Author Yona Zeldis McDonough Shares Her 9 Rules For Writing For Newbies & Pros

two_of_a_kindcoverI’m happy to introduce author Yona Zeldis McDonough! Yona is a new-to-me author (I love finding those!) who has published five novels for adults in addition to more than twenty children’s books. One of the best parts of meeting  new authors in addition to reading their books and getting to know them, is the inspiration they impart without even trying! Yona has published so many books, she has a job as a fiction editor for a magazine, and I know from becoming friends with her that she also has a family and dogs.

Below, Yona shares her process (she starts with voice, do you?), her favorite scenes in here new novel, and her thoughts on the women’s fiction label.

Please welcome Yona Zeldis McDonough to Women’s Fiction Writers and share your thoughts below!

Amy xo

Author Yona Zeldis McDonough Shares Her 9 Rules For Writing For Newbies & Pros

two_of_a_kindcoverAmy: TWO OF A KIND is your fifth novel! Congratulations! Can you share a little about the story and what sparked the idea?

Yona: I have to start with a voice. If I don’t hear a voice in my head, urgently whispering to me, telling me that I must write this down now, I can’t get going. In the case of Two of a Kind, the first voice I heard was that of Dr. Andy Stern. He’s a widower and a high-powered ob/gyn, to say nothing of being a man. And yet he came to me, telling me his story. Once I started to hear his voice, the story widened. I heard the voices of his son, Oliver, who is still mourning the death of his mother, and Christina Connelly, the woman who seems all wrong for Andy—until he falls in love with her—as well as the voice of Christina’s daughter Jordan, who hates Andy on sight.

Amy: With multiple novels published, do you have a favorite part of the writing process, an internal (or external) place you go in order to move forward with your story?

Yona: I love it when the story and the characters take over, and you feel like you are watching them on stage rather than moving them around yourself. But I don’t have much control over when—and even if—I can achieve this state. So the only thing to do is to keep working. You need to build the house if you want the muse to visit. She needs a place to touch down.

Amy: What does your novel writing life look like? I know you’re also the fiction editor for Lilith Magazine. And you’ve also written non-fiction. We’re tend to all be so many things these days. How do you balance it all?

Yona: I find that working across genres is very liberating for me. For instance, if something is not going well in a novel I am working on, I can turn to an essay or a children’s book (I’ve written quite a number of those) and still feel I am being productive. Working in a different genre can generate the confidence I need to overcome whatever is not working elsewhere, and when I return to the place where I was stuck, I am often able to see solutions that were hidden before.

Amy: What is one of your favorite scenes in TWO OF A KIND (without any spoilers) and why?

Yona: There are a couple of scenes I could point to: one is Oliver’s, when he finds out that a girl he likes prefers someone else—his best friend. Even though I am long way off from that teen-aged angst, it still felt so real to me and I could still ache along with him. The other concerns Andy’s mother Ida, and her discovery of a silver candlestick in Christina’s kitchen. The candlestick has a particular significance to her and that significance is revealed in the scene. I have always believed in the talismanic power that objects exert over us and here was an example I could use to further the story and deepen its themes.

Amy: How would you define women’s fiction? Does the label bother you?

Yona: It does bother me only because it is used in a less than sort of way. When men write about domestic issues, they are hailed as brave, sensitive, soulful and profound. When women write about these same issues, we are told our books are chick lit. Why is this the case? It seems unfair and belittling to me.

Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors (or published authors) of women’s fiction?

Yona: Here are my nine rules; I think they will be helpful to newbies and pros alike:

  1. Write what you love. Not necessarily what you know; with the help of the NYPL and Google, you can always learn what you need to know. But I don’t think you can learn to love something that is innately alien or repellent to your nature.
  2. Write consistently. Writing is a like a physical discipline—too much time away and you grow rusty and stiff. So keep yourself supple by writing on a regular basis, daily if you can, or as close to it as possible. Which leads me to the next rule…
  3. Set manageable goals. I used to think that I had to have these long, unbroken stretches of time in which to work. Then I had a child, and realized that the next long, unbroken stretch of time might well come when he was a freshman in college. I despaired of finishing anything for the next two decades. But then I lowered my expectations—instead of focusing on finishing an entire story or book, I said to myself, I would write two pages a day, five days a week. Just two. Even someone as mathematically challenged as I am realized that my humble two pages would be ten at the end of the week, soon to be 20, 40 and eventually, a finished draft.
  4. Banish the inner critic WHILE you are writing. Writing and editing are two mutually exclusive activities; you cannot edit while are writing. So when writing, focus on writing. Editing will come later. Your goal is to work through and COMPLETE a draft; editing while you are writing will inhibit you from doing that.
  5. Learn to use the silence—By this I mean, when your draft is actually completed, put it in a drawer and don’t look at for a couple of weeks. The reason for this: every time you go over it, it seems as if the way it is written is the only way, that all your choices are inevitable, without the possibility of variation. By putting the ms. away, you return to it with a fresh perspective, and can see that wait, maybe this section is not so strong, or that story really starts on page 3, or that ending is not clear…This is the moment to resurrect the inner critic, and to look at your own work with something like objectivity.
  6. Find a trustworthy reader (or readers) Share your work with like-minded souls who can give you real feedback and advice. Writing groups/classes are excellent for finding these chosen few.
  7. Send your work out intelligently. Do the research—who publishes what you are doing, names of editors, do they accept unsolicited mss. Troll the websites for submission guidelines; also check out their lists on line, to see what kinds of books they are publishing.
  8. Adopt the 48-hour rule. As soon as soon as I get something back, I send it right out again, preferably within 24 hours. Nothing takes the sting out rejection better than fresh hope; what might not be one editor’s bowl of borscht will be another’s most savory dish. So just keep getting your work out there.
  9. Accept that writing is a life’s work, not a passing fancy. While fame and fortune are lovely goals, they rarely happen overnight, if at all. If your goal is to make a lot of money quickly, then by all means figure out something else to do, because writing is a highly unreliable way of going about it. Instead, accept and indeed embrace the privileges of the writing life, which are many and which I personally would not trade for almost anything.

head shotYona Zeldis McDonough is the author of five novels for adults, THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS, IN DAHLIA’S WAKE, BREAKING THE BANK (which has been optioned for a film) and A WEDDING IN GREAT NECK. Her fifth novel, TWO OF A KIND, was published in September 2013.

She is also an award-winning children’s book author with 22 children’s books to her credit. THE DOLL SHOP DOWNSTAIRS received a starred review from Jewish Book World saying that it “will become a classic.” In another starred review Kirkus called the sequel, THE CATS IN THE DOLL SHOP, “a quiet treasure.” THE DOLL WITH THE YELLOW STAR won the 2006 Once Upon a World Award presented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. LITTLE AUTHOR IN THE BIG WOODS, a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, will be published by Holt.

For over a dozen years, Yona has been the Fiction Editor at Lilith Magazine. She works independently to help aspiring writers polish their manuscripts. To arrange a book club visit, inquire about editorial services or just to say hi, please contact Yona via her website: or on the Facebook fan pages for her novels, which she hopes you’ll “like.”

18 thoughts on “Author Yona Zeldis McDonough Shares Her 9 Rules For Writing For Newbies & Pros

  1. Very helpful information for those of us who feel the same passion for writing but are still learning the business of publishing! Thank you for taking the time to share. And thank you Amy for your editing advice! I am working away and this interview encourages me even more!


  2. Love your nine rules of writing! It’s so hard to NOT edit as you write…and yet so important that you don’t. I’m going to recommit to this!
    I was wondering, when you say that you “hear the voices,” of your characters, do you literally HEAR voices? I am wondering if I’m missing a creative gene or whether my hearing is getting faulty or something, but I have never heard voices of characters. Am I doomed? (Or were you using a creative analogy?) 🙂


  3. I know it’s hard to keep the editor out of your mind when you write but it’s really worth trying; plenty of time to edit later. As for the voices, I guess I was using an analogy but I honestly don’t feel like the thoughts and words are mine; I feel like they are coming from somewhere else. But in any case, not “hearing voices” does not mean you are doomed! The creative process is highly idiosyncratic so my process will be different from yours. No one way is better; it’s just a matter of being attuned to yourself so that you understand your own unique process and can foster it.


    • Thanks for clarifying, Yona! I totally agree that the heart of the creative process is being attuned to yourself (and silencing the critical/self doubts) enough to able access the writing/creating! I’ve been using yoga as a tool to do so, find that it works quite well, and am now teaching workshops on the topic for others.


        • Thank you, Yona! It’s an idea that I’ve been working with for awhile now. I first noticed that my own practice (I’m a yoga teacher) was working in an unexpectedly powerful way to support and enable my writing. After my book came out in June, I started putting together tools from the ancient yoga lineage that I had used–pranayama (breathwork), asana (poses), chakras (energy centers), intention, etc–as ways to unlock, access, and ignite the creative process.
          The eastern and western views on creativity are so different, yet complementary, and different people find different aspects resonate with them, so I “work in” from both eastern AND western perspective and use strategies and tools from both. The eastern is more about energy, breath, poses, chakras etc. to tap into this source of creativity. The western approach I focus on is using a yoga practice as a way to “burn off” the anxiety that can plague us all sometimes, and quiet the mind enough to access that inner stillness/space where great writing sometimes feels like it comes from.
          I also took a class at Harvard Divinity School this summer (“Writing as a Spiritual Practice”) and found that the teacher was using some of the same approaches and didn’t even necessarily deem it “yoga.” Really, really cool stuff.


        • Yona: It won’t let me reply to your last comment–it seems there IS a limit to number of replies on WordPress and we have exceeded them. However, I found a workaround–I’m crafty like a fox 😉

          No, my book, “Where in the OM Am I?”, is a career memoir about the transition from working in financial services to teaching yoga, all the zany characters in both worlds, the complexity of interactions between women on the mat and in the office, and finding one’s “place” in the world.

          I hadn’t thought to turn the workshop subject matter into an article! I love it! What a great idea! I’ll start to work on something and see if I can pitch it to some of those magazines. I’ll be curious to see what the reception is for an unknown, debut author like me. We’ll see! Thanks so much! 🙂


          • Yes, I really think one of those glossies would go for it. Maybe even more, if it involves women 40+. Read the masthead to see who the right editor might be and peruse the magazine for a section/column into which it might. Editors like pitches that say, “My piece fits into Column X for these reasons…” You are making less work for them!


        • Thank you, Yona! I would’ve never thought a glossy/mainstream audience would go for it, but now I’m going to try! And yes, I am all about making their job easier (cut to the “help me help you” scene from Jerry Maguire). I want to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes! 🙂


  4. Loved the nine rules — and need to be reminded of the “small goals” concept. Yes, at 2 pages a day, at the end of the year, you have a book! I’m an edit-as-I go writer and have NEVER been able to break myself of it. I suspect there’s a little OCD going on there :-)!


    • Melissa, the small goals are the best! They make it possible to keep doing the work without feeling overwhelmed. Also, I trick myself. I don’t say to myself, I am working on a NOVEL today. I say, I am working on a scene. A conversation. That is another small goal.


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