Monday, December 31, 2012

Presidential Prose

On the final day of the year that saw the re-election of U.S. President Obama, we thought it would be nice to revisit a post inspired by his election first time round. This post ran on November 19, 2008.

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Days after the election, President-elect Barack Obama is busy assembling a cabinet, tying up odds and ends, and getting ready for the big move to Washington from Chicago.

Writers also have to do an equal amount of planning to get their prose into Presidential form.

Some of these tips are basic or old hat, but it never hurts to go back to the beginning and review things that might be overlooked in the excitement of hammering out a new story. Before you know it, that story will be ready to run in the publication of your choice.


1. Make your writing strong. Editors, like voters, want a story that shows character, has strong word choices and is ready to jump to the head of the pack. Bypass weak (passive) words for strong (active) words.

2. Pick the right running partner. Not every candidate (or publication) will be a perfect fit. Unless you already have a story that you know is a good fit for a certain publication, it's often easier to write fresh and slant a story for a specific market than try to force an already-written story into a direction that it doesn't want to go.

3. Do your homework. The successful candidate will do his/her homework ahead of time. Polls, voting habits, good advisers, even the right clothes, have an effect on whether the candidate wins or loses. It's the same with writing. Read issues of a magazine or market you want to write for. Write a strong, compelling query on a unique topic. Sell it with good description. Don't forget to sell the whole package with photos (yours, the source's or from someone else) and applicable sidebars. Include more rather than less.

4. Dress for success. Just as the presidential candidate wouldn't dress in less than their best for a campaign appearance, so should the writer put their work in the best light. Run a spell check. Have a writer friend or someone else read for errors, inconsistencies, unclear references, and date, time or other switches. Let a story sit two or three days before you submit. Give it a final read and do a final edit with fresh eyes.

5. Celebrate the victory. Once the story is submitted, move on to something else. Work on another story while you wait for the final decision. Best of all, celebrate your success when the final vote - the editor's acceptance - comes in. Be positive. It will happen!

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Christine Verstraete is the author of
Searching For A Starry Night, A Miniature Art Mystery from Quake/Echelon Press. Read more at her Candid Canine blog.


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Friday, December 28, 2012

Beyond Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation

This post was first published here on September 12, 2008.

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1. Mark repetitive words and phrases for rewrites or substitutions. As is a particularly overused phrase beginning.

2. Mark all lazy verbs such as were, was, had, and substitute active verbs or restructure sentence. In most cases take out just, now, very, only. There is no now in the past tense except within the dialogue or thoughts of the character. An editor once told me that tiny is the most overused word in manuscripts.

3. Once those basic mistakes are corrected, read aloud and listen for:

A. Hard to read passages that make you stumble. Fix them.

B. If you stop to breathe in the middle of a sentence, it’s probably too long.

C. Unpleasant cadence, too many sentences with the same rhythm, too many long or too many short sentences within a scene. As a general rule, short sentences are used for fast paced action, longer are to calm down a scene.

D. Sibilance (repetition of S or SH sounds) or iteration (repetition of same sounds) should be avoided unless you are doing it to create a particular effect.

E. Too many verbs ending in ing. Change to ed endings by restructuring.

F. Noun-verb repetition. Jake saw, Jake sat, Jake ran, or he saw, etc.

4. Substitute words (especially verbs and nouns) that will set a mood, convey the five senses or visualize a scene.

5. Watch your viewpoint. You are not God, nor are you a camera.

6. Balance dialogue and narrative.

7. Say what you mean. Incorrect placing of prepositional phrases can totally change the meaning of a sentence.

8. Be true to the voice and tone of your book in both narrative and dialogue.

When the time comes, print out the work and go someplace else to read the entire story from paper, not the computer screen. Do not sit in the same place in which you created the work. Edit with a red pen, it stands out much better. After those corrections have been made, one more read is in order before sending it off to an editor, agent or contest.

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By Velda Brotherton

Website
Blog

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Basic Proofreading Tips

This post first ran here on November 29, 2009.

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Whatever you write – whether it is a manuscript, an article, a business letter, or advertising copy – will require some level of checking for accuracy before it is ready to be sent out. Different types of documents often have different requirements, for example a manuscript often needs editing in addition to proofreading, while an informal letter may only require a read-through for spelling and grammar errors, and advertisements may even break grammar rules for effect.

Spelling

If you’re mainly concerned about checking spelling, it can help to read your document backwards, checking one word at a time. This prevents you from skimming as you read and therefore missing errors because your brain is focused on the content.

Break longer words into syllables and check that letters have not been transposed within each syllable. As readers, our brains have been coached into making assumptions to gain speed. Often we see only the first few letters of a word, recognise it, and move on – without attaching any importance to whether the word is spelt correctly.

Keep a dictionary on hand and check any word that you are not completely certain is correct. You’ll probably find that most words start looking wrong to you at this point – think of it as your ego acknowledging that it’s not a Spelling Bee Champion.

Watch out for words that sound the same, e.g. "their" and "there", as these are often mixed up.

Don’t forget to check spellings in your headlines – capitals, bolding, or different font styles make it easy for errors to slip through.

If it helps, make temporary changes to the font style or size that will make it easier for you to check the text. Some people battle to read serif fonts, like Times New Roman, while others prefer these to sans serif fonts, like Arial.

Grammar

If you need to do a basic grammar and sense check in addition to a spelling check, try reading your document backwards one sentence at a time.

Check common errors such as verb and subject agreement, apostrophe usage and other punctuation errors, and missing words. Even if a particular market or client prefers informal grammar, errors like these will make a document look unprofessional.

Missing or transposed letters can change the meaning of a word – the spelling may be correct (and therefore your PC’s spell-check won’t pick it up) but the word is completely out of context.

If a sentence sounds wrong, listen to your instinct. Invest in a grammar guide so that you can double-check anything you’re unsure of.

Word Usage

Again, avoid second-guessing yourself by looking up any words you don’t know the definite meanings of. Do you really mean “consequently”, or should you have used “subsequently”? Have you used “obliged” when you meant “obligated”? It’s easy to get the incorrect sense of a word, and use it incorrectly for years before finding the real definition.

Have you used the correct form of the word? Many people have fallen into the habit of using an adjective as an adverb, e.g., “You’re driving too slow” instead of “You’re driving too slowly”. (Of course, because this is English after all, if that driver's speed was fast instead of slow, the first sentence would be correct, because “fast” is an adjective and an adverb, and, just for fun, it’s also a noun and a verb.)

Inconsistency

It is easy to overlook the spelling of a name when checking a document, especially a popular name, or one with many spelling variations, such as Katherine, Katharine, Kathryn, Catherine.

If you quote more than one person, ensure you’ve attributed each quote to the correct person.

Try to make proofreading a standard part of your work. Factor it into your projects like any other step in the process, include it in your estimation of the time your work will take to complete, and don’t let yourself off until you’ve completed your final check.

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Elsa Neal Elle Carter Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Visit her website to download her free mini report on the Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them. Stay and browse through her resources for writers or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.


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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Worst of Being an Editor

This post was first published here on January 5, 2009.

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Surrounded by all the best of/worst of lists monopolizing magazines and news programs, I couldn’t resist compiling a short list of the best and worst things about being an editor. To start, here are the five “worst” things about being editor, with input from fellow Blood-Red Pencil members, including Dani Greer.
  1. Family members won't send email because they are afraid all you’ll see is their grammar mistakes
  2. Reading the same novel for the third time in the same week
  3. It’s hard to decide what you want to eat when you’re distracted by misspelled words on the menu
  4. The urge to pick up a red pencil when you spot a typo in the book you’re reading for pleasure
  5. When clients consider corrections in grammar as “optional” or as “your opinion”
What about you? Share your “worst” in the comments.

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A born storyteller with a gift for engaging audiences, Jesaka Long has helped authors (and companies) craft their stories for more than 12 years. A full-time freelancer and owner of a.k.a writer in Denver, she works her word magic for small publishing houses and authors, especially non-fiction writers and memoirists. For more information about her background and writing, editing and proofreading services, visit www.jesakalong.com.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Plumpers

This post originally ran on 18 March, 2009.

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 Yesterday, Heidi posted about sagging middles in your stories, and how to prop them up. That started me thinking about the various techniques writers employ to plump up their plots.

One way to flesh out your story is through the use of sub-plots running along-side of your main story. In a mystery novel, these secondary plots are useful fixtures on which to hang a red herring, thus diverting the reader's attention and building tension before the resolution of the mystery. In any genre, the sub-plots lead the reader over and under the main story, keeping the action from becoming flat-out boring.

Authors also plump up their stories by adding tangential information, not necessarily to move the story forward, but in a way that is somehow related. For example, the main character in a book owns a garden shop and has a special interest in flower development. Readers could also be interested in such information, or so the writer presumes, and using a deft hand, will add numerous paragraphs about cultivating the perfect red, white, and blue rose. If that information adds definition to the character (perhaps we'll speculate the person is very patriotic), and is interesting, concise, and engaging, it's a good use of extra words.

However, be cautious about making your middle too fat with extraneous information. I just finished reading a novel in which one character develops Alzheimer's Disease, and the author clearly took a didactic approach around this theme. There isn't anything wrong with that, but make certain the information doesn't read like a promotional brochure stuck between pieces of the plot. That kind of enhancement just pulls the reader out of the story. Make sure the information is seamlessly woven into the fabric of the book.

When using these sorts of techniques, a little goes a long way when it comes to plumping up your manuscript. Always be sure the additions support the story and enhance the characters in some way. Like plumped up lips on a movie star, too much of a good thing can just be, well... too much. Dare I say weird? What do you think? Have you read a novel lately that had a bit too much filler?
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Dani Greer is a founding member of The Blood Red Pencil and teaches authors how to create their own blog book tours. When she's not editing cozy mysteries, she works on her own writing and illustration, and runs a liturgical arts business with her husband.
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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Powerful Verbs Bring Boldness and Vigor to Our Writing

This post was first published here on August 4, 2009.

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Effective use of verbs seems to be a little understood concept by many writers, and most of us could profit from a brief (not to be confused with short) review of three verb forms.

“Active” verbs denote action by the subject of the sentence. Writers, however, often miss the obvious here, a.k.a. ACTION. This oversight results in potentially powerful sentences that, instead, strike the reader as blah. Let’s consider some examples of strong verbs along with definitive adjectives and enhanced structures that turn a boring, almost empty canvas into a detailed word picture.

Boring and uninspired: Mary sat down in the chair. Disappointed and exhausted, she fell asleep.

Enhancement 1: Mary sank into the chair. Her descending eyelids encased her tears even before her head found a resting place against its plush back.

Enhancement 2: Mary dropped into the chair. Her red-rimmed eyes drifted closed the moment her head burrowed into the corner of its winged back.

Enhancement 3: Mary slumped against the back of the chair and allowed the corner of its winged back to cradle her throbbing head. Like shutters latched against the fury of a gale, her eyelids closed out the tempest that had devastated her day.

Enhancement 4: Collapsing into the depths of the overstuffed chair, Mary pulled a blanket of sleep over her to shut out the cold truth that had catapulted her warm and loving heart into a frigid wasteland.

Now let's look at “passive” verbs, which pass the action onto the subject. As a rule, these don’t pack the punch of active verbs, but they do serve a valid purpose when not overused. In addition to showing the receipt of action by the subject, passive verbs can cloak the identity of the actor when that information is inappropriate or insignificant or be used when the actor is unknown or obvious.

Subject acted upon: The frisbee was thrown by John. It was caught by Spot, and then it was stolen by Rover. The winning manuscript was submitted by a fellow CIPA member.

Unknown or unnamed actors: Ugly graffiti was written across the freshly painted walls of the new library. Every book on the shelves had been tossed to the floor.

Obvious actor(s): The leading man was greeted with a standing ovation.

Actor insignificant: Medicines should be stored in a safe place.

“Linking” verbs link or connect the subject and the predicate of a sentence and can sometimes be replaced with an equal sign. Most often forms of “to be,” they may also include verbs such as appear, seem, smell, look, taste, feel, and a few others. These are not strong verbs, but they do have an occasional good use. Check out the following examples:

1. Ms. Marple is the teacher. (Ms. Marple = the teacher.)
2. The apple pie tastes (to be) delicious.
3. The flower garden smells (to be) like spring.
4. The candid discussion was both interesting and informative. (Links subject “discussion” with predicate adjectives “interesting” and “informative.”
5. Our next leader may be Sam. (Links subject “leader” with predicate noun “Sam.”
6. I feel sad about his loss. (I am [form of to be] sad about his loss.)

Powerful verbs convey boldness and vigor. They give our characters permission to ACT. Less punchy ones allow the reader a moment to take a breath and regroup before the next compelling scene. These indispensable tools add vital color to our author’s palette and bring depth and texture to our word pictures. Use them with knowledge of their strength and understanding of their impact to take your writing to the next level.

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Retiring editor Linda Lane is opening a cozy, online bookstore that welcomes writers and readers from all over the world. Currently under construction, it is accessible and should be completed by the end of January 2013. Visit her at www.lindasbooknook.com. Or check out her professional editing team at www.denvereditor.com for top-notch editors to help you realize your dream of writing a great book.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

10 Things Not to Do When Submitting Your Short Story

This post first ran here on November 8, 2008.

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I was asked to help compile an anthology of short stories for a South African publisher. I’d never done anything like it before so was very excited. As the process got underway, I realized quite quickly that I was about to learn a lot more than I expected I would, and I thought now that the process is over I might share some of my insights with you in a list of the 10 Things Not To Do When Submitting Your Short Story.

1. Leave all contact details off of your story.
In the occasional blind contest the guidelines might instruct you to do this, but otherwise don’t. I downloaded all the stories from the gmail account we used so that I could read them off line. I was shocked when I realized some stories had no name or contact details. When it came time to get back to the writer it was a serious slog to find the information.

2. Go with the first thing in your head
Our anthology had a theme. Themes are good and bad. It’s bad if everyone rushes for the first idea that enters their head and, surprisingly, it seems most writers do this. If that happens, then you have two hundred stories that sound like school essays. It is unlikely if you confront the topic dead on you’ll end up with a unique story. Blind side it and you have a better chance.

3. Mention your pets and hobbies in the cover letter.
I’m sure Fluffy’s a real gem, but she will not increase your chance of having your story chosen. Honestly. Nor will the fact that you have climbed Kilimanjaro. Impressed I was, but it’s not going to sway me. Keep it professional; publishing credits and little more.

4. Use SMS language
I know I am BBC (born before computers), but I want a capital I when it is in first person. 8,4,2. These are not words; they are numbers. @ is a symbol in an email address. Just as houses are made of bricks, short stories are made of words. It’s just the way it is.

5. Go under or over the word count
I’ll admit sometimes I read long complicated submission guidelines about margins, style, and types of quotation marks they want and think – what?? But word count? Never. Easy to read, easy to understand, easy to follow. So why? Why?

6. Send a poem for a short story anthology and then ask why the publisher is so rigid
There are many poetry markets. There are combined short story and poetry markets. Why on God’s earth would you want to send a poem to a short story market and then get pissed off when you’re told no thanks?

7. Scan your story and send it as a big, fat, heavy JPEG
I have painfully slow dial-up. A heavy JPEG file is not going to put me in an accommodating frame of mind. Besides, no one can do anything with it. It’s a big, fat unyielding block that for me goes straight into the trash.

8. Ask for a critique of your story
I was surprised at the number of people who asked if I might give them a critique of their story if it was not chosen. There were over 300 stories I had to read in a relatively short period of time. Please, writers, let’s be fair. There are editors that you can hire to do that job (See almost everyone on Blood Red Pencil).

9. Undermine yourself by revealing this is your first story ever
Why say, “This is the first short story I’ve ever written and submitted”? Do you expect the reader will give you a few points for your newbie status? Likely the opposite. Don’t do it. Looks unprofessional and, frankly, desperate.

10. Write after two weeks, then three weeks, then four weeks, etc. asking if your story has been chosen.
Either you want the reader to take their time and consider your story and every other submission or you don’t. Over three hundred submissions and a week after the deadline you want to know if your story has been chosen? By the third week you are insinuating that the publisher is using your masterpiece without your permission. Have some empathy for the task at hand, folks. It is not easy.

Well, that’s a bit of what I learned in the process. Educating for this writer; hope it helps a few of you too.
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Lauri Kubuitsile is a full time, award-winning writer living in Botswana. She writes novels, short stories, TV and radio scripts, textbooks, and anything else that comes her way. She is the author of the popular fiction Detective Kate Gomolemo Series which includes The Fatal Payout (Macmillan 2005) and Murder for Profit (Pentagon 2008). Read her blog, Thoughts from Botswana.



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Friday, December 14, 2012

Show me your story; don't just tell it to me.

This post first ran here on September 4, 2008.

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Something I’ve learned about good, impactful writing in fiction is knowing when you are “telling” the readers your story and when you are “showing” it to them. There is a place in a good book for both methods, but the “shown” passages are always more dramatic and dynamic. They create two entirely different effects. Instead of telling you the difference, I will show you. Here is a short paragraph, an example of a story being told to the reader.

Bob walked over to the door. He turned the door knob, opened the door and started to walk outside. It was an icy cold winter day so he went back inside in a hurry and put on his coat.
Well, if I’m the reader I haven’t missed anything, I know what’s happening, but the passage doesn’t draw me into Bob’s world, doesn’t let me feel or sense much of anything. Now I’ll rewrite the same passage showing you the story.

Floor boards creaked underfoot. Step by step, across the room. The chill of cold brass felt smooth as the knob turned in his palm. A thunk nudged against the quiet as the bolt released from its locked position. The squeak of old hinges whined “please oil me” to Bob in their pivot. A final push and a step. Whistling arctic wind whipped against skin as shivers crept all up and down.

Wow. Cold. Bob thought better of his choice of clothing. Slam!

Nippy fingers worked their way through the dark foyer closet, feeling for heavy suede
.

Isn’t that a lot more fun and entertaining to read?
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Written by Marvin D Wilson

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Story Logic—Spell It Out

This post first ran here on January 1, 2009.

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For the last two days, I’ve been filling in the details of my outline, working out the timeline, and crafting a sizzling ending that brings it all together. I’m already 50 pages into writing Thrilled to Death, and it felt like to time to solidify some plot points. I know many writers don’t do this; they prefer to wing it and see where the story takes them. (Stephen King, for example) I rather envy that style.

But I write complex mystery/suspense novels, and the outline/timeline has become more critical with each novel. In a police procedural, so much happens in the first few days of a murder investigation that a timeline is essential. For complex, parallel plots with multiple points of view, mapping the story in detail is the best way to avoid writing yourself into a dead end or writing 48 hours worth of activity into a 10-hour time frame. I speak from experience.

Then yesterday for the first time, I put in writing what I termed story logic. I’ve always done this in my head to some degree, but this was the first time I put it on the page in summary form. In a mystery/suspense novel, some or much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened.

So I mapped it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .

It was an enlightening process, and I highly recommend it. Summarizing the story logic forces you to think specifically about character connections and motivations. It points out holes and inconsistencies and gives you an opportunity to tighten and improve your plot. It may even force you to rethink and rewrite your outline. But it also may keep readers from getting to the end of your novel and thinking, How did he know that? Where did that come from?

I mentioned the process on a Twitter update, and another writer asked me about it. So I explained it to her (in 140 characters!). She got back to me with this message: “I wrote the foundation of my book and did the ‘story logic’ for the rest before writing the book to fill in details. It led me in a completely different direction. I took some risks in the outline and a lot fell into place. I'm psyched!”

I admit, all of this takes some of the spontaneity out of the writing process. But for me, writing isn’t magic. It’s work, and it needs the same detailed planning as any other project. Of course, I’m flexible. If better ideas or connections come to me as I write, I will modify my outline and resummarize the story logic.

Do you map the story logic? Do you outline? Can any of you wing it with complex crime story?

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L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and editor and is the author of the Detective Jackson mysteries, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For. She also loves to edit fiction and works with authors to keep her rates affordable. Contact her at:
L.J. Sellers
Write First, Clean Later

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Believe in Yourself

This post was first published here on April 18, 2009.

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Are there any among us who haven't had self-doubts? Is there anyone who is elated to get rejection after rejection? Haven't most of us, at one time or another, questioned this career of writing?

Self-doubt and even depression are normal. Some of us get down after finishing a novel. It may take a while to get started on the next one. We may have periods when we think, "Why in the world am I doing this?" And, certainly, we can have ambivalent feelings about querying. If you're querying agents or editors, it means you've accomplished something and you're ready to move onto the next step. You anticipate replies as you walk to the mail box. And you feel that knot in your stomach as you read the rejection. (And sometimes the elation of the acceptance or check.)

Writers have to handle more than just rejection, though. We have critique partners who disassemble our work, readers who complain about errors or research mistakes, editors who insist on inane changes, bookstores that forget to stock our book or just won't. We tend to work alone at our computers or typewriters. Sometimes our progress seems so slow, we wonder if there's any forward movement at all.

But every time you get "down" or suspect that you must be a second-rate hack or you would be published (or be a best-selling author or at the top of your editor's list or whatever), remember that these feelings will pass. Do something to soothe your spirit.

But do NOT beat yourself up. There are plenty of people out there willing to do that for you. Some of them even enjoy doing it. (Try to cut those people out of your life, or at least limit your contact with them.)

I repeat, don't beat yourself up. We're in a business where we have to live with bad news. But, very rarely, are those rejections directed at you personally. Your article didn't fit that magazine -- but that's not a dig at you as a person. The agent thought your synopsis was a pile of warm spit. Yeah, it hurts. But it's not the end of the world. And in the scheme of your life, it's not a major event -- unless you let it be.

If you take a cat-o-nine-tails and start beating yourself up, you weaken your resolve, you put dents into your armor of confidence, you hurt your inner spirit. Sure, after a rejection, you can take a little down time to recover, but use that time to learn, grow, do something enjoyable, focus on some neglected aspect of your life. Okay, so you're a little down. But if you start kicking yourself while you're down, it'll only be harder to get back up.

And if you’re one of my clients, give me a call. Heck, even if you’re not one of my editing clients, gimme a call. We’ll talk. Or if you live close by, we’ll meet to talk over a mocha coffee. What the heck, we’ll even order it with whip cream.
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Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and book consultant, with an informational and interactive blog for writers and a free weekly e-newsletter that has gone out to subscribers around the globe for ten years. She coaches writers on the publishing industry, finding an agent, and polishing their work for publication. You can also follow her on Twitter.
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Monday, December 10, 2012

Empty Fillers

This post first published here on December 14, 2008.

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A novel crammed with empty fillers turns me off, especially when I’m editing it and am forced to watch characters endlessly smile, grin, and nod.

Here are five sentences filled with examples of what I mean. See how many you can spot:

1. When Rachel stared at her, Lina blinked and cocked her head, then groaned.

2. Lara smirked at Betty, then shook her head and grinned.

3. Sarah swallowed hard and stretched her lips into a huge smile.

4. Sandy squared her shoulders, narrowed her eyes, and raised her eyebrows.

5. As Maureen approached, Connie nodded her head, blushed, and smiled.

The author usually has a good motive. She seems to know that she needs to break the dialogue with some type of action or gesture, but she chooses a tired word or phrase and inserts it without much thought.

I’m always thrilled to read passages such as the following:

“Then, like a dog hearing a sound on some inaudible frequency, he cocked his head. Kenan Vartan emerged onto the patio in full uniform and saluted smartly. The Premier, his ebony eyes fastened intensely on Vartan, gave a curt nod, as did Desmond, who thought how ridiculous the salute would look were Vartan too wearing shorts and sandals.” (Katherine V. Forrest, Daughters of an Amber Dawn, 2002)

The cocked head, smart salute, and curt nod don’t offend me here, because they’re appropriate and not overused. So whether you're writing or editing, check for empty fillers and replace them with meaningful actions and gestures.
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Shelley Thrasher is an editor, educator, poet, and aspiring novelist. You can read her poetry and her novel in progress at her website or connect with her at www.myspace.com/editlit.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Countdown to a Book 3: Getting My Agent

One year ago I sat writing at my computer when Publisher’s Lunch Deluxe popped into my inbox. Under the heading “People, etc.” I saw that a new agent, Katie Shea, had moved from the Johnson Literary Agency to Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her interests included my main areas: women’s fiction, commercial-scale literary fiction, memoir, and young adult. She had listed several of her favorite titles and of the ones I had read, I liked them all.

Because I had pitched to an editor from Penguin at the 2010 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference (where I was also a board member), and because she had requested my first three chapters, and liked them enough to then request the full manuscript, I was able to add a tantalizing line to my query that my full manuscript was currently under consideration at a Big Six publisher. Further, I was at the time revising the manuscript yet again per ideas gleaned from Donald Maass’s workshop at the 2011 Write Stuff conference.

Within five minutes of this announcement my query, synopsis, and first five pages were in her inbox. 

Within three weeks she requested the first 50 pages. At that point I was still finishing up my Maass workshop-inspired revisions, but she was interested enough to shoot a few e-mails back and forth asking about what else I was writing. She shared with me that she had a very personal reaction to my story on many levels—things she loved that would never show up on an official list of work an agent was looking for.

I had two other requests for the full manuscript at the time, but due to Katie’s interest and personal passion for the topic I told her I’d give her a two-week jump on the manuscript before sending it out to the other agents. When I sent the full manuscript to her she said she’d get back to me by the end of those two weeks.

In ten days she offered me representation. By New Year’s I had achieved a goal a decade in the making: a signed contract saying I had an agent.

I had moved so far up the ladder that I was now at the starting line. Now, selling this manuscript was possible.

Sounds simple, right? On the surface, it was. But many factors had to click into place for this transaction to succeed.


What went right 

1. I had been subscribing to Publisher’s Marketplace and staying current on what was happening in the industry.

2. Because I’d served for several years as Agent/Editor Chair for The Write Stuff conference, I already knew to be targeting new agents who are just starting to build their lists, but who also have the support of experienced staff at an established agency.

3. I had read Don Maass’s books on writing, had met him the previous year when he keynoted at The Write Stuff, and trusted his reputation.

4. I knew my genre and had read widely within it.

5. I was pre-qualified. Agents love any sort of pre-qualification, such as published short work (check), literary prizes (I had conference wins but nothing major enough to mention), or an editor at a major house considering your work (check!).

6. I remained steeped in gratitude for her interest, since I had capitalized on the fact that the Penguin editor had my submission by querying many agents, and while I received more personal responses, others had passed—it takes a strong connection to a novel for an agent to want to take it on, and a clear sense of how she’d go about selling it.

7. I’d been continuing my education in my field.

8. My submission package was in tip-top shape. I had a query letter that had evolved with my project and communicated its essence succinctly, pointing out why I was the person to write this story. My synopsis was in equally good shape. I knew my manuscript was fully revised, again, but did not assume anything—I took the additional time to send it off to two trusted readers who double-checked my work.

9. I drew professional boundaries around my submission without being a jerk about it.

10. Because I had submitted widely and received a lot of valuable feedback from agents, I trusted and appreciated Katie’s personal reaction to my work. When I saw that her vision for the book was the same as mine, I wasted no time signing with her.

Just catching up? Here are links to the other posts in this series:
Countdown to a Book 1: Joining Hands
Countdown to a Book 2: Pitching

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Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her article, "The 7 Deadly Sins of Self-Editing," co-written with Janice Gable Bashman, is in the Nov/Dec issue of Writer's Digest. Her monthly series, "Countdown to a Book," details the traditional publication of her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by Sourcebooks in January 2014. Her essay Memoir of a Book Deal tells the larger story while also serving as a primer on story structures. To follow her writing please "Like" her Facebook Author Page. She follows back most writers on Twitter.


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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Crowd Control

This post first published here on September 11, 2008 and we're happy to share it with you again.
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Crowds can be a problem. Sometimes they're exciting, other times deadly. That's why professionals experienced in crowd control are hired to guard sporting events and concerts.

Crowded restaurants mean long waits. Crowded sidewalks force you to slow down, which is aggravating when you're in a hurry. Crowded streets are a nightmare and can cause accidents.

Likewise, when I walk into a crowded room, I find it more difficult to connect with any of the individuals. It takes me a while to single out someone and carry on a meaningful conversation.

It's not much different in a manuscript. Especially in the first few chapters, a crowd gets in the way. Making the reader try to remember each character slows down the pace and makes the novel confusing and a bother to read. Readers forget who the people are and what their roles are. It's so much easier to put down a book like that and go to one that's easier to follow.

Don't let that happen to your book. Unless you're very skilled and experienced, it's best to introduce only a few characters at the start of your novel. Let your reader get acquainted with them and bond with them. Then, introduce other characters, but not all at once.

Don't make it hard for the reader to read your book. Use crowd control.
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All the best,

Morgan Mandelhttp://www.morganmandel.com/
http://acmeauthorslink.blogspot.com/
http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Developing Scenes

This post first ran on October 11, 2008.

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When I pursued my MFA degree a few years ago, my fiction professor/mentor discussed the concept of Camping and Marching.

He began by stating that many writers, for fear of losing readers or of leaving readers “in the dark”, will overwrite, overstate, and overdevelop every scene so that readers are in on EVERYTHING. That's how you will definitely lose a reader! When you're in a scene, you have to ask yourself, "Is this scene vital to the understanding of the story?" This, in essence, is the camping and marching question. If a scene is important to your story and readers will be lost if you do not put it in, then you want to "camp" in that scene for a while and show the reader what he or she needs to continue with the story. If the scene is not vital, then you want to "march" right through it, giving the reader exactly what he or she needs and then moving on to the next scene of your story.

Camping and marching are extremely important when one discusses developing scenes, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's take a step back and discuss scenes.

What is a scene? Well, it takes place in one setting -- though if there are flashbacks, a scene could conceivably have more than one setting. It involves one or more characters. It has a beginning, middle, and ending. And most importantly - it MOVES a story FORWARD. Think about some of your favorite TV shows. Imagine a scene from one of those shows. As you visualize it, think about how the scene starts. Typically, we are "placed" somewhere (setting). People are revealed to us (characters). Some idea, point, purpose, situation is presented to us (beginning). There is interaction amongst the characters (middle), and the scene concludes in a way that propels the story forward and makes us want to know what happens next (ending).

EACH SCENE in your novel should work toward doing all of these things, too, and a scene's purpose determines how developed the scene will be. Sometimes, there will be scenes that do not move the story's conflict(s) along. In these types of scenes, writers should MARCH; they should give the reader exactly what he/she needs and move on to the next scene.

Most of your scenes should, however, develop your story's conflict(s) and move the story's purpose toward its conclusion. These are the scenes that writers should "camp" in. How does the setting affect the story? How do the characters' internal thoughts affect the story? How do the characters' facial movements, actions, words affect the story? In these scenes, you will want to make the atmosphere literally jump off the page so that the reader can visualize the scene and understand its importance to the story - if not right then, then surely by the end of the story.


Now, it's always important to preface any advice by saying that as you're writing your first draft, you should solely focus on getting out a draft. Do not think about if each word is perfect or if every scene begins or ends wonderfully. It's in the revision stage that you should consider scene development as one of your ISSUES to develop and fine tune.

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Shon Bacon is better known online as ChickLitGurrl. An author, editor, and educator, Shon's biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically; she interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING, and you can learn more about Shon's writings, editorial services, and thoughts at her blog The World According to ChickLitGurrl.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

When Should I Start Editing?


This article first appeared here on October 9, 2008. We're happy to repeat it for all the NaNoWriMo participants last month.
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The answer to the question “When should I start editing” is the same answer to many writing and editing questions: It depends.

Writers fall into two distinct camps when it comes to editing. Some like to edit as they write. They finish a scene or a chapter and go back and edit it before moving on to the next scene or chapter. I know a few successful and prolific writers who do a good job of editing as they write. Perhaps that has always been the way they write best or maybe they developed the skill through years of experience and the pressure of deadlines.

Editing as you write requires:
  • An organized and well-planned outline: If you don’t know exactly what plot point will occur in every chapter or the how you will structure your how-to book, you will end up editing material that you later decide to delete or change.

  • The discipline to edit, then continue writing: Some writers spend so much time revising and polishing the first chapter or scene they never finish their book.
In my experience, most writers edit more effectively if they finish the first draft before they begin to edit. I’ve written about this in Ten Tips for Self-Editing as well as these posts on my blog: The First Draft: Pure Green Dreck, Editing: Turning Dreck into Prose, and Seven Editing Tips for Professional and Nonprofessional Writers.

Although the post is a several years old, Editing Your Writing at All Kinds of Writing generated a lively discussion among several writers who share how they edit. You will see different perspectives that may help you decide which editing method you prefer.

I finish the first draft before I edit, but I do use Word’s auto-correct to correct common mistakes as I type. Unlike spell check and grammar check, auto-correct can be customized to eliminate your most common errors without creating new errors. You can add the words that are your bugbears and know that when you type harrassment, auto-correct will change it to harassment (one of my bugbears). You won’t spend any time or energy correcting those common mistakes—while writing the first draft OR while editing.

Do you edit as you write? Or do you finish your first draft before you start to edit?
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Lillie Ammann is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in working with self-publishing authors. Her romantic mystery, Dream or Destiny, is available now as an e-book and soon in paperback. She blogs at A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye.

    Monday, December 3, 2012

    Sorting the Slush Pile

    This post first published on October 16, 2008 and will resonate with every editor who has ever processed book manuscript submissions.
    ~~~~~
    Reviewing manuscripts and looking for ones that seem to say “pick me, pick me” is a time-consuming, but necessary task for any publisher. In a small house such as mine, it can be overwhelming. And, boy, do we have to live with our mistakes.

    After reviewing countless manuscripts over the past ten-plus years, I have developed some trigger points to make this process more efficient. Not all concern editing, but many, such as these, do.

    1. Before I actually read a novel manuscript, I just look at it: the first page, then, by flipping through, the next 20-30 pages. The amount of white space will give me an idea of when dialog kicks in. Readers today are accustomed to stories that engage fast. Dialogue isn’t the only way to accomplish a launch, but it’s a good indicator. Think about how movies often set up under the opening credits.

    2. Next, I take an impression of stylistic things which I have come to see as tip-offs to amateurish writing: all caps for shouting, spelling out sounds (KEEERASH or KABOOOM), overuse of dashes and ellipses, and (perhaps worst of all) rows of ????? or !!!!!

    3. Another stylistic thing that puts me on alert is the excessive use of space breaks. Noting a space break every three or four paragraphs can indicate that the writer doesn’t know how to transition from scene to scene, or to move time along. In third person viewpoint and often in romance novels, a space break alerts the reader to a shift in POV, which is fine. Still, overuse of this technique can produce a choppy read. If I see a lot of it, I make a mental note.

    4. Now I read the opening…just the first paragraph or two, then stop and think: does this engage? Did someone say something or do something that makes be want to know more?

    Then I recap: little to no dialogue in the first 20 pages, lots of ellipses, dashes and space breaks and a ho-hum opening. Everything’s subjective, of course, but for many submissions, this is the end of the line. But, for the sake of conversation, let’s say that it’s a fence-straddler or there is something fresh about the story slant, and I decide to read on. What else comes into play?

    1. How’s the dialogue? The chit-chat among the characters is crucially important. Is it real? Does it ring true? Or do we hear a university president with really poor grammar? A teenager who sound like an octogenarian?

    2. Does the dialogue “work” or is there too much of what my first writing teacher called “salt and pepper” chat? Dialogue needs to show character or move plot, action. Perhaps you can have just a little pointless chatter for flavor, but be sparing.

    3. What’s the cliché count? The occasional cliché can be okay, and even effective, but too many will kill reader’s interest and give the piece a stale, dated feeling. And clichéd situations are deadly. My particular un-favorite is when the character looks in a mirror and describes herself…that one’s been done to death!

    4. Is the cast of characters a cast of thousands? If there are too many characters, the reader will find it hard to keep them distinct. I subscribe to the theory that you have three levels of characters: the main ones, the supporting cast, and the background, what a lecturer once called the “spear carriers.” Are their names distinct? And in the case of the background characters, most won’t need names and may not even have dialog. We don’t need backstory on the waitress who will never reappear in the story. Again, take a tip from the movies. Watch the credits roll, after the stars and the supporting cast, you will see roles such as “man on elevator” and “taxi driver #1.” So we don’t always need to know that the waitress is named Doris and her bunion hurts…she can just serve the pastrami sandwiches and exit the scene.

    That “No, thanks” pile is discouraging for both author and publisher. Publishers need product, yearn for stories that captivate, inspire tears and laughter and make us feel the writer peeked into our personal thoughts. Every once in a while, I find one of these -- as I did this weekend. Huzzah!
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    Billie Johnson, Publisher
    Oak Tree Press
    Read more at the Oak Tree Press Blog

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