Friday, July 31, 2009

Learning by Doing -- Second Installment

Here with the rest of her tips on what she learned by rewriting one of her books is romance author, Ginger Simpson:

Some of the other things I noticed that weakened my book, White Heart, Lakota Spirit included:

*Overdone words. Starting too many sentences with "Oh," and "Well." Honestly, what was I thinking? Was my editor snoozing? In rewriting and eliminating those it has improved the flow of the story immensely.

*Having action and reaction out of sync. Action comes before reaction. Sometimes you have to stop and think about how to word a sentence so you show the reader what happened before you show the character's reaction. You can't have someone jump before the gun fires...well you can if you want, but it isn't correct.

*Internal thoughts. This story was fraught with way too many. I've since learned that most publishers prefer having very few internal thoughts. Publishers would rather the writer use dialogue or simply pose questions for the reader. Instead of writing, This can't be happening. I have the worst luck. I'd now write, Luck wasn't with her. How could this be happening again?

*Telling instead of showing. This is perhaps the most important thing I realized. To write, "She opened the door. It was heavy," is telling. Okay, so that's an amateur example, but wouldn't you rather read, "Clare tugged the massive oak door open."

Or how about this one: "After twenty jumping jacks, her breathing was heavy. She told John she was out of shape." Wouldn't that be better this way, "Clare completed the last of fifty jumping jacks. Sweat dripped into her eyes and her breath came in ragged gasps. She looked at John. "I'm out of shape."

*Starting sentences with "It". I've discovered using a pronoun as the subject often weakens the writing. Readers don't always remember what "it" is. For example: "It bothered him."

Really....what was it? A rash? Tight jockey shorts? A nagging wife?

See what I mean?

*Removing needless phrases at the end of sentences that are inferred. "To him, for her, at him..." The list goes on and on. Honestly, there are so many instances where these phrases add nothing. For instance...If John and Mary are playing tennis, and you've set the scene with them on opposite sides of the net, why would you need to tell the reader she hit the ball "to him." Who else is she going to hit the ball to?

*Eliminating unnecessary instances of the word "that." This has been a hard habit for me to break. I feel THAT it's much better to explain THAT my bad habits may result in a poor presentation, than to admit THAT I just forget sometimes. This is a perfect example, if you read the previous sentence without the capitalized "THATs", the thought remains the same.

I'm sure there are more changes I will be making as I finish a rewrite of this book, but already the story reads so much better with what I have done so far. And those changes will help me as I try to place this with a new publisher.

Which just goes to show that we can always be learning and improving as we continue to write.

Romance author, Ginger Simpson currently resides in Tennessee with her husband and biggest fan, Kelly. She simply smiles when he claims to be the inspiration for the love scenes in her books. Since the publication of her first novel in 2003, she has added eight more books and five published novellas to her list You can view Ginger’s backlist at and visit her blog at

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Learning by Doing

The Blood Red Pencil is pleased to welcome romance author, Ginger Simpson, for a couple of guest blogs. She originally wrote a version of this for her own blog, and we thought it would be helpful for other writers to read what she experienced in doing a rewrite of an older book. So, without any further comment, here is Ginger:

I recently reclaimed the rights to one of my previously published books, White Heart, Lakota Spirit, which I wrote in 2005. During our last camping trip, it was so uncomfortably hot, I stayed in the camper and wanted something to read. I pulled out my copy of Lakota Spirit and read it -- this time as a reader.

Wow. I couldn't believe how differently I would have written the book today, so rather than renew my contract, I asked to have the rights revert back to me. I wanted to redo the story and eliminate such mistakes as:

*Describing a person's voice before they speak. We all know that tags should follow the dialogue, especially when you're writing something like, “Her voice quivered.” Until she speaks, you don’t know how she sounded.

*Using a character's name far too many times, especially when only two people are having the conversation. Example:
"Did you have a nice day, John?"
“Yes, Steve, I did. And you, John?"
Get the picture?

*Over explaining (RUE = Resist the urge to explain). For example, if an author does a good job of setting the scene, there is no need to write, “She widened her eyes in disbelief.” The reader will know why she widened her eyes.

Or this one, "Her heart pounded with fright." If I've shown the scene well enough, hopefully readers will sense the fright for themselves and not have to be told why the character’s heart pounded.

*Using words that didn't exist during the time period in which the story is set. I only found a few instances of improper word usage in my book, but I'm surprised they slipped by without notice. Since then I've become much more proficient in using my Online Etymology Dictionary

I’ve learned a lot more in this valuable exercise of rewriting this book, and I will share some of those next time.

Romance author, Ginger Simpson currently resides in Tennessee with her husband and biggest fan, Kelly. She simply smiles when he claims to be the inspiration for the love scenes in her books. Since the publication of her first novel in 2003, she has added eight more books and five published novellas to her list You can view Ginger’s backlist at and visit her blog at

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Using Contractions in Your Writing

When you’re editing your manuscript, make at least one read-through out loud. When you read silently, it’s easy to skim through the words. You wrote them. You’ve read them a gazillion times. For at least one read-through, though, slow down and read it aloud word by word and listen to yourself.

Reading aloud helps you catch things like words that should be contractions but aren’t.

You have a character who’s describing someone else. He says:
“He is in his fifties, but you would guess him to be eighty by looks, ten by intelligence. Stairs do not go all the way to the top; know what I mean?”
Problem is, this will come across to your readers as sounding almost robotic. It doesn’t flow. It doesn’t sound the way you and I actually talk. We use contractions in our conversations.

So you instead change it to:
“He’s in his fifties, but you’d guess him to be eighty by looks, ten by intelligence. Stairs don’t go all the way to the top; know what I mean?”
A lot of the time, what we type is not what’s in our heads. We think, “I’m going to the store.” But we type, “I am going to the store.” Reading aloud helps you find areas where you need to use contractions to make the words on the page sound natural.

Of course, there are times not to use contractions. Sometimes you want to emphasize a point, like:
“I didn’t like the guy, but I would not have wanted him to die like he did in that sewage tank.”
By not contracting “would not” you emphasizing the “not” without having to italicize or underline it.

Another possible reason to not use very many contractions is if you’re writing a character who is foreign to the English language or who speaks very formally. People new to English tend to not use contractions. Think of how you were taught high school Spanish or French. You learned, My name is Helen Ginger (insert your name here, of course). You weren’t taught, My name’s Helen Ginger. So characters speaking English as their second language tend to speak as they were taught - without contractions.

This is spoken by a character of mine:
“I am glad you are still alive, Michael Dune. It is not my intention to harm you. Give me the information I need and I will help you out of this pit.”
He rarely uses contractions when he’s speaking. English is a second language for him and he was taught by others for whom English was not their native tongue.

This is not to recommend you use a contraction every time it’s possible to do so. Do look back at your manuscript, however, and work on the contractions to make dialogue sound realistic and also to make the exposition flow.
Helen Ginger is a freelance editor, book consultant, blogger, and writer. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write!, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its tenth year of publication.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: How to Identify Dragging Narrative

In an earlier post about charting the novel story arc, I advised the writer to watch out for sections where the story's tension level drops and stays low across several pages or, even worse, several chapters. How do you identify passages that slow down the story and perhaps cause an agent or editor to toss your manuscript aside?

When viewing the novel as a whole, I use these visual clues to identify scenes or chapters that might need work:

1. Very little white space (not counting the margins) – This indicates that your paragraphs might be too long, or you have an opportunity to break up the narrative with dialogue, if appropriate for the scene.

2. Backstory or flashbacks that last more than one page – If you set these insertions apart from the rest of the book by putting text in italics, or using asterisks or hash marks as separators, they’re easy to spot. Without these clues, however, you’ll need to read carefully and mark the beginning and end of such passages. If too long, move part of the backstory to another chapter, or tighten the prose so the section doesn’t drag.

While doing a page-by-page read of your manuscript, can you find examples like these?

1. Detailed descriptions of the waitress Sally Mae, who appears only once in Billy Jim’s life story when she brings him his biscuits and gravy; a tree the cowboy rides past on his way to the ranch; or a room the hero passes through on his way to the deadly dragon’s lair. If the information is not relevant to the story, and it’s not needed to further the reader’s understanding of the plot or characters, it probably shouldn’t be in your manuscript.

2. Moment by moment reports of the three-day fish festival in Fon’dor; every detail of each attack by the Goobles on the humans (especially if the Goobles attack in exactly the same way every time); or librarian Millie’s reaction when Big Joe walks into the library, especially if he does that a lot, and poor Millie always emits the same sighs and has the same palpitations.

3. Information dumps. If you use historical facts, real natural disasters, scientific or technical knowledge, or current facts and figures in your novel, find ways to weave the essential information into the narrative or dialogue throughout the story without disrupting the story arc. Avoid putting large chunks of information in one place.

4. Memory dumps. This is similar to the information dump, but involves your memories of a place or event, especially if you’re describing a fictional town strangely identical to your town, or a family scene that reminds you of the way Aunt Sissie chugs her wine. We get caught up in the memories and tend to go on and on. This is a good spot to use that red pencil.

Using these identifiers can help you evaluate and fine-tune the pacing in your novel, regardless of genre.

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).

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.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Prime Time Interview With Hank Phillippi Ryan

Today we're visiting with Hank Phillippi Ryan, Agatha award-winning novelist of PRIME TIME, out this month from MIRA Books. I've just finished it, and it's a snappy and fast read!

Think that annoying spam clogging your computer is just so much cyber junk mail? Top notch TV reporter Charlotte McNally suspects it may be much more than that—in fact, she thinks some of it may be carrying secret big money messages to the group of insiders with the key to decode it. Problem is, the last outsider who deciphered the truth now resides in the local morgue.

Is this the biggest story of Charlie's life? Or the one that will end it?

Charlie's also facing another dilemma: what happens when a top-notch TV reporter is married to her job—but begins to worry that the camera doesn't love her anymore?
Dani: Welcome to the BRP, Hank. (have a beer and feel free to belch... kidding.;)

Hank: Oh, lovely, Dani. I didn’t know it would be so glamorous and extravagant! I should have dressed up a bit…And wow, look at all those red pencils….

Dani: Is the camera rolling? Oops. Ahem. Down to business. The first question everyone will ask you is, "how much of Charlie McNally is really you, the author and investigative journalist?" We might secretly want it to be a bit of a memoir. So let's take it from another angle: How much is NOT you? How are you and Charlie vastly different?

Hank: When my husband talks about Charlie, he calls her “you.” As in—when “you” are held at gunpoint, when you track down the bad guys, when you solve the mystery… and I have to remind him, “Sweetheart, it’s fiction. It didn’t really happen.”

But a couple of things: I’ve been a TV reporter for more than 30 years. (Yes, really.) And so it would be silly, in writing a mystery about TV, not to use my own experiences. Think about it—as a TV reporter, you can never be wrong! Never be one minute late. Never choose the wrong word or miscalculate. You can never have a bad hair day, because it’ll be seen by millions of people! It’s high-stakes and high-stress—literally, people’s lives at stake--and I really wanted to convey that in the books.

And everything that TV people do and say in the books is authentic and genuine. (Of course, Charlie can say things I can’t say, and reveal things I can’t reveal.) We’re both devoted journalists, and over-focused on our jobs.

There’s a huge been-there-done-that element to the books—I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, chased down criminals…been in disguise, been stalked, and threatened and had many a door slammed in my face. So when that happens to Charlie, it’s fair to imagine me. Although the plots are completely from my imagination, those are real-life experiences.

But Charlotte McNally is different, too. She’s single—I’m happily married. She’s ten years younger than I am, and so is facing different choices and dilemmas. She’s braver than I am, certainly. Funnier. And a much better driver.

Dani: You have three books coming out, one each in July, August, and September. That's a little unusual isn't it? How did that happen? Not that I'm complaining, mind you. It's nice not having to wait a year for the next installment.

Hank: PRIME TIME was first released a little more than a year ago, under another imprint. It then won the AGATHA, got nominated for a bunch of other awards, and was on several best seller lists. FACE TIME, book 2, also was a best-seller. So the publisher decided to re-issue them under a new imprint, as prestigious MIRA books. They have terrific new covers, too. (MIRA publishes authors like JT Ellison, Susan Wiggs, Carla Neggers—very nice company.)

Then they decided to publish them as “back-to-back-to-back beach reads”, as they described it. One a month this summer, with the brand new AIR TIME as the third. (Sue Grafton’s wonderful blurb is on the cover) and then, the fourth in the series DRIVE TIME is out in February.

It’s terrific, since all the books will be available. Apparently this trilogy thing is a hot new trend. I’m all for it! So if people love the Charlotte McNally mysteries, as you say, you can get the next one very quickly.

Dani: I looked for your books in the mystery section, and though it's a cozy mystery, it was located in the romance section at Borders. It does have an ever-so-lovely Prince Charming, equally as important to plot and character development as the mystery itself. Did you intentionally set out to write a crossover novel? Or was it a marketing decision to have the books placed in the romance section? What's the scoop with that?

Hank: I’ve checked various stores, and it’s often in romance, but just as often in mystery, or new fiction, new paperbacks. I guess that’s the bad news and the good news.

The genre thing is fascinating, though, and a real insight for me into the business. I think of the books as mysteries. Absolutely. But there is definitely romance involved.

Did I set out to write a crossover? Dani, when I started writing, I had no idea what a crossover novel was. I just had came up with what I thought was a great story, with an original plot and I wanted to tell it. It never crossed my mind what to brand it, or that it would matter.

Someone recently asked me if I could write a mystery without romance. I said—not if the main character is alive! Then they asked: could you write a romance without the mystery? And I said—hmm, what would the characters do all day? So for me, the two are so intertwined that I couldn’t possibly untangle them. I hear from readers all the time (men and women) that they like it. Remember: John Lescroart has romance. So does Robert B. Parker. Margaret Maron. And on and on. One reviewer called PRIME TIME “the perfect combination of mystery and romance.”

Just the way life should be, right?

Dani: How about a book trailer link, Hank?

Hank: Trailer in the works! Coming from the marketing geniuses at MIRA, wonderfully. What it looks like? I don’t know yet! You’ll see it as soon as I do.

Dani: First chapter read? Other cool stuff?

Hank: Excerpt on my website! Cool stuff on my website. Blogs: Jungle Red Writers and Femmes Fatales. On Facebook as Hank Phillippi Ryan. And on Twitter.

Hank: Final thoughts: You know when I finished writing PRIME TIME, I called my husband into the room, and said “Sweetheart, watch this.” Then I typed: THE END. And then I burst into tears.

But I was wrong to cry. It wasn’t “the end” at all. It was just the beginning.

Dani: Oh, Hank. Where's my hanky? Okay, stop that! Now here's another cool thing, readers.

Hank: I still have five ARCS of PRIME TIME. Should we give them away to lucky readers? Just email me, and the first five will receive them!

Dani: Thanks, Hank. FACE TIME is next for me. Can't wait! Okay, I admit - that romance you have started might be exerting a tiny bit stronger pull than another great mystery. Or maybe not. The reviewer was so right – the perfect combination of mystery and romance.

Oh, and where to buy a copy of the book? You can purchase an autographed copy with free shipping from Mystery Lovers Bookshop, where Prime Time is Number One on their June bestseller list.

And guess what? Book 2 - FACE TIME - comes out on Tuesday! Click here to buy. Did I say free shipping on all Hank's books?

Brought to you by Dani Greer, founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil and passionate reader of cozy mysteries.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Weekend Wisdom

At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable.
~ Raymond Chandler

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Friday, July 24, 2009

The Romance of Mystery

I love a good cozy mystery, but not just for the intrigue of discovering the villain. The best ones have a bit of romance to spice things up. I mean a little tiny bit, not searing like so many of Nora Roberts' books.

Writing romance is an art in itself, and melding it with mystery takes a really deft hand. But the end result is incomparable, the best of both worlds to me. In a cozy novel, the mystery and romance are just that - cozy - which is about all I can handle.

A while back, Shelley Thrasher explained to us how to make things CLICK between characters and amidst the sheets, and you can read about that here.

You can also check out Writing Romance by Vanessa Grant for everything a writer needs to make a book sizzle, "from spark to finish". Included is a CD with Excel template to track character history and timelines. I recommend the book to anyone thinking of trying out the romance genre.

If that's more than you wanted to know, experience my ideal of the mystery/romance synergy, and join us next week when we host Hank Phillippi Ryan to talk about her new sizzling Agatha award-winning novel, Prime Time. I just finished it and it's good, oh, yes; that perfect balance between a whodunit and love story. Can't wait for the next installment. More about that on Monday, too, when Hank answers all our questions.
Dani Greer is a founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil and currently is on hiatus from most everything except nursing her poor, injured cat back to health. Ever tried feeding a cat with his mouth wired shut? An experience to write about for sure.
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

More Tips from the PSWA Conference

At the Public Safety Writers Association Conference, we also had a panel with a publisher (one who posts here and os my publisher, Billie Johnson), along with a couple of free-lance editors.

1. One of the first tips given was a query letter must be free of typos.

2. Many publishers today expect the author to have a marketing plan that tells how the author is going to promote their book.

3. Having your book edited before you submit is a good idea. It was suggested that the author get recommendations for an editor from someone he/she knows and trusts. Beware of agents who take on a writer, then recommend an editor.

4. The author should be sure to follow the publishers' guidelines for submissions. Not doing that can be what kicks the author's manuscript out without even being considered.

The panel on Developing Characters consisted of an editor and several published authors, here are the highlights from that panel:

The main character should have flaws and reasons for not wanting to do what he will have to do.

The author should ask question of the characters to know why the character acts as he/she does.

Characters do make mistakes and sometimes the mistakes make the book.

The side-kick character should be off to the side and not overshadow the hero or heroine.

Characters should be surprising.

The author must make the person real, including his or her physical reaction to things around him/her.

You can build characters on people you know--though there was a bit of disagreement about this. However, I often base a fictional character on a real person, changing physical characteristics, and I've never had anyone recognize themself.

This was an exceptionally good writers' conference! For more information about PSWA, go to their excellent website.
Marilyn Meredith is the author of over twenty-five published novels, including the award winning Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, the latest Kindred Spirits from Mundania Press. Under the name of F. M. Meredith she writes the Rocky Bluff P.D. crime series, No Sanctuary is the newest from Oak Tree Press.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Some Great Tips from Mystery Author Betty Webb

Recently, I attended the Public Safety Writers Association's conference where the most wonderful award winning mystery author, Betty Webb, was a keynote speaker and also gave us some marvelous mystery writing tips.

Betty told us how not to begin a mystery novel as well as how to do it. A couple of the how not to begin were with the weather and a dream.

The first page of the novel is a promise to the reader. It should have action, action, action--a crisis not of the main character's own making, and he or she should solve the problem him or herself. The first page better be the best possible.

She said there are two elements to a story: style and structure.

She suggested having a dead body on the first page and another in the middle. It is a good idea to have the detective or sleuth be the one to discover the body.

Tension should build on every page.

A strong arc of action is what sells a book.

Only use one or two sentences for back story.

Another tip was to circle all the "was" or "ing" words and replace with active words.

And the last: “Good books are not written but rewritten.”

Betty told us she writes eight hours a day nearly every day. No wonder she's an award winning writer.

I read her latest Lena Jones mystery, Desert Cut and it's very dark but definitely a page-turner. After that I read the first in her zoo mysteries, Anteater of Death, a totally different type of book, might be considered a cozy though I thought it had more depth than most cozies.

To learn more about the dark Lena Jones mysteries, go to her website.

For the funny Gunn Zoo mysteries, click here. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Marilyn Meredith is the author of over twenty-five published novels, including the award winning Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, the latest Kindred Spirits from Mundania Press. Under the name of F. M. Meredith she writes the Rocky Bluff P.D. crime series; No Sanctuary is the newest from Oak Tree Press.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Some Tips for Mystery Writers

This week, we welcome novelist, Marilyn Meredith to our blogging team!

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For my first post, I decided to report on some of the things I learned at the Public Safety Writers Association’s conference. Most of the people who attend are either connected to law enforcement in some way or writing mysteries.

The first panel consisted of police officers and a prosecuting attorney who talked about what bothered them with what was portrayed on TV, movies and in books.

Several mentioned procedural problems such as using lights and sirens when going to the scene of an ongoing crime, like a bank robbery. Nothing like letting the bad guys know it’s time to scoot.

Not knowing the difference between the police and sheriff's departments, parole and probation, and using the terms interchangeably drove another police person nuts.

Though it happens often in movies and TV, lieutenants don't go to the crime scene or do the leg work, they take care of the paperwork and procedure.

CSI people never walk all over the crime scene nor do they go into the evidence room. One woman hated to see ties with short-sleeved shirts.

The lawyer said that police don’t continue questioning a suspect after the attorney gets there–once the attorney arrives, questioning is over.

A big bugaboo was female cops with long flowing hair and not wearing bullet-proof vests, and female detectives wearing high heels.

Lack of research by authors concerning the use of guns was another problem mentions such as a magazine is put into the gun, not a clip; a .38 has no safety; and no one in police work has an empty chamber in his or her gun.

Every state has different laws--but constitutional law is always the same.

A non-officer gathering evidence is against the law like what happens on The Mentalist.

In the '70s and '80s, cops didn't wear bullet-proof vests.

A former undercover cop confessed that one had to be half-psycho to be undercover, no one knows what you're doing or where you're going, often the other cops don't even know who you are.

An author needs to use the correct jargon for the area he or she is writing about. There is a big difference between the words used--on the East Coast cops make a collar, West Coast cops make an arrest. Number codes are different within jurisdictions too.

Because suspects talk different depending upon the time period, don't use too many slang words.

One of the funniest comments was when a cop was asked if he used his flashlight to check out an indoor crime scene at night. The answer was, "No, I turn on the lights." How many times have we watched the CSI team on TV doing their entire crime scene investigation using only flashlights?

What I learned most from this panel was to make sure to check out anything that I wasn't sure about and never ever depend upon TV or movies for your research.

Another speaker was Steve Scarborough, a forensic expert who served with the Las Vegas P.D. and also was an expert witness in numerous case for the police department and the FBI.

Here is what he had to say:

Forensic Evidence can narrow the leads and eliminate suspects.

Forensic facts can make your story come alive, but you need to be careful.

You should know the direction your story is going before you do the research.

Fingerprints are the most conclusive form of forensic evidence though fingerprinting and DNA should get equal billing.

It's hard to get fingerprints off of towels, the sofa, etc., metal and glass works better.

Ballistics evidence depends upon certain conditions of the bullet.

Other types of evidence are hair, fiber, glass fragments, ABO blood types, and shoe prints.

Everything is circumstantial evidence except an eye witness.

What you must have is Means, Motive and Opportunity.

It's a myth that anything can be done--nothing is proven quickly, and some of the science seen on TV is make-believe.

You can't tell race or sex from fingerprints.

There is no such thing as a three point or four point match in fingerprints.

Detectives don't follow the evidence to the lab.

And the labs don't have everything they need in forensics. The smaller the place, the less they will have in the way of crime labs.

I found all of the above fascinating and thought what I learned might help out other writers.
Marilyn Meredith is the author of over twenty-five published novels, including the award winning Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, the latest Kindred Spirits from Mundania Press. Under the name of F. M. Meredith she writes the Rocky Bluff P.D. crime series; No Sanctuary is the newest from Oak Tree Press.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Review: Don't Murder Your Mystery

Don’t Murder Your Mystery
By Chris Roerden
Publisher: Bella Rosa Books
ISBN-13: 978-1933523132
List Price: $17.95

One of the best books I’ve read on writing and self-editing is the Agatha Award Winner for Best Non-Fiction Book, Don’t Murder Your Mystery (24 Fiction-Writing Techniques to Save Your Manuscript from Turning Up . . . D.O.A.). “Enthusiastically recommended” by Midwest Book Review and deemed “a valuable reference work” by mystery author Sara Paretsky, the book has also been expanded into an all-genre version called Don’t Sabotage Your Submission.

Roerden begins her book with this prescription precaution:

“For long-lasting relief, apply this remedy to drafts that have finished digesting. Attempting to revise while still writing can lead to double vision accompanied by intermittent paralysis of the hands.”
By comparing the stages of revision and self-editing to clues during a crime investigation, Roerden uses humor and example to demonstrate why manuscripts are declared dead on arrival. From Clue #1 (Hobbled Hooks) to #24 (Words & Misdemeanors), the writer learns how to identify manuscript flaws and fix them.

Here are a few notable quotes from Don’t Murder Your Mystery:

On backstory: “Fiction, especially mystery, is in trouble if it focuses attention on what’s already happened instead of what’s about to happen.”

On description: “Behavioral quirks and habits are not only more interesting than a straight-forward physical description but also more revealing of personality and attitude.”

On the timeline: “For your own guidance, always make a calendar of the events taking place in your novel so that all times of day and days of the week make internal sense.”

Included at the end of the book are: standard manuscript formatting rules, a bibliography of books on writing, and a list of popular internet sites for mystery writers.

The author, Chris Roerden, is an independent book editor with extensive experience and credentials. She will be one of the seminar presenters at SinC into Great Writing, the Sisters in Crime event to be held October 14th in Indianapolis, the day before the mystery convention Bouchercon 2009 opens.

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Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Surplus

If you're not yet a fan of author,Susan Wittig Albert's blog, head over there today and read a couple of good posts about the use of pseudonyms in writing. She has some interesting stories to tell about her own choices over the years!

(Note for later: July 18 & 19, 2009)

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

Those Pesky Adverbs Again

Honestly, you'd think I'd get over this obsession about adverbs, but I just can't help myself, especially when I keep seeing their misuse over and over in books.

Like many beginning writers, I used adverbs liberally when first starting out. I thought they were needed to tell the reader how someone was speaking or how they were acting. Then the light bulb went off. "Geesh, Maryann, it's about showing, not telling."

About the same time, I was taking a screenwriting class and learned that it was a huge no-no to use an adverb to indicate how a line was to be spoken. For instance:

Get the hell out of my room.

My creative writing instructor told the class that it's not the writer's place to tell the actor how to speak - that's the director's job. And we can help the actor and director by writing a line of dialogue that conveys the urgency. The words should indicate how the line should be delivered.

Once I got that through my thick skull regarding screenplays, it was easy to see how it translated into novel and short story writing. We have to work really hard to make the words in a line of dialogue show the reader the emotion and inflection behind those words.

If that example from above was in a novel it would simply read, "Get the hell out of my room," Mike said. I chose not to even say "shouted" because the shout is implied. Or it might be even better to give Mike an action after his line that conveys his emotion.
"Get the hell out of my room." Mike shoved his sister toward the door, then slammed it when she was out.

The reason I'm back kicking these poor adverbs to pieces is that I recently received a book to review, and the author is in love with adverbs. Every character opens doors gently, speaks gently, or touches a shoulder softly.

I was hanging in with the story until I came to this sentence: "(character name withheld) gently lifted (name deleted) in her arms and rocked her gently".

That stopped me cold, and I reread the sentence to make sure it wasn't my dyslexia that put the same adverb in the sentence twice.

Nope. The author did it.

Which doesn't mean adverbs are to be avoided at all costs. There is a time and place for them, as illustrated in this quote from another book: "Then he saw the white flag of the deer's tail as it bounded away, and he nearly collapsed with relief."

The author couldn't leave the "nearly" out, as the character would not have literally collapsed, especially since this was a very tense moment in the story where this character was being trailed by a killer.

I hope these examples are helpful for writers who are working on first or second books and may be still unsure of when an adverb is needed and when it is not.

For more on adverbs see previous posts HERE


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, July 16, 2009

Look for the Silly Stuff: Exclamation Points

In her outstanding books on fiction-writing techniques, Don’t Murder Your Mystery and Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, editor Chris Roerden says, “Exclamation points in abundance produce the same effect as too much italicizing: after a while, readers wonder if the writer thinks we are deaf or dense.”

According to Copyediting & Proofreading for Dummies by Suzanne Gilad (President of, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

Exclamation points are appropriate in dialogue commands and very occasionally in dialogue exclamations.

If overuse of the exclamation point is a habit, you can use your software’s Find/Replace editing tool to quickly substitute periods where appropriate.

However, if the reader will not be able to tell that a statement in narrative is emphatic, or dialogue is spoken forcefully or with surprise, then it’s best to rewrite the scene to “show, not tell,” thus eliminating the need for exclamation points.

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Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Picky, Picky, Picky

Okay, maybe I’m too picky when I read. My husband keeps telling me to quit reading like an editor and just read to enjoy the book. And sometimes that works. Sometimes I do get so caught up in the plot or with the characters that I overlook little mistakes that would otherwise jerk me out of the story.

But when I first start a book and haven’t yet connected to the character or the plot, those little mistakes keep prickling me like the thorns on my blackberry bushes.

For instance, we really have to stop and think about the words we are using and what they mean or convey, especially the misuse of reflexive pronouns. “I smiled in spite of myself.” What exactly does that mean? Perhaps it would be better to write, “I smiled, despite my glum mood.”

Inappropriate sensory descriptions can also be a problem. “My own voice sounded dank…” Dank is a smell. It can’t be heard.

“Soft-smelling hair.” Soft is a touch, not an odor.

A common dialogue attributive is also problematic. Authors often have a character mutter to himself, which to me implies that it is not something the other people in the scene heard, even though the muttered dialogue is written out in full. But if the character simply mutters, leaving off the “to himself” it is more believable that the other people could hear it. And when the narrative is in first person, it is especially important to make sure it is believable that the narrator can hear the other person mutter.

I know these are silly little details, and we all see them over and over in published works, but I don’t think that is a good enough reason not to take a little extra care with what we write. Well, actually rewrite. Because it is in the editing and rewriting that we find these little mistakes and fix them.


Maryann Miller is the Managing Editor of, an online community magazine, and a reviewer for and ForeWord Magazine. 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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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

To Splice or Not to Splice

I recently edited a manuscript that was rife with sentences combined with the word “then.” Like this one: She pulled the lever, allowing the big steel blades to catch the wind. At first nothing came then finally a small trickle of water splashed into the trough.

My red pencil itches to add a comma. It’s two separate actions. The “and” seems to be understood and to me is redundant. At first nothing came, and then finally a small trickle of water splashed into the trough. If you use “and,” do you even need “then?” But in this case, “and” just doesn’t say the same thing.

According to grammar gurus, this is called a “comma splice” and is supposedly a no-no. As one grammarian put it, “It feels so right. It flows so well. It looks so pretty. But technically, it’s as wrong as wearing wooly socks with strappy summer sandals.”

This same source reminds us of an acronym to remember what a coordinating conjunction is: FANBOYS: For-And-Nor-But-Or-Yet-So. But, she says, be careful of the words then and now; neither is a coordinating conjunction,

And regarding the use of a comma with "then," the Gregg Reference Manual states:
"When hence, then, thus, so, or yet appears at the beginning of an independent clause, the comma following is omitted unless the connective requires special emphasis or a nonessential element occurs at that point."


Melt the butter over high heat; then add the egg.
Melt the butter over high heat; then, when the foam begins to subside, add the egg.

But, to me, it’s not so cut and dried. “The old dog awoke at the sound of his master’s voice, lifted his head then stood up, and wagged his tail.” The phrase just seems all run together. I know the sentence can be reworded to solve the problem. But, since it’s fiction, can we take a little liberty now and again, then add a comma?

What say you, fellow editors?


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.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Words, Words, Words

You know what you need to write a good story?

Yes, dialogue, characters, plot, conflict, etc. are important components, but without the WORDS to develop these things, you just have a really good idea.

I want to touch on a few things that can hinder your words from being appreciated by your reader.


Overwriting is a redundancy issue. We see this in newspaper articles all the time. A writer will quote a source, and then he/she will paraphrase the quote. The paraphrase is repetitive, redundant.

In stories, we can see this when an action occurs and then the characters talk about what just happened instead of moving the story forward. We see this when a writer uses dialogue to “tell” instead of to “reveal” – especially when what he/she is telling has already been shown.

When we overwrite, we slow the reading for the readers because they want to know what happens NEXT – not what already happened.

Outlining can help to combat some overwriting issues. If you have an outline, you can look from scene to scene, from chapter to chapter to see if each component is moving your story forward.

If you don’t outline, it’s important to combat this in the revision/editing stages. Because you will, more than likely, have to write a synopsis for your story, go through each chapter and write a few paragraphs about what occurs. As you write on each chapter, ask yourself, “Is the story moving forward?” “Have I repeated something from a past scene or chapter?” “Does it slow the read?” Questioning as you revise will help you find the slow parts and see if they are redundant or overwritten.


Wordiness is not the same as overwriting; overwriting is redundancy. Wordiness occurs when we don’t practice “word economy.” It occurs when we use a slew of words for what can be stated in one or two words.

It’s when we use phrases like “final completion” when we could easily write “completion.”

It’s when we use phrases like “basic essentials” when we could easily write “essentials.”

It’s when we use phrases like “due to the fact that” when we could easily write “because.”

It’s when we use “that” like it’s our long-lost friend.

It’s when we use “uh,” “ahem,” “um,” and “okay” as filler instead of getting to the point.

Leave a work after you’ve written it. Everyone needs a fresh pair of eyes, and if you jump into revision/editing stages before taking a breather, you’ll be less likely to catch glaring wordiness errors.

In the revision/editing stages (and it’s smart to bring somebody along – like an editor-as you go through these stages), it’s a good idea to mark passages in your writing that were difficult for you to write. If you battled through writer’s block, if a scene or passage – particularly the middles of books – was slower to write than others, mark those places to return to; more than likely, there are some wordiness issues there.

Study the wordiness patterns that are typical in your writing. Having a second (or third) set of eyes is crucial here because an editor can talk to you about these patterns, and you can keep them in mind for future projects.

Here are some words and phrases that are typically added to a “wordiness” list.

kind of — sort of — type of — really — basically — for all intents and purposes — definitely — actually — generally — individual — specific — particular


The following are typical words I see in clients’ manuscripts that are incorrectly used:

than, then — to, too, two — bad, badly — hear, here — sit, set — raise, rise — lay, lie — lose, loose — who’s, whose — you’re, your

Even the greatest of writers will have issues with confusing words; the goal is to figure out which words confuse you and keep them close by so you can fix them in your work.

I still have problems with lay/lie, and often will find another way to say something instead of use them!

We should not fear words; if we fear them, how can we manipulate them within our stories?

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.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Weekend Wisdom

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Lifted from Susan Albert's interesting blog about writing and life:

Practice is essential. If you’re going to learn to write, it has to be your practice. I’ve been fascinated with the job of learning to write, which is unending. And I enjoy writing. Dealing with the problems it presents gives me pleasure. Sometimes there’s frustration, but if I get frustrated or hit an impasse, I just stop and go back to it later. I don’t like to hear writers talk about how they suffer for their craft. If it’s that bad, they ought to quit.

~Wendell Berry

Friday, July 10, 2009

Training Our Inner Editor Part 2 - Writer's Voice

Unlike editors in large houses, who get only the best manuscripts from new writers or yet another story from an established author, we who work outside the traditional publishing system find our clients among writers of varying abilities and experience. They may not have a famous name or multitudes of fans waiting in line to purchase their book, but they want both. So we become teachers, mentors, mothers (or fathers), cheering sections, and shoulders to cry on. In fact, we wear a whole wardrobe of hats needed by our clients.

Do we rewrite? On occasion we may choose to share an example of what is needed to clarify or improve a passage or scene. Yet, should our client decide to use our words rather than rework a weak area, we must make sure those words reflect the writer’s voice. That acquired skill of seamlessly imitating another’s voice separates the best of us from the crowd.

What is writer’s voice? A combination of elements including sentence structure, dialogue, use of punctuation, word choices, character development, rhythm, flow, and tone create the unique voice of a writer. As editors, we have the privilege of contributing to budding writers' understanding of this vital element that sets them apart from other writers and makes their works identifiable even if their name is missing.

How do we help a writer develop voice? First, we peruse their work. How do they structure sentences? Are characters unique, well defined, and do they remain true to their previous actions? Is the dialogue realistic? Does it vary from character to character? How does the author use punctuation? Do we find consistency in style? What kind of flow propels the story forward? Does it move progressively toward a logical climax? In working with writers, we commend their strengths and help them to see and overcome their weaknesses. Particularly with new writers, we also help them find, define, and develop their voice.

While some writers may have similar styles, they still display individuality in their works. For example, my brother likes the books written by the late Robert Ludlum. One book, unfinished when the author died, was completed by another writer, who also penned sequels to some of Ludlum’s popular thrillers. Even though the second author has been noted as being faithful to Ludlum’s style, my brother found subtle differences that indicated another writer’s hand in the works. This is not a criticism of the author who is carrying on Ludlum’s series, but only is mentioned to show the distinction between the voices of the two writers.

Voice is vital in establishing a writer’s identity. It might even be said that it "brands" the writer. As editors, we carry the responsibility for making writers aware of the importance of voice. Then we oversee its development. Finally, we help the author use that voice to complete a work of art — a word picture created on the canvas of many pages to inform, educate, inspire, and delight the readers.

We editors show writers the value of voice. We teach them how to develop and use it in creating their own style unlike that of any other. What about our own writing? Have we created that distinct voice that sets us apart from other authors? Almost all the above that we apply to others applies equally to us. Can we identify our voice? In 25 words or less, can we define it? Have we “branded” ourselves with our voice? If not . . . hmmm . . . why not?

Next time, our inner editor takes a look at point of view. How can POV make or break a story?


Linda Lane, editor of two national award winners, will release her second novel, Treacherous Tango, this summer. She owns Pen & Sword Publishers Ltd., an independent editing and publishing house, and has gone back to work after taking time off to write her book.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Hesitation Waltz by Morgan Mandel

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I hoof it to the commuter train station each workday. A few weeks ago, a driver pulled what I call the Hesitation Waltz. He slowed down a fraction, then waltzed straight through. He not only didn't stop at the sign, but he also denied me, a pedestrian, the right of way. I was prepared for this since it's happened before. When I see a car approach a stop sign, I don't assume it will stop for me. I don't step into the street.

Now, let's relate this to the writing world. Do you waltz right through when you prepare or submit a manuscript? Can you get away with it? Usually not. Most editors are one step ahead of you.

Let's see. If you submit a manuscript to a publishing house without checking which editor acquires your genre, by a strange stroke of luck it might reach the right destination. I wouldn't count on it. Chances are, instead of landing where you hoped, it will end up in the dreaded slush pile or, worse yet, get returned immediately.

Another scenario - You dash off a manuscript and submit it without the format specified by the publishing house, or without carefully edited grammar, punctuation, etc. After all, your story is so wonderful it will be accepted and brushed up by the editor at the publishing house. Isn't that what editors do? Wrong. Most editors are so busy they're looking for manuscripts as close to perfect as possible. Unless you're a celebrity or have come up with a terrific idea that's never been written about before, you'll likely get rejected.

Another sticky little thing you may not want to do - research. You're writing fiction, so it doesn't have to make complete sense, right? Wrong again. Unless you've carefully constructed a make believe world and laid out its conventions, you still need to pay attention to how things work and why people do what they do in your novel. For instance, if you mention Chicago as the capitol of Illinois instead of Springfield, you can bet you'll lose credibility. An editor will most likely stop right there and not read further.

One last scenario - You self-publish a book without asking for help. You don't hire an editor or at the very least ask knowledgeable friends to check it over for mistakes. Even if you're an editor yourself, it doesn't hurt for an objective eye to evaluate your manuscript. Sure, your book will be published without such help, since you published it yourself. It may even get read by a few people, but if it's not up to snuff, they won't recommend it to others. Word of mouth is very powerful. You certainly don't want word to get out that you're an amateur and your books are not worth reading.

On the subject of editors, you have a choice of many fine editors right here at this blogspot. You can check out their bios and credentials in the right hand column. I chose Helen Ginger to do the edits on my upcoming release, Killer Career. She did a fantastic job. As a result, I'm much more confident about presenting it to the public. You'll learn more about the process in future blogs here.

Right now, I don't want to stray too far from the subject at hand, which is the Hesitation Waltz. Do you know of any other harmful shortcuts writers use? If so, please share them with us.

Morgan Mandel

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What's in a name?

If you play the writing game long enough, you learn that giving your protagonist a memorable name is important. It sounds innocent and easy enough, but this can get complicated.

You don't want a name that's too common and forgettable. Neither do you want a name that's too long, too unpronounceable, or just too twee.

Your supporting cast is important as well. You shouldn't have too many names beginning with the same letter, and definitely keep away from rhyming names unless you have cutesie-tootsie twins in your story.

Which begs the question: how do you dream up good names for your characters? We asked several of our editors how they do it.

Helen: My favorite resource book for naming characters is A World of Baby Names by Teresa Norman. Each of the 31 chapters starts off with an introduction to that country's use of names. For example, the intro to "African Names" includes information like, "A person's name is considered to be his most valuable possession, for it is the only thing that can survive death... Names such as the female Komuko (this one will not die) and the male Zimoko (thank you) reflect the sad fact of high infant mortality and the parents' fervent hope that their child will survive." With over 30,000 names, arranged by country, it's a great place to not only choose a name that would fit a character's ancestry, but also to find the meaning and pronunciation of each name.

Patricia: I tend to use street names from towns I'm not writing about. Very useful as many streets are named after people. When naming the bad guys, I try to use made-up names that yield no results when I do a Google search.

Maryann: I use the phone book for last names and books of saints names for first names. Get some unusual names that way. :-)

Linda: Like Helen said, I peruse lists of baby names. Also, sometimes a name pops into my mind while I'm developing a character sketch. The Cherokee/Irish attorney in my new book is Aidan Wolf. (His brother, mentioned only once in this one but a larger character in the next of the series, is Declan.) The first names happen to be a favorites, and the last name came from an Internet search of common Cherokee surnames.

And here's my favorite name generator, which yields a daily list of first and last name combinations:

What about you? What are your favorite name sources including online generators?

Dani Greer is currently judging 35 essays for an online writing contest, learning how to record a double-ender (don't ask) and killing as many grasshoppers in any given day as is humanly possible in 95-degree heat. Oh, and she's thinking about writing a graphic novel called Queen of Socks.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Are Editors On a Power Trip?

Recently, a young man asked me, "If editors know something is wrong, why don't they just fix it? Are they on some sort of group power trip?"

I'll give you a minute to recover from the question.

My first thought was uncharitable. I assumed I was talking to a young man who had never actually written a book, or anything else he cared about. Luckily, my brain did engage before my mouth—a rare event, but it does happen. I carefully explained that most writers would not appreciate an editor who simply changed the author's manuscript/work of art/baby. I didn't want to scare the young man, so I refrained from references to specific emotional reactions or spilled blood.

After giving the question a bit more thought, I came up with a three other reasons for an editor to note issues, rather than fixing them.

First, the writing could be ambiguous. The editor may not know what the author is trying to say. If the author writes "The boy run through the woods," the editor knows this is incorrect because the noun is singular and the verb plural. Or is it? If the text is the narrative voice of an educated person, it is most likely wrong. But did the author want to say "The boys run through the woods," or "The boy runs through the woods"? If the quoted text is the narrative voice of an uneducated person or the dialogue of and uneducated person, it may not be wrong at all. The author may simply be showing the lack of education through incorrect use of language.

Second, by marking issues and letting the author make corrections, the editor is giving the author the opportunity to learn so the next manuscript may not need as much editing. This saves time for both the editor and the author.

Third, editors do not simply address simple issues like grammar and spelling. Good editors address pacing, characterization, exposition, and many other aspects of storytelling. These more complex issues require active participation from the writer.

Can you think of other reasons why editors provide mark-ups rather than corrected text?

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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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me.....

Crash! Bang! Kerpow! Either it's the Fourth of July again, or all the aerosol cans in my garage are exploding.

The Fourth of July brings a multitude of fond memories to me, not only in a patriotic sense, but also because it happens to be my birthday as well. Even having to bear with such comments as, "You must be a real firecracker," I'm glad I share my day with such a prestigious holiday. At least I'm not easily forgotten. A birthday on January sixteenth can• slip by unnoticed, but who can forget the Fourth of July? (Besides my mother's maiden aunt who also forgets to send me Christmas cards).

When I was a kid, I naturally assumed that all the fanfare from parades to fireworks was all done in my honor, and it was a big shock to me at about age eight to realize that 15 of us were celebrating my birthday and the rest of the world could care less.

My sister, likewise, thought all the hullabaloo was in my honor and it really bugged her. After all, on her birthday she only got cake and ice cream and a new pair of shoes, but I got a parade, a picnic, fireworks and a new bathing suit. (Even discounting all the rest, she'd have been happy to trade her shoes for the bathing suit).

One year she really got in a tiff about the whole thing and, instead of going down to the corner to watch the annual parade with us, she locked herself in the bathroom. "It's not fair!" she wailed. "Just one time I'd like to see them have a parade for my birthday."

That was the year I learned the horrible truth, as my mother tried to patiently explain to both of us what the Fourth of July really meant and get us down to the corner before we missed the parade. Small town parades have a way of passing swiftly and every second was precious.

Disappointment loomed larger than life for me, although my sister was now delighted, and I found that the parade didn't have the same magic anymore. In fact, I considered locking myself in the bathroom for a good cry.

Now that I am a grown woman of some maturity, although that point is debatable at times, I have learned to be more pragmatic in my approach to my birthday. But the child in me would still like to walk down to the corner to see the parade and I always get goose-bumps when I hear "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on the radio.

So here's to the child in both of us, America, "Happy Birthday.”


Maryann Miller -- a writer, editor and sentimental patriot.

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Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Critique Groups Part II

Read Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Critique Groups Part I

Part II:

Critique groups often find it helpful to put guidelines and procedures for submissions and critiques in writing. These are the general rules my groups follow:

1. Set a page limit for submissions. Depending on the group, ten to fifteen double-spaced pages may be sufficient.

2. Establish a meeting schedule. Assign specific dates for each member to submit work on a rotating basis.

3. Set a submission deadline, which should be at least five days before the meeting date. Ask that everyone submit via Word attachments to an e-mail.

Critiquing the manuscript of another writer is a big responsibility. The goal is to encourage, motivate, educate, and provide honest feedback in a helpful and respectful manner. Techniques I recommend:

1. Read each submission at least twice during the critiquing process.

2. Use Word’s Track Changes, if you know how, or print the submission and make notes on paper with a pen or pencil.

3. Focus first on what’s good about the submission. Take a look at plot, dialogue, narrative/descriptions. Does the author show, or does he tell?

4. Make notes on your observations and be ready to point out specific examples with page numbers.

5. Do not cross out or delete large passages of a member’s submission. Use margin comments or comments at the end of the piece to make suggestions for cuts.

6. Bring a copy of the critiqued submission to the meeting to give to the author.

7. After the submitting author reads two pages aloud, he listens and takes notes as the other members deliver their critiques verbally. At the end of the session, the submitting author may ask or answer questions.

8. During the verbal critique process, members should avoid copy editing issues such as typos and errors in punctuation, instead focusing on story and story arc as well as polishing the manuscript’s prose. These topics will be covered in upcoming posts.

By critiquing and listening to critiques, all members will gain proficiency in seeing their own work with the reader’s eye, the foundation of good self-editing.

Patricia Stoltey is the author of two amateur sleuth mysteries, The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders. Originally published in hardcover by Five Star and paperback by Harlequin Worldwide, both are now available as e-books for Kindle and Nook. Her November 2014 novel from Five Star/Cengage, Dead Wrong is a standalone suspense. The novel has been described as “…lightning paced…” and “…a fantastic combination of suspense and action…”

You can learn more about Patricia and her fiction at her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Critique Groups Part I

Critique Groups: Gotta love 'em. Learn to see your writing with a reader’s eye, identify your bad habits, and polish your manuscript before you submit to agents and editors. It’s hard at first, often scary. It could even be akin to your first bungee jump. Getting your work critiqued probably won’t kill you, but it could turn you into a writer worthy of publication. Honest.

Alex Sokoloff said it here on June 10th in Top Ten Things I Know About Editing: “Find a great critique group.” In a discussion between author Sylvia Dickey Smith and editor Helen Ginger, Helen advises, “…join a critique group in your area or online – you’ll get help, you’ll help others, and you’ll learn how to edit and critique.” Author, reviewer, and blogger Charlotte Phillips wrote in February, “I recently joined a critique group for the first time ever and must admit, I am enjoying every bit of it. I wish I’d gotten up the nerve many years ago.”

One of the best ways to hone self-editing skills is to meet regularly with other writers and critique their work. Timid souls who might be overwhelmed by larger groups may do best with one critique partner. Unstructured clubs that meet once in a while are useful for hermit-writers who need occasional feedback. Online critique sessions, or meetings via Skype, are helpful if local groups are not available. For most beginning writers, a face-to-face group with established rules and guidelines boosts commitment and productivity.

To find an existing group, take a writing class, post notices at the library, attend a nearby writers’ conference, or contact local or regional writing organizations in your state. If that doesn’t work, start your own.

Based on my experiences with critique groups, I believe they function best when all of the members are writing the same kind of material: fiction and/or memoir, non-fiction books, or essays and magazine articles. Mixing fiction categories within a fiction group can be constructive if members are open to learning about genres they don’t often read on their own. The groups I’m organizing for Northern Colorado Writers follow these guidelines:

1. Critique groups contain six to eight members and meet every other week.
2. Meetings last approximately two hours.
3. Members commit to regular attendance, barring emergencies.
4. A member who cannot attend a meeting still critiques submissions and delivers or sends them to the critiqued members.

The purpose of a critique group is to help members improve their writing skills through revisions and competent self-editing, guide other members toward publication, and provide encouragement and motivation along the way. The critiques need to be honest, but must be respectful and supportive, whether written or verbal. Members understand that critiques are from/to their peers. Comments about story line, voice, and characterization are observations or suggestions. The decision whether or not to implement these suggestions belongs to the author.

In the next Self-Editing One Step at a Time post on critique groups, I’ll recommend procedures for submitting materials for review and techniques for written and verbal critiques.

Patricia Stoltey is the author of two amateur sleuth mysteries, The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders. Originally published in hardcover by Five Star and paperback by Harlequin Worldwide, both are now available as e-books for Kindle and Nook. Her November 2014 novel from Five Star/Cengage, Dead Wrong is a standalone suspense. The novel has been described as “…lightning paced…” and “…a fantastic combination of suspense and action…”

You can learn more about Patricia and her fiction at her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.