ signal the genre, but it is still reasonably simple and easy to read.

2. No Papyrus, no Comic Sans

A general rule of thumb: don’t use a font that comes pre-installed on MS Word. Typefaces like Comic Sans and Papyrus are instantly recognizable and will make the cover look ‘handmade.’

If there’s one that’s very close to what you’re looking for, you can build up and edit fonts with programs like InDesign to alter spacings and the length of existing letterings, or even just remove the very edge of letters.

You can find ideas and free fonts to use on sites like and There are also plenty of other websites to search for where you will be able to access a variety of fonts without plagiarising (and also without spending dozens of dollars).

Free Webinar: What Every Author Should Know About Book Cover Design

3. Less is more

An effective approach can be to make typography the focus of your cover, or the only visual element. Playing with minimalism, space, and letter spacing is often an interesting way to make the absence of image or text just as effective as filling the cover. Dolly Alderton’s cover design is literally just the title, but it playfully hints at the narrative voice you’ll find within.

Particularly, conjunctions like ‘and,’ ‘the,’ or, ‘of the,’ can interact inventively with your background image or illustration, like in this novel by Tsh Oxenreider. The ‘less important’ words are made significantly smaller, which foregrounds the confusing pairing of ‘home’ and ‘world’ — central to the book’s idea of finding a home and belonging while travelling all over the globe.

Remember that you don’t have to use the same font for everything. However, don’t use more than, say, two or three, depending on if you have a subtitle, or reviews, etc — it will look messy and confusing.

And if you think you might have a potential series on your hands, aim for a simpler design. They are more transferable, and easier to be manipulated further down the line.

Having said all that, your title does need to be big! There are debates as to whether it should be legible in thumbnail form, but it certainly needs to be the focus of the cover.


4. Words are pictures, too

When your creativity is completely set free, your typography may end up looking like an image in and of itself.

Thinking of your imagery and typography as overlapping working parts can give you space for visual puns (like the small bombs on Karan Mahajan’s cover), hint at the characters or plot of the book, or even just allow you to exercise some creative license.

If your lettering is large and simple, it also adds character and room for some fun ideas. David Nicholls’ Us, similar to the design of some of his earlier novels, plays with this idea by having figures hang from and walk along the lettering of the title itself.

5. Consider the visual hierarchy

An awareness of the visual hierarchy of your text will make your book cover look professional and easy to navigate. Readers will assume what is important by the weight and size of the lettering, and you can direct their gazes accordingly.

The title, the author name, and (if applicable) your subtitle should be easily identifiable. Lisa Manterfield’s book cover strikes a balance between title and author name. It also follows the golden rule: if in doubt, keep it simple.

Natural contrast (light text on a dark background, for example) is a seamless way to highlight and make clear the information that you want your reader to receive.

What you’re seeking is balance: a delicate chemistry between image, text, and other information. Simply put, if your image is super busy, keep the type simple. But if you’ve got a large chunk of text that needs to go on the front cover, keep the imagery pared back.

The crux of typography on book covers is the potential to maximize the impact of your book title, and your book cover as a whole. When done well, it is an effective tool to utilize in order to give your book the best chance on the shelves, and hopefully you now have the tools to do just that.

This content was contributed by Reedsy and includes one or more affiliate links for their products and/or services. Writer’s Digest participates in various affiliate marketing programs, which means we may get paid commissions on editorially chosen products and services purchased through our links to retailer and partner sites.

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Writing Exercise: How to Start Loving Your Characters

As you probably are aware by now, story is what drives a reader to the end of a book, but characters are what readers fall in love with. The Greeks referred to this tension with the terms Thanos and Eros. Thanos, which refers to death, is the drive of the plot that forces a reader to keep going until the end of the book. Eros, love, is a relationship that the reader develops with the character; something that keeps readers in the book and not wanting it to ever end.

So, how can you make your characters—flaws and all—people that your readers can’t forget?

As Mark Twain said, “Don’t tell us that the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” To paraphrase, readers get to know characters through their actions—not through their thoughts or words. Here is an exercise that you can work on while you think about how to make your characters the best they can be:

Take a character you’ve been working on. Put him or her in an entirely unfamiliar situation (a priest at a Grateful Dead concert; an Olympic swimmer in a dessert). Write a scene of what that character DOES in that situation—using words only if you absolutely must. How does this character’s action reveal his or her personality?

How a Strong Character Arc Can Make Readers Love Your Protagonist

In this situation, you might find that it is your character’s flaws rather than your character’s strengths that most grab your readers. Forcing someone out of his or her element bypasses the stock, stereotypical responses that you might be tempted to use when writing that character in a familiar situation.

Show your characters some love and stretch the heck out of them! Then, you will figure out who they really are.

Learn more in the online workshop Character Development: Creating Memorable Characters:

When you take this online writing course, you will learn how to create believable fiction characters and construct scenes with emotional depth and range. Learn more and register.

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Taming the Synopsis: 4 Steps for Perfecting One-Page and Long-Form Synopses

The prospect of condensing a novel into a synopsis can intimidate even the most seasoned writers. But when approached one step at a time, this fearsome beast can become a trusted companion on your publishing journey. Ammi-Joan Paquette explains how to write a synopsis for any novel.

illustrations by Jason Williams

Tales of a powerful writing creature have long been told around the publishing campfire. It has the capacity to shape story ideas, assist in revision, provide essential book-marketing aid. Yet despite its magical properties, the mere mention of this brute has been known to drive some authors to tears, and induce spasms of terror in others.

Dare I utter its name? Ladies and gentlemen, please brace yourselves for: The Synopsis.

No, wait! Don’t run away! I know we’re speaking of a beast of legend, and there is much talk of sharp fangs and slavering jaws.

But I promise, with a little bit of savvy and know-how, you can take that monster from foe to friend. Still not convinced? Allow me to explain how to write a synopsis.

How to Write a Synopsis from the Ground Up

The prospect of drafting a synopsis can often feel more overwhelming than the entire book that led up to it. This step-by-step process will help you along the way. Each progression not only provides you with a completed version of a synopsis—along with practical tips for its use—but also moves you along the path toward a fulllength document. By the end of these exercises, you should have a robust synopsis arsenal at your disposal for every occasion.


Begin by seeing if off the top of your head you can refine your novel into a single compelling sentence. At this length, you have no choice but to keep it ultra-brief—who, what, why. Imagine a friend asking what your book is about. Your answer should provide the bedrock for this onesentence summary.

Don’t worry if what you come up with doesn’t feel exactly right at first. Keep working on it and refining it over time. Practicing the pitch aloud can help you hone it based on others’ reactions—revealing what elements draw the most interest, what feels comfortable, what you most like the sound of.

Ready to get a bit more technical? Combine the following elements into a new, single sentence:

  1. your main character
  2. their driving want or need
  3. the primary hindrance keeping them from satisfying that want or need.

Now, take a look at your two separate pitches. How do they compare? Which do you prefer? Can you combine the best elements of each into a single, jaw-dropping one-sentence synopsis?

Here’s an example, from my newest novel: “The Train of Lost Things is the story of a boy who loses his most precious possession, and goes on a magical adventure in hopes of getting it back.”

Take time to bond with this sentence. From here on out it will be your best buddy, your answer to the first question everyone asks when they hear you’re writing a book, and a foundation to build upon.


Now, take your single sentence and round it out to a full-paragraph, slightly expanded summary. You’re still focused on thinking brief, but now providing a wider view of the characters, conflict and story itself. Think about incorporating some (not necessarily all) of the below:

  • setting
  • character’s age range
  • main antagonist
  • love interest
  • details on conflict, difficulty or challenge.

Consider this example: “The Train of Lost Things tells the story of 11-year-old Marty, who loses a jean jacket given to him by his terminally ill father. Having heard of a magical train that gathers up the precious lost things of children, Marty goes searching for it—in hopes of finding not only the lost jacket, but a way to save his father as well.”

This single-paragraph blurb might be your most valuable tool of all. You will use it in crafting your query letter, describing your book to others and, once the book is sold, as information for marketing and publicity events (possibly even as the copy on your back cover).


The expansion continues, this time from a paragraph to a page. (Note: Synopses are typically single-spaced.)

This stage is where you touch on secondary characters; Stay succinct—one page is not long. Limit yourself to naming just two or three characters. In this form, you’re still aiming to capture the heart of your story, not its every nuance. Look for spots in which to add voice and flavor, giving the reader a feel for your narrative style within the book. Remember, overly detailed synopses only lead to questions. Your goal is to keep your readers on the edge of their seats, not scratching their heads in puzzlement.

How to Write a Synopsis When You Have Lots of Characters in Your Story

Here’s my example (first paragraph only, for brevity’s sake):

“Four months ago, Marty’s dad gave him a special gift for his 11th birthday: a jean jacket, along with a few badges and pins depicting special events the two of them have shared. The very next day, Marty was devastated to learn that his dad has terminal cancer. Since then, the two of them have sought out and collected many more pins, each one linked to a shared memory. Then one day, on his way home from a trip, Marty loses the jacket—right as his dad’s health takes a turn for the worse. Marty is devastated.” (And the synopsis goes on from here.)

As with the one-paragraph pitch, this one-page synopsis can be useful in writing your query letter. Also, some agents or editors like to see a single-page synopsis in advance of, or along with, the query. It’s a robust, all-purpose tool that will serve you well along the writing journey.


The final step takes you from one page to a full, multi-page synopsis. How long, exactly? Generally, aim for about one single-spaced synopsis page per 10,000 words of finished manuscript. This ratio may change if you have an extra-long novel, as in an epic fantasy. As an agent, I typically see full synopses of five to eight pages. Once you get writing, you’ll likely sense how long it should be based on how the story flows.

Again, my example (first paragraph only):

“Marty Teufel is a sensitive, anxious, observant child. He listens more than he speaks, and he cares deeply about everything that goes on around him. His most precious possession is the jean jacket he got for his 11th birthday, four months ago. His dad bought it for him on a special outing—the last time Dad was out and about before his sickness took a turn for the worse. Since his birthday, Marty has been spending all his pocket money seeking out and buying little pins to add to the collection on the front of his jacket; each of the 29 pins is connected to a special memory and story shared with his dad. The jacket is irreplaceable.”

(And the synopsis goes on from here.)

A long-form synopsis is sometimes requested by interested agents or editors. Post-publication, it can be a useful marketing tool, or can be made available to interested subrights parties. Lastly, a full-length synopsis can be useful when revising—as described below.

An Invaluable Revision Tool

Another way a synopsis holds value is as a device to help with revision. Writing a detailed synopsis is an excellent way to analyze your plot turns and test how they work within the story framework. Because it’s a prose retelling, you can evaluate how the story holds together as you write it out. Boiling down your entire novel to a handful of pages allows you to spot plot holes and story weaknesses that can get lost in the larger shuffle. Such a format also allows you to more easily hold the whole story in your mind, with all its threads, when you are looking at it through this narrowed lens. After writing your synopsis, give it a fresh read-through (perhaps after setting it aside for a few days) and ask yourself:

  • What else does this story need?
  • What is missing that could better tie the story elements together?
  • How can I improve the flow, the tension, the pacing?

Now, like a skilled matador, you should feel ready to face The Synopsis with a steady gaze. I promise, not only does the beast not bite, but with a little care and feeding it can become your closest companion—and a true writing partner.

Online Course: Revision & Self Editing

Every writer knows that the journey to publication is a long and hard road. Once you finish your first draft, it’s time to start the arduous process of self-editing and revision. When you take this online writing workshop, you will learn the methods of self-editing for fiction writers to ensure your writing is free of errors and ready to pitch. Learn more and register.

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12 Most Popular Grammar Questions and Answers on

Today is National Grammar Day, and I think the best way to celebrate is to share the 12 most popular grammar questions and answers on (Thanks to former editor Brian A. Klems for creating all these original posts!)

So let’s get grammatically correct! (Please let me know where my grammar has strayed in this post.)


Avoid the Most Common Mistakes!

Nobody’s perfect, but there are some mistakes that annoy editors more than others. Learn the most common mistakes writers make and how to avoid them with Top Ten Errors Writers Make That Editors Hate.

This tutorial shares the most common grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors; the most typical inconsistencies; the most frequent stylistic errors; ways to spot and avoid hangnail writing; ways to support natural plot development; and so much more!

Click to continue.


12 Most Popular Grammar Questions and Answers on

Here they are. I’ve condensed the information below, but you can get more insight by clicking on each link.

  1. Which vs. That. Learn how using which and that can both make sense but still change the meaning of the same sentence.
  2. Lay vs. Lie (vs. Laid). I lay down books before I lie down to rest. Also, lie becomes laid in the past tense while lie becomes lay…and don’t forget lain.
  3. Do you underline book titles? The answer is, of course, yes–unless your house style claims otherwise.
  4. When do I spell out numbers? The most common rule is to spell out numbers nine or lower (less? fewer?) and use numerals for 10 and up. Find exceptions by clicking on the link.
  5. Ensure vs. Insure. Some think these words are interchangeable, but insure is usually related to financial terms, while ensure is usually means “to make certain.”
  6. Into vs. In To. There is difference in running into a person and running in to talk to a person. If you don’t get it, try clicking in to see some examples.
  7. The Rule is Not “A” Before Consonants and “An” Before Vowels. It’s not about the letter; it’s about the sound the letter makes: so “a” before “how” but “an” before “hour.”
  8. Is It People or Persons? Most people use people, but persons is totally appropriate for a smaller group of people (or persons).
  9. Affect vs. Effect. Affect is generally used as a verb, and effect is usually a noun. I like Brian’s mnemonic device: The action is affect, the end result is effect.
  10. How Many Spaces After a Period? When I started typing, the rule was two. But computers have changed the norm to one. So quit it with the two spaces, unless you’re using a typewriter.
  11. Snuck vs. Sneaked. The quick answer is that sneaked is the proper way to sneak in somewhere in the past tense. But, you know, snuck is sneaking its way into common usage. Debate below.
  12. Hone vs. Home. Hone is used “to sharpen or make more acute,” while home is used in more of a directional or targeting sense. So hone those skills of homing in on the bullseye.


Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community, specifically working on the Market Books,, and maintaining the Poetic Asides blog. Follow him on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer. And be sure to follow his friend and former editor Brian A. Klems @BrianKlems.

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Writing Exercise: Judge a Book By its Cover

Everyone knows the old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. However, imagining what a book might be about based on what you see on the cover can be a useful writing exercise.

This is the idea behind the recurring segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers, called “Fred Judges a Book by its Cover.” In this segment, Meyers begins by saying that Armisen is very busy and does not have any time to read, not even one minute. However, Armisen claims to have the ability to know the entire plot of a book simply by looking at the image on the front cover.

To test his ability, Meyers will show Armisen the cover of a newly released book for him to look at and guess how the story goes. Of course, Armisen’s fake plots are always far-fetched, make little sense and have zero resemblance to what the book is actually about. But that’s not to say that hilarity and creativity do not ensue.

Why not try Armisen’s activity to stimulate your own creativity? Many book jackets have beautiful designs, but are vague enough that the story you invent won’t be a rip-off of the book it actually represents. To avoid being too influenced by the real plot of a book, try this activity using the covers of books that you have not read or with books written by authors you are unfamiliar with. Do not read the plot summary on the back cover until you have written your own story.

Take it to the Next Level 

Try this exercise for an entire series of books. Find a series you haven’t read (and know nothing about) in your local bookstore. Think of a plot inspired by each book cover. In the true spirit of a book series, each of the stories you create must build upon the story you thought of for the previous book in the series.

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