Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Goals for The New Year

A number of years ago I belonged to a writers' group that was a wonderful source of good critiques and strong support. It was a mix of published and unpublished writers, but no matter what side of the fence any one stood on, the dedication to writing was the same.

One of the things we always did at our annual Holiday party was to write down three writing-related goals for the coming year. The goals had to be specific and significant, like finishing a work in progress, acquiring an agent, or selling a book. We would all write down our goals, then put the papers in an envelope that was sealed to be opened the following year. Then we would open the envelope from the year before.

It was always interesting and enlightening to read what we had written and report on how well we had achieved those goals. Some of us did much better than others, but I found that writing the goals down, knowing they would be shared in 12 months, made me work harder toward achieving them.

I haven't done that in a long time. Not since leaving that group almost ten years ago, and I think it is time I do a version of it again to help me stay focused on three specific goals. Maybe I will ask another writer who lives near me to do the same and exchange sealed envelopes.

What about you? Is there something you do to help stay focused and motivated?

Maryann Miller is the Managing Editor of, an online community magazine. She also does freelance book editing when not writing her own novels. Check out her books and editing services on her Web site

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ancient Perils of Writing

I recently came across some old columns I’d written for a suburban newspaper. Here is one that any writer over fifty may be able to relate to. Younger folks will have to do a Google search to find a picture of a typewriter so they can know what it is that I wrote about oh those many years ago…..

What is it that a writer dreads more than rejection slips or writer's block? The death of a typewriter.

Without his typewriter, a writer is like a salesman without his pitch, or Tolstoy without his inkwell. Handwritten manuscripts were acceptable in his day, but modern editors frown on them. Especially such handwriting as mine that falls somewhere between chicken scratchings and hieroglyphics.

So you will imagine my dismay as my trusty old Smith Corona started her demise. (Or should that be his demise?)

It began with one or two minor problems. The key that would occasionally stick. I could live with that minor inconvenience. After all, how many times do you use the x key?

Then the shift button came loose. Again, just a minor problem. The only time it would actually come off is at the speed of 90 wpm, and at my best I can barely break 60.

Then the line spacer started going wacky. Sometimes, toward the end of a page it wouldn't give me a new line. Okay, it wants to be difficult, I can white-over the spaces I typed on twice and start a new page. But then the line spacer decided to play more tricks on me by stopping in the middle of a page, or by giving me random spacing.

This has all been going on over a period of a few months, and I've been nursing the poor thing along, hoping to eek out a few more pages before I have to mortgage one of my kids for a word processor.

But one day recently, my machine had a major attack. It whined. It groaned. It fizzled and fumed. And then 10 keys all jumped' up at once, paused, and then started slowly sliding down the page.

Obviously, the machine was in its death throes and I immediately started administering emergency treatment. A little oil here and a little oil there. Tape this wire back together, and it wouldn't hurt to clean it out a little. All I need is one more spark of life to get me through this page.

I've always believed if you treat a machine right it will come through for you in the stretch, and mine gave me one more gasping breath. But I think it may be very temporary.

When I finished my page, the machine kept going on its own: PROMISE ME YOU'LL GET ME A NICE PLOT IN FOREST LAWN…


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play It Again, Sam.

Maryann Miller

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Dialogue Interruptus

Interruption can add needed conflict to a scene; many authors have an intuitive sense of this. Your character is in a cozy restaurant booth with her beloved, wrapped up in the moment, leaning forward to hear words he can only manage to whisper. Tension is building toward that question that will change her life forever—

—when the waiter comes to take her order. He’s a chatty friend from her high school days who dredges up old conflict. Try as they might, once the waiter leaves the couple cannot re-establish the mood. The question will have to be delayed for another time, and the reader can’t wait for it to happen.

A few technical problems can ruin the reader’s experience, however, so authors take note.

A common mistake is to use an ellipsis (…) interchangeably with an em-dash (—). These punctuation marks have different functions. Use an ellipsis if you want your character to drift off in thought. Interruption is better suited to the em-dash, as its slash rips your character from her train of thought:
For weeks Janice had suffered her father’s mocking tone as she revised her manuscript; she would ask her creative writing professor that day if he thought her short story was ready for publication. As Mr. Smith droned on about researching markets, she daydreamed that an agent would read it in The New Yorker and ask if she had a novel ready…

“Any questions?”

Janice thrust her hand into the air. “Do you think my story is good—”

The bell rang. Students stood, slammed books, grabbed jackets, and headed for the door. By the time they cleared the room, Mr. Smith was gone.

We know why Janice needs validation and we are eager to know if she gets it from Mr. Smith, creating tension that will keep us turning pages until Janice and Mr. Smith are once again in the same scene. And if Mr. Smith cannot provide that validation, and Janice must dig deeper and find it within herself? All the better for your story. I would not suggest another interruption, however, as your reader is sensitive to being toyed with.

A word of caution: don’t bloat the dialogue at the point of interruption. In the example above, that might have looked like this:
Janice thrust her hand into the air. “Mr. Smith, I was wondering. Do you think that maybe—“ [sic]
This is not nearly as effective as letting the interruption rip right through the meat of the dialogue. Keep such concision in mind if you have a group of people talking, each interrupting the other; otherwise, a scene whose interruptions could have created tension through constant shifts of conversational power will be rendered pointless. Make sure each snippet of dialogue contains words that move the story forward in some way.

Which brings me to one last technical problem. See the quotation marks after the em-dash in that last example, noted at [sic] above? They look like “6s” instead of “9s.” Because Microsoft Word perceives the em-dash as terminal punctuation, you will have to force the quotation marks that follow to behave. On a Mac you can press “shift + option + [“ to force end quotes; maybe our PC readers could post a comment as to the best way for Windows users to do this. You can always type the end quotes and then go back and insert the em-dash before them. But whatever the method, do it before you submit to add a professional polish to your manuscript.

[Note by Elsa Neal: To force closing quotation marks in MS Word (PC) hold down the Control Key, press ' then hold down the Control and Shift key and press " (i.e., Control apostrophe Control Shift double quote)]

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, a manuscript evaluation, line editing, and writer support service. As one of five children competing for her parents' attention at dinner, she studied dialogue interruptus at an early age.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

A Holiday Wish


Happy Holidays to all our faithful readers from the members of The Blood Red Pencil blog. We appreciate your loyal following and the great comments that have led to some beneficial discussions. We all truly learn from each other and you have proven that point through your responses.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, may it be filled with good times, good friends, good food, and special moments.


Posted by Maryann Miller on behalf of all the contributors.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Some Christmas Fun

Tis the day before Christmas and all is not done,

Things on the “to do” list number a million and one.

There are cookies to cut while the oven is hot,

And a gift for Aunt Mildred. Egad! I forgot.

There are presents to measure, to balance and wrap,

If the stacks are not even the kids will know in a snap.

The turkey is snug in the freezer so cold,

Will anyone notice if I put dinner on hold?

Tis the day to test stamina, courage, and brawn,

The survivors are heroes at next morning’s dawn.

Just when I thought I was running out of time

A stranger appeared with a smile so sublime.

He was dressed all in silver from his head to his toe.

And I blinked my eyes twice to see if he would go.

He patted my shoulder and gave me a latte,

“Your’re almost there,” he said. “The rest will be easy.

“Don’t worry, don’t fret, don’t get in a frazzle,

Together we’ll do it with narry a hassle.

I’ll hang the tinsel and check all the lights,

You bathe the children and kiss them goodnight.”

The kids were all tucked in their beds nice and warm.

(A threat to their presents always works like a charm.)

I’d finally decided, of course. It’s a dream.

That’s a mirage on my sofa eating toffee ice cream.

I was amazed at the picture that greeted my eyes,

My living room looked like Currier and Ives.

The stockings were stuffed, and so was the bird,

What magic he used was beyond any word.

He smacked his lips, gave a sly little wink,

“It’s time I was off to help other, I think.”

He twirled around once, then three time and more,

And in a twinkling was headed out my front door.

There’s no doubt about it; it was love at first sight,

For that stranger who saved me on Christmas Eve night.

No matter his name, he was really such a dear.

I wonder, will he return again in another year?

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, Good Cheer!


Posted by Maryann Miller who is still baking cookies and wrapping gifts.
Maryann's Web site

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Spoiled Milk by Morgan Mandel

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Not long ago, as I swallowed a swig of milk at lunch, I realized it was sour. Since I was almost through with my meal, I didn't request an exchange. What I did was go to the cashier and ask for a refund. She recognized me as a regular customer, so I had no problem. Still, the experience left me unsettled and wondering if I'd get sick.

To make an analogy, it's kind of like picking up a book written by a favorite author, starting to read it, then discovering it's not what you expected. In fact, it's so bad, you don't want to finish reading. That kind of experience can make you swear off an author for good.

Maybe you've learned more about writing since you became a fan of that author. Perhaps the author became careless, riding the tide and pumping out books just for the bucks, instead of the craft. There are lots of ways to make readers disappointed in books.

What about you? Have you ever been disappointed by a favorite author? Or, a book that looked good, but turned out mediocre or worse? Please share.
Morgan Mandel
Latest Release - Killer Career

Monday, December 21, 2009

More Plotting Tips From Down at the Mule Barn

Slim Randles is a syndicated columnist and author, and his work is featured on the online community magazine where I am Managing Editor. Back in November he introduced us to the unique plotting techniques of a country boy, Dud. Here is a follow up, just in case you were wondering how the story of the duchess and the truck driver is coming along ...

Anita Campbell watched as her husband, Dud, quietly built a fire in the fireplace. She was still a fairly new bride, but she had learned at least this much of his body language by now, and fixed two cups of coffee. Fire, coffee, evening equals serious talk.

“It was us getting married that did it,” he said, finally. “I want you to know I’m really happy being married to you.”

“Well thank you, sir,” she said, smiling, “but our marriage did what, exactly?”
“Got me thinking about the book.”

Oh, the book. “Murder in the Soggy Bottoms,” which Doc said sounded like a young mother with too many diapers. The rest of the local world referred to his book as “The Duchess and the Truck Driver.”

“What about the book, Hon?” she asked.

“Maybe I should tone down the murders and put more love in it. I mean, after all, the duchess and the truck driver had a dukelet together, even though the truck driver doesn’t know it and he married someone back home and had a daughter, and his wife died in childbirth, and the daughter wants to marry the dukelet because she doesn’t know he’s her half brother, and the dukelet likes her, too. So instead of their parents being murdered, what if they get together again?”

Anita sipped her coffee and smiled. “I’ve always liked love stories better than murder mysteries, myself.”

“But you see, I have all these murders … I’m down to just six of them throughout the book. So if I have a happy ending for the duchess and the truck driver, that cuts me back to just four murders, and then I’ll have to figure out if they’ll live in her castle just outside Budapest, or at his place back home. Then I’ll have to figure out who killed those other people before I get to the end of the book because I can’t have it be the same guy as before because that would wreck the romance, you see.”

“I know you’ll figure it out, Dud,” she said, putting her arm around him.

The strain of the creative demon in him showed plainly in his furrowed brow. It used to be so easy to just do his job and come home each night, but literature makes a guy’s brain hurt.


Brought to you by “Sun Dog Days,” Slim’s latest novel. Available at Slim Randles Web site

Posted by Maryann Miller who is so thankful that Slim shares his wit and wisdom with the readers of Visit Maryann's Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: One Final Chore

For those writers who will be sending manuscripts electronically at any time during the submission or publication process, there is one more little housekeeping chore to be done: eliminate extra spaces and other formatting errors inadvertently added to the manuscript.

On your Microsoft Word toolbar there is an icon that looks like the editing symbol for new paragraphs. If you click on that icon, your text will indicate spaces in your work as dots. You may have a perfectly formatted manuscript, but if you are an old-style typist like me, you’ll probably find a lot of extra spaces at the end of paragraphs and sometimes at the end of sentences within paragraphs.

Since many manuscripts are now submitted electronically, and publishers/editors often require print-ready formatting from the authors at some point in the process, it’s wise to add this step to your self-editing procedures.

If your publisher wants one space after a period instead of two (common when using fonts other than Courier New), first use the Find/Replace function to search out two spaces and replace with one.

After that, check every page of the manuscript and eliminate extra spaces, being careful not to delete periods. Click on the icon again to hide the formatting symbols.

Note that page breaks, hidden text, paragraph, and indent or tab characters will also be visible and may be added, corrected, or deleted in this final editing step.

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.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hopelessly Devoted to Grammar

In yesterday's post, Patricia mentioned Grammar Girl who is also known to us as Mignon Fogarty. Let me get straight to the point: I worship at this woman's feet.

Okay, perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but not much. Since I first discovered the site and the book, Grammar Girl's Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing, I've become a loyal fan. This book sits on my bookshelf along with my favorite dictionaries, thesaurus, and other reference books I use to edit. I've signed up to get a tip in my mailbox every day (and read them, too, unlike so many other bits of email that end up in the virtual trash can), and if ever I have a question that truly stumps me, Mignon is the person who springs to mind - she of the final and absolutely correct answers.

If that isn't enough to convince, you can listen to the podcasts, buy a cool mug or tee shirt, even holiday greeting cards. Add to that iPhone apps, tips on Twitter and Facebook, free book chapter downloads, and you'll understand why you can't lose with GG as your friend. Does this woman have her act together? Yes she does, and you'll want to explore all the components of the Quick & Dirty Tricks network.

Okay, I'm worshipping again, aren't I?

But, of course! And so should you. I've saved the best until last - Grammar Girl's newest book - the fabulous and aptly named Grammar Devotional. With a tip for every day of the year, this little gem of a book will teach and refresh in the easiest way possible - a little each day. I'm here to tell you, it makes a fantastic gift for writing pals and even your favorite editors, not to mention all those high school and college students who have yet to experience the true love of grammar. Go forth and buy a couple of copies today, one for yourself and one to give. Believe me, you won't be disappointed.

The Grammar Devotional is available at MacMillan,, and Borders to name just three sources.

Now quick, somebody edit this before Grammar Girl finds a mistake. Heh.
Dani Greer is a founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil and is spending a great deal of time drinking mulled wine and baking Christmas cookies. She will start writing and editing again in January, so be sure to ask about her special mystery novel rate.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Searching for More Silly Stuff

Sometimes we’re so focused on the big picture—our plot and characters—that we miss obvious clues that more editing is required. My July 16th, 2009 post, Look for the Silly Stuff: Exclamation Points, discussed the overuse of that popular punctuation mark. Here are a few other things you need to consider.

1. Bad grammar and lousy punctuation. If you don’t know the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, you need to take a class, buy a good book and study it, or choose one of many excellent online resources to hone your writing skills. I like Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips™ for Better Writing and her website by the same name. Guide to Grammar and Writing is a website sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation. I’ve found it to be very useful.

2. When Microsoft Word underlines a word in red, it means the software thinks you have misspelled the word. The error might be a typo. The word might really be misspelled. Or you may have used a correct word or spelling that is not in Word’s dictionary.

If you right click on the underlined word, an option box will pop up giving you a few alternate word/spelling choices and the ability to add the word to the dictionary so future uses will not be underlined in red. This is helpful for names of characters or fictional places, creatures, and objects (as in fantasy novels). Always turn to a good dictionary to verify spelling.

3. When Microsoft Word underlines a fragment or sentence in green, it means the software thinks your grammar is incorrect. You need to check it out and revise the sentence if necessary. Right click on the underlined phrase or sentence and an option box will give you a brief description of what might be wrong. If you’ve intentionally used incorrect grammar for emphasis, or in dialogue, you may select “Ignore Once” in the option box to make the green line disappear.

4. Two words, one word, or hyphenated word? This is a trickier problem. Whenever you have a noun that is made up of two words, and you’re not 100% sure whether the noun should be two words, one word, or hyphenated, it’s best to look it up in an official dictionary. Two words that tripped me up were rearview (as in rearview mirror) and backseat. Also remember that your word might be hyphenated if used as an adjective, but not when used as a noun.

Here are a few other examples: ape-man, backstory, bookseller, chain-smoker, deathbed, fishwife, safe-conduct, woodshed, and trashman (Word thought trashman was wrong, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary assured me it was correct). For more on this spelling puzzle, see Dani Greer’s posts, This is a test, just a test on April 22, 2009 and Spelling Test Answers on April 23, 2009.

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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Rules or Artistic License

Must writers follow all the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation or do the rules stifle the writer’s creativity?

Some writers consider themselves artists who can’t be restricted by rules, while others consider themselves craftsmen bound by conventions.

I fall in the middle. One publisher has called me the pickiest person she knows. As an editor, I have to know and follow grammar rules or I wouldn’t have any customers. On the other hand, my writing style is informal and simple, and I usually don’t worry about all the rules that may be used in formal writing. For example, I don’t mind ending a sentence with preposition. Often it sounds more natural and understandable to do so.

In my view, there are several critical elements to good writing:
  • The reader must understand it. Using the right word is essential. Using it’s when you mean its or using their or they’re when you mean there can confuse your meaning. Punctuation to show when sentences start and end is critical. Writers must follow some rules to ensure that their readers know what the writer is saying.
  • The writing must be consistent. Some style guides call for serial commas (the comma before “and” in a series of three or more: bell, book, and candle). Other style guides say to leave out the last comma if the meaning is clear (bell, book and candle). If you know the preferred style of the publisher you intend to submit to, follow it. But if you’re writing a blog entry or an article for your Web site, you can take your choice of using serial commas or not. But whichever you choose, do it throughout the document. Writing “bell, book, and candle” in the first paragraph and “boys, girls and parents” in the second paragraph won’t work.
  • The style of the writing must be appropriate to the subject and the situation. I occasionally edit doctoral dissertations—those papers are more formal and use more “big” words than is typical for fiction. An academic paper should demonstrate that the student has the vocabulary and the formal writing skill appropriate to the level of education. A novel should entertain the reader.
  • Dialogue should reflect the education and personality of the character speaking. An uneducated laborer shouldn’t sound like a college professor. But even if dialogue contains improper grammar, it should be punctuated correctly so it is easy for the reader to understand what is being said. And if a character speaks in a dialect, just enough of the dialectal spelling should be used to convey the impression without making it difficult for the reader to decipher what the character is saying.
Understanding the rules and knowing when you can break them is one of the hallmarks of a good writer.

Of course, since even good writers (and editors) are human, sometimes we all break the rules without intending to. Most editors say we can find everyone’s errors but our own. So if you see me breaking the rules … maybe I did it on purpose, and maybe I just goofed!

Lillie Ammann is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in working with self-publishing authors. Her latest novel is the romantic mystery, Dream or Destiny. She blogs at A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Tired or Fresh?

Clichés can make a narrative sound tired and unimaginative. They bombard us everyday, so they leak easily from our fingertips, like ink from an old-fashioned pen. When I point out clichés to the authors I edit, they come up with some very inventive alternatives that enliven their prose.

Here’s a string of some of my most hated clichés. I’m sure every editor has such a list.

“Cindy’s eyes widened, her mouth dropped open, and her knuckles whitened as she gripped the back of the chair after the good-looking blonde shot her a look and gave her a lop-sided grin, then rolled her eyes.”

I immediately highlight such phrases in yellow.

Not all clichés get this treatment. Some are okay in dialogue, if they’re appropriate to the character speaking.

For example, “My dad pretended to read him the riot act, but I think he was secretly proud of him. The other kid’s mother went ballistic.” Real people use clichés, so why shouldn’t characters?

Another example: “‘You know what they say.’ Gillian got up abruptly and pushed Isabel off the bed. ‘No time like the present. Strike while the iron is hot. Get your groove on. Okay, I’m all out of clichés, and I need a nap. Now go!’”

Showing that a character is aware of using tired phrases can inject them with new life.

Clichés are okay even in narrative, if you play with them. “I rolled my eyes so far up in my head they were in danger of getting stuck there.” This first-person narrator has a great sense of humor and does delightful things with clichés.

Repeated word and phrases are right up there with clichés. Most authors repeat words and phrases without realizing it. When I write a first draft, my eyes become magnets that pick up any nearby words and drop them into my text at will.

In clients’ manuscripts, I expect to see words such as “look” and “walk” fairly often, but not clustered in a paragraph or dotting a page like blackberries on a vine.

I counsel writers to use such words as “effervescent” only two or three times in a MS, because the reader will remember them. The innocuous words—the “looks” and “walks”—may appear up to fifty times, if they’re sprinkled unobtrusively throughout.

If an author repeats a word too often, I ask her to find suitable alternatives. One writer enlisted FM radio listeners in Sweden to help her think of synonyms for the word “soft.”

Of course, skillful writers can use repetition very effectively. Here’s an example from a political newsletter: “Presidents and politicians may be concerned about losing votes or losing face or losing legacies. We told the truth because we are more concerned about young Americans losing their lives.”

Clichés and repetition can clog and distract, or they can liberate and enlighten. It’s up to the writer to do the latter, and the style editor to encourage her to do so.

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Read Your Manuscript Aloud

Authors and editors will tell you that reading your manuscript aloud is one of the best ways to identify any remaining problems with awkward sentence structure, sentences that are too long, word repetitions, bad dialogue, and silly goofs.

Maryann Miller posted two excellent articles on line editing in April, 2009. Line Editing: One and Line Editing – Part Two will give you great results if you go over your manuscript visually. However, if you follow that effort with another read, this time out loud, you will improve your manuscript. Why is that?

When the writer reads to himself, his eye ignores and visually corrects the problems noted at the beginning of this post as well as typos, words or lines accidentally deleted during the revision process, and spacing and formatting errors.

Reading aloud, however, forces the reader to look at words individually instead of seeing phrases and whole sentences at once. We often hear what we don’t see.

Dialogue might look great on paper, but could sound unnatural or pointless when spoken.

Watch out for more of those silly things we do:

1. Repeating names over and over during dialogue.

“I went to the story this morning, Mary.”
“Get anything good, Doris?”
“Oh, just some apricots, Mary.”
“Mmmm. Sounds good, Doris.”

2. Flying body parts.

He threw his arms out from his body.
His leg flew up and his foot kicked Adam in the jaw.
She dropped her eyes to the floor.
Her eyes darted about the room.

You will often hear what you don’t see. A lot of authors know this to be true and list this step among their tips for writing and revision. Alex Sokoloff said it here in June in Top Ten Things I Know About Editing. “Read your book aloud,” she told us. “All of it. Cover to cover.”

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.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Word processing shortcuts for character names

If you use word processing software, such as MS Word or Writer for Open Office, you may want to make use of some features that are excellent resources for writers. No matter which software you use, you should be able to use your Help file to find the following features, or something similar.

Automatically typing your characters' names

One of my favourite features is AutoText. AutoText matches the first three or four letters of common words, phrases, or paragraphs contained in its databank, and suggests them as you type. Pressing Enter when the word you require flashes above your insertion point will fill in the rest of that word for you. You can add to or edit the words and phrases in the AutoText databank.

In Word 2003, the AutoText feature is found under the Insert menu on your Menu Bar.

To turn AutoText on or off, check or uncheck the box next to "Show AutoComplete suggestions".

To add words or phrases to AutoText, type them into the available box. You can also copy the words from your document and paste them in (handy for words or names that contain special characters like "ç" or "ñ").

I add all my characters' names and the location names to the AutoText tool. It prevents misspelling of a name, and saves time, especially with surnames that don't necessarily get used throughout the book. It is very easy to go from Mackenzie to McKenzie, for example, if a few months have passed since you first decided on the name. And even if your shortcut was "mac" originally, and you're now trying to use "mc", a quick check of the AutoText list will show you where you've gone wrong. It can be even quicker than opening up your notes file.

Dictionary and AutoCorrect

If some of your characters' names are too short to make the AutoText option worthwhile, another good way to ensure that you're spelling their names consistently is to add the names to your software's dictionary (if they're not already included as a common name), and then to use the AutoCorrect option to correct every other variation of that name, replacing it with the spelling you've chosen for your character. For example, if your character's name is "Cate", you can create entries for "Kate" and "Cait" that are automatically replaced with your choice of "Cate".

If the dictionary does not include a name that you've typed, it will underline the word in red if you have your spell checker turned on. To add the name, right click on it and select "Add to Dictionary".

In Word 2003, the AutoCorrect options are under the Tools menu. Type the incorrect spelling in the "Replace:" box, and the correct form in the "With:" box.

Another more common use for the AutoCorrect tool is for those words that you find you just never spell correctly. If I use a word often and find I misspell it more than three or four times, I add it to my AutoCorrect dictionary. The easiest way to do this is by right-clicking on the red-underlined incorrectly spelt word, select AutoCorrect in the floating menu, and then select the correct word (if available) from the AutoCorrect drop-down menu.

Elsa Neal
Is Word driving you crazy? Then Word 4 Writers is for you. Learn to tame the monster and save your time in front of the screen for writing not fighting. Elsa Neal has been strong-arming Word for 14 years and teaching others to do the same. She is based in Melbourne, Australia.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Getting in the Mood to Edit

Whenever I start a new editing project, I have to prepare myself.

In between projects, I'm doing a multitude of things - teaching, reading (students' work, books for review, etc.), grading, prepping lectures, being a sister, a best friend...and the list goes on.

The last thing I want is for these things to distract me - especially on the first day of editing.

I usually take an hour to prepare. I grab the first chapter of the manuscript and a cup of coffee, and I go into a quiet corner and read - purely for pleasure. The dreaded blood-red pencil is far away on a desk somewhere.

I do this to unwind. I do this to discard all the goings on of the day and to focus on the task at hand. I do this to acquaint myself with the style, flow, characters, ideas behind the story. That first chapter needs to do a LOT for the reader, and I know that if I can sit and read it without being "the editor", then I can commit myself to the project.

Once I read the chapter for pleasure, I head to my computer and I play about 15 minutes' worth of Christian music. A little prayer for a good edit can't hurt, right? But really, I do this to loosen me up, to lift my spirits, and to get me ready for the next event: EDITING.

On the first day, I do editing jags. A jag is concentrated work within a specific amount of time. When I write, I do either 30-minute or hour long writing jags to spark my creativity...or to force me into creativity.

I do the same for editing. I tend to do hour long editing jags in a quiet location. After an hour, I'll stop, maybe make more coffee, meditate, read my Bible, whatever is conducive to keeping me peaceful.

Depending on my success with the first jag, I can do several more in one day.

Once I have those initial pages edited, I'm committed to the piece, and I know I want to work hard to make sure the manuscript is the best it can be.

How do you prepare yourself to tackle editing?


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

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Don't Make These Common Mistakes

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Another one of our favorite previously-published posts.

When you work with the same group of editors for a long time, it becomes a training ground in which you all learn to accommodate each other's styles—especially those of the editor-in-chief. If the big boss hates the word impact (except when talking about car accidents), then everyone learns to edit that word out of their own writing and out of the articles they’re editing. I worked on the same magazine for seven years, and both my bosses were very fond of The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein. So I learned not to misuse certain common words, and now I consistently make these edits in the documents of my main corporate client. In turn, the writers at this company are now self-correcting these mistakes. Here are few of the most common word usage errors:

Since is a time reference and should not be used to imply cause. Many people had it drilled into their heads that they can’t start a sentence with because, so they write: Since delegation is the only way to get things done, I now make my assistant do all the faxing. It is more correct to say: Because delegation is the only way …. Or if you can't start a sentence with because: I make my assistant do all the faxing because delegation is the only way to get things done.

The word over is meant to describe a location. She drove over the bridge. The book is over there. So the statement “Over six thousand people attended the event” would be better written as, “More than six thousand.” I know, I know. Everybody says over, even TV newscasters who make a lot of money. It’s still more correct to say more than. Here’s another common misuse of this word: We reached a milestone over the past year. Correct usage calls for: We reached a milestone during the past year. If you’re writing nonfiction, why not be as correct as possible?

The word while is also a time reference. You go out and play, while I stay here and clean. Yet many people use while to start a sentence to refute something: While it’s usually a good idea to start early, in this case, we’ll wait. That sentence is better constructed with although. Although, it’s usually a good idea…

The preposition on is also meant to describe location: The book is on the desk. One of the most irritating phrases I see again and again is information on. For more information on the subject, go to our website. Wrong. It should be: For more information about the subject . . .

The Careful Writer is a great resource (even if the author is a little snooty), especially for nonfiction. For the record, I agree with him about the word impact. Never use it as a verb, and the word impacted should refer only to wisdom teeth or dysfunctional bowels.

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

Monday, December 7, 2009

Umbrellas and Motorcycles by Morgan Mandel

A few weeks ago I was in a hurry to catch my train. I had my umbrella all set in my tote bag, but at the last minute took it out to grab my cap. The umbrella disappeared. With no moments to spare, I did without. Wouldn't you know, it started raining. Fortunately, my hood was enough to protect me.

That was an unusual circumstance. I own at least six umbrellas scattered in various locations in my house, plus another in my work desk drawer. When the forecast calls for rain, I'm not one to leave the house empty-handed. From this description of my behavior, you might guess I'm a cautious person, not one to take chances. On the whole, I am.

Then again, I absolutely love playing slots. I have to tear myself away from a machine, whether or not I'm winning or losing. Since I'm aware of this weakness, I practice some restraint by limiting my slot playing to vacation.

Another example of risk taking is the fact I self-published Killer Career. Many authors would be loath to take on such a project, but I enjoyed the challenge. That doesn't mean I didn't have qualms, wondering if people would like my book. Fortunately, I must have done something right since Killer Career is highly recommended by The Midwest Book Review, among other reviewers.

Taking the focus away from myself, here's another example for you to consider.
What's your conception of a motorcyclist? Does the image of a wild, unkempt, sex-crazed person with no respect for society's rules spring to mind?

There are probably cyclists like that. Then again, I've heard there are many respectable, white collar, large bankrolled individuals who enjoy riding motorcycles. Some of their machines are quite expensive.

Also, I've seen videos on the news about the Toys for Tots Parade, where motorcyclists gather up toys for children for Christmas. The parade even has a Facebook page. How mainstream is that?

So, people are not as easy to read as you may think. It's something to think about when you're writing. To add dimension to your character, consider adding a quirk, pastime, or weakness that may seem contradictory to expectations. Just don't overdo it, or your good guy could turn into the bad guy, or vice versa. Of course, if that's what you want, go for it.

Can you think of an example in your book or another's where the character says or does something unexpected? Please share with us.

Morgan Mandel

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Ask the Editor: Tips for self-editing burnout

Nicole Langan asks: "What are some helpful tips on how an author can train their own editing eye even when they've read their own work a million times?"

Kathryn Craft replies:

When looking at my own work for the umpteenth time, here’s the problem I run into: no matter how steely my intentions for self-editing, I am immediately caught up, once again, in my protagonist’s plight. I may have started out looking for continuity issues (Continuity issues! Continuity issues!), but by page four or five I am seduced once again by the story’s central drama.

Sound familiar? The way to counter this is to engage your inner critic while simultaneously disrupting your reading response. To do this I find it imperative that I not read my story through in order. Your word processor’s “find” function can help you by targeting select issues while keeping you out of the intention-bending mire of your own prose. When the word processor plunks you down on a new page, address the issue it found and then read the whole page to look for anything else that pops up.

Here are some favorite methods that keep me from falling under my own story’s spell.

Overused words. We all have favorite words we lean on. As you identify yours, put them into a special list to check for. But you can start with these: even, just, there, that, well, so and very. These words can often be removed to the betterment of the prose. While you’re at it, check for nondescript words such as beautiful, pretty, handsome, ugly, and delicious, whose meanings are often too subjective to be useful, and add evocative description to support your claim. Many writers overuse adverbs, so run a search for “ly” and see if the adverbs that float to the surface could be skimmed off if you chose more specific verbs.

POV filters. Search for words such as realized, thought, saw, noticed, glanced and see if the prose works without them. Such words can often exhibit a lack of confidence in one’s ability to establish point of view. If you put us into a character’s head and stay there, we’ll know whose observations and opinions are being put forth without attribution.

Melodrama: Scan for quirks of emphasis such as italics, all caps, or exclamation points. See if you can evoke drama through true conflict instead of trying to convince your reader through typesetting histrionics. Scan for emotion words—happy, sad, frustrated, angry, etc.—and see if you might have already evoked that emotion without having to name it outright. If you haven’t, give it a try. If you write emotion as biology, you might check for words like stomach, toes, pound, tears or temple and see if you can find a way to use setting to indirectly evoke the emotion instead.

Spacing errors. You do know that you shouldn’t be putting two spaces after your periods anymore, right? That’s a throwback from the mono-spaced fonts of the typing era. It is no longer necessary—and in fact, it’s improper (self-publishers, beware!). But this isn’t merely an end-of-sentence issue. Double spaces have a way of infiltrating the center of our sentences, too, usually because we’ve used the cut-and-paste feature and left behind a souvenir. Did you know you can use the “find” function in Word to locate double spaces? When the dialogue box comes up, type in two spaces. You won’t be able to see a thing—but when you hit “find next,” the word processor will direct you to double spaces. This is a fun way to edit sentences for concision as the processor drops you into new pages. Since for some reason this method doesn’t catch all double spacing errors, I always double-check the old-fashioned way, by tipping each page away from me to look for uniform rivers of white on the page.

Tension edit. Flip open your manuscript to random pages and see if you can find a way to increase the tension on that page.

Character edit. Put a character's name into the "find" function and read only the parts of the story pertaining to him/her. This is a great way to check for redundant scenes and to see if each character has a believable growth arc.

Structural edit. For this I suggest you work back-to-front to avoid the narrative’s hypnotic pull. From the end, flip back to the beginning of the last scene. Read until you identify your protagonist's scene goal and write it down. Back up a scene, and do the same, writing down the results at the top of your page, repeating until you come to the climax. From there forward you’ll also want to make sure that each scene includes some obstacle that keeps your character from achieving his goal (whether or not that obstacle is surmounted). When you get to the opening, analyze your inciting incident and write down what story question it raised. When you are done you will have a story outline created from what you have actually written—not what you had hoped to write. Read it through and look for places where you might have drifted from the story question raised in your opening. And of course make sure you opened by putting the right question in your reader’s mind!

Chapter endings/beginnings. Flip through your manuscript and check to see whether each chapter ends with resonance and tension, and whether each new chapter opens with a hook.

Critique partner/editor. Let's face it: by the time you're on round five or six with your manuscript, all previous versions co-exist in your head. You can no longer be a good judge of how things are adding up on the page. At this point, the best thing for your manuscript might be a fresh perspective.

I realize that this post reads like a table of contents—each suggestion could be a post, a chapter, perhaps even a book of its own. But because Nicole’s question was such a good one, I wanted to put these all in one place so our readers can pop it into their toolkits. If you have additional methods for countering self-editing burnout, please leave a comment! 

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her novel based on true events, The Far End of Happy, releases on Tuesday (May 5). She is the author of The Art of Falling, also by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Fine-Tuning Sentence Structure

During this part of the self-editing process you will look at the structure of your individual sentences and then compare that structure to the surrounding paragraphs and pages. The purpose of this exercise is to:

1. Look for sentences which are too long.

Bad: The day I walked down the hill from my apartment to the town center was the day I began my adventure in Tourettes-sur-Loup, a village in the South of France which is famous for its spring festival of violets and perches on the edge of a cliff as though hanging on for its very life.

Better: The day I walked down the hill from my apartment to the town center was the day I began my adventure in the South of France. I was in Tourettes-sur-Loup, a village famous for its spring festival of violets. It perches on the edge of a cliff as though hanging on for its very life.

2. Find awkward sentences that might require a second reading to be clear. This may require correctly punctuating the sentence, or the sentence may need to be rewritten.

Bad: I rounded the corner and bumped into the old woman on my bicycle.

What I meant to say: I rounded the corner on my bicycle and bumped into the old woman.

3. Spot series of sentences with the same or similar structure within a paragraph or on the same page.

Look at the subjects of the sentences in each paragraph. Then check out the subject/verb/object set. Vary sentence structure wherever appropriate.

One good sentence containing a series of three might be very effective. Seven or eight sentences containing a series of three, all on the same page, might be noticed by the reader and be a distraction that pulls him out of the story.

Example: I walked into the coffee shop, ordered a cappuccino, and carried it to my car. I sat for a moment, sipped my coffee, and watched a man cross the parking lot. I started the engine, rolled down my window, and turned on the radio.

4. Look at fragments and determine if complete sentences would be better.

Fragments are often used in dialogue or for emphasis in narrative (especially when writing in first person). Too many fragments in narrative, however, may signal to an agent or editor that a writer does not know a fragment from a complete sentence. Use fragments with care.

Example: Marilyn knew her boyfriend would call and beg her to forgive him. She wasn't going to do it. Not this time.

5. Make good use of short sentences in action or high tension scenes. Again, you'll want to vary the sentence structure, and even throw in a complex sentence for variety. But if you're aware that short sentences increase tension, you can use them to good advantage.

Example: Marilyn had just turned off the shower and pulled the towel off the rack when she thought she heard a noise. She froze and listened. Nothing. She quickly dried herself and slipped on her robe. Then another sound--a soft squeak. She reached toward the doorknob, but jerked her hand back. Someone was in her bedroom. She could hear him breathing.

6. Use the same form or format for each element in a series.

Bad: I was weeding the garden, pruning the roses, and mulched the tomatoes.

Better: I was weeding the garden, pruning the roses, and mulching the tomatoes.

Paying attention to sentence structure and how the sentences on a page relate to one another helps establish your professional attention to detail. It really is worth the time it takes to do a thorough job.

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.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What Makes a Book Marketable? #3

Our manuscript has been polished to a brilliant shine by our editor and is ready to go. Do we need anything else before it races off the press and onto bookstore shelves?

Our words may paint an artistic masterpiece, but if our cover doesn’t beckon readers, we will have a problem marketing our book. While it has often been said that you can’t tell a book by its cover, the reality is that the cover had better be worthy of our gripping, well-crafted story. It’s the first thing the potential reader sees—our invitation to pick up our work and peruse the content. How important is this?

A grand piano graced the original cover of my first novel. Several readers told me they expected a tale about music—which it isn’t. I revised the cover, which now features a framed picture of a yellow rose. This has some relevance to the story . . . except that the book isn’t about flowers (roses or otherwise). And it lacks the vitality that inspires sales. I know I need a striking design, but I’m still looking for an eye-catching idea that fits the story and will motivate readers to pick up my novel and thumb through its pages, then buy it.

Interior design is of equal importance. Are appropriate headers in place? How about page numbering? What font has been used in the body of the text? Is it lovely but somewhat illegible? Or is it a nice serif font that’s simple to read and easy on the eyes? Are the margins wide enough, but not too wide? What about leading (space between lines) and kerning (space between letters)? Does a quick glance at its pages invite the viewer to sit down for a good read?

What a shame it is to spend months (or even years) writing a book, only to have it fall short and lose sales because the quality of the exterior and interior design doesn’t measure up to that of the content!

Linda Lane, author of two novels, works with an editing team to bring affordable quality editing to all writers.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Yes, do a little dance. Celebrate. You have finished your book. And of course, you know this means a new phase begins. A phase of editing and research and submitting your book to editors and agents.

But before even that, you need to format your manuscript. Of course, as you are researching editors and agents to submit your literary baby to, you want to pay attention to their specific format rules and adjust your manuscript accordingly; however, what I provide for you in this article is a checklist of the most standard rules of manuscript formatting.

Many of the formatting rules will no doubt make you go, “Duh, thanks, Shōn,” but you’d be surprised at how many people forget one thing or decide not to do something a specific way because they like the way they do it better. This isn’t about what you like; it’s about getting your foot in the door of PublishDom that is currently closed.

  • Use letter-sized white paper – 20 lb.
  • 1″ margins all around.
  • These days, most use Times New Roman, 12-point font, but there is nothing wrong with using Courier. Avoid sans serif fonts; those are fonts without feet, such as Arial.

  • In the upper left hand corner, you’ll put the following information: full name, address, phone number, and e-mail address, and word count.
  • Space down to nearly 1/3 to 1/2 of the page and center the title of your book, then the word “by,” and then your name. Here’s a PDF example of a cover page -
  • If you have an agent, his/her contact information will go in the bottom right hand corner of the cover page.

  • Double space throughout.
  • Use a ragged right margin – in order words, do not full justify your manuscript.
  • In the header, on the left hand side, you will place your last name and book title (or partial book title) and on the right hand side, the page number.
  • Though you will be tempted to do this, do not place copyright information on your novel; do not let fear of theft make you do it!
  • Place chapter headings about 3 double-spaces down the page, centered and place two to three double-spaces between the chapter heading and the start of the chapter.
  • Indent every paragraph – and this seems nonsensical, but I’ve read manuscripts that have not been indented, I’ve read manuscripts where writers literally hit the space bar five times, and I’ve read manuscripts where the author uses the TAB button, which usually moves the cursor a half-inch in. Personally, I hit the TAB. It’s easier for me, and I don’t have to remember to go 1,2,3,4,5 every time I make a paragraph. Besides, this is the age of computers; why manually do anything when you can configure the word processing program to do it for you?

Here’s an example of a formatted story pages taking from an unedited manuscript of mine:

When breaking up scenes, you want to make sure there is white space between paragraphs to denote the break; it might be a good idea to also center a “#” so that the reader knows for sure a break is occurring. If you’re not breaking into new scenes, do not place additional spaces between paragraphs.

This one is iffy, depending on who you talk to. Some say do not italicize or bold any text; use underline to denote emphasis. There are others who say that this practice is a throwback from the typewriter. If you can find out from an agent or an editor which they would prefer, that’s your best bet. Better yet, ask authors online – they might be more readily available to you. Personally, I hardly ever use bold because I want my words to be strong enough to carry themselves. And when I write characters’ direct thoughts, which are typically italicized, I underline instead because a wise author who read my stuff once suggested it.

When your story is done, do not type THE END; hopefully, the story is good enough that the reader knows it’s the end.

Do not punch holes, staple, or bind your manuscript; you can, if you like, use a clip or a rubber band. You can also loosely place your manuscript in a box, followed by any other material an editor or agent requests, such as cover/query letter, synopsis, or marketing plan.

Remember, first impressions are everything. Editors and agents receive a plethora of manuscripts every day, and it’s important for your book to not only be well-written and engaging, but also well put together.

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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