Friday, September 23, 2016

#FridayReads : A Black Sail by Rich Zahradnik

A Black Sail by Rich Zahradnik is book three of a mystery series featuring newsman Coleridge Taylor, set on the mean streets of Manhattan and surrounding boroughs in the ’70s. It is a new release from Camel Press and is available in print, e-book and audio.

On the eve of the U.S. Bicentennial, Taylor is covering Operation Sail, and  New York Harbor is teeming with tall ships from all over the world. While enjoying the spectacle, Taylor is still a police reporter. He wants to cover real stories, not fluff, and gritty New York City still has plenty of those in July of 1976. One surfaces right in front of him when a housewife is fished out of the harbor wearing bricks of heroin, inferior stuff users have been rejecting for China White, peddled by the Chinatown gangs. Convinced he’s stumbled upon a drug war between the Italian Mafia and a Chinese tong, Taylor uses every spare minute to investigate.

This story resonated with me on several levels. First off, it is a terrific mystery with just the right amount of drama and intrigue to carry the reader along. I also love history, so the historical elements were interesting. I experienced the Bicentennial while busy raising kids, so I wasn't aware of how it was celebrated across the country, which made it more fun to find out about Operation Sail and the ships that came to New York from around the world. The author does a nice job of blending that history with the story, so none of it is intrusive. It just adds the flavor of the period.

Also, as a journalist, I could really relate to Taylor and his desire to write a really great story. The glimpse into the inner workings of the newspaper business took me back to the years I worked for that arm of the publishing world, and it was a nice visit. It was also nice to remember the time when journalists reported the news and not every reporter sensationalized every story.

I saw Taylor as a bit of an idealist - something else we have in common - and I liked the fact that he was compelled to try to help a young woman who was new to the drug scene. Mary had given him some information that helped in his investigation, and she ends up in danger. He manages to get her out of that danger, but he doesn't want her to go back on the street.

As he's considering whether he should try to help her, he thinks about an addict he helped before and wonders if he can help this one. But he knows how hard that will be. "Prying an addict from the spike in her arm was a serious battle, a full-time project."

With the help of his girlfriend Samantha, Taylor manages to at least get Mary to a halfway house where she can take the first step towards getting clean.

Samantha also helps Taylor in the investigation, and I liked her character very much. She is a good counter-point to Taylor's idealism, as well as bringing her skills as a police officer to his efforts to find out who is bringing China White into the country.

BUY LINKS  - Amazon  *  BN  *  Indiebound  *  Kindle  *  Audio/Downpour

ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Rich Zahradnik has been a journalist for 30-plus years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine, and wire services. He lives with his wife, Sheri, and son, Patrick, in Pelham, New York, where he teaches kids how to publish online and print newspapers.

CONNECT WITH THE AUTHOR  Website  *  Facebook  *  Twitter

Reviewed by Maryann Miller

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

When Outlines Make Revisions Easier

Photo by Ron Bieber © 2006 (Flickr)

I used to find it difficult to move on to writing the next chapter of a book until I had the previous chapter down solid. I used to write a draft, read it, then revise. Then I’d read the revision, feel something was still missing, and revise again. Thus began an endless loop of revisions, pursuing the illusion of a perfect chapter but making little progress on the book.

What’s an obsessive writer to do?

I’ve always refused to start with an outline because it makes me feel inhibited. My characters are unruly, and after just a few pages we’re wildly off-track. So I started my current novel based on a synopsis and a list of “things that might happen,” which I believed was a smaller time investment. But when I began revising each chapter ad-nauseum, I knew I was not saving time at all.

Then I learned a simple notion: there’s more than one way to outline. On the advice of Lighthouse Writers Workshop instructor and author Doug Kurtz, I now outline each chapter after I write it. This method, which I feared might inhibit creativity has instead more than doubled my productivity while increasing my creative freedom. The best part: I no longer ride the revision merry-go-round.

Here’s the basic outline I briefly fill out after drafting each chapter:

Chapter Number/Name
Scene One: Simple phrase that captures the scene
Main Character: Name
Secondary Characters: Names
Want: What does the main character want at the start of the scene?
Obstacle: What is the obstacle that gets in the way?
Conflict: What is the resulting conflict?
Change: What changes as a result of the conflict?
New Want: What’s the new thing the main character wants now that things have changed?

As I describe the five above scene elements—1) Want, 2) Obstacle, 3) Conflict, 4) Change, 5) New Want—I inevitably have trouble answering one or more questions. That’s how I discover which elements need development. Then I note the missing elements in red—that meanie editor’s color, but hey, it stands out.

For example, I might write something like this:

Chapter One: The Gold Coins
Scene One: The Safe Combination
Main Character: Jo
Secondary Character: Ky
Want:  Jo wants the gold coins that will secure the release of her kidnapped child.
Obstacle: Her friend, Ky, won’t give her the combination to the safe. (Wouldn’t it be a more dramatic obstacle if Ky insists Jo admit the kidnapping was her fault before she’ll reveal the combination?)
Conflict:  Jo and Ky argue about whether or not to give the coins to the kidnappers and they both blame each other for the kidnapping (The blame is not yet on the page. Should it be spoken or unspoken? If unspoken show interior monologue.)
Change: Ky agrees to open the safe, but only if Jo calls police. Jo is outraged. (Punch up Jo’s outrage.)
New Want: Jo wants to crack the safe without Ky’s help.

I write an outline for every scene. Once I’ve noted the needed revisions in red, I put off revising and draft the next chapter.

I’ve found many benefits to this sort of outline:

1) It gets me unstuck from repeatedly revising one chapter, because I’ve identified all the missing elements in one fell swoop.
2) It clarifies the purpose of the needed revisions in terms of plot development, so I know what to do.
3) It keeps me moving forward because, instead of feeling I have to fix everything now while it’s on my mind, I let the outline remember for me what to do later.
4) It prevents wasting time on revisions that might later be dropped if the book changes course.
5) When it’s revision-time, my course is laid out so I can finish most of it in one pass.

Sure, revisions can still take me months, but my old way would have taken me years, because I was feeling my way around for what my gut said rather than identifying clear plot requirements like: hey, you forgot the conflict!  

These days I’m editing my novel, which is different from revision. Only after I’ve included the want, obstacle, conflict, change, and new want in each scene am I ready for a content edit. That’s when I make another pass to condense, expand, punch-up, clarify, and polish.

From drafting to revising to editing is a long journey. But I’ve found that outlining decreases the distance between those points.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles TimesDenver PostConnotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.

Friday, September 16, 2016

#FridayReads : Sharpen Your Editing Skills with Noah Lukeman

Noah Lukeman started as an editor for a major publishing company before becoming a literary agent. He is often a guest speaker on topics related to writing and publishing. The Plot Thickens and The First Five Pages are my favourites of his writing craft and editing books.

Working through The Plot Thickens  is most valuable after fully completing a first draft, because we learn best from our own mistakes, and those going for the second round will have many lightbulb moments ahead of the revision or rewrite. 

The Plot Thickens starts by re-developing the characters in your work and how the character changes through the book. Lukeman provides hundreds of questions to consider across every facet of a character. Not every question or topic will apply to every character, but his prompts are bound to help you develop extra information about your character that you can use in your work.

As you work through the questions, take each insight back to the plot of your book and consider how you can use the character traits you’ve uncovered to manipulate the plot. These writing chapters end in exercises to help you work through the points covered. If you’re battling for ideas, these questions and exercises will help to generate some and consolidate the ideas you do have into workable plots.

The final two chapters are editorial advice on what you might need to edit out of your work, or capture to make it shine even more brightly. Noah Lukeman offers this advice from his time as an editor and literary agent. The First Five Pages expands on this in a handy checklist format covering everything from Adjectives and Adverbs, to Dialogue, to Tone and Pacing. (The title of this book always makes me scratch my head. What about the rest of the manuscript? Don’t stop editing at page six, is my advice.)

It is worth remembering that Lukeman is not a writer himself, but this fact is only noticeable in a few of his comments. It is his experience on the reading, editing, and selling ends of the publishing chain that is of real value in his books.

Review by Elle Carter Neal

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Editors Rant: Jessica d'Arbonne

The stupid mistakes that put me in a rejecting mood:
As an acquiring editor, I spend many weary hours combing through my slush pile. Sometimes this process is exciting and fulfilling—like when I find exactly the sort of diamond in the rough I’ve been hoping to find for months. And sometimes it’s the worst part of my day. But it’s never more baffling, tedious, aneurism inducing, and annoying than when I’m faced with stupid and avoidable mistakes.

Many of these mistakes are merely nuisances, and not automatic cause for rejection. But think about it: why would you risk putting an editor in a bad mood right before she reads your query letter? Other mistakes are so egregious or just plain brainless that they immediately set off my highly sensitive Reject Reflex (every editor has one).

If you’re the sort of author who takes painstaking, neurotic care with every one of your query letters, it’s probably unimaginable that an aspiring author would be so careless as to not only irritate an editor, but to shoot their publishing prospects in the foot. And yet, I find authors making these same dumb mistakes every time I wade into the slush.

1. Research the publisher before you query them! If you've written a book of poetry, don't send it to a publisher of nonfiction. You will be rejected. Every publisher and agent has a different specialization, and we rarely deviate from our chosen path. We will not make exceptions for you. As soon as I see the word “memoir” in a query letter, I toss it in the pile of stuff to reject. I could’ve turned down I Am Malala three times by now and I’d never know because I. Do. Not. Publish. Memoirs.

2. Don't send your query letter to every single person at the publishing house. The rest of the staff will just forward your emails to the acquiring editor, who will then be inundated with copies of your query letter and therefore very, very annoyed. And in publishing parlance, “annoyed” is synonymous with “in a mood to reject the next poor fool who crosses me.” If you’re not sure who should receive your query letter, consult the submission guidelines.

3. Include your name and the title of your book in your query letter. I just... why is that so hard? I once referenced an author’s “untitled manuscript” in their rejection letter because they literally did not give me that information anywhere in their query letter. He sent me a very snippy note back informing me that his manuscript certainly was not untitled, it had a very nice title, thank you very much. I could have told him the title was missing from his query letter. But I didn’t. Because he got snippy with me.

4. If a publisher or agent has already rejected you because they don't publish books like yours, do not keep querying them. They'll just keep rejecting you. I know these repeat offenders probably aren’t reading my rejection letters (the irony is not lost on me), but if they did, they’d know not to waste their time anymore. I will remember you. And I will remember that I already told you three times we don’t publish books on chupacabra husbandry.

5. Proofread your query letter. Thoroughly. Sometimes there’s an obvious typo in the first sentence and you’re so wrapped up in other things that you miss it. But the query letter is a litmus test for your writing skills, and if you can’t even successfully proofread a letter as important as the one you send out to impress publishers and agents… well, then what does that say about your writing skills? Fix the typos or you will be judged.

By virtue of visiting writing blogs and being part of online writing communities, you’re probably the kind of author who takes a lot of time and care with their query letters, and not the kind who keeps making these stupid, time-wasting errors. So consider this a bleak look at your competition: those who aren’t putting in the same amount of effort you are to send strong queries out to the right agents and editors. Keep putting the same amount of professionalism and time into your query letters that you expect editors and agents to put into evaluating them, and you’ll be fine.

And for god’s sake read the submission guidelines.

Jessica d’Arbonne is an acquiring editor at the University Press of Colorado. She is an alumna of the Denver Publishing Institute and Emerson College. You can follow her on Twitter @JessDarb.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Do You Need An Editor?

One hundred percent yes!

In the olden days, when traditional publishers had a crew of talented editors aboard their ships, a writer had someone to suggest changes and to perform the final proof-reading.

Nowadays, editors are being tossed overboard. If your book is traditionally published, your manuscript should get at least a cursory once-over if not three. However, being published by a big house is not a guarantee that your book will be solid or error-free anymore.

Self-publishing means you must either: be a good editor, know and bribe a good editor, or hire one. Hiring an editor is tricky. Anyone with a fair grasp of English can hang out their shingle as an editor. If you decide to hire one, check their credentials. Ask for references. Do a criminal background check, just kidding, but only slightly. Search for them on the Preditors & Editors website:

I highly recommend you have several people with some knowledge of craft go over your work. I'm not talking about Cousin Dick or Aunt Sally, unless they are experienced fiction writers or possess a degree in English.

I'm suggesting other writers, preferably those with grammar knowledge and those who have studied the craft of writing. Have them proofread your manuscript for you. Pass out printed or digital copies freely and let them go to town.

Don't worry. They won't steal it.

I guarantee they will catch things you can't. Even if your critique group critiqued your draft, the final product needs to be gone over thoroughly.

If you self-publish, after your file has been uploaded don't hit "publish" yet. Order a proof. Reread it and make changes.

Order a second proof. Reread it and make changes.

Order a third proof and proofread for periods, commas, and typos until you've found every last error you can find. You'll be amazed at what you missed in the first and second proofs. I assure you there will still be one or two errors in the finished product. What you want to avoid is one on every page.

Errors are speed bumps that affect the reader's enjoyment of the ride you are taking them on.

Stringent editing keeps the reader focused on your story instead of your punctuation and word usage.

For more on revision and tips on proofreading pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers available in print and E-book.

Read more:

What Does An Editor Cost?

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Meet Toby

And the winner of the book drawing with swag bag is JuniperEve, whose son Toby will love Toby! Please look for an email from hotbuttonpress in your mailbox.

Hazel Mitchell and I first met on Facebook a few years ago. I was immediately taken by her award-winning children's book illustrations. Even more fun were the engaging stories of her real-life rescue poodle, Toby.

I wasn't much of a dog person at the time, but like all of Toby's many fans, my heart stopped when Hazel shared the news that Toby was lost, from a kennel caring for him while his people went on a vacation. For eight long and agonizing days, we all threw our collective virtual attention and love behind his rescue. You can read more about Toby's adventure here.

Miraculously, Toby was found. But that was just the beginning of his story. This month, Candlewick Press releases the picture book inspired by him, Hazel's first published story-writing effort to go along with the charming illustrations of her poodle.

In the story, a boy and his (presumably single) dad have moved to a new neighborhood just as school is starting. He finds a pet adoption flyer and asks his dad about getting a dog. Dad and boy go to the local shelter, and Toby finds his forever family and home. But that doesn't mean he's happy, or at all what dad and boy expect! Toby just doesn't want to play, or be a bud, or do any of the things good dogs do, much to the frustration of his people.

Click on the photo to view full-size
Through the patience, perseverance, and devotion of one little boy, Toby eventually becomes the pet we all want - a real pal. With sparse but powerful text, and illustrations that balance and embellish the story, Hazel Mitchell gives us a picture book close to perfect for youngsters 4-6 years old.

Like any really good book clearly written for children (and not with a hidden message for adults cloaked in #kidlit), the book still has enough innuendo and intrigue to engage the imagination of the older reader.  Where is the mother in the story? Where does the dad work? What kind of sports do they like? What is the boy's name and how old is he? What books does he like to read? The visual clues will make readers want to learn more about everyone in the story.

TOBY. Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Children can enjoy more Toby moments at Hazel Mitchell's fun-filled website. There are fun activity pages here.  Look at the great Toby merchandise at his Zazzle store! And coming soon: A Toby cam and teacher's guide. Plus Toby has his own Facebook page and Twitter. And he barks a lot on social media, so go share a few woofs with him!

But first, get a copy of the book. It releases on September 13 and you can buy it at Amazon, Indiebound, and Barnes & Noble.

Do we have a contest - of course we do! All you have to do is sign up on Toby's mailing list to win a copy of the book. Click here to email and write BRP Contest in the subject line. You might even get a few extra Toby treats if you win!

Hazel Mitchell is an award-winning illustrator and now children's book author. You can connect with her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil blog, a long-time writer and editor, a children's book aficionado, and now the proud owner of her mother's beloved dog. We aren't sure how Printz feels about this arrangement. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

StorySlam and Stage Fright

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee
A few nights ago, for the first time, I stepped in front of an audience of more than a hundred, without book, paper, or index card in hand, without a memorized song, dance, or play in my head. Just the mic and me. The place was in Los Angeles. The theme was Heat. The event was StorySlam. An organization called The Moth puts on these competitive events all over the country. The premise is: “True Stories Told Live”… no notes.

Are you kidding?!

When I first heard of StorySlam it sounded petrifying. I didn’t even want to watch. Why? It might be like watching amateur trapeze artists perform without a net: could be beautiful, could be painful.

Then I started taking long drives to visit my sister, and on the way back I listened to The Moth Radio Hour on NPR. These storytellers mesmerize. Each spends 10 to 15 minutes revealing their most frightening, embarrassing, grief-stricken, weird, dysfunctional moments. Their stories are inspiring, hilarious, intimate.

They call it The Moth because humans are attracted to stories like moths to flame. This is old-fashioned community: gathering around a fire to connect. 

Or maybe it’s like a circus, where the aerialists are my favorite. I’m too old to join the circus, but this I can do. Oral stories are my tightrope without a net.

At StorySlam, most people just listen. That’s what I did my first night. But if you dare, you can prep a five-minute story on the night’s theme, hope your name is one of the ten picked, tell your story to a crowd plied with drinks, and let three sets of amateurs with no credentials judge you.

Why would anyone do this?!

My second night, I entered the lottery. Every time someone pulled a name from the sack, my heart lurched. “Hope it’s me! Hope it’s not! Hope it’s me! Hope it’s not!”

Five times I spent days-on-end practicing. Five times they did not call my name.  

Phew! Then again: Come on!

One night, a performer delivered her first line, froze, and gave up. What if that happened to me?

For my sixth try, I prepared a story about fireworks for the theme Heat. I wasn’t feeling it. I originally wrote the story for print, and oral stories have a different rhythm, as I’ve discovered walking around my house talking to an invisible audience. I told my husband, “Maybe I’ll just listen this time.” Then, the night before, I remembered another story, about visiting India during a heat wave.

I knew better than to tell a story with so little time to prepare.

When I entered my name that night, I met a guy who produces literary salons in L.A. He was excited to learn I was an author, “but I don’t invite speakers until I’ve heard them perform.” I began to sweat.

The host called my name. My heart began a countdown to self-destruct.   

The lights were so bright I couldn’t see the audience. This was not a relief. When I do public speaking, which I normally enjoy, I seek friendly faces to connect with. Here there was only ominous breathing.

I told a story for the next six minutes and fifteen seconds. Remember, it was supposed to be five? I didn’t factor enough time for filler words when I lost my place, or for unexpected laughter. But the laughter was good. 

Then someone played a flute sound that means, “Wrap it up!” They give you an extra minute if you need it, and many storytellers use it. Then came the second flute sound. That’s when they deduct points. I had three more sentences. Even then, I didn’t hit my planned ending, just one that made sense.

My scores weren’t bad, but I was closer to the bottom of the pack than the top. All the stories were strong, so no shame in that. Still, the shame spiral went on for 24 hours: Did I score lower for going into overtime? Because I didn’t hit my stronger ending? Because my nerves showed? My story was weak? I’m not cut out for this?

But hey, I did it!

Next time, I’ll plan a 4.5-minute talk, so if I go over I’ll still finish on time. Next time, I’ll say my planned ending. Next time, I’ll do better. I’ll keep turning up the heat till I win, whatever that means. In storytelling, I’m always seeking the next challenge to reach an audience. In storytelling, what scares me is good. 

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation Press, Rivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.


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