Thursday, September 24, 2009

Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place

Today we welcome Susan Wittig Albert, prolific author of numerous mystery novels, perhaps less commonly known as the creator of the Story Circle Network, and now author of her first memoir, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place.

Dani: Susan, we've talked all week about memoirs, and earlier we discussed the Story Circle Network which you founded. What prompted you to start that group ten years ago? Why then?

Susan: I’d been teaching lifewriting (journaling and memoir) to women for five or six years, and I’d just written Writing From Life. I wanted to encourage women to document their lives--to tell the true stories of their experiences--and it seemed to me that what we needed was sustained personal encouragement from other women. A book can help give guidance, but I felt an organization could best do that job. (For more backstory, click here.)

Dani: Why write a memoir?

Susan: There are lots of reasons: to record your life; get clear about who you are and what you’ve done and why; tell your personal story to family, friends, the community--people who want to know more about you; relate your experiences with a particular issue, illness, challenge, in order to help others facing the same situation. We have so many men’s stories: our history books are full of them. We need women’s stories!

Dani: And now ten years later, you've just published your own memoir. You've written about your marriage to Bill Albert, and perhaps it's fair to say, you share with readers the marriage both of you have to your "place" which you've named Meadow Knoll. Why did you narrow the focus of your memoir in this way?

Susan: I’ve long been interested in the idea of place: our need as humans (and particularly as placeless, unrooted Americans) to find a home in this world. We need to be in touch with nature and the earth, particularly as we face the challenges of climate change. I felt that my story--I was placeless and unrooted until we settled at Meadow Knoll--might help other women who are searching for ways to feel at home on the earth. I wrote about our marriage because it has been the central relationship of this part of my life. In some ways, the memoir is not my story, but our story. And yes, Bill read it, made suggestions, and agreed that does tell the story.

Dani: In this 20+ year partnership with your husband and your home, you've produced a tremendous amount of writing, together and alone. The books helped create the place, but tell us how the place might have contributed to the quality and quantity of writing.

Susan: It’s contributed in so many ways! Besides giving me wonderful subjects to write about (the land, the plants, animals, weather, history) it’s given me a place to write--a place that’s exactly suited to the work of writing. When I lived in cities, there were constant distractions, always something to do, some reason not to do the writing I wanted to do. Out here, I’m less distracted. It’s easier to focus--to get the work done.
This place also puts me in immediate touch with what I see as the most compelling issue we’re going to be facing as a species over the next century: the changing nature of our planet. I see this more and more every year. We’ve just gone through the most frightening drought and summer heat in recorded history. Is this the future for this place? And I can see what humans have already done here, all around me, to the resources of soil and water, and to the prairie life that used to be so abundant here. Wherever we live, we simply must begin to understand and care for our place. I’ll never stop writing about that.

Dani: So what's next? Another memoir with a different focus?

Susan: 2008 was a remarkable year for all of us. The oil price spike, the collapse of the financial markets, the sad toll of two wars, the excitement of a presidential campaign, job losses and foreclosures--it was an extraordinary year. I kept a journal during that year, which kept me focused on what was going on around me and how it was changing me--as it did. It will be published next year: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days. And I’m continuing with my fiction work. There’ll be a new China Bayles mystery (Holly Blues) in April, 2010; a new Cottage Tale (The Tale of Oat Cake Crag) in September, 2010; and the first book in a new series: The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree. The Dahlias are a garden club in Darling, Alabama. The year is 1930, another extraordinary year!

Dani: Finally, Susan, you've put together a tremendous promotion package with a unique website for this memoir, and a lovely book trailer that beautifully represents the tone and focus of the memoir. It's your first trailer right? Tell us how it was created and where we can view it.

Susan: The trailer is on my website. It was created by Masha Holl (whom I met when I talked to the San Antonio romance writers), with audio work by Becca Taylor. The song Simple Gifts is my favorite melody and the words mean a very great deal to me. The photographs are from my collection of Meadow Knoll photos. There are other photos on the website, and the maps from the book (beautifully created by Molly O’Halloran) in color.

Dani: Thanks for joining us, Susan. Readers, if you have questions please leave them in the comments. Has anyone read the book already? What did you think of it? Here's the gorgeous cover:

And, of course, you can purchase the book, personalized and autographed by the author, by clicking here.
Dani Greer is a founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil, and this week, when she's not reading short story anthologies or blogging, you can find her in the kitchen making and canning applesauce.

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Designing the Memoir Cover

After I have come to understand, have intuited, as best I can, the person and the message and even the audience of the book, then it is time for me to think about the clothing of the cover. In fact, I do not design the cover until the interior is fully designed and, usually, not until the inside of the book is formatted and has been returned to the author or copyeditor for editing. By then I will have spent enough time with the book, with the person and message, to get a sense of what the clothing should be.

Sometimes the clothing should be strong and bold as the writing inside, even garish. Sometimes the clothing should be quiet and unassuming and yet so beautiful and pristine in its simplicity that it catches the attention of the passing reader who will want to pick it up. When I go into a bookstore, what catches my eye is what responds to the mood I am in when I am in the store. If I am in the mood for something quiet, I gravitate to a cover that is quiet. If I am in the mood for something bold and brash – which is rare – then I lean towards a cover that is something like that.

Often in memoirs the cover image is chosen by the author, or at least there is a sense of what it might be. With the Corcoran memoir, we deliberated on many photographs for the cover. The author absolutely wanted his brother Jack in the photograph, and he wanted one of him coming back from the war. We went through several different renditions of what this would be. We also wanted it to look like a photo album as there were over 60 photographs in the book.

In Vignettes the granddaughter wanted only a picture of the chest where she found the letters. It was very, very simple. The title was not even on the cover, only on the spine, but, because it would be given out only to family, this worked.

For Love Incarnate, the author wanted an image that felt energetically like Jesus to her.

By the time someone finishes reading a book, she or he will have been surrounded not only by the words but also by the cloak of the words – the design, images, and personality of both author and message. There is no formula for designing a book, but when it comes back from the printer, and you hold it in your hands, the initial vision of the author, the initial message, can be felt in this vessel that holds its words. This is the part I love the most!
Robin Brooks, owner of The Beauty of Books, has designed books for Viking Penguin, for the Waldorf Schools of North America, and for many private authors. After 31 years of overall graphic design, Robin shifted her focus last year so that she now only designs books. She designs memoirs, books on spirituality, art, and poetry. For more information or to contact Robin, please see her website.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Inside the Memoir Design

To me a book is like a person, especially a memoir. It is like a person’s spirit or soul. And the cover is like that person’s clothing or how that person is first seen in the world.

In designing a memoir, I always start with the inside because I want to get to know the person, or the story or message or personality or soul, first. I read as much as I can of the book. Sometimes all that’s necessary is a synopsis, along with a few chapters. Sometimes I need to read the whole book. But when I read, I listen with my entire being. I listen to who the person is who is writing and what he or she is writing about. I want to hear the nuances with my inner ear. Is the author someone who is out in the world in a very fast-paced way? Or writing from a place of solitude? Is the author extremely forceful, bold, aggressive? Or gentle, quiet-spoken, spending most of his or her time in a place in the clouds or in the river? What are the subtleties of the person who falls somewhere in between?

And what is the message? Is it a message to change my life or yours? Is it a message to lead you to better health, to more abundance? How will this book, this message or story, this passing on of vision, best be described – held – in a typeface, in the way that the type appears on the page? In the boldness, or in the quiet, or in the white space or in the lack of white space? How will this all be presented so that whoever the writer, whatever the message, these are immediately sensed even before reading the first words?

In terms of typeface, when people read books – even when I used to read books – if you showed me a book and compared it to another, all of the typefaces of the body text looked the same to me. Yet there are subtle differences that end up reflecting character. For the Corcoran family memoir, the man who wrote it – helped by a personal historian – comes across as strong and masculine, yet quiet. I chose Stempel Garamond which felt like that to me.

For Love Incarnate, basically a memoir about Jesus’ life as a man, I chose Perpetua which, I feel, has a feeling of the angelic world.

Vignettes is a collection of letters compiled by the granddaughter of a woman who travelled in her late teens through early twenties. Taking place in the early part of the twentieth century, this book is about a woman’s freedom in a time when women weren’t usually able to be this free. I chose Galliard which has the sense of an earlier time and of feminine strength.
The typeface for the chapter headings is very important. This treatment usually follows through to the title page and to the rest of the front matter.

I made the chapter headings in Love Incarnate as quiet as I could, as understated, with as much white space as possible because I wanted the ethereal to enter. With the Corcoran memoir, I chose a typeface that represented the 50’s and earlier, in order to reflect the time of the Depression and the Second World War. For Vignettes, I used a type in greyed italic that had a soft, Victorian lightness and boldness at the same time.

The next question is whether the chapter titles, as well as the other major design elements, will be centered, placed to the right or to the left. These, also, have to do with the book itself, with the author and the subject. For Vignettes, I made the chapter titles pushed to the right because she was breaking ground in what she was doing, and I wanted a sense of momentum, of movement. For the Corcoran memoir, about the Second World War and the Depression, I chose a centered placement because the book is solid and grounded and about family. For Love Incarnate I also chose a centered placement. I did not want anything to throw off the balance and the peace of the powerful messages within. All of these choices are made through intuition, rather than conscious decision-making.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about designing the cover of a memoir.
Robin Brooks, owner of The Beauty of Books, has designed books for Viking Penguin, for the Waldorf Schools of North America, and for many private authors. After 31 years of overall graphic design, Robin shifted her focus last year so that she now only designs books. She designs memoirs, books on spirituality, art, and poetry. For more information or to contact Robin, please see her website.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Memoir or Fiction?

Women who have unusual occupations or do out-of-the-ordinary things have always been a source of fascination to me.

Maybe it’s because I was raised as an independent self-reliant girl on an isolated eastern Montana ranch.

Or maybe because I had a grandmother who rode steers in rodeos during the 1920s.

For many years, I believed her story should be told. But she wasn’t a famous personality like Annie Oakley or Dale Evans, so who would be interested in publishing a biography about a little-known Montana cowgirl from the 1920s?

Still, because I was a journalist, at first I attempted to write non-fiction stories based on anecdotes my dad told me or newspaper clippings I found in a scrapbook my grandmother put together.

The stories were stilted, the characters wooden. I was frustrated. I knew these people. Why couldn’t I make them come alive on the page?

I finally realized I was too close to the subject. I couldn’t put words in my grandparents’ mouths. I didn’t know how they felt. I wished they were still alive so I could talk to them. But they weren’t.

So I changed my grandmother’s name and created a fictional character, Nettie Brady. I could still use Grandma’s experiences and combine them with stories about other cowgirls of that era. I could add conflict where it may not have existed in her real life, and I could add emotional reactions to make my character come alive.

But I still had some trouble. I wrote scenes that did nothing to move the plot forward, just “because it really happened that way.” I remember many spirited discussions with my critique group over these scenes, where one fellow writer accused me of writing “like a journalist.”

Well, I bristled, I AM a journalist!

I later realized that was her way of saying that I was “telling” rather than “showing.” Ah, so much to learn! I signed up for an extension program course in fiction writing through my local university. The theme refrain for this class and its critique groups was “Feelings.” After constant reminders: “What is she feeling here?” or “What does sad feel like?” I learned to show my character’s emotions through her actions and reactions, rather than telling my readers she was angry, or sad, or frustrated. (I still work on that with every draft I write!)

Many of us spend countless hours writing and rewriting a scene “because it’s true.” Or including long paragraphs of statistics, because it’s historical fact and “it’s interesting.”

But is the truth always interesting? Does it serve the action, the forward movement of the story? Does it develop your character into a living, breathing, feeling person that your readers can identify with?

Not always.

I found I had to give myself permission to “let go of the truth” to write a better story, a stronger character.

That did not mean giving up historical facts or even great anecdotes. But I needed to customize those facts and stories to fit my character and my plot. Did I need a half-page list of what items were available at the grocery store and what they cost in 1929? Isn’t it fascinating to compare to what things cost today? Yes, it is. But I only needed one or two items that were relevant to the story and important to the character in this particular scene to show this information.

In the first draft I had a great scene where Nettie and her father go to check on the school teacher after a bad blizzard to find that she’d run out of coal for the fire and was almost frozen to death. But was it relevant to the rest of the story? No, it was just an aside. Nettie was no longer attending school, the teacher was not a major character in the story, and I had plenty of great cold winter/blizzard stories already. I took it out. The story read just fine without it—better, in fact.

So, including information and scenes in your book just “because they’re true” does not necessarily make it a good story. It’s fiction, and you can take liberties with the truth to make it more interesting. That's why I chose to write a novel, rather than a biography or memoir.


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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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Welcome to Memoir Week

This week, we're taking a look at the subject of memoir writing. Hardly a day goes by that we don't hear of yet another celebrity tell-all book, and a quick Google search will bring up thousands of once-and-future life stories of the rich and famous. Memoirs are so hot that people are fabricating juicy ones just to get a slice of the publishing pie.

First let's quickly define a memoir. It isn't an autobiography in which a person details his life from birth until now. It's a portion of that story told less as straight fact, and more from the author's subjective view of events and aspects of their life. To that end, the creative possibilities are endless, and indeed many contemporary memoirs are as fascinating and thought-provoking as a well-written novel.

I first started thinking about memoir after answering an extensive questionnaire for the movie, Brats: Our Journey Home. Upon completion, I realized that not only did I have a tremendous word-count, but some interesting opinions and insights about a life that seemed very American, but actually had more diversity and foreign culture at its very core than most Americans could ever imagine. In short, there was a story in-the-making that might resonate with more people than just other military brats.

About the same time, I discovered the Story Circle Network, an organization started by novelist, Susan Wittig Albert, solely for the purpose of encouraging women to share their own unique stories, no matter how common or boring they might seem. Those stories through history were often verbal, or embedded in the feminine crafts, for history itself was ordinarily written by men. It was time women's "herstories" were documented with the written word and by women themselves.

I joined the national network and the on-line chapter as well. My first experience was with an on-line writing circle, and the Internet chapter's weekly prompts that helped guide the exploration of my own life. As time went on, I became more and more involved and interested in not only other memoirs, but my own life experience as well.

There are many other benefits in belonging to the Story Circle Network. The group offers a conference every two years, runs the largest book review site for women's publications, gives on-line classes in various writing-related topics, has a new editing service for memoirists, and a Yahoo!group for members to chat on a daily basis. Oh, and a fabulous blog, Telling Herstories: The Broad View. For women interested in writing down their life stories, this group offers support that would be tough to find anywhere else.

So what's in store for the rest of the week? Tomorrow our editor, Heidi Thomas, will discuss the reasons for turning a memoir into a piece of fiction, and then Robin Brooks of The Beauty of Books will explain what's involved in designing a memoir, inside and out. Later in the week, we'll talk with Susan Wittig Albert about how she came to start the Story Circle Network and chat a bit about her own memoir which was just published. We hope you'll join us every day.

What about the rest of you? Do you keep a daily journal? Have you considered writing your memoir or been approached by someone to help them write about their lives? Do you read memoirs and if so, what are some of your favorite titles? Leave us a comment.

Dani Greer is a founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil, and when she's not writing and illustrating children's stories, you can find her in the kitchen buried under countless zucchinis and other homegrown vegetables. Relish seems to be her specialty this year.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Don't Use a "Laundry List"

Really effective description doesn’t rely on the “laundry list” method. You know, what you often read in popular fiction when a character enters a room - a detailed listing of what the room looks like, or a physical description of a character. And just because some well-known and successful writers handle description that way, doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best way.

It’s one way, and perhaps the easiest way, but not the best way.

I learned to go for the best way of doing something when I was a kid. My father and I were fixing up an old bike, and it was my job to sand the frame for painting while he worked on the rest of it. I started with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, but it was hard, hard work and I soon tired of it. So the day I presented the frame to him for painting, he noted the spots of rust that I had ignored. He said we could paint it that way if I wanted to, but the paint would probably flake off. If I wanted a really good paint job on my bike, I should take the time to prep the frame properly.

He didn’t force the issue; he just presented the facts and let me chose for myself.

That lesson has served me well in a lot of ways, and I think of that bike every time I am working on a second draft of a novel and I’m tempted to let those easy, first-draft efforts stay. “Readers will certainly skim over the so-so writing,” I tell myself. “They’ll be so caught up in the story they won’t mind.”

Well, readers do mind. Sure they might skim over the laundry lists because the story and the characters are compelling – I do that every time I read Jonathan Kellerman – but that doesn’t mean readers like to do that. It may even catch them up for a moment and pull them out of the story.

If I am going to catch up a reader and make them pause, I’d rather do it because of a particularly nice piece of writing, like this from Dark Horse by Craig Johnson: “I took a swig from the canteen. It tasted like a Civil War mud puddle.”

He could have written: “I took a swig from the canteen. The water was foul and nasty tasting.” That would have gotten the job done, and isn’t bad writing at all. But writing it the way he did made a stronger impact on my senses, which is what we want our descriptions to do to connect to the readers.


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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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Keeping the Story Straight

People may think editors are a little too anal, nit-picking over the smallest detail, but sometimes that smallest detail, when it’s wrong, can jerk the reader right out of the story, and that’s the last thing an author would want to happen.

One of the details editors look for is continuity, making sure that the time-line is correct and making sure that an object or a person is properly introduced. You don’t want a character to pick up a gun that was never on the table.

In filming, there is a person who carefully notes what is in a scene, where items and people are, what characters are wearing, etc, so if that scene has to be re-shot, everything will be in the right place. That person also watches the time line, making sure that costume and set changes are made when time has passed in the story.

For novels, it is part of the editor’s job to watch that time line and make sure everything and everybody is in the right place at the right time. But sometimes that doesn’t happen.

For instance, I’ve been reading a wonderful book, Black Water Rising, a debut novel from Attica Locke. The book was published by Harper Collins, so I assumed it had been gone over with that proverbial fine-tooth comb by an editor and a copy editor, and then proofed again by the author. It may have been, but they still missed a few glaring continuity problems.

The latest, which prompted this post, occurred when the central character talks to a woman at a diner. He is asking her how to find a man he’s looking for. She tells him where the man lives and gives him directions to the house. Never is the woman named in this scene, but in the next scene, when the man is driving, he is mentally going over the directions “Wanda” gave him.

That stopped me, and I went back to read the previous scene again, thinking maybe I missed her name, but no. It wasn’t given. So here I am writing a post and not reading any more of the book right now. Which doesn’t mean I won’t finish it. It really is a good book with engaging characters and a strong plot, but part of me wishes the editing had been more thorough so I wasn’t pulled out of the story.


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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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Everyone Needs An Editor

Sometimes I wonder how I ever managed to communicate all those years before my kids came along to edit my conversations. There was no one around to keep the record straight and bail me out of the perpetual state of chaos and confusion they were convinced I lived in.

"Last Monday, when I went shopping —"

"That wasn't Monday, that was Sunday."

"Okay, so it was Sunday. Anyway, I bought six Twinkies-- "

"No you didn't. You only bought five."

“I distinctly remember buying six Twinkies."

"That was two weeks ago on Tuesday—"

"Okay, stop. I don't really care what day it was. Who ate my Twinkie?"

If they truly cared about the state of my mind, they would have realized that my mind was in fairly decent shape before they started messing with it.

At least I knew where my Twinkies were.

It became a major undertaking for me to carry on a conversation with a friend over coffee, without having one or more of the kids run into the kitchen to remind me that I was not relating an incident exactly the way it happened.

"You did not send me to Grandma's by parcel post."

"I didn't say I sent you, I said I wanted to send you parcel post:"


"Because I wasn't looking forward to a long car drive with a thirteen year old all."

"I don't know where you ever got that idea."

If I commented that my house looks like the Ninth Infantry just marched through it, a friend totally understand and overlooked the minor exaggeration, but the kids had to know why I didn’t call them to see the parade. They just had no appreciation for the subtleties of exaggeration, and by the time they finished correcting me, they’d wrung all the humor out of a story and it had about as much appeal as a limp dishrag.

I was always thankful that they didn’t work for the newspaper that ran my columns.


Maryann Miller started her professional career writing a humor column for a suburban Dallas newspaper where a version of this piece was first published. She is now the Managing Editor of and also does freelance editing, all without help from her children. Her latest novels are One Small Victory and Play It Again, Sam.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Choosing the Right Editor

Is the pen mightier than the sword? In some cases, perhaps, but when preparing a manuscript for publication, the pen and the sword form an alliance: the author who pens the work and the editor who wields the sword — trimming, shaping, and sharpening the piece into a work of art. Together they form a powerful team that can sculpt a mediocre manuscript into a masterpiece.

Not all editors are equally competent. Neither are all competent editors equally qualified in all genres. Yet, all writers require a good editor. The guidelines below will help match you, the writer, with the right editor.

To begin the selection process, ask questions. In what genres does the editor work? How long has he/she been editing? What educational or background experience qualifies the person as a professional editor? How have edited manuscripts been received by agents, publishers, and/or reviewers? Have any edited works won awards or other recognition?

Request references. A good editor will be glad to share names of clients or letters of recommendation. Be sure to contact the writers whose names you are given. Ask what kind of feedback they received from readers and professionals in the publishing field. Inquire about how the editor was to work with. Did he/she explain the reasons for suggested changes? Did the author’s writing skills improve from working with the editor?

Talk to others in your writers group. Have any of them used an editor? If so, were they satisfied with the performance? Did the editor help the writer place the manuscript or offer alternative publishing suggestions?

Ask for a work sample. Submit two or three pages of your manuscript for a free sample edit. Compare the edited pages to your original, checking hook, development, flow, readability, dialogue, grammar, etc. If you aren’t sure about the grammar, ask a qualified friend or an English teacher at a local high school or college. No edit is perfect, but grammatical errors should be minimal, even in a sample.

Evaluate compatibility. Talk with the editor. Share your writing concerns and your goals. Listen to the responses. Discuss the editor’s approach and accessibility. Your manuscript deserves a great edit. If you have a personality conflict with the editor – or you don’t see eye to eye in any area – you won’t maximize the potential of your book.

Editing is an essential part of preparing your manuscript for publication, but it also represents a significant financial investment. A typical edit will cost hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of dollars. Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

As a writer, you put heart and soul into your manuscript. Validate your hard work by having it edited. But make sure the editor you choose is competent, qualified, and the right person to do your job.
Linda Lane is a writer, editor, and publisher. Two manuscripts she edited have won national awards. She offers writing and editing workshops with the goal of encouraging excellence in the publishing field. Her latest novel, Treacherous Tango, will be released this summer.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Editors, Editors, and More Editors

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Getting an editor to read and polish your manuscript sounds easy enough. Just call (or e-mail) one, agree on price, send your work, and wait for it to come back buffed into a bestseller. If only it were that simple.

Before addressing the editor issue, however, you need to know your genre and, by extension, your intended audience. Editors — like doctors, lawyers, and a number of other professionals — specialize. For example, a top-notch mystery editor may be a real dud when it comes to nonfiction. And the ability to hone a romance into a reader’s delight assures neither the editor’s interest nor skills to make science fiction shine.

Next, determine what kind of editor will do the best job on your manuscript. Do you need a developmental editor? Content or substantive editor? How about a copy editor? Technical editor? Line editor? Proofreader? More than one of the above? And why so many? Every book contains numerous elements that may need a professional touch. Let’s look at your manuscript through the eyes of different editors.

A developmental editor helps you create and organize content from the outset of the writing to the end of your book. He or she may also offer format suggestions, alter sentence and paragraph location to facilitate flow, and shape content to meet the needs of your intended audience. Extraneous or redundant material will be eliminated, and the addition of new material may be suggested. The table of contents falls within this editor’s scope. Research may be urged (a biggie if you want your work to be credible—whether fiction or nonfiction). The developmental editor may even rewrite portions of your book that seem ambiguous or incomplete.

Content and substantive editors address organization, too, but from the perspectives of structure, plot, logical flow, style, content, and characterization. Some material may be eliminated and chapters or scenes rewritten. He or she will point out inconsistencies in plotting and characterization and suggest ways to overcome these flaws. Footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies, if included, receive attention.

The work of copy editors and line editors often overlaps. They address word choices, capitalization, and consistent usage, as well as suggest ways to smooth, clarify, and tighten content to maximize your book’s strengths. Spelling and grammar errors are noted and corrected.

A technical editor, often an expert in your topic, checks the accuracy of technical information and terminology.

The importance of proofreading must never be underestimated. This final edit focuses on punctuation, typos and spelling errors, awkward structures, misplaced or dangling modifiers, and any other flaws that may have been overlooked during prior edits. The proofreader applies the final polish to your finished manuscript that then qualifies for submission to an agent or publisher.

Can’t you do your own editing if you possess the skills? No. You are too close to your work to see its weaknesses, ambiguities, and errors. Even those who edit other writers’ works need editors for their manuscripts. Keep in mind, though, that self-editing before you hire an editor saves both time and money. (Review Morgan Mandel's and Patricia Stoltey’s posts on self-editing.)

You’re now ready to use the information above, determine the kind of editor needed, interview those who meet your requirements, and choose one who not only is right for your book, but also is right for you . . . but that’s another topic—choosing the right editor in your genre.
Linda Lane writes, edits, and publishes books. Her latest novel, Treacherous Tango, will be released this summer. To make powerful editing available and affordable, she has partnered with two other editors to provide fast, thorough, professional, and comprehensive editing services to those on limited budgets.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tackling the Task of Self-Critiquing

By now you have hopefully begun to develop an objective, and positive, attitude towards your own writing. You're ready to give yourself a critique. This is a valuable self-assessment that will show you whether your work is ready for an editor, or whether it first needs some more work.

Start your self-assessment with a straight read through from beginning to end, as if you're reading any other novel - but keep a notebook or computer file open at hand for your notes. Make brief corrections if you spot them, and make quick notes if you think of something to change or check, and also record your thoughts about the plot and characters as you're reading. Most important for your own self esteem is to make a comment whenever you really like something. These points can help later on if you become overly critical.

Revising and rewriting

After the first reading comes the revision phase. Think about the word "re-vision" in this context: to view again, but also to reassess your vision for your manuscript. What was your original vision for the story? Has that changed? Do you need to get your story back to what you originally envisioned, or do you need to incorporate some great improvements that you've come up with since the planning phase?


While you should correct basic errors you spot while reading through your manuscript, intensive proofreading should be your final task. After all, you don't want to waste your time proofreading text you might delete, or forget to proofread a new section you might insert afterward.

Give yourself another few weeks away from your revised manuscript before you tackle this stage. Then read through your work very carefully, looking up any word you're not sure about for correct spelling and usage. Challenge yourself on any clich├ęs that you find, and on overused and excessive modifiers.

Many word processing programs like MS Word have features for Tracking the Changes you make (in Word: Tools, Track Changes). You can see the changes you've made, read versions of your altered manuscript, and also compare documents. These features may or may not work for you, but it's worth experimenting with different options.

Also in this series:
-- How to Critique Your Own Manuscript
-- Developing a "Critical" Mindset
-- Basic Proofreading Tips

And Patricia Stoltey has more great tips coming up to help you with the self-editing process...

Elsa Neal Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. In her experience with reading and critiquing manuscripts, she's picked up the most common errors that many writers seem to make. Read her list of the Top Ten Mistakes Writers Make at her website. Stay and browse through her resources for writers or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Developing a "Critical" Mindset

Yesterday we started looking at self-critiquing and finding the balance between being too harsh a (self) critic and being too lenient. So how do you develop an objective approach to critiquing and editing?

First, let's look at what it means to "critique".

The words "critical" and "criticism" sometimes have negative connotations, and by extension, so does the word "critique". Some people prefer to use words like "review", "comment", "assess", "appraise", or "report on" when they talk about critiquing, to soften the "criticism" aspect of it. Bear these alternative terms in mind when you look at your own work, as a different word can sometimes alter your perspective a little.

Critiquing a manuscript involves a number of aspects, some of which are opposites. These include checking for errors such as spelling, typos, and factual or continuity mistakes; checking for word usage - anything that jars you as you read; and also reading for enjoyment - this is where you note your impressions pretending you're a "reader" reading the passage for the first time.

In many instances you can critique more effectively by reading the text more than once, splitting opposing tasks into separate sessions. For example, it can be difficult to cover tasks such as checking for errors in the same session as reading the text to find the parts that you enjoy the most.

Distancing Yourself

Ideally, you need to distance yourself from your text as much as possible. The best way to do this is to put the manuscript aside for as long as you can - several weeks if possible. Try not to think about the story and characters while your work is "on ice".

When you're ready to read avoid thinking of the story as yours; this is where time invested in critiquing other authors will help to bring your objectivity into your own assessment.

Also in this series:
-- How to Critique Your Own Manuscript
-- Tackling the Task of Self-Critiquing

Elsa Neal Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. In her experience with reading and critiquing manuscripts, she's picked up the most common errors that many writers seem to make. Read her list of the Top Ten Mistakes Writers Make at her website. Stay and browse through her resources for writers or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

How to Critique Your Own Manuscript

Self-critiquing is a very valuable skill to develop. Proofreading your manuscript before sending it to another editor has huge benefits in terms of freeing your editor to work on the content of your manuscript rather than having to spend much of the time allocated correcting your errors. But you also need to be able to judge your own story for continuity, clarity, and quality.

However it's also very difficult to think neutrally about something you've written yourself. Many writers fall into one of two groups when re-reading their manuscript: either being too soft on their flaws and thinking everything they've put down on paper is perfect as it is; or being overly critical, sometimes to the point of deleting much of their work in frustration.

Finding a balance is important, because there's little point trying to edit your own work if you're not viewing it from a clear and honest perspective. Thankfully, critical reading, even of your own work, can improve with practice.

It can help to join a critique group and practice on other writers’ manuscripts first. You will learn to develop the tact that you need and also learn how to explain your reactions to a story. This objectivity will flow over into your own work and make it easier to distance yourself.

Also, remember that everyone needs a second opinion. Your self-critique doesn’t have to be perfect, but it can be a useful way of seeing where you need help and determining what questions you need to ask your editor.

In upcoming posts we look at how to approach a critique, and some tips to make it an easier process.

-- Developing a "Critical" Mindset
-- Tackling the Task of Self-Critiquing
-- Brush up on Self-Editing

Elsa Neal Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. In her experience with reading and critiquing manuscripts, she's picked up the most common errors that many writers seem to make. Read her list of the Top Ten Mistakes Writers Make at her website. Stay and browse through her resources for writers or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

A Litttle Compitition Never Hurts

When I first admitted to my family at large that there was more to the hours I spent at the typewriter than a desire to improve my typing skills, my kids stood in awe of me.

“A writer? Really? Like books ‘n stuff?”

(I knew if I kept trying, I’d eventually earn their respect.)

But over the years, that glow of admiration waned. They were no longer so quick to tell their friends that I’m a writer, and the only time they asked for my autograph was when they needed a detention slip signed.

I suspected that they were starting to take me for granted, but that wasn’t the worse part of my fall from fame. They started thinking that anything I could do, they could do better.

“If you don’t watch out,” my oldest daughter told me one day, “I’ll write a book about what a rotten mother you are. It might even get published before your book does.”

I decided she should enroll in Tact 101 the next year in school.

Then my son brought his autobiography home from school and asked me where he should submit if for publication.

The final insult, however, came from my youngest daughter when she was in first grade. She came into my office one day after school, bearing her latest creation with pride, and informed me she was going to be a writer. “Just like you, Mom.”

The following is her story, word for word:

“You could tell they didn’t expect to meet a dinosaur with a boy on his back running down the street. At our door. My dinosaur stopped at the mat and carefully wiped his feet. I thought that was that (stet) But then what did he do? He took three steps. THE END


Maryann Miller started her professional career writing a humor column for a suburban Dallas newspaper where a version of this piece was first published. She is now the Managing Editor of and also does freelance editing. Her latest novels are One Small Victory and Play It Again, Sam.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Academic Essay 3 - Importance of Body Development and Transitions

An essential component of an essay is its body paragraphs. Without them, you have a great opinion that falls gracelessly to the ground because it lacks support.

Body paragraphs (and truly every paragraph in an essay) should be unified, coherent, and well developed.

When a paragraph is unified, every sentence in that paragraph supports the essay's thesis.

When a paragraph is coherent, every sentence in that paragraph is presented logically and is arranged in a way that provides strong transitional flow, and again, supports the thesis and overall development of the essay.

When a paragraph is well-developed, evidence and details are provided as concrete, visual proof that supports your thesis.

To have a strong body paragraph that is unified, coherent, and well-developed, you must do four things:
  1. Write a topic sentence that illustrates the paragraph’s (or paragraphs') purpose.
  2. Supply concrete and specific details and examples to explain generalities and support your essay's thesis.
  3. Close the paragraph in a way that restates the topic sentence and ties the paragraph back to the essay's thesis.
  4. Have transitions that make for smooth reading within a paragraph as well as between paragraphs.

Topic Sentence
The topic sentence is typically the first sentence in a paragraph, and it introduces the paragraph's main idea. Topic sentences are, essentially, “mini-theses.” The thesis tells the reader what the essay's main purpose is, and a topic sentence tells the reader what each body section's purpose is.

Supporting Sentences
Supporting sentences come after the topic sentence and make up the body of the paragraph. Supporting sentences give details and evidence that develop and support the topic sentence. Facts, details, and examples are ways to add support to a paragraph.

Closing Sentence
The last sentence of a paragraph (or set of paragraphs - a body section) should summarize the main idea of your paragraph. You want to make sure not to copy/paste your topic sentence as your closing sentence.

By doing the above three, creating a topic sentence, supporting the topic sentence with details, and adding a closing sentence, you will have a self-contained paragraph (or body section).

To supply movement within paragraphs and between paragraphs, you must use transitions. Without transitions, an essay is jarring to read and may cause confusion to your reader.

Below is a list of transitions and connectors that are often used to achieve a smooth read for a reader. These words, depending on the type of essay you are writing, can indicate order, chronology, degrees of emphasis, spatial order, and more.


Addition: again, also, even more important, finally, first, further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, in the second place, last, likewise, next second, third, too.

Alternative: and then, besides, moreover, nor, or.

Cause/Effect: accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for, hence, so, then, therefore, thereupon, thus.

Comparison: in like manner, likewise, similarly.

Contrast: although this may be true, and yet, at the same time, but, conversely, even so, however, in contrast, nevertheless, notwithstanding, on the contrary, on the other hand, or, otherwise, still, yet.

Exemplification: for example, for instance, in the case of, to see, to show, to understand.

Intensification: in fact, indeed, to tell the truth.

Place: adjacent to, beyond, here, nearby, next to, on the opposite side, opposite to.

Purpose: for that reason, for this purpose, in order to, to this end, with this object.

Repetition: as has been noted, as I have said, in other words, that is, to be sure.

Summary: in any event, in brief, in short, in sum, on the whole, to sum up.

Time: after a few days, afterward, at length, in the meantime, in the past, later, meanwhile, now, soon, then, while.

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!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Academic Essays 2 - Importance of Introductions and Conclusions

First impressions can make or break you; the same holds true for your introduction.

At the very onset of your essay, you must draw the reader in - into your topic, into your style, and into your purpose (their reason for reading) - in a way that makes them one to continue reading.

Some of the weakest introductions start off, "In this essay, I will examine." While some courses might suggest this way of starting an essay or even starting your thesis, it doesn't draw a reader into the piece.

We can draw a reader in by...
  • starting with an anecdote. We all love stories - telling and hearing them. If there is an anecdote that ties into your essay's topic, use that to begin your introduction.
  • starting with a quote. I had a student last year who loved quotes, and no matter the essay topic, she had a knack for finding the most perfect quote to start her introductions. If there is a quote that resonates your topic or your opinion of your topic or that sets the tone for the essay, definitely use it. Keep in mind, the quote doesn't act as your introduction; it merely begins it.
  • starting with a question. It's almost innate for us to answer a question, even when it's not directed toward us. What question does your essay answer? Develop that question and start your introduction with it. It will alert the reader's mind and activate him/her to keep reading.
  • starting with a fact. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who will argue a fact. And a strong, startling fact can give readers a wake up call that will keep them reading.

The point is the introduction of an academic essay does not have to be boring; in fact, you will lose a reader if you are boring.

The introduction invites readers into your work. The body presents all the bells and whistles that support that invitation. The conclusion tells them why it was important to come along for the ride.

As stated in the first post, I've had students who cut and pasted introductions into conclusions. A conclusion does more than simply restate the thesis or summarize the body. A conclusion, in a way, puts what's been written into the hands of the reader; it gives them the option to take the information and make it theirs. For example, in an essay that explores the effects of divorce on children, a conclusion might offer suggestions on how to keep a marriage strong and intact to avoid divorce and its ramifications. An essay that explains why it's important to be a part and have a voice in the political world might conclude with ways in which a person can get involved. An essay on the types of losers a woman might meet in the dating world can conclude by showing what NOT to do to avoid meeting these "losers."

The point is a conclusion shifts the power from the writer to the reader. The conclusion propels a reader to think, to feel, and to act.

So, for you the writer, you need to ask yourself, "Why would someone read this essay?" "What do I want a reader to do with this information?" Finding answers to these questions will help you develop a conclusion that closes out the essay and evokes a thought, feeling, or action from your reader.
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.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Academic Essays 1 - Components of an Academic Essay

For the last eight years, I have taught English composition to hundreds of students who range in age from 17 to 67. No student is exempt from having to take it - much to their chagrin.

What I want to do in the next several posts is offer mini-lectures that I typically give to my students that first week of school when I talk about what an essay is and how to develop a good one.

An essay, in its simplest form, is a paper that does two things: states a purpose and supports that purpose with clear, vivid details and examples. Of course, your mastery of the English language and of style can take those two things and develop an essay that either moves readers into action or does just enough to get you a C.

First, an essay must serve a purpose.

Traditionally, there are four purposes in essay writing:
  • to inform - very important in academic writing because no matter what class a student takes, he/she will be asked to explain, to illustrate things.
  • to persuade - another important purpose in academic writing; students (and people in general) should be able to argue a point using logical reasoning.
  • to express - we see this more in journal writing, in creative non-fiction; it's the expression of feelings.
  • to entertain - again, we see this more outside of academic writing and more in works with a creative quality.

Once you have your topic and have figured out your essay's purpose, you need to know the must-have components for any academic essay:

1- Introduction - something that engages readers about your topic and makes them want to continue reading.

2- Thesis - usually seen at the end of the introduction, the thesis expresses two things: the essay's topic and the writer's overall thought on that topic.

This is your argument, and as such, it has to be something that can be ARGUED, i.e., an opinion. FACTS are not good theses; where is there to go once you've stated a fact?

3- Body Paragraphs - The body of an essay is where you SHOW support for your argument, your thesis. Clear points need to be established, support of those points need to be developed, and connection to the essay's overall idea needs to be stated. Within the body section of an essay, you will find three important components: topic sentences, support sentences, and closing sentences. These will be discussed more in an upcoming post on body development. Here, I'll mention this - topic, support, and closing sentences are what give body paragraphs points, support, and connection to essay's overall idea.

4- Conclusion - something that closes the essay without simply repeating what's already been stated. In the worst essays, I've had students who literally cut and pasted parts of their introduction into their conclusion. BIG no no. A conclusion should make a reader feel something, think something, or do something.

In post two on academic essays, I'll dig deeper and talk about the importance of introductions and conclusions.

In post three, I will look at the importance of body development and transitions.

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!