Ready to tackle your novel? We’ve got your back – browse through all the practical, encouraging, and personal advice from Penguin Random House authors here. For a concrete guide featuring tried and true methods, Signature has compiled a truly wonderful Writing Guide. Check out these excellent books to inspire and instruct. National Novel Writing Month is almost here! Happy writing!
Penguin Random House authors Ron Chernow, James McBride, Elaine Pagels, Abraham Verghese and Isabel Wilkerson are among the recipients of this year’s National Humanities Medals, and our author Sandra Cisneros is among the recipients of the National Medal of Arts, it was announced this week by President Barack Obama. These prestigious awards will be personally presented by the President in a special White House ceremony on Thursday, September 22. The ceremony will be streamed live. Our authors were recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as follows:
- Ron Chernow for bringing our Nation’s story to life. Through his examination of America’s successful giants and titans, he also invites his readers to discover their failures and foibles, uncovering enduring lessons that inform our modern era.
- Sandra Cisneros for enriching the American narrative. Through her novels, short stories, and poetry, she explores issues of race, class, and gender through the lives of ordinary people straddling multiple cultures. As an educator, she has deepened our understanding of American identity.
- James McBride for humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America. Through writings about his own uniquely American story, and his works of fiction informed by our shared history, his moving stories of love display the character of the American family.
- Elaine Pagels for her exploration of faith and its traditions. Through her study of ancient manuscripts and other scholarly work, she has generated new interest and dialogue about our contemporary search for knowledge and meaning.
- Abraham Verghese for reminding us that the patient is the center of the medical enterprise. His range of proficiency embodies the diversity of the humanities; from his efforts to emphasize empathy in medicine, to his imaginative renderings of the human drama.
- Isabel Wilkerson for championing the stories of an unsung history. Her masterful combination of intimate human narratives with broader societal trends allows us to measure the epic migration of a people by its vast impact on our Nation and on each individual life.
Penguin Random House Creative Writing Awards is a wonderful program that presents scholarships to NYC high school seniors.
Since 1994, more than two million dollars have been awarded to students and their schools by Random House, and now Penguin Random House, through this awards competition.Congratulations to this year’s first place winners:
- Katelyn Sasson of Edward R. Murrow High School for Poetry;
- Jason Lallijee of Townsend Harris High School for Fiction & Drama;
- Roberta Nin Feliz of Manhattan Center for Sciences and Mathematics forMemoir;
- David Ortiz of Marta Valle High School for Graphic Novel;
- and Devin Johnson of Thomas A. Edison Career Technical High School, the recipient of the $10,000 Maya Angelou Scholarship Award for Spoken Word Poetry.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? I write during the day, print out whatever I am working on in the evening and bicycle with those pages to my favorite Japanese restaurant where I alternate between a blue pencil and chopsticks. This transfer, from screen to paper, from solitary desk to public sushi counter, gives me the sense that I’m examining my writing with ‘fresh eyes.’ It is, of course, only an illusion that Tim Sultan, the writer, and Tim Sultan, the reader, are not one and the same but it’s an illusion that works for me. Needless to say, I am a very popular customer at this restaurant. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Some people walk their dogs before breakfast, I walk my coffee. Each morning year-round I put on a minimal ensemble—sneakers, a t-shirt or sweater, and shorts. Never trousers as being underdressed for the weather is of the essence. It’s circulation–of blood, of thoughts, of images–I’m after, not snug comfort. I descend from hearty stock that encouraged this sort of thing. I walk the half-mile to my favorite coffee shop, order a cup to go and return home through the park. I call this surveying. I survey the exercisers, the pigeon feeders, the dogs racing around with clouds of breath coming from their snouts—and I survey my life, my writing, perhaps chewing on an editorial conundrum that had me in a jam the previous day. Whatever my mind alights on. If I’m lucky, I return home with a new turn of phrase, a fresh idea, a missing word, and I take it from there. I can affirm that waking up the mind in this manner beats turning on a screen in the morning. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? “Look forward and don’t be afraid.” I found this single sentence in a notebook that belonged to my mother. She had written it to herself not long before she passed away. The page leans against the wall by my desk where I regard that message and reinterpret its meaning every day. For writing, for life. Describe your writing style in 5 words or less. Thoughtful, digressive, occasionally extravagant, empathetic What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher I have read it more than any other book. I have read to myself, to friends, and at my father’s memorial service. I admire it like no other. For its naturalistic prose coupled with a grand imagination. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez had been a Vermonter… Between Meals by A.J. Liebling I think it was John Irving who once said that he always carries on him ‘a flood book.’ Something to read if he finds himself unexpectedly marooned. This is my flood book and more often than not, I stick a copy in my jacket as I’m going out the door in the evening. It’s the sort of book one can open to any page and begin reading without feeling one has missed a beat. Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal A short masterpiece about an underground visionary with the tenderest of souls. Elegiac without being melancholy, profound without being solemn. Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter Sometimes one admires most the other. Salter’s style here is terse, understated, disciplined. His characters share the world with Edward Hopper’s subjects. We are ultimately on our own. Learn more about Sunny’s Nights here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! Sparrow Beckett is the pen-name for two writers in two countries who combine forces and collaborate. Justice and Sorcha have both answered the questions below. What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? Justice: Someone once told me a good novel is made up of mostly strong, colorful nouns and verbs. As writers, we often hear the terms active writing versus passive writing. Filling a book with adverbs makes a story sound passive. So when I’m writing, I go for strong descriptive nouns and verbs. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Sorcha: With an evil day job and a big family, I’m so busy that I’m exhilarated by every free moment to write. If I get stuck in one of my stories, I switch to one of my many others. Justice: I get inspired from all sorts of things. Sometimes a movie, another book, or even a song I hear on the radio. When I’m feeling low on inspiration, I’ll surround myself with different media and types of art. Usually something will jump out and the wheels will start turning. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? Sorcha: I started writing a Black Beauty fanfic when I was seven. For Grade Ten English class, I wrote a novella, and then a novel for Grade Thirteen Creative Writing. My novel was so bad, that the publisher I submitted it to sent me a rejection with a blank space where my name was supposed to go. I quit writing after that. About two decades later, I started writing for fun. That was when I met Justice in an online group, and she introduced me to the modern world of publishing. Justice: I was a writer before I was a writer, if that makes any sense. Writing is just in me. It’s been a part of everything I’ve ever done, before I even realized it. So finally getting the guts to officially try writing a fiction book didn’t surprise anyone. I started by self-publishing back when it was a budding development. I learned a lot and I think it better prepared me for the traditional publishing world. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? Sorcha: Quit making excuses and write. Justice: Find an amazing crit partner or group – the harsher the better. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? Sorcha: I think stalling out of self-doubt is the biggest bad habit to avoid. Feeling like you’ll never be as talented as your favorite author isn’t a good enough excuse to give up. You owe it to yourself to work at it. Justice: I have to agree with Sorcha. Self-doubt can be crippling and, unfortunately, something many authors, including myself, suffer from regularly. It’s hard to stay positive among rejections and brutal reviews. I have to remind myself constantly that everyone has their own journey, comparing yourself to other authors is pointless, and that giving up just isn’t an option. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? Sorcha: The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon – The main character has an arc that fills me with hope and a sense of personal responsibility. The Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett – Like most of Pratchett’s work, it shows human nature in a humorous yet poignant light. These books explore themes of power, respect, and responsibility. The Jalav series by Sharon Green – Explores an interesting example of how a woman can still be strong while submitting to organic power exchange relationships. The Steamwork Chronicles by Cari Silverwood – This series taught me to be unapologetically sexual in my work. Justice: A Hunger Like No Other by Kresley Cole – This was the first romance I ever read. Oh the things it opened my mind to… Her mix of sexiness, humor, and adventure made reading fun for me again, and started my love of paranormal romance. Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly – Wow, this book made me cry, made me think, and made me take an active interest in history. The writing and depth of emotion is beautiful and something I aspire to. Forgive Me Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick – This book gave me permission to write honestly. It is probably the most earnest, authentic book I’ve ever read. Learn more about To Have and to Master here.
The 2015 National Book Award winners were announced last evening. Today we celebrate the winners and the finalists, all of whom wrote groundbreaking, touching, beautiful books. Adam Johnson, author of Fortune Smiles, a collection of stories, won the prize for Fiction. National Book Foundation: In the process of writing your book, what did you discover, what, if anything, surprised you? Johnson: Because I research a lot, the surprising joy of discovery is always central to my writing. I love to fashion entire worlds in my stories—these I try to adorn with details gleaned from the real world and the emotions of life lived. In researching the title story, for example, I was both troubled and inspired to hear North Korean defectors describe the regime-sponsored crimes they had to participate in. It wasn’t until I’d delivered hundreds of UPS packages in the Louisiana heat that I knew where my character in “Hurricanes Anonymous” would sleep that night. And it’s not until you descend to the lower levels of a Stasi prison that you begin to understand what must exist at the heart of a story like “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine.” Start reading an excerpt here. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, won the prize for Nonfiction. National Book Foundation: In the process of writing your book, what did you discover, what, if anything, surprised you? Coates: I discovered how hard it was to make the abstract into the something visceral. My goal was to take numbers and stats and make people feel them with actual stories. It was to take scholarship and make it literature. Start reading an excerpt of the book here. See Coates read in a video here. Robin Coste Lewis, author of Voyage of the Sable Venus, won the prize for Poetry. “Robin Coste Lewis’s electrifying collection is a triptych that begins and ends with lyric poems considering the roles desire and race play in the construction of the self. The central panel is the title poem, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” a riveting narrative made up entirely of titles of artworks from ancient times to the present—titles that feature or in some way comment on the black female figure in Western art. Bracketed by Lewis’s autobiographical poems, “Voyage” is a tender and shocking study of the fragmentary mysteries of stereotype, as it juxtaposes our names for things with what we actually see and know” – National Book Foundation Be sure to check out the winning books below, and discover your next award-winning read!
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? For me, learning different ways to structure a story was crucial, and still is! I’m always on the lookout for great structuring tips. While outlining, in order to ensure causal plotting, I use the phrase “WHICH CAUSED” between scenes. For example: “The queen caught a cold. The queen died. The king died.” This isn’t causal plotting. But “The queen caught a cold.” WHICH CAUSED “The queen to die of that cold.” WHICH CAUSED “The king to die of heartbreak.” This helps me to make sure that one moment causes the next moment. How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I have a background in journalism, so I recommend reporting — even for fiction. For Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes, I called a slew of Sex and Gender professors (not unlike my main character Ally) and interviewed them, asking questions about anything and everything including their jobs, daily schedules, likes and dislikes, opinions on current events, etc. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I actually do everything at once: I start writing scenes that I’m 90 percent sure will end up in the story, I start researching, and I start outlining. And most importantly, I start imagining the ending so that I can start planning the beginning. My outline is fluid and evolving — I go back and make changes to my outline throughout the writing process so that I complete the outline only a short while before I finish the book. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Yes! I work in cafes mostly, where I have endless access to coffee and WiFi, and if I have serious, important writing to do, I plug into my earphones and listen to the Dave Matthews Band! Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? No. I wanted to be an actress. I actually still do, but I’m too chicken. But everything I know about writing came from years and years of studying acting. I studied everywhere, with everyone; learned how to break down a scene, how to create and motivate character, how to write dialogue, etc. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? That you should try to write every day, even if it’s just for ten or twenty minutes. I don’t do this — but every writer I admire gives this advice and says they heed it! What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? My worst habit is not writing daily, for sure. I’m pretty good about not using adverbs. Adverbs are deadly, unless you’re J.K. Rowling, who uses them all the time, so go figure… Read more about Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I’m a big believer in the “writing retreat.” Sometimes writing retreats involve locking myself in a hotel room for a few days to really throw some words on the page—other times these retreats involve gathering with my writer friends in a variety of inspiring, usually beautiful places, where the word count might not be high but the camaraderie and daydreaming leads to a whole lot more writing down the road. This is how The Deacons of Bourbon Street series came into being. Last spring, Maisey Yates, Rachael Johns, and I roomed together at the RT Convention held in New Orleans. We spent a lot more time wandering that fascinating, mysterious city than we did at the conference. When an editor (perhaps jokingly!) suggested we should write a multi-author series together since we got along so well, we jumped at the idea. New Orleans and gritty bikers seemed to go hand in hand for us, and once we settled on that premise, it seemed inevitable that we should pull in Jackie Ashenden, renowned for her dark and sexy stories, to round us out. And all because we visited New Orleans! After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? We sent a lot of emails back and forth, since we live all over the place—Maisey and I on the west coast of the US, Rachael on the west coast of Australia, and Jackie in New Zealand. But we also spent some time on Skype. We talked a lot about biker books, about characters, about the kinds of things we liked and the sorts of stories we wanted to tell. We fashioned an overarching plot and then we decided who our characters would be within that plot. We came up with a synopsis for all four books and once that had the enthusiastic support of our agents, we settled down and wrote a chapter each to introduce our characters and stories. That was the most fun—to see all the conversations and ideas we’d thrown around come together into these four fantastic stories. All set in our decadent version of New Orleans’s famous French Quarter. How did you handle plot and character continuity across four books? We talked a lot. Communication is key when it comes to working on multi-author projects. We discussed timing and plot points and the characters’ relationships with each other endlessly. We also sent each other/the whole group the scenes where their characters appeared in our books. The goal was always to make the characters feel seamless across all the books, and to show how they all functioned as this group of sworn brothers, reunited after years in exile. I think we pulled it off, but of course, that’s for readers to decide! Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I was lucky enough to write my book a few months after everyone else did. This was particularly helpful because it meant that I’d already read how the series ended and could write directly toward it—always a huge advantage! So one of the things I did to get in the writing mood was to read those other books and immerse myself in the world. Another thing I did was to curate “inspiration boards” on Pinterest. Looking at moody reference pictures (many featuring Charlie Hunnam, of course, as everyone’s favorite biker inspiration Jax Teller) was another way to get myself in the right mindset. I also relied pretty heavily on a mix I made of songs that brought me into the right headspace. One in particular (Arctic Monkeys, “Do I Wanna Know?”) was and is such a perfect encapsulation of my hero in this book that all I have to do is listen to that awesome opening and I’m right back there in the Priory with Ajax… Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? I have some family members who are more familiar with biker clubs than I am, but I didn’t base any characters on them. Though I did appreciate it when they didn’t laugh at me when I told them what kind of book I was writing! The truth is that reality doesn’t make great fiction. Characters are always better when they’re entirely themselves instead of pale imitations of real people. “Larger-than-life” makes a good story and fascinating characters. “Just like life” is something we can all do all by ourselves, without a good book. I prefer books. Learn more about Make you Burn here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? In the early morning, I consume coffee, turn on my computer, plant my butt in my desk chair in my home office, and let my cats get settled into their usual spots. I quickly check email and look at the headlines on a news site to see if the world has blown up outside my bubble. If I don’t need to duck for cover, I start working. I stay off social media until noon (that’s my plan, anyway). Each of my books has its own digital journal: it’s for stream of consciousness stuff, whatever’s on my mind. I open the journal for my current book and type like mad for a few minutes. It helps me discharge anything that’s weighing on me so I can move on. Then I open my manuscript and revise the last few pages I wrote the prior day, which leads into the new day’s work. For those days when the work just isn’t happening, I make deals with myself. Write for 45 minutes and get up and do something else for 15. Write until lunchtime and then do something else. Oddly, times of personal crisis are excellent writing periods for me because what better escape is there than to immerse yourself in a good book? How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I start by naming them. By going through that process, I think through their history, circumstances, and personalities. When was she born? What’s her ethnicity? What’s her birth order in the family? Was she raised in a traditional two-parent family or something else? Would her parents have selected a popular name of the era or something unique? Does she come from a modest background or is she well heeled? Does she later change her name or go by a nickname? Is her name evocative of who she is? The protagonist of my current series of suspense novels is Nan Vining. She’s rooted in tradition and family, so I named after her grandmother, Nanette. But she’s tough, so her nickname, “Nan,” is clipped and direct. I liked the surname Vining because it’s uncommon and has a lot of consonants, which for me makes a tougher sounding name than one with many vowels. Also, it evokes a vine, which is appropriate for Nan who’s tenacious and steady. Her name is a great fit for her, but I’ve changed names when a character has evolved and the name no longer works. Thank goodness for “Find and Replace.” Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I fell in love with writing and reading before I really learned how to do either one. When I was about four years old, I could write my name, with the Ns backward, and three words: yes, no, zoo. My mom was a reader and I was fascinated with her books. I’d look through the pages and pick out the few words I could read. When I got to the white area after a chapter break, I thought that space was there for me to finish the story. I’d take a crayon and have at it, writing, “yes, no, zoo,” and signing my name with backward Ns. It didn’t make my mom too happy to find me scribbling in her books. After I truly learned how to read and write, I wrote compulsively—letters, diaries, stories—but didn’t attempt to publish anything. I didn’t feel I was good enough. Many years later, I took a creative writing class at UCLA, where I started my first novel. After three years, while working fulltime at a day job, I finished that book and got it published. I’ve been writing and publishing fiction ever since. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? Finish that first draft, even if it’s a big, flawed mess. And then the next best piece of advice I’ve received comes into play: Writing is about rewriting. What are the perks and challenges of writing a come-back character? Five years passed between my last Detective Nan Vining thriller and my latest one, Killing Secrets. During that time, I wrote a standalone, The Night Visitor, and several short stories. The challenge in returning to the Nan Vining series came from reconnecting with the four earlier books and wondering whether I could still channel the writer who had created that vibrant world. I was afraid I’d somehow lost my feel for Nan, her daughter Emily, her work partner and lover Jim Kissick, and the other characters as well as the dark thread that runs through the series. My doubts disappeared when I started Killing Secrets and it felt entirely natural, as if I’d come home. It felt great to return to this familiar tableau, but also to break new ground. I’ve just signed a contract with Alibi to write the sixth and seventh in the Nan Vining series and I’m excited to see where the journey takes the characters and me. Read More about Killing Secrets here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? Reading out loud. As soon as I finish a chapter, I read it to my victim … ahem … husband. As a writer, I find when I read/write a chapter a few times over, my brain begins to to skim it. And reading out loud helps me to catch any mistakes I might have made. See? I used the word “to” twice in this question. It also helps with the rhythm. Writing should have rhythm. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? The very first thing I do is write the ending. If I start right at the beginning, I tend to veer off course and before I know it, I’m writing a completely different story (I have too many ideas and a short attention span). Writing the last scene first helps me have something to aim for, so I can get from point A to point B without hitting too many traffic cones. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I have “a zone.” When the headphones are on, I’m in the zone and should not be bothered, lest I throw the closest object on my desk across the room. I spend about half an hour to an hour (depending on the intensity of the narrative) with music blasting in my head, one that usually matches the scene. I always have to see it like a movie in my head before it reaches paper, so a soundtrack is pivotal. Then I do my damned best to think like that person, completely immerse myself (which can be hard, especially when writing a dark narrative). Then I need a proper half hour with music to ease myself out, I can’t be ripped away; it messes me up. That’s a lot of my creative process … some just call it madness. Oh, and caffeine. Lots and lots of caffeine. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? No, I didn’t. Writing came to me when I was at a period in my life of trying to save myself and clean up my life. It started for me while I was seeing a counselor. I’d go in, guns blazing, F this and F that and F this again. The therapist was a very conservative man who’d cringe every time I cursed or told a colorful story from my past. So he told me to write (I believe he said it hoping he wouldn’t have to hear me anymore). It was supposed to be a journal kind of thing, but I hated journaling. Writing about things I wanted to forget never helped me—it just ticked me off. So I wrote something fake (it’s still an existing chapter in my unpublished/first novel, The Assassin’s Keeper). He read it in silence and I waited, wondering if there were men outside with butterfly nets. When finished, he looked me right in my eyes and said, “That was the best ****ing thing I ever read.” After that, I wrote more and more, writing a good chunk of my first novel in his office. I haven’t stopped since. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? Ellipses … I put them everywhere. The truth is, I don’t even know how to properly use them. I just put them in when the page looks a little sad … What’s the best piece of advice you have received? I’m a girl who goes to the beat of her own drum. A lot of the advice from the greats just don’t work for me: I can’t write every day, I DO wait until I’m in the mood, I don’t read while writing … To quote Lillian Hellman: “If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.” Read more about Freedom’s Child here.