by Hank Phillippi Ryan

What a weekend! The happy and exhausted Career Authors are still recovering from the high-energy high-intensity first-ever Career Authors weekend writing seminar in conjunction with MIT‘s Endicott House.

And now it is the first annual! And more about that in a minute.

Over the weekend, I learned there’s nothing more illuminating than reading the first five pages from 49 writers who hope to get their books published. Each of the attendees at our session had a unique idea, incredible energy, and true eagerness to take their writing to a higher level.

But even though their manuscripts were unique, the pitfalls that tripped up emerging writers are fascinatingly similar.

If you missed this weekend’s seminar, we missed you too. But career authors are always working, and the book-changing takeaways from this weekend were profoundly evident.

Here’s what every single writer–including the most successful–always needs to remember.

Learn the basics

And I mean basic basics. If your pages are not formatted properly–12 point Times New Roman, double-spaced, pages numbered and with name/title header– a potential agent or editor will instantly know you are not a pro. Know how to punctuate. Know how dialogue should appear on the page. That first glance, before an agent or editor even reads a word, will telegraph if you know your stuff. Remember, it’s easier to say no. And an amateurish first page may get an instant delete.

Know your genre

And know about your genre. Your book is a cozy, a thriller, a psychological thriller, a paranormal, a spy thriller, a war story, a traditional mystery. One and done. The worst thing you can say is “Oh, my book will appeal to every reader!” Or “it’s kind of a genre blend.” Or “there’s nothing else like it!” Nope. Your book has to be something.

Each genre has its conventions, and following those conventions in your own unique way is the contract you make with your reader. And then, your choice of genre– and knowing what that means–sets in stone the way your book needs to be written.

Understand point of view

Through whose eyes, brain, heart, and soul are you telling the story? Only one point of view per scene, and no more than five in an entire book. Whether you write in first person or third person, point of view is all important. It is instantly apparent if an author does not understand that! And ignore it at your book’s peril. Look here for more guidance.

Focus on setting

Where does this book take place? When? On every page, at every moment, ground the reader in the “where and when” of your novel.  Read this! Dialogue that takes place in formless settingless limbo does nothing but confuse the reader.

   You are creating a movie in your reader’s mind. How can you make sure each scene is as cinematic as it can be?

The three act structure

Three acts. Beginning middle end. Each act has a forward motion, an intent, and a result. And then more forward motion into the next act. If you don’t understand that basic structure, your book will be at loose ends, flabby and lack direction and momentum. Here is more about that.

Make sure it’s a book

A novel has chapters. A novel is a particular length. Click here for more. A chapter is a particular length, depending on your genre, from three pages to five pages to 10 pages. Don’t write a book without chapters! Click here for more.

Make a log line

Yes, it seems like a pain to figure out how to to describe your book in 25 words or less. But look at the New York Times bestseller list–each of those successful books has a succinct and understandable description. Do that for your own book. Here’s more on that.

      That log line will become your guideline for keeping your book on track.

Perfect your pitch

Understanding how to describe your book in the timespan of an elevator ride is the only way you’ll be able to sell it. Learn more about that here. And then do it. And then work on it until it is perfect.  This is a life-changing–and book-changing–necessity.

Advance the story

At every point in your book, your story should have forward motion. That is what keeps readers turning the pages. Info dumps, sluggish backstory, and unnecessary explanation will make your book flail, gasp, and and drown.

Confusion is not suspense

Suspense is when the reader says: “Ooh, I cannot wait to find out what will happen next!” Confusion is: “Huh? What’s going on? I don’t understand a word of this.”

Suspense is good. Confusion is not. If the character knows something, let the reader know it, too. Suspense often comes when the reader and the character find out something at the same time.

Know your comps

Whether it means your competition or your comparable titles, or both, know the kind of book you are writing, and the author you are on the author whose team you are on. Are you Lisa Scottoline? Nora Roberts? JR Ward? Susan Mallery? Are you writing a book like David Baldacci or John le Carré or Nelson DeMille or Delia Owens? How would you finish the sentence: Readers who liked X and Y books will like mine? How would you finish this sentence: “My book is for fans of…”

Don’t take the easy way

Surprise and delight your readers on every page with an unexpected occurrence, and unexpected at, a twist, a flip of the switch, a new way of looking at an event. Every page–yes, each and every page–should have something that’s engaging and compelling.

Make your world logical

Whether you are in Boston or in Paris or on Mars or in the French revolution, or on the planet XYZ, your universe must have consistency and rules.

Shake the Jell-O. Sink the Titanic. Start with the cool thing.

Those bits of knowledge are brilliantly book-changing. But to find out more about what they mean–you will have to join us next year.

From May 13-15, 2022, at the incredibly beautiful Endicott House mansion in Dedham Massachusetts, the five Career Authors will present a comprehensive intensive weekend workshop–to take your writing, your book, and your writing life to a brand new level. With two days of classes. Workshops. Personal attention. Plus: incredible accommodations, voluptuous rooms, and delicious food.

Space is limited.  Dana, Paula, Brian, Jessica and Hank cannot wait to see you. And your manuscript. And this time, in person!

But space is limited!  And right now, for a very brief time, there’s a discount rate. Find out more here.

Any questions ? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page. And now, get writing!


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the USA Today bestselling author of 13 psychological thrillers, and has won 37 Emmy awards for her television investigative reporting.  Her books have won five Agatha Awards, four Anthony Awards, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award.  Reviewers have called her “a master of suspense” and “a superb and gifted storyteller.” THE MURDER LIST (2019) won the Anthony Award for Best Novel. THE FIRST TO LIE (2020, with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly) is now nominated for the Anthony Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Watch for HER PERFECT LIFE coming in September.