Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Talking about Talking

Both of my kids are grown. We’re blessed, though, that, so far, they've come home for Christmas. This past December, not only did both kids come home, they came Christmas Eve and spent the night. We broke a couple of traditions and started a few new ones.

For Christmas dinner, we had the four of us, plus four more – my sister, her son, her husband, and her husband’s mother. That made it fun – eight of us around the table laughing and trading stories. With that many people talking, you end up sometimes listening to one person, sometimes breaking up into two or three simultaneous conversations, and sometimes trying to keep up with two stories at once.

That makes for lively dinner talk. I’ve found, though, that it doesn’t work so well in a book. When you’re writing a scene with multiple characters, having that many people interacting is too confusing. More than about three people talking together is too many. If it’s a play, a movie or a TV show, you can do more characters – the audience can see and identify easily who’s talking. In a book, it’s either confusing or boring with constant tags to identify the speakers.

I might call this a general rule, but like all rules, there are exceptions. There are ways around a limited pool of three speakers. You could have three talking at a table or football game, long enough to establish who they are in the readers’ minds, then have one or two more come into the conversation, then exit. You could have six or eight at a dinner table, but have them broken up into three or four conversations, each going on separately with the main character focusing in on one interaction.

You want your reader to be a part of the conversation without getting lost and without being put off by constant tags like “Jack said,” “Mary butted in,” or “Grandpa exclaimed, his teeth falling into the soup.”

Fiction may imitate or mimic real life, but it’s not an exact copy. A book conversation, in fact, should be an understandable version of messy reality.

Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, and writing coach. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, Angel Sometimes, Dismembering the Past, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Deadpoint, is due out in Spring 2015.

Monday, March 30, 2009


In one of the creative writing classes I took, the professor told students to go through their stories and find every time they used the word “felt” and take it out. He equated the common use of “he felt” or “she felt” with passive writing like the use of the verb “was.”

He later explained that he didn’t mean an author could never use a form of “felt”; he just wanted authors to be aware that 90 percent of the time the usage denotes weak writing. It is telling the reader, not showing the reader.

For example: “Doc ran his hands over his face like he felt tired.”

How much better that would be this way: Doc ran his hands over a face haggard with fatigue. He looked like a man who had been on call for two days.

That example was taken out of a published book, and here are more from another book. These are from a Robert Crais book, and while he writes one helluva story, he does tend to misuse this feeling thing.

“Talley felt uncomfortable whenever someone mentioned the nursery school.” Better to write: Whenever someone mentioned the nursery school, it made Talley uncomfortable. Not only does it get rid of “felt” it also gets cause and effect in the right order.

“Mars shrugged and Dennis felt relieved.” Mars shrugged and the tension eased. Dennis let out the breath he had been holding.

“Martin glanced down the road. Talley felt irritated.” Martin glanced down the road, her dismissive manner irritating Talley.

My suggested changes are just what came off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are even better fixes that could be offered. Any suggestions?


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Character Dump

Not long ago, I had a surprise visit from my brother-in-law who lives in another state. He was in town to spend a few days with his brother. Since I hadn’t seen him in about a year, we did a lot of talking over coffee. I told him about my family and he told me about his. There was more to talk about with his family since he’s not only a father, he’s a grandfather and a great-grandfather! Gracious, I’m not even a grandmother yet.

Problem is – and I hate to admit this – I got lost in all the kids and kids of kids. I couldn’t tell which kids belonged to which kids, let alone where everyone lives nowadays. Seemed to me, his grandkids should be adolescents, not having practically grown kids of their own. What I needed was a written family tree to look at and take notes on as he talked.

I feel that way about some books I read. There are so many characters I get totally lost. I scan back through the book, trying to remember exactly who they are and how they’re “related” to the protagonist. I read a name and I can’t remember whether Winston was the plumber or if that was Wendell. Was Elizabeth the third in line to the throne or the lady in waiting?

I’m a big believer in limiting characters or at least introducing them slowly so the reader has time to adjust. I also believe in giving characters distinctive names – unless there’s some particular reason to do otherwise.

Basically, I want to be able to read a book without having to wonder who’s who. Otherwise, I want a legend in the back to refer to.

When I’m editing a book, I create a legend of characters with names, page on which they first appear, and their connection to the other characters. I’m doing this not just so I can keep the characters straight but also so I can see that the author has kept them straight. This is something each author can do for themselves. It’s helpful as you write and as you edit. It’s also a must if you’re planning on writing a series. You’d be surprised at how many authors who haven’t created this kind of legend get into books 3 or 4 in the series and have to thumb back through the previous books to check on the middle name of a particular character. Or have to pay an editor to create it for them.

If you’re writing a series, you’ll want to keep more than just a legend of character names and relationships. You’ll want to create a Book Bible. But that’s a subject for another post on another day.
Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and book consultant, with an informational and interactive blog for writers and a free weekly e-newsletter that goes out to subscribers around the globe. 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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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Can Openers - What Kind Do You Use?

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Why do you use a can opener? To open a can.

What kind do you use, electric or manual? Either will work. It depends on circumstances. If the electricity is on, it's easier to go electric. Otherwise, the manual will do just as well to get the job done.

There are many ways to get a book published. Which method works best for you depends on your circumstances. If you can get to a conference and pitch, or if you can win a contest with the prize being an editor, agent or publisher reading your manuscript, the process will go smoother.
If those options are not available, you can still rely on the tried and true methods of following guidelines and submitting a query, proposal or partial, depending on requirements.

If you're talented and fortunate, you'll advance to the next round, which is submitting a full manuscript.

Whenever I can, I go the electric route and pitch at conferences, such as this past February's Love Is Murder conference, where I pitched to editors, agents and publishers. I don't enter too many contests.

What about you? Which do you do? Go to conferences and pitch? Enter Contests? Make snail mail submissions? Or all of these?
Morgan Mandel, Author of the mystery, Two Wrongs,
and the Romantic Comedy, Girl of My Dreams


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What Do Editors Look For?

Story arc. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Does the protagonist grow and evolve? Is there a sense of narrative that flows smoothly, without gaps or requiring mountain goat-like intuitive leaps on the reader's part?

Point of view. Writer Greg Frost suggests that writers "tell the story from the point of view of the character who hurts the most," and there's a lot of wisdom in that approach. As a writer, you're looking at one of the worst moments in your character's life, and how he or she got through those moments and learned and grew from them. If your character isn't the most appealing person onstage, readers may stop caring about the story you're trying to tell.

Language. This isn't just about grammar. How's the writer's control of sentence structure and pacing? Do too many sentences sound the same? Are there quirky, overused words or phrases? Is the language too passive in places?

Dialogue. Do the characters sound like real people? Does their dialogue ring true in the situations the writer puts them in? Do they have consistent voices? Do characters sometimes say too many words without a response from the person they're speaking to? Does a reader get a sense of the characters' body language while they're speaking?

Info dumps. Is the book filled with indigestible lumps of exposition that need to be dissolved into the narrative before the reader can hope to swallow them? Does a character ever turn to another character and tell her something they both already know, just for the reader's convenience? ("As you know, Bob, we have ten children.")

Organization. Does the story start in the right place? Does it go on for two chapters past the natural ending? Does it flow logically? Are we given key pieces of information when we need them, or does the murder weapon show up two chapters too late? Does anything seem jumbled or out of order?

Characters Do they seem believable? Is the protagonist likeable? Does she fit the way the author describes her? Are these people who can hold your interest for a whole book, or do we need to know more (or less) about them. Are there key details the author doesn't tell us about his characters, or things that just don't seem to fit? Do the characters fit the story, or are some of them still products of wish-fulfillment on the author's part? Are there elements that can be eliminated?

Plot. Does the plot rely on someone acting stupid for the story to succeed? Would the whole book fall apart if the hero and heroine had an honest conversation? Is it too linear, or not linear enough? Is there too much story for one book? Does it feel like a short story stretched beyond the breaking point? At key moments, is there something else that could go wrong to intensify the plot or the mess the characters find themselves in? (One of the key questions to ask as a writer or editor: "What else could go wrong here?") Is there someone who needs to die to forward the plot that the author seems reluctant to kill?

Blocking. Do the physical actions work as described? Here's where the editor needs to pay attention to whether the guns run out of bullets or whether cavalry can really charge over that terrain or whether two people can really fit together that way in zero-gravity.

Tone. Are there abrupt, unintentional shifts in tone? Is the tone appropriate for the level of emotional manipulation the writer is trying to pull off? Are there jarring moments where the language or other factors pull the reader out of the book?

Nagging issues. Do the facts line up? Are there things you're still not sold on? Make sure you pin down any little disquieting things and figure out what's really bothering you. Often it's an undiagnosed symptom in one of the other areas.

These are some of the things you can expect an independent editor to do for you.


A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has just had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series, and blogs.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Does an Editor Need an Editor?

Several months ago one of the editors in our group asked if and, if so, why an editor needs an editor for her creative writing. I’ve been mulling the question over and have a few ideas.

Yes, an editor does need outside help.

As an author, an editor is usually too close to her own story. She is living her story so intimately that she may not see either its strengths or its weaknesses clearly, like a mother with her child. When I write a poem I can generally edit its grammatical and stylistic elements almost immediately but am usually surprised at the various interpretations that my readers come up with. I have no intention of saying what many of them comment that they see in my brief creative works. The broader canvas escapes me because I’m so entranced by the smell of the honeysuckle I’m describing.

The phenomenon is compounded when I write a novel. Sometimes I get sidetracked from my central plot and need someone to rein me in. Or I get lost in the details that I find so interesting at the time and need an objective eye to point out that fact. I also may use a grammatical construction excessively, such as the helping verb had. Thank goodness for my partner and my beta reader, who tactfully steer me away from the obvious rocky shoals I’m in danger of wrecking on.

After all, as an author, I am writing from my creative, artistic side, and as an editor I am usually much more matter of fact, more objective. As a writer, I get stuck in my right brain, which isn’t a bad place to be. And even though I can access my left brain, I can’t do so as completely as I'm able to when I’m editing the work of someone else.

I wish I could edit my own writing more ably because it would be much less hassle, but thank goodness for the kind souls who help me. They’re invaluable.

Shelley Thrasher has a PhD in English and specializes in editing novels written by women. She spends most of her time style-editing for Bold Strokes Books. She also enjoys writing poetry and novels, which you can find on Amazon.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What is Editing?

There are several different types: For example I was the editor of the Women Writing the West catalog for three years. Basically what I did, was to organize all the information and prepare it for the designer and printer. I didn’t do much, if any, changing of the copy that came in from the authors.

When working on someone’s manuscript, you have basically two types of editing involved: line editing (copy editing) and conceptual (or substantive) editing.

Line editing: making changes on a sentence-to-sentence level. Taking a look at grammar, style, sentence structure, typos, punctuation. (I can hardly read a manuscript without marking commas)

Conceptual editing looks at the overall book to see what's missing, what scenes can be intensified, and what sort of story-level changes could be made to strengthen a work.

Making a work better and stronger isn't just about fixing the things that don't work - it's about strengthening the best parts as well. My job as editor is to think along with you, the writer, and help make your writing more effective.

A few things for writers to remember:

The better you are, the more criticism you’re likely to get. If your work sucks, it doesn't take a lot of detail to tell you so. On the other hand, if you're a terrific writer there may be lots of subtle improvements you're capable of pulling off.

If lots of people don't get what you're doing, it's you. If one person doesn't understand what you're trying to pull off, then maybe it's that person, but if you get the same criticism repeatedly, then you're not getting your point across. If you have to explain the joke before people get it, it's not funny.

Don't make corrections blindly. If you really feel that the editor doesn't get what you're trying to do, don't jump in and make all the corrections anyway. Even when writer and editor are on the same page, you'll probably only make about 50% of the editor's suggestions. (Although you'll address all of them, accomplishing some in different ways and deciding that others don't actually help.)

Often the purpose of conceptual edits is to make you think about how a scene works and point out ways to make it stronger; it doesn't mean you won't find a better way to address those weaknesses than the ones I suggest. Just approach them with an open mind.

My favorite quote is from Ernest Hemingway: “There are no great writers, only great re-writers.”


A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has just had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series, and blogs.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ask the Editor- Showing passage of time in fiction

Can you offer any tips on how to show passage of time when the narration is in first person present tense?

Thanks for your help.

Betsy Rosenthal

My House Is Singing 

It's Not Worth Making a Tzimmes Over!


The sound of the rooster nudged at the edge of my consciousness, I reached across the bed--he had still not returned.

The scent of the cooking fires drifted through the golden light of the sun falling under the western horizon and I knew I’d not find Refilwe today.

Ding-ding-ding. That was it then, she said 2:00, I guess it means she isn’t interested.

There are numerous ways to show passage of time in your writing. In most cases, time passing is a transition from this time to that one, so the most important thing is to give the reader clues as to what time of day it is.

One way is with sounds. Depending on where your characters are, the sounds around them can reveal a lot about the time of day. For example, in a rural setting, or even an urban setting if you live in Botswana as I do, a rooster crowing is an indication of morning. In cities, morning or evening rush hour traffic can be another way to show passage of time. Church bells and cuckoo clocks can be used without the writer having to say-“it is now 2:00”.

Smells can also help writers move the time along. Bacon, coffee, evening cooking fires- all of these can help your reader figure out what time of day it is.

Other clues for your readers would be the happenings around your characters. Are mosquitoes starting to bite? Then it’s likely a summer evening. Are the flashing lights on the house across the street blinding your character? Must be Christmas.

If you’re dealing with larger bits of time, weather is very useful. Depending on the setting snow crunching underfoot, fallen leaves, dry harmattan winds, or torrential rains can show passage of time from one season to another. Other seasonal events can also clue the reader to time. For example, a flock of geese heading south, a dog shedding hair, the first crocus, the sound of a tractor ploughing, or the drip of melting ice.

Interesting writing is achieved when the writer pulls the reader by the hand and says, “look!” Then the reader gets the fun of discovering. Laying down clues about time is better writing than telling the reader “three months passed”.

These are just a few ideas of how to do that. What ideas do you have? 

Lauri Kubuitsile is the author of The Scattering and Signed, Hopelessly in Love, which was recognised by South Africa's O Magazine as one of the best reads of 2011. Lauri has won or been shortlisted for numerous awards. She twice won Africa's premier prize for children's writing, The Golden Baobab. She also won the creative writing prize sponsored by Botswana's Department of Youth and Culture. In 2011, she was shortlisted for Africa's most prestigious short story prize, The Caine Prize. Lauri blogs at Thoughts from Botswana



Thursday, March 19, 2009

Details, Details, Details

Sometimes we get so caught up in the pace of a story we race along without considering the meanings of some of the details of the narrative. We write what seems to fit, and if an editor does not catch the little mistakes we probably won't. Most of the time as we are re-reading our own work, we again get caught up in the story and miss those quirky details.

This came to mind recently as I was reading a book from a best-selling author. The pace was terrific, the story tension was high, but darn if some things didn't catch me up short. For example:

"He wouldn't go down without trying." Trying what? It was like the author forgot something here.

"He picked up one of the newspapers on his desk. The stack remained untouched." If he picked up a newspaper, the stack was touched.

"Again, the light flashed, this time bringing only darkness." Is that not contradictory?

"They rolled out of the doors as the barrage of bullets peppered the metal body like hail banging on a tin roof." Nice analogy and use of sound, but I couldn't help but wonder what metal body the bullets were hitting. Earlier in the scene it had been established the characters were in a car, but that reference was so far removed from this sentence it needed to be clarified again.

"Sloan shook the thought." Huh? There is something to be said for terse writing, but this is a bit too terse.

We have to be careful not to use words and phrases that don't really say what we mean because they can really detract from a good story. Ferreting out these quirks is a tedious process at times and probably the least enjoyable part of the writing game, but it sure is an important part.


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009


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?
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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Prop Up Your Sagging Plot Middles

Writing is a lot like building a bridge. Each Scene serves as scaffolding or supports for your entire story to rest on without sagging.

Maybe you’ve made a great start. You have a dynamite hook (some of my favorites: “The last camel collapsed at noon.” Ken Follet, “The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.” Frederick Forsyth). You’ve gotten off to a good strong start. Maybe you know how your book is going to end, and even have the final scene written.

Now, how do you get through the middle part without it sagging and possibly collapsing?

First of all, you don’t need to write chronologically. You can write scenes out of order. (See my article Overcoming Writer’s Block) Pick out some highlights and write those scenes, then see if you can figure out what you might be able to fill in between A and G.

Now, send your inner “nice guy” out for ice cream and figure out just how mean you can be to your character. Conflict is the key to keeping a story moving, to shoring it up. You’ve introduced your character and the problem she has to solve. You know what the goal is at the end.

Let’s say Cathy Character wants to be the first teenage girl to climb Mount Huge. What are her obstacles? Her parents are against the idea. It’s too expensive, too dangerous, she’s not in shape, who else is going, etc. Cathy has to overcome each objection, solve each problem.

Maybe her neighbor is a banker, so she approaches him for a loan. If he smiles and says,” Sure, Cathy, anything for you,” the problem is solved too quickly. The story can get boring and the reader’s interest will sag.

But what if he says no? Now Cathy has to figure out another way to raise money. What should she do - a bake sale, a part-time job, rob the local drive-in? (You can see the various paths this story could take.) There are all kinds of ideas and none of them should be easy.

Every time your character figures out a way over, around or through a problem, throw up another obstacle, within reason, of course. You don’t want her to fail at everything.

But when she solves the money part of the problem, there should be another one waiting. Who, besides her parents, are going to oppose her? Does she have a rival? Or is there a friend who is supposedly helping her, but is actually sabotaging Cathy’s efforts?

Building a story is like constructing a bridge. You need conflict as the pillars that shore up the middle.

For each scene you write, ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose of this scene?
  • Does it move the story forward? (What if I take it out? Does the story flow well without it?)
  • Can the reader identify with the character’s problem and struggles?
  • Have you created suspense? (Will the reader want to keep reading to find out how your character solves this one? What’s at stake for him/her?)

Have fun being mean to your character and building your bridge!


A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has just had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series, and blogs.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Effect/ Affect

Last month I said I would write some posts about my own grammar challenges with the hope that I help a few writers who suffer the same fate. Today I thought I’d look at the troublesome words affect and effect.

For years I had no clue about these words. To be honest, I just used them haphazardly. At one point, I put all of my bets on effect, and banned affect from my writing completely, and hoped that at least half of the time I’d be right. I write science textbooks. I’ve never done any research on it, but I believe that science textbooks use the words effect and affect at least 50% more than any other type of writing, so you can imagine the headache I became for my publisher.

I’d looked up the words many times trying to get a handle on their use, but one day in my searching, I realised the thing that sorted it out forever for me.

Affect is a verb.
Effect is a noun.


Now I could say such things as-

The effect of sulphuric acid on your hand is not something that you’re going to enjoy.


If you think that sulphuric acid affected you, wait until you dip your tongue in the sodium hydroxide.

-and confidently know that I was a-okay- grammatically at least.

This is not exactly set in stone as you can have effect behaving out of character, as English words are prone to do, and become a verb. An example would be:

The headmaster effected change in the science lab by banning all play involving acids and bases.

In this case, effect, instead of meaning the end result of an action, means to start, cause or initiate.

Affect also, very occasionally, misbehaves and becomes a noun, though pronounced differently with emphasis on the first syllable as in:

Despite the fact that many students were burned by the acid, with her psychological pathology, she showed very little affect.

You won’t use this often (it’s not even in my dictionary) so it’s best to do like me and forget about it entirely. It will just confuse you. Rather remember effect = noun, affect = verb, but just keep a careful eye on that wily effect when it wants to start something as it will have likely transformed itself into a verb.

As long as you do that you’ll be fine.


Lauri Kubuitsile is a full time writer living in Botswana and blogs at Thoughts from Botswana. She is a member of the One World group, a group of international writers who met on the internet. They put together a collection of short stories and went searching for a publisher. New Internationalist stepped up to the plate and the book, which includes stories from Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, is now on sale at Amazon. Buy it! All royalties go to Doctors without Borders.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Editing Techniques

We all know how frustrating, infuriating, depressing, demoralizing (did I miss any?) it is to pick up a document for the "final edit" and find silly things - the first sentence is missing a verb, the protagonist's name is misspelled on page 2, throughout the document the word "vile" appears when you meant "vial".

At my latest critique group meeting, we exchanged ideas on different ways to view writing passages to identify all the items that need editing - the first or second time through, rather than waiting for the seventh round. This discussion was not about the long list items different authors read for during the editing process (everything from spelling errors to logic flaws), but rather the physical techniques used to get different views of the written word.

Can you guess how many different techniques we identified?

Here they are:

  1. Print the document and read it on paper
  2. Read it out loud
  3. Ask someone else to read it to you
  4. Have a software program read it to you
  5. Short stories - read from back to front one sentence at a time
  6. Short stories - read each sentence by itself, in random order
  7. Novels - read from back to front one paragraph or one page at a time
  8. Novels - read each paragraph by itself, in random order
  9. Download to an e-reader and read it there
There was a tenth suggestion. One person said she'd stand on her head to read the manuscript if she thought that would help. The group didn't think this had a high probability for success, so we didn't add it to the list.

Do you use any of these techniques? Do you use any techniques not listed here?
Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, 2009 President for The Final Twist Writers Group and contributor to multiple blogs. Learn more about Charlotte and her books at:


News, Views and Reviews Blog

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Keep Your Salad Fresh

During the first draft of a novel, the writing can sometimes be pretty ordinary. We are intent on getting the story on paper and we write what we are familiar with. The challenge is to freshen everything up in the second draft. Here are just a few pointers that haven't been covered here in a while:

AVOID clichés and shop-worn phrases.

I recently edited a book and the author wanted to keep all the clichés, defending her stance with the fact that people use clichés all the time. She didn’t seem to understand that that is the main reason a good author avoids them. Give the reader something fresh and original. Another author tried to justify her clichés by pointing out how many books get published that have them. My response was that that doesn’t make it okay.

How many times have you read something like: Her heels clicked across the hard tile of the floor? That is okay writing, but it could be stronger. Here is an example I just read: “Her exit was a castanet solo of stiletto heels.” (From Gone, by Jonathan Kellerman.)

It’s possible that Kellerman wrote it that way in the first draft, but I doubt it. Gems like that come in the second and third drafts when an author scrutinizes every word and every phrase to see if he can come up with a stronger one.

LOOK for ways to go against type or what is expected, and be careful about stereotyping characters: The black drug dealer, the Italian mobster, the Irish drunk, the lazy Hispanic.

In a mystery series I'm working on that features two women homicide detectives in Dallas, I purposely developed the white woman with a seedy background and the black woman from a middle class family.

TURN vague words or phrases into specific details that add life to the work. EXAMPLE:

"She danced to the beat of the music" is pretty ordinary and vague.

"Her entire body moved in soft, undulating waves matching the rhythmic bass pulse in Al Stewart’s TIME PASSAGES." Much stronger.

So, look at some of the sentences in your current WIP and see where you can freshen up your salad.

Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Should You Go With the Big Guys or the Small Guys?

I have had books published by both large, international publishers and small, local publishers and I’ve found each have their advantages and disadvantages. Deciding who to go with will depend on what you want as a writer. Of course I’m operating from Botswana where we don’t have agents and approach publishing houses ourselves (Gasp!) so some of what I’m about to say may be mitigated a bit by a committed agent who will hide the ugly side from you.

First the Big Guys. Big guys have a lot of ammo at their disposal. They have clout. They have money for marketing and good editors. The have a well oiled machine in place that will take your tattered manuscript and turn it into a sexy new book. Also as a writer it’s nice to have a few of the big publishers on your list.

But the Big Guys also have a lot of writers. You become just another one. Also big publishers have set procedures and set contracts, often with little wiggle room unless you too are a Big Guy. It’s often take it or leave it. Also, in my experience with the Big Guys, you are the writer- hand over the book and they’ll get experts to do the rest. They’ll call you when they need you to pitch up for something such as book signing, otherwise they’d rather not hear a lot from you.

Now for the Little Guys. Little Guys don’t have the resources of the Big Guys and all that entails. They won’t have big marketing budgets for your book. You will have to be creative and initiate a lot of the marketing yourself. They might not be able to hire the top notch editors, so you will have to get the book almost print-ready before you hand it over to them. As a writer, you are sometimes taking a risk with the Little Guy- will the money hold out long enough to get my book out there? is a question you might ask yourself more than once with the Little Guy juggling a shoestring budget.

But what I’ve found with the Little Guys is that they are flexible. You can negotiate terms; contracts are not set in stone. You can have a say about a lot of things such as book cover and blurb. They welcome all help the writer is willing to give. My experience with small publishers is that they are more personalised and the writer feels part of the process not a cog in the wheel of a mammoth machine.

A writer needs to ask themselves what they want. If you want big bucks behind your book, but not a lot of say about how the process from manuscript to bookstore shelf goes, then go with the Big Guys. If you, instead, want to keep some control over your baby, and don’t mind that the splash you make might be a bit smaller, then team up with the Little Guys.

What has your experience been like with large and small publishers? I’d love to hear about it!

Lauri Kubuitsile is a full time writer living in Botswana and blogs at Thoughts from Botswana. She is a member of the One World group, a group of international writers who met on the internet. They put together a collection of short stories and went searching for a publisher. New Internationalist stepped up to the plate and the book, which includes stories from Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, is now on sale at Amazon. Buy it! All royalties go to Doctors without Borders.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lift Every Voice: In Search of the Writer's Voice

In the Writing for the Media course I teach, we use the classic ON WRITING WELL by William Zinsser as our main text. To anyone who truly cares about the art and the craft of writing, it's a must read.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is "The Sound of Your Voice." Zinsser begins the chapter by discussing a time in which he was writing a book on baseball and a book on jazz. When doing so, he didn't think to write either book using "baseball English" or "jazz English"; his goal was to use HIS English, HIS voice.

In writing, our voice, our style of writing is what keeps us able to not only write, but also to SELL and to continue to sell. People are attracted to the types of stories that authors write and the way in which the authors write them. Toni Morrison is not famous because of her name, but because of the topics and themes that she is drawn to and how her unique style of writing attacks those topics and themes. Same for Mary Higgins Clark. Same for Nicholas Sparks. Same for Carly Phillips. Same for...Shakespeare.

How can writers find their voice?

Writers can identify what they're interested in writing, for one. What genres are you interested in? What themes, ideas do you typically explore in your works? What propels you to write what you do? Knowing these things can help propel you to a second step...

Writers can identify authors who exemplify the type of writing they wish to pursue. Who are the top authors in your favorite writing genres? What authors seem to tackle your themes and ideas? Which of these authors are SUCCESSFUL at writing these types of books? Identify those authors and...

Read these authors' works and look at the things that make these authors good at what they do as writers. Examine how writers are able to write in simple, yet complex ways that reach the readers' hearts and that don't condescend to them. See how they avoid clichés. Listen to their words; see how they write using their EARS; a sentence, with the right words, can sound EXACTLY how a writer wants the reader to feel. See their conciseness, their freshness in word usage; as Zinsser states, "Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength, and precision" (235).

Emulate these writers; this doesn't mean steal their wording – it means use their techniques to hone your craft. If you love Morrison for her poetic, lyrical command of the language, attempt to do it in your writing. If you're a fan of Ernest Gaines and his ability to write in a conversational, down South way that doesn't obliterate the language nor condescend to the reader, then practice that style in your writing. Remember, you're not stealing their ideas or words: poetic writing, conversational writing, lyrical writing have been around since the first words were written. You're embracing the styles they utilize to create their works, and you're applying those styles to your writing and making them your own.

Some people don't want to emulate writers because they want to be their OWN writer; they don't want to copy from someone else. I can understand that; however, I also believe that in the end, we all have embraced a model to emulate. Zinsser writes that Bach and Picasso didn't spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso; they needed models. This is especially true of writing. Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste in your ear-their attitude toward language. Don't worry that by imitating them you'll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become. (235-136)

I can easily look back and see how the voice I have today is formed through the visions I saw and read in some of my favorite writers - to include Bernice McFadden, Morrison, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf. My most current writing voice reflects not only my favorite authors but also my favorite TV programs, and how they capture pacing, beat, and rhythm in their precise dialogue and scene development - Psych, Monk, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Sex and the City (I still watch my DVDs), newer Lifetime movies, etc. to name a few. Am I the writers of these books, these TV programs? Not in the least. I am me, and the more I write, the more I leave those who helped created me and strengthen the voice that I've been birthed into.

Work Cited

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 30th Anniversary Ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.


Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at The World According to ChickLitGurrl.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Setting The Table

There is nothing more pleasurable than to read a book where the description and exposition is seamlessly woven into the narrative instead of an intrusion into the story. How many times have you skipped over the “grocery list” of description when a new character entered a room, or skip-read pages of “story set up” so you could get back to the action?

A good piece of advice I received from a creative writing instructor was to never stop a story to describe a room or a character. Utilize the POV of one of the characters to introduce details of a room or a person, and let them notice a little at a time while something interesting is happening. Use description to show character, establish mood or somehow move the story along. The story should not stop for description or a set up.

Some authors seem to think they need to explain a lot to the reader before they allow the story to proceed. That is often true in science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. It’s almost as if the author doesn’t trust the reader’s intelligence; like he or she won’t ‘get it’ if the author doesn’t spell it out.

However, readers are smart, and good writing will set the stage in a compelling way. In Brother Termite by Patricia Anthony, the central character takes the stage and a lot of action takes place before the reader is given this little tidbit: “...he righted the case and lifted his opposable claw from the...” That is the first clue that this character is not human, and the only one for several pages. No pause to give the entire back-story of who he is or where he came from. All that is doled out in bits and pieces throughout the rest of the story. What a wonderful bit of writing.

The opening scenes from the first Terminator movie are also a classic example of a writer not cluttering up the action with lots of explanations.

I remember watching the movie with the producer I worked for, and I kept asking what was going on. Who was this guy that fell from the sky naked? The producer just kept telling me to wait. Stay with the action and the story and all my questions would be answered.

He was right.

So let's see how well we set our tables without making the characters stand along the wall waiting for us to get finished.

Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, she loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Dear John: Revealing Character in Epistolary Writing

Interested in developing the voice and style of your characters? Interested in fine-tuning your characters by focusing on how they relate to particular people? Interested in understanding your character's personality, his/her wants, hopes, and desires?

Write a letter.

Epistolary writing can add great realism and truth to a story, to your character; it can - in quick exercises - help you to decipher your characters and get into their heads.

Recently, I made my media writing students write two letters - one to a parent and one to a best friend, in which they revealed the same secret.

I was elated by how creative they became; some of them came up with insane secrets, purely hilarious secrets that entertained me to no end.

But what was illuminated the most by their letters was the sender's voice and how the sender switched up his/her style and approach depending on the audience. More often than not, students revealed only partial truth to their parents; whereas, to their best friends, they opened up their hearts and told the entire dirty story. With parents, students tended to write very flowery, longwinded, more "classy" - I'm thinking in the hopes of having the sender "sound" sincere and "prolong" the truth being revealed. On the other hand, students used more slang, short sentences, and things left unsaid in their letters to their best friends, which revealed to me that their relationships were closer, more open than with the parents.

If you're having trouble getting into your characters, take a subject and have characters write letters - to you (the writer) and to other characters.

By first letting your characters be "real" and second writing letters that speak to your characters' truth, you'll notice quirky phrases they like to repeat, a rhythm to their written speech, what they care about the most and the least, and what their feelings are toward other characters - among other things.

Three books I highly recommend if you're interested in epistolary writing: Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre-Ambrois-Francois Choderlos de Laclos, Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.


Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at The World According to ChickLitGurrl.

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ask the Editor - Should I Self-Publish?

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My memoir, Someone Stop This Merry-Go-Round; An Alcoholic Family in Crisis is completed. The sequel, Please, God, Not Two; This Killer Called Alcoholism is being polished.

My question is this: I'm leaning toward self-publishing because of my platform that I've built. I don't want to wait two years to get published, but I have my eye on an agent in California.

In November 2006, my first memoir A Healing Heart; A Spiritual Renewal was published. I'm already doing speaking engagements at rehabilitation centers, Catholic organizations, etc. They all want my book. I want to be able to present it when I do the engagements. I also teach a writer’s workshop.

Am I making the right decision to self-publish to get the book out right away and then query the agent?

Thank You,
Alberta H. Sequeira
Website: http://www.ahealingheart.Net

Alberta, thank you for your question and the run-down of your books.

As an independent publisher, I see a number of submissions where the author has recounted his/her personal experiences, and have selected a few of them for publication. It is a very tough area, however, and the risk of the title earning back its production costs is a big one. This makes most publishers think twice and twice again before taking on the project.

The first thing an acquisitions editor must think is: “Who will read this book?” More specifically, “Who will want to read this book enough to buy it?” This question and its answers are going examined more and more closely as our nation works through this economic downturn. I know, at Oak Tree Press, I am focusing more on the marketing analysis than ever before.

In the rundown of your projects, you enumerate your platform, your speaking engagements, writing workshops and connections to recovery centers. This, in my opinion, makes your books ideal candidates for self-publishing. You’ve identified your market, have already established yourself as an authority on your subjects, and have a ready-to-go list of sales venues.

My advice to you is to go for it! There are many ethical and credible companies who can help you with cover design, layout and printing options. It’s possible you could have books in hand in 6-8 weeks.

So far as contracting an agent goes, if that is still something you want, you can do that. An agent can arrange for things such as foreign sales, audio and even film options, if your books lend themselves to those venues. I would be less optimistic about leveraging your self-pub experience into a book deal with a larger house. Yes, it happens, but not that often. Besides, a well-executed self-pubbed book can make you more money over a longer period of time than a deal from a publisher that will front the book for 6-10 weeks, then consider it backlist.

I think you are very wise to consider this course, Alberta. You are right, the process of finding a publisher, negotiating a deal and getting on a list is very time consuming. Most of my books come out 9-18 months after contract, which is really fast. Big houses run much closer to 24-30 months. Plus, by publishing yourself, you will be in control of the project, and there certainly is something to be said for that!

Billie Johnson, Publisher
Oak Tree Press

Friday, March 6, 2009

Tip on Describing People

If you describe people, don’t just plop the description down in a long passage and pause the story. I see this a lot in novels. I will be reading along, enjoying the story, and out of the blue, a paragraph or more will fall that stalls the story and tells me - in pinpoint accuracy - the look of a character or what he/she is wearing.

I either cut or suggest that a writer cut out some if not most of these descriptions because many of them are not integral to the story. There is no need to tell the height, weight, etc., of every new person that comes onto the scene, and if it is important, then you want to integrate it into the story seamlessly. There should be a “reason” why the material is pertinent to the story at hand.

For example - bad is plopping a whole paragraph into the story in which you describe someone being overweight simply because that character shows up in your story. Good is while this character is sprinting like an Olympian, you tell us about that character being overweight. The former just tells us information we might not need, but the latter shows us the information in an interesting light, and we learn something about the character, too.

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services and online programs at CLG Entertainment. Shon has her own sexy little story, Saying No to the Big O, that was published last year: check it out!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

We're Rich

NOTE* I got my start writing a weekly humor column for a suburban newspaper. Primarily it was about family, but occasionally, I would write about the joys of the writing life. Here is another one of the columns for your enjoyment:

When I sold my first short story to a magazine a few weeks ago, we were all happily playing Howard Hughes around here for awhile. My husband was planning his retirement, the kids were picking out houses in the country and I had visions of never having to look at another price tag" again before I bought a dress.

I suppose we're all entitled to our glory dreams and it sure was fun while it lasted. But now that the excitement has died down to a dull roar and the rejection slips have started to litter my desk again, we have resigned ourselves to the fact that perhaps we'll have to wait awhile before we start recklessly throwing money around buying mink coats and hamburgers.

Anjanette has given up her dream of a whole new bedroom set with maybe a new bedroom to put it in. David has gone back to mowing lawns to save the money for his new mag wheels and Michael is collecting cans for recycling to keep himself in spending money. I've resigned myself to another year at least in the bargain basement, and unfortunately, Carl still has to get up every morning and go to work. (Someone has to keep me in typing paper and postage.)

Meanwhile the check isn't even cashed yet. I'm afraid to· cash it because I know it will be gone all too soon; and besides that, it's still a big thrill to go in and look at it every now and then. (I know that will pass, since it only took me two weeks to stop opening the magazine every five minutes to see my name in the credits.)

From here on in, no other acceptance will probably ever mean as much or create quite the stir that this one has.

Someday, discussing the terms of a sale with an editor in New York will be old hat. I won't have to try to act cool and professional on the outside while on the inside I'm jumping up and down for joy.

Someday, I won't call my best friend to announce, "You are now speaking to a famous writer person!"

"Who is this? Is this some sort of crank call?"

Someday, selling stories will all be part. of the routine around here and no one will stop by with champagne to celebrate. The kids won't be announcing it to every creature that moves up and down the block, and my husband won't run around the grocery stores making sure the magazine is prominently displayed. (I told him I didn't get any royalties, but he did it anyway.)

But until that someday rolls around, I guess I can stand all the excitement just a little bit longer.


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, she loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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