Thursday, July 12, 2018

Writers on Their Toes

~ Editor/Author/Publisher Mysti Berry is our guest at the Blood-Red Pencil today. ~

I’d like to share with you the most marvelous discoveries of my first adventure as a publisher. Editing a charity anthology LOW DOWN DIRTY VOTE was my first time editing a collection. The process was a series of delightful discoveries punctuated by occasional fits of swearing at the software. I’ll spare you the swearing but share what I learned about crime writers during this madcap adventure.

 Discovery #1: Crime Writers are Generous 

Exhausted by my own pointless rage-tweeting and desperate to do something useful, I decided to publish an anthology of crime short stories to raise money to help fight voter suppression. I invited writer friends and writers who are barely more than acquaintances to contribute.

Nearly all of them said yes.

This astonished me, because most of the writers in the anthology are well published—he or she has something to lose if a story shows up in a low-quality book. It was my first attempt at publication, and yet these wonderful writers trusted me! And they were all keen to support the effort to make sure everyone who is entitled to vote is able to vote.

Some writers' schedules were too packed to contribute, but they helped in other ways by providing “blurbs” recommending the book or sharing freely their own experiences with publishing. All of these generous acts enabled me to put together a wonderful anthology with the best possible print-on-demand distribution. The book would not have happened without their many generous acts.

Discovery #2: Crime Writers are Professional 

Writers didn't turn stories in late. No one insisted that they were more important than anyone else. Each writer was cheerful and supportive as I stumbled along. Contributors recommended new writers who would be great additions to the book. I’ll always be grateful that the writers gently nudged me when I made silly mistakes (I’ll never misspell “Foreword” again!). They each pitched in to help with publicity. They set about hand-selling the book, even though it is a small charity anthology and I am a first-time publisher. Working with people who know how to behave professionally is a true joy.

Discovery #3: If You Give Them Freedom, Crime Writers Will Rise Up On Their Toes

 Does this one sound odd? Let me explain. You see, Tom Hanks once said that doing voice-over work for animation wasn’t easier than acting in person, it was harder because you had to do all the acting that your body and face does, but with just your voice. He said it was like acting on your toes (like a ballerina).

I gave the writers a theme, “fighting voter suppression,” no word limit, and no other rules about sub-genre or tone. Each writer, completely independent of the others, produced a truly original work, often far outside his or her comfort zone. Whether the stories experimented with point of view, time period, form, or subject matter, each writer’s unique voice rings true and each writer’s vision is unlike any other.

These stories range from a humorous private eye tale to deadly serious suspense, and everything in between. Because crime readers are omnivores, consuming good stories in a variety of sub-genres, they will enjoy the variety and revel in the excitement, honesty, and charm that these writers delivered in LOW DOWN DIRTY VOTE.

There’s on last realization more than discovery that makes me want to praise these writers. The accepted wisdom for many years has been that writers of crime fiction should avoid politics. If we don’t, we’ve been told, we’ll risk alienating one set of readers or another. However, there is a difference between writing thinly veiled defenses of one or another policy positions (politics), and doing what these writers have done, which is defend basic human rights with all their storytelling power, infusing their work with timeless meaning and resonance. Crime fiction readers, like crime fiction writers, aren’t afraid to explore the gap between who we say we are, and who we really are. This fact makes me so glad that I’ve chosen to write crime fiction. You couldn’t belong to a better club!

In addition to being editor/publisher of LOW DOWN DIRTY VOTE, Mysti Berry is a technical writer, a screenwriter, and a short story writer. In her own words: "From Comic-Con to the Caribbean, my short stories show the gap between who we pretend to be and who we really are." Learn more about Mysti at

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What is a Sentence?

Photo by Sean Mason, via Flickr
Oxford English Dictionaries online defines a sentence as ”A set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate, conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command, and consisting of a main clause and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses.”

In fiction, an enormous amount of leeway is given in sentence length and structure according to the novel’s genre. Short sentences increase tension in thrillers that feature fast-paced scenes. Dialogue-heavy fiction gives the author an opportunity to play with fragments and short, snappy exchanges. The secret is to understand what a sentence is before messing around with it.

One of greatest failings of modern education is the removal of sentence diagramming from the study of writing. Editor Linda Lane explored this topic in her Blood-Red Pencil post, Excuse Me, Please, I Need a Diagram. Linda noted, “Knowing the parts of speech helps us use words most effectively to create sentences that touch our readers and pull them into our stories.”

Authors in all genres use complex sentences with multiple dependent clauses and phrases as well as simple, short sentences. The writer, however, needs to be aware of his intended audience and avoid fancy words and sentence structure if his readers simply want a good story with interesting characters. Our sentences need to pull the reader into the action, drama, and setting without making her stop to admire a pretty arrangement of words.

The writer also needs to be aware of the editor’s eagle eye. Even though an incorrectly constructed sentence might be effective once or twice, habitual grammatical errors will brand the writer as an amateur.

My critique group recently had a discussion of sentence structure based on sentence length and complexity. One member translated this sentence from Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar to demonstrate a long and complicated sentence that holds together despite multiple clauses, parenthetical asides, and lots of commas:

"But the bad part, what made me so fearful and gave me such a burning shock, was, that the young man offered the girl his heart, which he said was young like hers, created to discover the distant, veiled moments of bliss in this world (that’s how he expressed it) and in whose invigorating company (how could I not have recognized the ‘invigorating company’!) she should strive towards the golden prospect of everlasting togetherness (I am quoting verbatim) and undying weaving love in close togetherness.”

Contrast this with the first sentence from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Then compare that short, effective statement with a later observation the narrator makes about her dream. "And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognize, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered."

Ernest Hemingway was the master of the short sentence. In his short story, The Killers, he wrote: "Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu."

A writer accustomed to reading the longer, more complicated sentences of Mann or du Maurier might want to emulate their styles but not know the grammar rules that would prevent short cuts such as a run-on sentence, a string of sentences connected by conjunctions, or even a comma-splice: Outside it was getting dark, the street-light came on outside the window, the two men at the counter read the menu.

We like to play with sentences when writing fiction, but it’s important to learn and understand good writing before we wander off to do our own thing. To read more about run-on sentences and comma splices as well as other grammar issues, check out the online Guide to Grammar and Writing from Capital Community College Foundation.

For a few tips on reviewing your own sentences during your self-editing process, read Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Fine-Tuning Sentence Structure, one of the posts in my self-editing series.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Is Editing a Dying Art?

Image by Mr Clementi, via Flickr
Like the English language, the landscape of professional editing is an ever-changing kaleidoscope. We've come a long way from the days of the legendary Maxwell Perkins, the Charles Scribner editor who first discovered and published F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. Perkins had running battles with the poetic but entirely undisciplined Wolfe, but ultimately convinced the author to let him cut 90,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel, a seminal novel that would have been indecipherable (not to mention unpublishable) in its original form.

Back then book editors were gatekeepers and kingmakers. They were both despised and revered. Today, opinions tend to run more to the "despised" side of the equation. I doubt many of us, no matter how excellent our work, feel much revered. Like so many jobs in the Arts, our profession has fallen a long way.

Other than acquisition editors who buy books for publication, most publishing houses have eliminated the majority of their full time editing jobs. There are few in-house developmental editors, copy editors, line editors or proofreaders working for major publishers now. The work is subbed out to freelancers.

Freelance editing rates have fallen precipitously. We're lucky to earn a thousand dollars for a complex developmental edit for a major publisher that would once have commanded two to eight times that amount. I often find myself working for far less than minimum wage because while our payment is fixed, the number of hours required to do an excellent job is not.

The self-publishing revolution hurt as well. Many self-published authors do not believe their manuscripts require editing. They had their Great Aunt Thelma, who taught English during the Depression and is legally blind, look over their book and she declared it was fine, and that's good enough for them.

I hear stories like this all the time. Authors relay them with a self-satisfied air as if they were schooling me on the all-too-obvious fact (at least to them) that there is no actual need for my existence. In so speaking, they betray an almost complete misunderstanding of what an editor actually does.

Yes, we'll find your typos and grammatical errors and fix them and yes, perhaps Aunt Thelma could do the same. But professional editors do so much more. We help authors look deep into the heart of their work and coax out the best possible version of their story. We repair the disconnects, iron out the inconsistencies, help them inject emotion into their writing, and counsel them to make sure every single paragraph in the manuscript is moving the story along.

In answer to the question posed in the title, is editing a dying art? Yes, in many ways I believe it is. But there will always be stubborn editors like me and many others, willing to fight to defend the highest and best use of our beautiful and incredibly expressive language to tell great stories. And if I have to be one of those jousting eternally with that particular windmill…well, I can think of worse fates.

Patricia B. Smith is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Antagonist Role in Romance

Loves stories are primarily about two characters who meet, are attracted, face a set of challenges, and overcome those challenges to live happily ever after. They have friends who are thrilled for them and foes who are not so thrilled.

Do you really need an evil lord or a psychotic killer to keep them apart? Not unless you are writing a paranormal or crime thriller.

Do you really need an antagonist at all? No, if you want to keep the tone light and conflict mild, friends and foes can cause enough mischief. But you do need antagonistic characters.

If someone in your lovers’ story world is dead set on keeping them apart and actively working against them, the potential for breakup conflict is higher. Your job as a romance writer is to instill doubt in the reader that your love interests will end up happily ever after. There are several types of antagonism to draw from. Let’s look at a few:

1. Disapproving parents or family members.

2. Disapproving best friend who rejects the new partner’s “otherness,” or resents the fact that his/her friend is now too busy to spend time with him/her, or the lover is changing to please the new partner so much the best friend no longer recognizes him/her.

3. The jealous ex-lover who fights to get the lover back or just makes sure no one else has him or her.

4. A powerful society figure who disapproves based on cultural, racial, etc. differences. It could be a religious leader, gang leader, or mafia boss. It could be a fraternity or sorority leader, or the head of a secret organization.

5. A boss who needs his employee to focus and the relationship is detrimental to his business plans (for a multitude of reasons).

6. A boss who needs the lover or love interest to move to a new city or country. The couple’s bonds are truly tested: who is willing to sacrifice how much to stay together?

7. An employee or coworker who wants the love interest and now has to admit how s/he feels.

8. A boss or friend encourages the love interest to do a favor that offends the love interest or the lover agrees to take on a job that is against the love interest’s morals or beliefs (political, religious, etc.).

9. Someone from a past, secret life who threatens to expose one of the lovers. Should the lover come clean or find a way to remove the threat?

10. Someone becomes a new responsibility for one of your lovers: a child, such as a niece or nephew, or a parent who is suddenly ill and has to move in. Perhaps the lover will have to relocate to take care of someone.

The important thing is to make the reader doubt an outcome that is inevitable: the happy ending.

For more on how to create your lovers, check out Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, and Story Building Blocks Build A Plot Workbook: Romance which are available in both print and Kindle.

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, June 29, 2018

Cross My Path - a New Blackie and Care Mystery by Clea Simon #FridayReads #CleaSimon @Clea_Simon

In the Blackie and Care series, best-selling author Clea Simon treads a darker path than she has followed before. In Cross My Paththe third book in the series, readers find the young seeker, Care, going from one dangerous situation to another, her conscience, bravery, and youthful fervor pushing her forward—often at considerable risk to herself—to help those who cannot or will not help themselves.

The books are narrated by Blackie, an aging black cat whom Care rescued from drowning. We find out along the way that Blackie was once a man who may have had some connection to Care in his human form. This bit of information intrigued me and made me want to read the first two books in the series, The Ninth Life and As Dark as My Fur, to make sure I had a complete picture of the world Blackie and Care inhabit. Here we get bits and pieces, enough to know Care lives in a dangerous city and that her work puts her at particular risk from the nasty men who seem to run the world she and Blackie inhabit. But the focus of this novel is narrow, gritty, and intense, so we know little of the larger, dystopian universe the duo inhabits. This gives the novel an almost claustrophobic feeling, which is well-suited for the unsettling, edge-of-your-seat atmosphere Simon creates for her protagonists.

The story opens with Care suddenly finding herself hired to pursue two new cases in one day, a rare circumstance indeed in the economically constrained times in which she lives. And both clients have cash, an even rarer occurrence. As she pieces together disparate bits of information, Care realizes the two seemingly separate cases may, in fact, be intertwined. But is that a mere coincidence or part of a larger plan?

Blackie worries constantly about the young girl and tries his best to keep her from harm. But her determination often places her directly in the path of danger, and nothing Blackie can do will sway her from her course, especially if she believes a friend is in trouble.

The ending wraps up the main storyline in a satisfying way while carrying other threads forward to the next book. It is an intriguing way to create continuing interest in the series. Readers who enjoy mysteries featuring cats will be particularly drawn to Cross My Path, especially as it is narrated by a cat who is struggling to remember if he once had a human form.

Connect with Clea Simon on Twitter, and follow the conversation about #CrossMyPath 

Reviewed by Patricia B. Smith. Pat is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook or Linked In.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Clichés in Plots and Description

Background image by airpix, via Flickr. Credit:
Clichés.  Books are full of them, both in the plots and writers’ descriptions. Yes, I know, there are only seven major plot themes, and all stories evolve from one or a combination of them. So they say. I found a great explanation with examples in this post by Len Wilson

Overcoming the monster
Rags to riches
The quest
Voyage and return

I never thought about the seven plots when I wrote my books. I didn’t even know about them until I kept hearing how there are only seven basic plots. I found the idea rather defeatist and didn’t want to look further for fear I might quit writing altogether since I was sure everything I’d written had been written before. When I finally read them, I found the definitions to be broad and generic, with enough latitude to erase my anxiety.

It’s a writer’s job to find nuances in plots that make them as original as possible. Some genres adhere to formula. Cozy mysteries usually have an amateur sleuth stumbling on a body. Detective novels have a world-weary, sometime alcoholic PI or cop. In romantic suspense novels, the  heroine and hero usually dislike each other in the beginning. Many times their animosity is misconceived or misinterpreted. Other times it’s dredged up from a past experience that went sour. But without a doubt, by the end of the book, they’ll either be in love or in bed, usually behind closed doors.

is not a romantic suspense in the classic definition because of the ending. The male character is a sex-crime investigator; the female is a very expensive, retired call girl. He blackmails her into working for the police to find a murderer or she's off to prison on a tax evasion charge. They dislike each other for what they are until over the course of the story they get to know who they are. I know this is not the only novel where the cop falls for a lady of the night, but I hope it's different enough to stand alone.

One reviewer complained the characters in my romantic mystery, Murder Déjà Vu, fall in love too fast. Well they like each other―tough. He spent fifteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit; she endured the same time in an abusive marriage to protect her sons. Because of plot demands, they don’t have time to dislike each other.

My alter ego’s erotic romance, The Escort, a book about a wealthy retired colonel blinded in Iraq who hires an escort to help him navigate a tricky meeting with two soldiers under his command, sounds like a book written by another author long after my book was published. That was the first time I saw a book described that sounded close enough to one of mine that it threw me. Surely, there are more. I doubt writers think about those seven plot lines when constructing their stories. We develop a story idea and run with it, adding our own ingredients into the recipe.

Overused descriptions are a big bugaboo of mine. The ones that drive me batty are not exactly clichés, but I’ve read them often enough for them to qualify. I’ve used some myself, which makes my complaint hypocritical.

…she said through gritted teeth.
…his lips formed in a straight line.
She squared her shoulders.
One corner of his mouth tugged upward.
She straightened her spine.
He rolled his eyes.
His smile didn’t reach his eyes.
I released a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
Cleansing breath, ragged breath, calming breath, sighing every which way, etc.

You get the picture. These are all good descriptions. We know what they mean, and maybe once they were original, but they’re overused now. I'm reading a book now that I swear has them all. As writers, we look for new ways to say the same thing. Sometimes there aren’t that many choices, no matter how hard we try to find one. We stalk thesaurus sites online, searching for a fresh approach, a word no one has ever used before―unlikely―and we spend too long on a phrase or paragraph, striving for originality. Whenever I come across one of those overdone descriptions, I grit my teeth, square my shoulders, and bang my head against the wall―sorry. Every time I read a word or description that is clearly strained because the writer is stretching to be original, it stands out to me like a sore thumb―sorry again―and takes me right out of the story.

I write genre fiction. When I read over what I’ve written, if it doesn’t sound real, if it doesn’t sound like someone speaking naturally, I rewrite it. (Or as Elmore Leonard says in his ten rules: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Thanks, Elmore.) I don’t want my readers to stop reading because I’m working too hard to make it sound important or lyrical or unforgettable. Exquisite prose is not natural to me as a writer. I wish it were, but it’s not my strength. Getting into my characters’ heads is. I want my readers invested in them. I want my readers to care enough about my heroes and heroines to turn the page to learn what happens to them. I want readers to be afraid, to cry, to sympathize, and to think about my creations after they close the book. I strive to create the most original plots I can with unusual characters filling the pages. I hope my readers don’t roll their eyes and think they’ve read my books before by other writers, because, you know, there are only seven basic plots.

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


Peter de Vries, novelist and satirist, said, "Every novel should have a beginning, a muddle, and an end." The muddle is the conflict. It’s what drives the plot and turns a recitation of facts into a story.

Conflict arises when forces or desires are in opposition. It can be man against man, man against nature, man against himself, or man against God, with all kinds of variations. The purpose of fiction is to arouse the reader’s emotions. This requires conflict. The reader must care. Put a character the reader likes or cares about in a bad situation and it will create interest. The great writers know this. Elmore Leonard said, “Aim for the heart.” William Faulkner (Nobel prize acceptance speech) said, “The only thing worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat, is the heart in conflict with itself.”

Conflict may also be called the problem, thwarted desire, opposition, or similar names. Without it, the story will be boring. Without conflict, there is no story.

Conflict requires three things:

• Dissatisfaction (with the status quo)

• Desire/Aspiration (must want something badly/aspire to something, such escaping an intolerable situation, finding the truth, clearing a loved one's name, saving a life)

• Choice (every character must be faced with a choice)

The major conflict is the big, overriding problem that isn’t solved until the last possible minute in the story, but there are smaller ones to be solved along the way. Depending on the length of the story, there may be one or many. Avoid solving even the minor conflicts until another one is introduced—a sort of leapfrog effect. This creates the cliffhanger at the end of the chapter.

Every scene should have a purpose. The reader may not be consciously aware of the purpose, but she will be interested in seeing what happens if the character has a problem to resolve. The main character in the scene should want or need to accomplish something. It can be as subtle as receiving (but not opening) a mysterious envelope, or it can be heart-pounding dramatic action, such as trying to elude a psychotic killer. Throw in obstacles. Before a conflict is resolved in the scene, another problem should surface.

If the story sags, add more conflict. Think what the reader or main character would most like to happen; then take it away or deny it.

Strong conflict is based on strong motivation. Why does your character react in a certain way? Whatever it is, the motivation has to be worthy of the struggle. Would your protagonist rob a friend because she wants new shoes? What if her child was being held by a madman?

Before beginning the story, plan the conflicts and give the characters strong motivations. If the motivations are weak, it’s much harder to maintain the conflict in a believable manner. If the conflict drags, introduce a new problem—a car wreck on the way to the hospital, mustard on the shirt just before the big event. Determine what the reader wants most, and then take it away; give the opposing character or force the means to prevent it from happening.

Without conflict, there is no suspense. Suspense, according to Sol Stein in Stein on Writing (one of my favorite books), is achieved by arousing the reader's curiosity and keeping it aroused as long as possible. Keeping it aroused means not relieving the suspense by telling what happens until the last possible minute. Don't give the outcome away before it happens. Keep the conflict alive.

Ellis Vidler dreams in Technicolor of characters in fraught situations. She studied English and art and now does her own covers, sometimes before the book is written. A former editor and fiction teacher, Ellis now directs most of her effort to writing, where she aims for action, adventure, and heart. The McGuire women series features members of a family with a psychic streak. In the Maleantes & More series, a team of security consultants tackle a range of cases. Her short stories are southern fiction. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and her website is