Crafting Success: Seven Writing Contest Finalists Share Their Favorite Writing Tips and Techniques

Crafting Success: Seven Writing Contest Finalists Share Their Favorite Writing Tips and Techniques

by Martina Boone

When I’m doing a panel with other authors or doing a blog, radio, or TV interview, I’m often asked whether a story begins with character, plot, or setting. The truth is, every book is different for me, and most of the time, it’s a small grain of inspiration combined with a lot of agonizing work. I’m always looking for ways to make that easier, which is why I include so many “tips” posts for both and the

Because I know I’m not alone in searching for insight, Sandra Held, Sarah Glenn Marsh, and I have asked the finalists in our recent Red Light, Green Light WIP contest at Adventures to give us their favorite writing tips and techniques.

Interested in test-driving the opening and pitch for your own WIP? The next agent-judged Red Light, Green Light contest opens for entries on 4/7/16.

Seven Writing Contest Finalists Share Their Favorite Writing Tips and Techniques

Joan Albright: The characters rule all. I can control what happens TO them, but trying to force the plot around characters which aren’t behaving never results in a satisfying scene. Instead I write the plot to the characters, letting them show me the path. This of course requires that I know the characters. Sometimes the entire first draft of a novel is about discovering who these people are and what motivates them.

Don’t be afraid to write out a long and complicated backstory for each character – but also don’t feel obligated to lay this backstory out in your novel. Like the pipes and wires behind your painted walls, those things need to be there, but it’s better if they do their job invisibly.

Laurine Bruder: I’m a sucker for fairy tales, princesses, friendships, family stories, and fantasy. It’s my bread and butter and what I grew up with. I love a richly drawn world with characters that struggle against all the odds, who cling to each other because they’re the only ones who can understand the situation, and who succeed, or not, but they do so together. In my manuscript, my two leading ladies have been described as old war buddies and that resonates with me because it implies a relationship that’s gone through hell and still come out strong. Just thinking about it now is inspiring me to write! Speaking of inspiration, I find it everywhere: music, movies, books, watching people in their everyday lives, it’s amazing where the smallest spark of inspiration can come from.

Holly Campbell: The setting is so important to the story. I try to make the setting another character. I don’t like writing about places I’ve never been–it feels like a lie. If the story doesn’t feel right in a setting I’m familiar with, or I can’t adequately research a place, I will sometimes just make it up (it’s fiction, right?). For example, my novel Foreshadowed is set in my hometown, but my other novel Without Curtains is set in a fictional farm town. In both books, the setting plays a huge part in the story.

Dan Lollis: I need a t-shirt that reads “I’d rather be drafting.” I usually cheat and do a good but of revision during drafting…I don’t subscribe to the theory that all first drafts are garbage. Maybe my finished first draft is actually a first-and-a-half draft. Then I do usually do several rounds of read-throughs where I make changes and ask myself questions. Then I ask my writing partner or a critique partner(s) or beta reader(s) to mercilessly tear into it. Their advice is often the most helpful, but it can be difficult to know what to change and what to keep. Time away from a manuscript to draft something new can be helpful. I prefer to obsess over…er…work on one manuscript at a time.

Patti Nielson: For me there’s nothing more discouraging then sitting in front of your computer screen and being unable to think of anything to write. I’ll often try to power through but sometimes even that won’t work. Lots of times I leave the word document and wander into the world of social media, but I find that never helps. Usually it leaves me feeling worse. What helps me the most is going for a walk alone. I try to find an isolated area so I can talk to myself without anyone thinking I’m crazy and work through some of the problems I’ve having on my manuscript. Invariably, I come back refreshed and energized. Last week I went for a walk and came back with three titles for a series I’m working on, which might not seem like much, but it’s a big deal for me.

Ellie Sullivan: I really love using the three-act structure to map out major plot points, and then pantsing my way from one major point to the next. It keeps me from veering too far off onto useless tangents and keeps me focused on the core of the story, but also allows some flexibility. When I’m done I put it away for a couple days, and then I’ll return to read it through. Before that readthrough, I’ll probably already have a list of things I think are problematic, and as I read, I’ll add more (probably much more) to that list! My first drafts are absolutely terrible, and usually I’ll have to scrap and rewrite about half the content for the second draft.

Cassidy Taylor: I am not a very detailed plotter. I do like to have a few key scenes in mind before I start, specifically the opening scene, the inciting incident, the “darkest hour,” the climax, and the final scene.


Come Write In Ireland!

Hello, readers! If you love writing conferences as much as I do, you’re going to be pretty excited about this one.

I’m excited to be teaching in Ireland this summer, along with author Pamela Nowak, through the Ireland Writer Tours program. This week-long retreat in June will feature days of touring Ireland to see castles, ruins, a faerie hill, abbeys, a pub crawl in Galway City, alternating with days of craft talks, writing workshops, and critiques from myself and Pamela Nowak. 

It’s priced at $1825, which includes all guided tours and ground transportation, private accommodation, many meals, ferry fees, entrance fees, all writing classes, private conferences with the author/editor(s) and editing of manuscript pages for each attendee. 

The title topic is on publishing paths, but craft discussion is my jam, and we’re going to be doing a lot of discussion on writing itself as part of career and publishing paths. I’d love to see you there!



5-12 June 2016

with Author and Editor, Kate Brauning

and Multi-Published Author, Pamela Nowak

For more information visit

Author/Editor Query Critiques- Now Through Feb 2

Though I mostly don’t do freelance editing anymore (aside for auctions for causes that are important to me), a few times per year I like to open back up to offer query critiques. And now is one of those times! A new year, a fresh chance at querying your manuscript. Want the eyes of an author and editor on your query letter? Book between right now and midnight central time, Feb 2nd, and I’ll give you a thorough critique of your query for $30. I won’t be accepting bookings after that time, and will be closed to query critiques until further notice.

Query letters need to be sharp, focused, voicey, and unique. Many agencies deal with hundreds of queries (or more) a week, and can only request material from a few. Your query needs to be its best to stand out and get the attention of the agents who are best for your work.

The top reasons I see queries being rejected in slush piles are:

  • Long, vague queries that give all kinds of information, but not what agents need to know
  • Complicated, scattered, or unclear plot descriptions that leave the agent confused
  • Queries that neglect industry conventions that informed writers should be following
  • Plot descriptions that focus on story elements that aren’t unique or describe plots we’ve seen too many times before

I’ll look for all of these issues as I critique your query, as well as help develop your hooks and conflict, get your query to a great wordcount, tackle any pitching, genre, or market problems you may be facing with your query, and give you advice from someone who’s been on both sides of the desk.

To book, please email me at katebrauning(at)gmail(dot)com, and I’ll give you instructions for paying securely through Paypal.

Wishing you great books, inspiration, and success in the query trenches,


How We Fall’s Paperback Release Day + Giveaway!

I’m thrilled today, because today is the release day for the How We Fall paperback! To celebrate, there’s a Goodreads giveaway of the paperback, open internationally, with signed copies for the US. So enter, enter.🙂

Also, this post is kicking off an awesome blog tour where I’m chatting with some fantastic book bloggers, giving away a seriously adult hot chocolate recipe (yes, it’s Marcus’s recipe), showing deleted scenes, playing a last-lines game, and showcasing some really genius fan art. So watch my twitter feed for the posts!

And if you haven’t yet gotten the book yourself, there’s a slick new $9 paperback that just hit shelves. Enter the giveaway below, order from your favorite bookseller, and read the first chapter, all below🙂

Goodreads Book Giveaway

How We Fall by Kate Brauning

How We Fall

by Kate Brauning

Giveaway ends November 30, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

About the book:

Ever since Jackie moved to her uncle’s sleepy farming town, she’s been flirting way too much–and with her own cousin, Marcus.How We Fall

Her friendship with him has turned into something she can’t control, and he’s the reason Jackie lost track of her best friend, Ellie, who left for…no one knows where. Now Ellie has been missing for months, and the police, fearing the worst, are searching for her body. Swamped with guilt and the knowledge that acting on her love for Marcus would tear their families apart, Jackie pushes her cousin away. The plan is to fall out of love, and, just as she hoped he would, Marcus falls for the new girl in town. But something isn’t right about this stranger, and Jackie’s suspicions about the new girl’s secrets only drive the wedge deeper between Jackie and Marcus.

Then Marcus is forced to pay the price for someone else’s lies as the mystery around Ellie’s disappearance starts to become horribly clear. Jackie has to face terrible choices. Can she leave her first love behind, and can she go on living with the fact that she failed her best friend?

Praise for How We Fall:

2015 Silver Falchion Best YA Novel finalist- Killer Nashville

Kirkus Reviews: “Debut novelist Brauning tells a touching story of young, star-crossed lovers caught in a drama they have tried hard to avoid…. A sweetly written mix of mystery and romantic turmoil.”

School Library Journal: “Heartbreaking and well-paced, this mystery novel challenges readers to look past preconceptions and get to the know characters, rather than focus on an uncomfortable taboo. Brauning’s characters are well developed and their story engrossing. An intriguing thriller… this title will raise eyebrows and capture the interest of teens.”

ALA Booklist: “…an unusual combination of romance and suspense…There is also something universal about Jackie’s struggles with her feelings and her desires, and readers will identify with her emotions, while going along for the plot’s ride. This quest for identity, wrapped up in an intriguing mystery, hooks from the beginning.”

How We Fall is available through:

Read the first chapter!


Kate Brauning grew up in rural Missouri and fell in love with young adult books in college. She now works in publishing and pursues her lifelong dream of telling stories she’d want to read. This is her first novel. Visit her online at or on Twitter at @KateBrauning.

How We Fall Review Giveaway: Books and $20 to Barnes and Noble!

Good morning, friends! Guess what? Tomorrow, the paperback edition of How We Fall releases. And guess what that means? My 9781440581793cvr.inddbook has been out for a year. A whole year. And all of you have been wonderful, leaving reviews, telling your friends about my book, helping me get the word out and being such an awesome part of this year that I’m doing a little giveaway to say thank you, especially to those of you who have taken the time to leave reviews. Reviews are such a huge part of a book’s success, and it does take time and energy, and I so appreciate every one of you who has taken the time to do that.Nightmare-Affair-FINAL

So! If you have left a review on Amazon AND Barnes & Noble on or before Nov. 7th, you’ll be entered into a drawing where I’ll pick three winners at random. Prizes include a hardcover copy of All The Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry, a hardcover copy of The Nightmare Affair by Mindee Arnett, and a $20 giftcard to Barnes & Noble! (Books US addresses only, giftcard international.)


Want to enter? Go leave a review! If you can help by sharing this post, that would be wonderful, too.

Haven’t read How We Fall, and want to know if it’s for you?

Read the first chapter!

Praise for How We Fall:

2015 Silver Falchion Best YA Novel finalist- Killer Nashville

Kirkus Reviews: “Debut novelist Brauning tells a touching story of young, star-crossed lovers caught in a drama they have tried hard to avoid…. A sweetly written mix of mystery and romantic turmoil.”

School Library Journal: “Heartbreaking and well-paced, this mystery novel challenges readers to look past preconceptions and get to the know characters, rather than focus on an uncomfortable taboo. Brauning’s characters are well developed and their story engrossing. An intriguing thriller… this title will raise eyebrows and capture the interest of teens.”

ALA Booklist: “…an unusual combination of romance and suspense…There is also something universal about Jackie’s struggles with her feelings and her desires, and readers will identify with her emotions, while going along for the plot’s ride. This quest for identity, wrapped up in an intriguing mystery, hooks from the beginning.”


How We Fall is available through:


Six Years: From Teacher to Novelist, From Querying to the Year After Debut

This week marks a big change for me. Not a change most of you will see, but it is one that changes my life.

For the last six years, I’ve felt like I’ve been living in a revolving door, only gradually moving forward, but mostly moving in circles.

This is what my life looked like six years ago, in 2010: I started teaching at an online school- 7th through 12th grade English and communication, teaching over webinar and the phone. Ready to answer questions on everything from proper form during a speech to poetic meter, from explaining the themes of the created monster in Beowulf and Frankenstein to plural possessives. This ended a six-month unemployment streak for both me and my husband. I’d just graduated college six months ago, was in my first year of marriage, was trying and failing to find time to exercise, and was loving helping my second-youngest sister with her classes at the college I’d just graduated from. I also started writing a novel, after not writing fiction for four years. Most things in my life were good, and I was the happiest I’d been in my entire life to that point, but I felt like I lacked direction. I had some of my close friends over for an evening in January, and sat there staring at everyone, feeling like I had no idea where my life was going.

Rebekah's wedding
My 3 gorgeous sisters and I

This is what my life looked like five years ago: I was enjoying teaching, writing curriculum, helping students find their interests. My youngest sister came to college in the same little college town in which I lived. That meant all four of my siblings (my brother and three sisters) were finally all in the same town, just blocks from each other. I was about 50,000 words into my novel, the first in a fantasy series, and I’d started researching how to get published and how to find a literary agent. Full-time teaching at a year-round school was my day from 7:30-5:30, and after work and weekends my time was taken with family, writing, and researching. Even after a year of trying, I hadn’t found an exercise activity that held my interest and that I could fit into my schedule. I still felt like I was floating, directionless, and even though I had some things I was trying– teaching and writing– teaching didn’t seem like what I needed long-term, and writing fiction seemed like so unlikely a career I’d barely considered it. I felt stuck and frustrated.

This is what my life looked like four years ago: Heading into three years of full-time teaching, I was burning out. Year-round, never enough, fighting systems I couldn’t change. I’d finished my fantasy novel at about 98,000 words after two years of solid daily or weekly writing and revising, and I started querying it. Querying agents was going okay, and I was getting some interest. I was trying, and mostly failing, to go to the gym with my sisters and/or my husband, and sometimes trying to run outdoors when the weather was good. But it didn’t happen more than a few times a month– querying agents, making revisions based on their feedback, and working with some new writer friends to improve my novel even more took a lot of time. I was discovering that connecting in the writing community and slowly building a platform could help me become a better writer, so I started this blog, joined Twitter, and found some wonderful guides and resources for getting into the fiction side of publishing. I also discovered I wasn’t reading nearly enough if I wanted to become a better writer, so I started reading more. During the summer, I realized I didn’t know nearly enough about the industry, and I started applying for internships to work at a literary agency or publishing house, so I could see behind the curtain. After about thirty-odd applications, I started an unpaid internship at a small press. During the fall, about eight months into querying my fantasy novel, I started writing my first YA novel, the first draft of How We Fall. A few pieces of my life suddenly fit together, and this book was from the start a level above what I’d written before. I felt like I’d suddenly sensed what I’d been looking for the past seven years. But full-time teaching, querying my first novel, writing my second, interning, blogging, and being part of a critique group was taking every hour of every day. I wrote over my lunch breaks. I read on the commute. I woke up so tired I felt sick for the first half hour of nearly every day. But I finally felt like I had some direction.

This is what my life looked like three years ago: Several things changed in 2013. I was given the chance to work in another side of the publishing industry, at a New York literary agency, in January. I started seriously querying How We Fall, and made the tough decision to set aside the fantasy novel that I’d spent two years writing and a year querying and endlessly revising. I moved to teaching part-time, to have time to handle both my internships. The work was overwhelming– in order to have the money to live, I had to work paying jobs. But to have the time to write, learn how publishing works, and improve my skills, I had to be spending tons of time investing in my writing career. In order to build my skills and create connections, I needed to be going to the right conferences, blogging, and learning on social media. I felt like I was juggling a million things and getting none of them right. I ended both of my internships, and started applying for paid positions with publishing houses.

Months later, I started at a small publishing house, and the learning curve was steep. My husband, this whole time, had been starting his own videography business, which I supported by working full-time, and our finances took a major hit when I moved to part-time teaching. We also hit some serious friction in our group of college friends, and I lost a few friendships that meant a lot to me. I’d completely given up on trying to find an exercise routine, in spite of pretty constant neck, back, and shoulder issues from sitting at a computer 12 hours a day. I was getting requests from agents to read How We Fall, which gave me hope, but then responses on the reads were taking three and four months. In early June I was thrilled to get an offer to revise and resubmit from an agent, and I worked hard on revising my manuscript for a month and a half. In late July, I sent her the revised manuscript. In August, she offered to represent me, and I accepted. It was a major piece of validation, and having an agent gave me the boost I needed to keep working. The rest of the year was yet more revisions on the manuscript, but this time with my agent.

Kate and Emma
My niece and I, Christmas tree shopping

This is what my life looked like two years ago: I had finished revisions for How We Fall and my agent started taking it to publishing houses. I had started my next book, a YA thriller, and felt that same click I’d felt when I started How We Fall; this next book was better. The publishing house I had been working with as an editor wasn’t a good fit for me– I started applying elsewhere, but worried I didn’t have the experience and skill. All three of my sisters moved from our little town to Colorado, meaning a big part of my support system and my three closest friends (you’ll see sisters all through my writing) were suddenly across the country. My niece, a five-year-old who’d spent multiple days per week with me, was gone, too. I cried, and got a little mad, and visited them, and kept writing. My youngest sister and her husband had a baby, and I realized I wouldn’t be able to be there for him, like I had been for my niece.

photo 2
Me, holding my book for the first time

In February, 6 weeks after going on submission with How We Fall, it sold to Merit Press at F&W Media. They did a wonderful job with it and supporting me, sending me to New York, Chicago, Dallas, and New Orleans for signings and appearances at conventions. My husband’s job had him traveling for work, too, which was a whole new area of stress and lack of balance. Our finances were a tug-of-war, with both of us working essentially for ourselves and trying to manage pretty intense student loans. (We’re still working on that, by the way.) But in spite of all of that, my book released in November. Critics liked it. Readers read it, asked me to sign it. I was thrilled, but more vulnerable and anxious than ever, because now people could evaluate my work. Evaluate me. Publicly comment on me and this book I’d written. They could, and did, say I’d written pornography. They could, and did, say they’d read every book I wrote and that my book made them think differently about young adults and their lives. My husband pulled me out of a few trees, bought me a lot of chocolate, and supported me a hundred and ten percent. I finished my second book and started on my third. I quit teaching entirely during the summer, and started working as an editor at Entangled Publishing, where it was taking me about 50 hours a week to stay on top of my schedule and handle the learning curve. Plus writing, plus blogging, plus the freelance editing I’d been doing for the past two years to help with that financial tug-of-war. Plus family, and travel, and my own sanity, and wanting to be on submission again to get that necessary next book deal, but not being able to do that. And it still felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Because I still wasn’t making what I needed in order to get on top of life expenses and debt, because my book came out and it was well-received, but it wasn’t supporting me, because my husband was working himself into the ground for his own business and we needed something to change.

This is what my life has been this past year: My book did better than I ever expected. I got two more revised and ready to go. I edited a fantastic list of books I’m proud of with Entangled Publishing. I had to back way down on my blogging, as you readers who have followed me here the last four years have probably noticed. (Thank you, thank you, for sticking around.) I traveled, some for family, but mostly for my writing and editing career, to Colorado, Arkansas, Indiana, Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis again, Omaha, and Mexico. My husband traveled for his videography career at least once if not twice a month. He got a new job, a much-earned step up for him, and it was the change we needed. We moved this summer from Iowa to South Dakota. This spring and summer has been the most difficult stretch yet of the last six years. And though I could have scaled back on some of the non-paying work earlier, I can pinpoint positive changes that happened because of them. I don’t know if I should have taken on less, more slowly, but I am happy with where it has gotten me.

This week is a point I’ve been working toward specifically for the last five months, but also for the last six years.

My work is now confined to business hours. 8am to 5pm, weekdays only. My weekends are mine. My evenings are mine. I’ve found a balance for my editing and writing careers, and I’ll be blogging more frequently, too. My next two books are finally out of my hands. I can even put in the effort to find a video game I enjoy (not usually my thing) so I can play one with my husband. I’ve taken up running, and it works for me. I’m finally exercising consistently, and my neck and shoulder issues from all that computer time are slowly being handled. I can read my goal of a book a week.

There are several things I’m turning down in order to make this work. Ever since I started out, I’ve been hearing that balance is necessary. That you have to take care of yourself in all this hard work. That hard work and perseverance make the difference. That a support system and relationships are necessary, that time off is necessary, but time spent writing is how you’ll get there. I’ve been hearing I need to study writing and read constantly to improve, that practice will show me how it works. Conferences and genuine connection through social media might open doors, will help build a support system, will show me new sides of the industry. That I need to disconnect from the internet, so I can write by myself. I need to open myself up for critique, but to follow my own instincts. And it’s all true. And I have been trying, for the last six years, to handle what I can and turn away what I can’t.

I’ve reached a point where I need to rein some things back and settle into a more sustainable pattern. I reached that point a year ago, actually, but wasn’t able to make it work. And it finally does work.

Guess what? I watched two movies back-to-back this weekend. Just because I wanted to. And it feels like a gift.

I want to keep writing, and to keep working with such remarkably talented authors as an editor. And I want to have a long career. I’m starting my fourth manuscript, and I want it to be a good one.

I say all this not to impress you with how much work I’ve been doing. Most people in publishing work this hard, I think. Many authors who write more than I do have children, too, and I don’t.

I say this because so much of the advice writers are given is conflicting. Become a better writer by practicing, become a better writer by studying. Get into publishing by connecting and building a platform, get into publishing by writing writing writing. Work hard, persevere, and do what it takes–but fit it in where you can, prioritize, and it’s okay to take even months off if you need them. And the thing is, all this conflicting advice is true for each of us at different times. We have to know ourselves well enough to know what we need, and when we need it. Sometimes it’s time to throw yourself at the work, get rid of your crutches, trust that your real friends will support you, and have some sleepless nights. And sometimes it’s time to set boundaries, focus on the long haul, and watch a few movies.

Know yourself, friends. Listen to what you need. It may take a long time to find some balance, but it’s worth it if you’re aiming for a long career.

I’m happy. The paperback of How We Fall hits shelves in two weeks. I’ve found a career that keeps showing me more about myself, where love what I do on every side of it.  I don’t think I’d be at this point if not for the last six years. But tonight, I’m going to go for a run with my husband. And tomorrow, I’m going to read a book, start to finish. And I won’t start work until Monday at 8 am.

Kate and Jesse Nerdcon
Jesse and I at NerdCon last week

Author to Author + Book Review: HOW WE FALL by Kate Brauning

So honored with this review and interview from Holt 2016 author Jenny Moyer!

Jenny Moyer

One of the best things about being a debut author has been getting to know some of the other amazing young adult authors. I had the privilege of meeting Kate Brauning at a conference where we instantly connected. We discussed writing, her publishing journey, and some of the things that inspired her to write her debut, HOW WE FALL.



When Jackie’s best friend leaves town and is feared murdered, Jackie throws herself into a relationship with her cousin that neither of them can control. Neither Jackie nor Marcus can separate love from obsession.
As the long, hot summer lengthens, they grow closer, despite their best efforts to stay apart, despite knowing that their secret love could tear their families apart.

Now Ellie has been missing for months, and the police, fearing the worst, are searching for her body. Swamped with guilt, Jackie pushes her cousin away. The plan is…

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