Friday, January 28, 2011

Writer's Block

I suppose all writers deal with writer's block from time to time, but I admit it's been decades since I've had the problem. Perhaps writing a boring paper during college was my last experience? I really don't remember. I've had systems in place forever to get me beyond the blank page. Here are a few of them:
  • Journal
  • Blog
  • Draw
  • Knit
  • Bake
  • Clean
Any of these less "important" activities tended to divert my stressed attention enough to return to writing and suddenly have the words flow. That is until the past few months when my wrists started aching so badly, I could barely type. The pain was constant, nights were the worst, and resulted in a total lack of words, ideas, or enthusiasm for the act of putting words to paper or screen. You can easily see that my usual methods of getting rid of blockage only added to the physical problems. It I couldn't comfortably type, it wasn't likely I'd be doing much knitting.

So now what? Obviously I have to find new methods to not only overcome writers block, but to be able to write! I'm trying various exercises which serve the dual purpose of relieving pain, and also help with the natural bit of depression we all experience when life throws us an unhappy curve. Diet changes are also important.

Watch over the next few months as we write about the Care and Feeding of the Writer - a new feature that examines the health issues associated with the job of writing, as well as how we can deal with the job as we age into it. We'll look at exercise and diet, as well as any other creative methods we discover to keep us working at our best. If you have any ideas and would like to guest post, by all means email us.

Please do leave us a comment now. Do you have any job-related health issues with writing? What about writers block? What method do you use to overcome it, and what would happen if suddenly that wasn't an option any longer? Please share!
Dani Greer is founding member of this blog and is presently preparing for the next Blog Book Tours Class which begins on February 1. Be sure to sign up for this four-week course because who knows when the next one will be... all things considered.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Worst Experience at a Book Signing

One of the tried and true methods of marketing our books is the book signing, and some years ago a writer friend shared her successes with venues other than the bookstores. She did lots of small-town festivals, coffee-shops, and even senior centers. 

I thought that was a good idea and had a mini-tour planned for the upper Midwest that year. I made arrangements to speak at the senior center where my mother lived, as well as the nursing home where my mother-in-law lived.

The talk at the senior center went well. About 20 folks who had gathered in the community room for lunch all stayed to meet Evelyn's daughter who had written a book.

Two days later I was scheduled to talk at the nursing home. When I had called to see if this was something the residents would enjoy, the activities director had assured me that there were lots of avid readers among the residents and they would love to meet an author. I was scheduled to follow the late-afternoon Bingo game when folks would already be assembled and willing to stay since dinner would immediately follow the talk.

I knew I was starting to lose them when a gentleman sitting up front asked if I was ever going to get the glass of water he’d asked for an hour ago. Then three women got up and left, muttering loudly that they must be in the wrong place since dinner wasn’t coming yet and it was past time.

In an effort to salvage something – anything – I abandoned my prepared speech and tried to engage the rest of the audience on a more personal level. I asked if they liked to read. One woman said she couldn’t read but she liked to sing. I told her that was nice, and she asked if I’d like to hear something. Before I could respond, she launched into a lusty version of You Are My Sunshine.

The other residents cheered when she was finished, so I took the hint. We spent the rest of the hour in a sing-along.


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest book is Open Season, which has gotten rave reviews from Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly.  Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas. 

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Do You Have What it Takes to be a Resident Writer?

Last year author Lauri Kubuitsile spent a month in Egypt on a writers’ residency. I asked her to tell Blood-Red Pencil readers about her decision to apply for the residency and her experiences in Egypt.

Lauri says,
"I'd never thought of going on a residency before, I thought they were more for academic type writers, not an in-the-trenches, working writer like me. A friend of mine posted the El Gouna Residence on Facebook. I took a look and thought I’d try my luck, I mean who doesn’t want to go to Egypt, right? It was a huge surprise when I was chosen."
Lauri made certain she was well-prepared beforehand in order to get the most she could out of her residency:
"I had a project I wanted to work on while I was there, a new novel. Before I went I made sure all of my pre-work was done: character bibles, a plot map, chapter outlines. I also got about halfway through the rough draft before leaving. My plan was to complete the rough draft of the novel while in Egypt and I did manage to do that.

"I do think it is vital for someone going on a residency to be very clear about what they want to accomplish there. I think since I had a set amount of work I intended to complete I used my time fairly efficiently. It’s easy to get distracted especially in a beautiful place like El Gouna Egypt - I had a beach outside my window, imagine."
There are numerous elements to weigh up for writers thinking of applying for a writers’ residency. The place where you write can have a dramatic affect on your writing.
"I realise I am lucky as a writer in many ways. I live in a quiet village in Botswana with few distractions. I have my own office away from the house where I write. In Egypt I was suddenly with other writers from all over the world. We were five writers in all but the women in the group were the interesting ones and the ones I connected with - from Italy, UK, and America. I’m isolated being in Botswana and contact with flesh and blood writers is rare. That connection I hadn’t anticipated. I only later realised how important that had been to me, once I was home. In Egypt sometimes I felt guilty spending time with these women and not writing - it was a writing residency, wasn’t it? But now I’ve come to the conclusion that we all get what we must from such experiences. At home I have lots of quiet writing time and I don’t get interaction with writers. Others on the residency have hectic jobs and lives that give them very little quiet time for writing; the residency gave them that. We all got what we needed, not necessarily what we thought we needed, at least in my case.

"I’ll be honest, for me I found it difficult to write deeply in El Gouna. By deeply I mean I couldn’t lose myself in the book as I can at home. My mind was far too busy with all that was going on. It was good for me to have scheduled the writing of the rough draft for a book which is very plot driven. I think any writer who intends to go on a residency should know themselves. Before I went I didn’t know that about myself, that where I write is very significant to what I write and how I write. Now I know and if I go on another residency I will keep that in mind and make sure the projects I choose to work on are suitable.

"Egypt is a complex fascinating place with a multitude of stories. I wrote a short story set in Egypt, though it’s not yet finished. I’ve also been thinking a bit about a romance set there, it is quite a romantic place."
And for writers thinking of applying for a writer's residency, Lauri has this advice:
"Make sure you understand the logistics - what is paid and what you must pay. Understand who will be attending, what is required of you. As mentioned above, make sure you have a specific project you want to work on. Also, once there – enjoy it! I think that’s what I regret slightly though I did have a lovely time, I wished I would have been less uptight about how many words I was putting on the page. Another big part of a writer’s life is experiencing; those experiences will add richness to your words and that’s just as important."

Have you ever considered a writer's residency? Where in the world would you most like to spend a month writing? Share with us in the comments!


Lauri Kubuitsile’s latest book is Can He Be the One?, published by Sapphire Press (South Africa). You can follow Lauri’s writing adventures on her blog, Thoughts From Botswana.

Lauri was interviewed by Elsa Neal.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Writing Snobbery

Snobbery is unattractive.  I think most would agree. Yet I must admit to a little bit of this quality.  I am snobby about pens. 

As a writer, I have feelings about writing implements.  I’m not one of those conservatives who claim that only the old-fashioned tools have beauty and merit – I’d be lost without my computer.  In fact, I think I actually love my computer. But when I am in the first throes of a new idea or project, when I am just noodling and musing on paper, I like to noodle and muse with a pen.  And the kind of pen I use affects the quality of my noodling.

I own three kinds of pen.  My favorite pen is the fountain pen. I love how the ink flows and is still wet when it hits the paper. That glossiness, that smooth easy feeling, all make my Muse feel as if she is riding on a moving sidewalk. Ideas glide and swirl from the pen with easy grace. The fountain pen is alive.

Now, the fountain pen does have some drawbacks – you have to change the cartridges, and sometimes those cartridges leak.  Then you will have big blobs of black ink on your hands until you get around to taking a hot shower. Sometimes it takes two bouts of scrubbing with soap to make that ink disappear.  This is a small price to pay.

I also own Roller Ball pens. These are my everyday pens, the kind I have in my purse, the kind I use to write my checks and my to-do lists with.  I sign my name with them.  The ink still flows, although it’s not as wet when it arrives on the paper, and it dries fast. But they rarely leak in your purse, which is a major point in their favor. 

And I have one or two ballpoint pens, which I rarely admit, because I hate them. The only reason I have any ballpoint pens is if someone left one at my house and I haven’t yet thrown it away.  I will go a long way to avoid using a ballpoint pen. I don’t even like to write checks with them. The only kinds of words that come from a ballpoint pen are the ugly, plastic, skinny, skimpy, bland, trite, and boring ones. Ballpoint pens were invented because they never leak, but this is only because they are dead. That’s why only dead writing comes from them.

I guess you can see I’m pretty adamant about my pens.  If hating ballpoint pens makes me a snob, so be it. But I bet I’m not alone – who else out there is snobby about their writing tools?

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit
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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Extraneous Words

I learned a new term last week, during our “share a tip” day here when Carlene Rae Dater shared her tip on “Pesky Pleonasms.”

She explained, “A pleonasm is a word or phrase which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, ‘John walked to the chair and sat down.’ ‘Down’ is a pleonasm and can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.”

Although I was not familiar with the term, I did know them when I saw them. In fact, part of my editing advice revolves around deleting extraneous words. Words such as “that,” “very,” “both,” and “there was.” Others might include “began,” “started,” or “continued.” Another pet peeve of mine is "in order to." Drop the "in order" just do it!

I also caution to watch use of “ly” words. These words are often used to prop up weak verbs. For example: “She walked quickly” can be stronger if written “She strode” (or bounded or rushed). Likewise with the “to be” verbs (was, were, had been, etc.) especially when used with an “ing” verb. “She was walking” is better as “She walked.”

Some authors like to use taglines (he said, she said) plus an action: “…she said, taking a sip of coffee.” The simple action is sufficient: “She took a sip of coffee.”
You also don’t need to describe two actions at once: She nodded and smiled. He puffed himself up and took a swig...

A writer friend of mine is looking at every sentence in her manuscript and challenging herself to remove at least one word from each. She has cut 14,000 words from a 400-page manuscript.

I challenge you to go one step farther, see if you can delete an entire phrase from a sentence, an entire sentence from a paragraph, a paragraph from a scene.

Exterminate those “Pesky Pleonasms.”


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently been released. 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, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Success Story

 Don't Ever Throw an Old Manuscript Away....

… or delete one from your computer. Both of my most recent books were ones that I originally started a long time ago and put aside for a variety of reasons. My agent couldn't sell them, and I was finding that nonfiction was paying a lot more bills than my fiction.

However, One Small Victory and more recently Open Season, were stories that I loved, and every time I'd pull out the manuscripts and tinker with them, I would connect with the characters and think, this is still pretty good stuff. When we no longer make an emotional connection to our work, that's when we know it really does need to stay in a drawer forever.

Both stories are firmly rooted in real life. One Small Victory was inspired by a true story of a woman who infiltrated a drug ring to bring down the major distributor in her small town. (And is now available as an e-book for Kindle, Nook and other e-readers.) Open Season evolved from wondering what it would be like for two women detectives, one white and one black, to work together in Dallas at the time the DPD was under fire for the use of deadly force and racial discrimination.

This was in the late 1980s, and I was associated with Alan and Cynthia Mondell, documentary filmmakers in Dallas who were looking to do their first feature film. They asked if I could come up with a story idea that would be entertaining as well as looking at the social issue of racial problems in the city and in the police department. As so often happens in the film industry, the project never got made, but I had done so much research I wanted to use it. So I started working on the novel. I finished the screenplay as well, and it was a semi-finalist in the Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship a few years later.

Now, the hardcover of Open Season has just been released and it is getting wonderful reviews from Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and others, including our own Helen Ginger on her blog, Straight From Hel

Dani Greer, the head honcho here at The Blood Red Pencil, sent me a message recently and asked why I wasn't promoting the book here, so this is my official promotion. If you are interested, you can ask your local library to order Open Season, or ask for it at your favorite bookstore. Anyone who would like a signed copy or a signed bookplate can contact me at:

And I hope someday you, too, can have a story to tell about that book you loved so much you didn't give up on getting it published. If you already do, please share.


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest book is Open Season, which has gotten rave reviews from Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly.  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, January 19, 2011

Writing in 140: Saving Your Precious Stories

If writers worry like I do, then they are always looking for new places to save their literary babies. I have jump keys, I have an e-mail account where I send work. I also use Carbonite, where for about $50 a year, everything on my laptop has a home in cyberspace. Recently, friends introduced me to Dropbox, and I love it because I can download it on all my systems and no matter where I go, if I drop something into my dropbox, I can open it on all my systems and can retrieve it from any computer by going to the website. I feel a lot better knowing that my work is secure somewhere -- now I need to remember to update my work in all these places.

Where do you save your precious writing?

Writing in 140 is my attempt to say something somewhat relevant about writing in 140 words or less.

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically, and her debut solo novel, Death at the Double Inkwell is now available for purchase. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, promoting her debut project, writing screenplays, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Orchestrating characters

In a recent post about combining characters I suggested that one's characters should be well orchestrated. I thought that term was worthy of further exploration because so many of my clients have trouble figuring out what conflict is relevant to their stories. It all starts with your cast of characters: if you've orchestrated them well, their intersecting character arcs will have an inherent relevance to the protagonist’s arc.

In the novel I’m now shopping around, Dance of the Fallen Sparrow, my protagonist, Penelope Sparrow, is a dancer who is saved from the deadly consequences of a 14-story fall by the same "sturdy thighs" and "mambo hips" that have derailed her dance career. She must now transcend her body image issues and fully embrace her individuality if she is to make the most of this extraordinary second chance to make her mark in the dance world.

The dancer is cued; let the orchestration begin.

Penelope lands on the car of ground-floor bakery owner Marty Kandelbaum, who happens to be a bit of an an armchair philosopher. Before parking his car early one morning he had been praying for a sign that love will once again enter his life...

Where Penelope’s weak spirit is housed in an unstoppable body, her hospital roommate, Angela Reed, has a huge spirit trapped in a body succumbing to cystic fibrosis. Perhaps Angela is meant for one last mission while still on earth...

Out of work and barely moving, Penelope must rely on help from the obese mother from whom she’s been estranged. She is forced to face self-destructive behaviors she'd rather ignore...

While cheering on her former star student, Penelope's dance mentor, Bebe Browning, has been hiding a lifelong secret about her own body...

The local dance critic, Margaret MacArthur, has her own reasons for wanting in on Penelope’s survival story...

See what I mean about orchestration? These people have been brought together to butt heads. With Penelope, yes, but also with one another.

Let’s consider some new characters for my story.

Let’s say I wanted Penelope to awaken in a more peaceable kingdom. Her hospital roommate is not only a recovered anorexic but is now a yogi who carries the keys to universal wisdom. Oops—this isn’t a novel any more, it’s a self-help book.

Let’s try again.

Let’s say I wanted Penelope to have an insider buddy—Natasha, a dancer who grew up in Penelope’s world, and understands Penelope’s every longing and perfectionist tendency. Oops—if she understands that much, they don’t really need to talk, do they. And wrapping their relationship in all that understanding, she’ll provide no pressure for Penelope to change.

I don’t need this extra character at all. Only varying points of view can drive conflict in the story.

But what if Natasha is so motivated to keep Penelope from changing, you might argue, that she impedes the growth arc Penelope is now determined to pursue?

Ah... Now, you're thinking like a novelist!

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Combining Characters

Fiction writers must sometimes combine two characters into one, said BRP editor Helen Ginger in a recent post.

That was such a juicy little aside to her main point that I couldn’t let it rest. Why might an editor suggest you combine characters?

Here’s my take on it:

Characters aren’t really people. Characters represent different ways of looking at things, and we choose them for this reason.

Adopting this perception will take you far towards internalizing the most basic premise of storytelling: Story is conflict.

Events worthy of story inclusion are driven by a protagonist’s motivation to overcome obstacles that stand between him and a deeply desired outcome. Just as the journey from motivation to goal creates your protagonist’s story arc, each of your other main characters must also establish a character arc, by acting from his own motivation toward his own goal.

If your cast of characters is well orchestrated, their desires will intersect with the protagonist’s arc often, in a way that either helps or hinders your protagonist. This creates the kind of relevant conflict that readers love.

How different must your characters be?

Can two characters share a motivation, yet still contribute to the conflict?
Sure. Let’s say two sisters are motivated to dethrone the sexual predator who made them feel powerless as children. Many years later, in order to give herself to the man she loves, our protagonist must make sense of nightmares that always include her sister. Her sister claims to know nothing—because she must keep a shameful secret. While our protagonist has formed the goal to reclaim personal power, her sister has been siphoning power from other young innocents. Plenty of conflict, especially if our protagonist must decide whether to bust her own sister to set herself free.

Can two characters share a goal, yet still contribute to the conflict?
Yes. Two women are vying for positions of power in a company; one, motivated by earning the respect of her beloved father, works diligently; the other, whose father abandoned her when she was an adolescent, is determined to sleep her way to the top. Add that they were best friends as children and you have plenty of conflict.

Editors will see a problem when two characters start to act from the same motivation toward the same goal in the same way. I see this in crime fiction, where a younger cop follows his partner around like a puppy leashed to his mother’s collar. If the younger cop never questions or defies or disobeys, why is he there?

I also see it in novels set in environments the novelist has an issue with, such as politics or Corporate America. The author peoples these worlds with selfish, cookie-cutter automatons. Not only does this reader fail to connect with them, I forget their names and want to put down the book. How much more intriguing the story would be if what looks like a corporate automaton is really a young man trying to make good on a teenage mistake, struggling to be something he’s not to support kids he’s raising alone. He’s more interesting, and I promise I wouldn’t forget his name.

The moral of this post: unless a betrayal is on the horizon, you will not enhance your fiction with yes-men. Unless you are going to dig deep for motivations or goals that differ, you only need one cop who plays by the rules, or one corporate stick-in-the-mud.

So next time you feel that a certain point of view might gain gravitas by adding another character who feels the same way, spend your time more wisely by deepening the point of view of the character you already have. Because later, an editor will probably tell you to combine the characters anyway.

Can two characters act from the same motivation toward the same goal and still contribute relevant conflict? Show me, and tell me why it can work.

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.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Diviner's Tale: Divine!

The Diviner’s Tale
Bradford Morrow
ISBN 978-0-547-38263-0
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

The Diviner’s Tale, by Bradford Morrow, is not what it appears to be. I knew this before I even started the book. “It’s by a man, writing from a first-person female point of view,” said Dani, one of the web mistresses here. “I’ll be interested in your opinion.”

I’ll be honest: throughout much of the book I thought Morrow didn’t quite pull it off. The story was engaging. Cassie's parents, Nep and Rosalie, are well-drawn and engaging. Jonah and Morgan, the narrator Cassie’s two sons, are interesting and funny. The settings in which the story takes place are vividly drawn. But as I read I found it difficult to visualize Cassie.

There are hints—she’s tall, thin, and has curly red hair—but even those details have a curious unreality to them. What is heart-wrenchingly clear about her is that she is very much her parents’ child—she is both a water diviner, like her father, and a schoolteacher, like her staunch Methodist mother—and that she fears she is going crazy.

The conflict has its roots in her childhood, when she foresees her brother’s fatal car accident and warns him not to go out with his friends. He disregards her, and dies that night. Following that event Cassie is plagued by vision after vision. With her mother struggling to cope with the loss of a beloved son, Cassie turns to her diviner father, who alone seems to really understand her.

At her mother's insistence, the family seeks psychiatric help for Cassie. Eventually the visions abate, but the experience leaves her with an enduring distrust of her own reality. She is a water diviner—but she hedges her bets by reading maps and surveys. When she sees a young woman hanging from a tree she calls the sheriff, her childhood sweetheart, Niles. When they return, there is no body—and no sign it was ever there. But searchers discover another girl, starving, battered, and still alive.

Doubted by the town, and doubting herself, seeks to understand as her life begins to unravel. Her visions are back. Classes she is to teach are mysteriously canceled. Her father reveals that he has Alzheimer’s Disease. Her mother believes Cassie is losing her mind. Cassie suspects someone is coming into her house. When she flees to an island in Maine her sons report that a man has come to see her. She receives threatening postcards. She is hung in effigy from the abandoned lighthouse. Back home, her father’s increasing dementia and her community’s disbelief undercut any real possibility of aid, not only because only Cassie can see what Cassie sees, but because Cassie herself doubts her own reality.

Which leads us full circle to Bradford Morrow’s “failure” to create a solid, flesh-and-blood Cassie—she is a mystery to us because she is a mystery to herself. I won’t give away the ending, except to say that the mystery of Cassie is solved not only for the reader, but for Cassie herself, and the events of the book come together to create a convincing, realistic portrayal of a woman struggling to "divine" herself.

The Diviner’s Tale is available through Amazon and in bookstores.
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Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Artist Meets Your Fantastic Elastic Brain

As many of you know by now, I have a special interest in children’s literature. As an artist and writer, the story of how a picture book comes alive with the addition of complementary illustration never ceases to fascinate. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words! Today Sarah Ackerley joins us to share how the newest book from Little Pickle Press came to her drawing board, and how she developed a seemingly dry subject matter – how your brain works – into a fantastically humorous and delightful book for children ages 4 and up.

Dani: Sarah, first tell us a little about how you prepared for a career in picture book illustration.

Sarah: I studied fine art at the University of Texas at Austin where I focused mainly on drawing and painting. UT doesn’t have an illustration department, but I always had it in my mind that I would like to some day pursue picture book illustration. After graduation I began to build an illustration portfolio, attend SCBWI meetings, and read everything I could about the world of picture books. It took several years before I made any kind of breakthrough, but it was the most rewarding day when my first book was published in 2008. I have been working as an illustrator ever since, and I really love what I do.

Dani: Where did the idea for the necktie-wearing bird and mouse duo come from?

Sarah: When I got the manuscript for Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, I immediately thought of author/illustrator Laurie Keller and her goofy take on the somewhat dry subject of dentistry in Open Wide, Tooth School Inside. She livened things up with a bunch of silly, joke-cracking teeth, which I loved. So I decided to give Your Fantastic Elastic Brain its own goofballs, and thus a necktie-wearing owl and mouse duo was born.

Dani: How did you approach this scientific topic and what was your inspiration for your approach?

Sarah: Art director Leslie Iorillo really opened my eyes to the best way to approach this scientific book. She told me to make the kids in the illustrations the main focus. For example, on the pages where the parts of the brain and their functions are explained, the brain illustration is relatively small and the children take the spotlight. I think that was the best piece of advice I got, and I really tried to make the illustrations in the book something our kid readers could relate to and identify with while they absorbed the scientific content.

Dani: What is your illustration process?

Sarah: I do my initial drawings in pencil, scan them into Photoshop and edit as needed, then print them out. I then trace the original drawings with a brown Prismacolor pencil to create a more refined, final drawing. Next I take the final drawing, scan it again, edit again, then print that drawing directly onto Arches 140 lb. watercolor paper. (I have an Epson printer that can handle up to 140 lb. paper). I paint over the drawing with clear acrylic gesso to prime the surface, then paint the final illustration in oil paints. Since oils are semi transparent, the original drawing shows through the paint.

Dani: What was the most fun part of illustrating this book? The most challenging?

Sarah: The most fun part of creating any book for me is doing the thumbnails and fleshing out the book in the very beginning. It’s so exciting to watch things take shape, and this stage is very creative and energizing. I spend a lot of time looking at other picture books during this phase, and I am constantly jotting down ideas so I don’t lose them. The most challenging part of creating this particular book was that I only had 3.5 months to do it. I essentially had words on a page in late June and had to conceptualize and create an entire book from those words by mid-October. I work 3 days a week as a nanny, too, so there was that additional time constraint. It was the biggest challenge I’ve ever taken on in my life… I think my own fantastic, elastic brain was stretched to the max during the process!

Dani: Mine is stretching, too, Sarah. At my age, that’s a really good thing! Thanks for sharing your process and thoughts with us today.

Readers, if you have questions for Sarah please leave them in the comments.

Also, be sure to leave a comment to get into the book drawing – you must leave us an email so we can contact you! You could win a copy of Your Fantastic Elastic Brain written by noted preventive psychologist, JoAnn Deak Ph.D. and illustrated by Sarah Ackerley... but only if you leave us contact information.

If you want to order the book now, and get 25% off as well, click here and use coupon code BBTPENCIL at check-out.

Then go over to the Little Pickle Press blog by clicking here, where they have a Grand Prize drawing for FIVE books in a special eco-friendly recycled plastic bag!

Tomorrow for stop #6 of this blog book tour, we visit fellow Red Pencil, Helen Ginger, at Straight From Hel, with a publishing story that’s, well... straight from hell.


Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil blog, an artist, writer, editor, environmentalist, and sometime Special Projects Coordinator for Little Pickle Press. She also teaches blog book tours classes which prepare authors to plan tour stops like this one. The next class begins 2/1/2011 and you can sign up here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What Are Editors For?

You may have an editor at a publishing house, large or independent. You may have dedicated readers who edit for you. You may have a critique group who gives you advice. You may be a loner on a mountain top with no one to turn to for help. No matter what your situation, you have to edit what you write.

We all do. Even editors must edit their own work. Sure, you’re still going to turn to those trusted readers or a professional editor, but before (and after) you do, you need to do some self-editing. Find the mistakes that you can – the left out words, the plot strings that you totally forgot to tie up, the words that on second look don’t make sense, the additions that you put in then forgot to change in already written material and thus the best friend is killed off only to reappear alive in a later chapter, and other things. Find all the errors you can before you send it to me or some other editor. It’ll save you money, for one thing.

Here are some suggestions:
1. When you’re ready to start editing, read the full manuscript. Do not stop to make the edits right then. Mark the section in the margin and make a quick note to yourself with a red pen or the Comment tool so you can go back to it.

2. After that read-through, go back to your margin notes and begin making corrections. Some of them may require big re-writes. Some may mean you’ll have to come up with alternates to the passive “to be” verb. You may have to combine two characters into one. And so on.

3. Set aside the re-worked manuscript for as long as you can (for some that’s easy; but for others it can be like neglecting a baby). Then edit again.

4. If you always edit on the computer, print it out and edit with a pen.

5. Another idea is to record yourself reading your manuscript then listen to it. You’ll catch things that you didn’t see when reading on paper.

Here’s something I don’t advise:
I hear some people telling writers to read their work backward, word by word. I say, Don’t do that. That would be like reading gibberish.

Why torture yourself? That’s what editors are for.
Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its twelfth year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn – or catch her April 30, 2011 at Books 'n Authors 'n All That Jazz in Weatherford, Texas, where she and Sylvia Dickey Smith will be talking about “Jazzing Up Your Characters.”

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Let's Share - Leave A Tip On the Blood Red Pencil

One thing I've noticed about most writers is we don't mind sharing, in fact, we enjoy doing so.
I've been writing a number of years now, and have picked up some handy information along the way.

One basic tip I'd like to share is:

Don't Backstory Dump.

In other words, don't say too much about what happened before the story begins. Instead, sprinkle it in bits and pieces, so the pace doesn't slow to a crawl.

I bet you've learned a tip or two also, even if you're a beginner.

I'm inviting you to leave a tip on the Blood Red Pencil in the comment section below. It's not required, but if you happen to remember, by all means mention where you got it.

Or, if you particularly like or agree with a tip already mentioned, don't be afraid to comment.

Then, be sure to leave your name, plus one website or blogspot link. If you wish to divulge where you heard about this post, you're welcome to do so.

Happy Sharing!

Morgan Mandel
Killer Career now 99 cents on Kindle

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Writing in 140: New Year, New Writing

Come a new year, most writers begin to think of new projects and start to plot out their writing agenda for the new year. While you're figuring out what new projects you want to write, how about figuring out what new style or genre you want to write in? Writers should always be about stretching their literary wings and fine-tuning their writing craft, and they can do that by switching up what they've been doing and trying something new. If you've always written romance, why not add a mystery element to a story? If you spend your time writing dramatic stories, why not try your hand at a comedic piece? If novels are your thing, why not attempt a screenplay? By doing something new, we can learn our strengths and weakness as writers—make it a learning experience.

Writing in 140 is my attempt to say something somewhat relevant about writing in 140 words or less.

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically, and her debut solo novel, Death at the Double Inkwell is now available for purchase. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment.

Currently, Shon is busy editing, promoting her debut project, writing screenplays, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Style Blunders in Fiction

No, I’m not talking about the fashion police coming after you. I’m talking about those little errors and bad habits that creep into your manuscript, weaken your message, and add up to an overall feeling of amateurish writing. The good news is that, unlike the more critical creative flow of ideas for plot and characters, these little bad habits are easy to correct, resulting in a more polished, compelling manuscript.

1. Take out wishy-washy qualifiers such as quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, really. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Take them out. Even very is to be avoided. It’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”

2. Show us, don’t tell us how your characters are feeling. Avoid statements such as “He found that funny” or “The little girl felt sad.” Show these emotions by their actions, words, and body language: “Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, head down, she refused to answer as she pushed her food around the plate.”

3. Avoid colorless, overused verbs such as walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus (or use the MS Word one. Hint: look up the present tense: walk, run, eat, say) to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead: crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, and bolted.

4. Avoid -ing verbs wherever possible. Use past tense verbs instead; they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power.

5. Keep adverbs to a minimum. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly,” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily,” say “She devoured the bag of chips” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.”

6. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of adjectives in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into purple prose that is melodramatic and flowery.

7. Use simple dialogue tags. Stick with the basic “he said” and “she said” (or asked) wherever possible, rather than “he emphasized” or “she reiterated” or “Mark uttered.” These phrases stand out, so they take the reader out of the story, whereas said is almost invisible. However, I like dialogue tags that describe how something is said, as in “he shouted,” “she murmured,” “he grumbled,” “she whispered.” You can often eliminate the dialogue tag altogether and just use an action beat instead: He picked up the phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops.”

8. Describe the stimulus, then the response. When writing an action scene, make sure your sentence structure mimics the order of the actions. The reader pictures the actions in the order that she reads them, so it’s confusing to read about the reaction before finding out what caused it. So describe the action first, then the reaction: Instead of “He yelled when the dog bit him,” write: “The dog bit him and he yelled.”

9. Avoid the passive voice. For greater impact, when describing an action, start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Also, avoid empty phrases like “There is,” “There was,” “It’s,” “It was.” Jump right in with what you’re actually talking about.

10. Avoid negative constructions wherever possible. They can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

11. Avoid frequent repetition of the same word or forms of the same word. If you’ve already used a certain noun or verb in a paragraph or section, go to your thesaurus to find a different way to express that idea when you mention it again. Also, avoid repetition of the same imagery. Whether you’re describing the setting, the weather, or the hero or heroine, vary your wording.

12. Avoid formal sentences and pretentious language. Rather than impressing your readers, fancy words can just end up alienating them. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “If a reader is constantly consulting a dictionary when reading your prose, you’re dragging him from the story. Words in manuscripts such as capacious, accretion, plangent, occluded, viridian, arboreal, sylvan, obdurant, luculent, longueur, rubescent, and mendacious always pull me from the story. Just say no to showing off.”

As Morrell points out, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood…. simpler words are unpretentious, yet contain power and grace….Pompous words are alienating, boring, and outdated.”

Resources: Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, by Jessica Page Morrell; Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon; How NOT to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.

Jodie Renner is a former English teacher and librarian with a master’s degree and a lifelong passion for reading, especially fiction. For the past several years, Jodie has been running her own freelance manuscript editing business, specializing in fiction. She is also the copy editor for two magazines. To find out more about Jodie and her business, please visit her website at

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Busted!--Roland Merullo caught foreshadowing with metaphor

Novelist and memoirist Roland Merullo confesses, in print and online interviews, to being a “pantser.”

“I write by the seat of my pants, almost always without an outline,” he says. “I just start, and that seems like opening the floodgates, or drilling a well. All kinds of stuff comes out, and usually very quickly.”

What’s that I hear? Ah yes, the collective sigh of all you pantsers out there, underscored by the shredding of those confounded outlines that were the result of last year’s resolutions.

But Merullo does not surrender the structure of his books to whimsy. He builds from what he calls “a very clear sense of an opening moment.” And in more than one case, he has had the smarts to include an early metaphor that suggests the scope of the book’s conflicts. Meaning that he either a) wrote the metaphor, listened carefully for what his subconscious was saying, then wrote the book without ever deviating from that vision, or—and much more likely for a pantser—b) he went back and wrote the metaphor once the book was finished.

From A Little Love Story (2005):

In the inciting incident, a man re-emerges in public after a year of mourning only to have a woman back her car into his classic and lovingly-kept 1949 Dodge truck.
“Every time I looked at the truck from a certain angle I could see the broken taillights and dented fender and I wondered how hard it would be to get replacement parts and I thought about the black-haired woman coughing in the rain.”
The black haired woman will be his love interest, and her cough is from cystic fibrosis. In order for them to have a future, she might require “replacement parts” that include a new pair of lungs. A great set-up for an imperfect, modern-day love story.

From Breakfast with Buddha (2007):

Merullo sets up the effect that an unwelcome cross-country passenger, some sort of "spiritual guru," will have on the protagonist—who has just described his “superbly satisfying life”:
“And yet, from time to time a gust of uneasiness would blow through the back rooms of my mind, as if a window had been left open there and a storm had come through and my neatly stacked pages of notes on being human had blown off the desk.”

If you have an early sentence that metaphorically foreshadows the scope of your story, I’d love to hear it, because I'm a fan of this technique. Not sure? Re-read your early chapters—the subconscious is powerful. You might be surprised to find what’s already there!

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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Have You Backed Up Recently?

It’s a new year and an excellent time to put new routines in place. One habit that sometimes gets overlooked is regularly backing up your manuscript in progress.

At least some of your back-ups of your documents should be done “off site”; i.e., off your main computer and away from the building that houses your main computer. You need to cover yourself for any possibility from viruses to fire to theft. There are many options for backing up, and the more variations you use the safer you are likely to be.

Some quick and easy options are to:
  • Save copies onto an external hard drive that you or someone else keeps at their home or office. You may want to rotate two or more hard drives this way so that one is always off site and you have a drive available for backing up when you need to.
  • Save your current most important files onto a flash drive and take it with you if you leave the house.
  • Pay an Online Data Backup Company for storage for your most important files. (Please do plenty of research first and ensure that the company is reputable.) Free alternatives include Google Docs, DropBox, and Microsoft Cloud Storage, but you should never rely on any third party platform as your only back up.
  • And my favourite option: Email a copy of your document to yourself at a different account. This gives you two back-up copies: one in your inbox of one account and one in your sent folder of the other. I often do this several times a day when I’m about to leave my desk for a while and have written anything of value.
Emailing from Word

You can email a document directly from the document itself without having to switch across to your email account and browse for the correct file.

Word 2016:

File, Share, Attach a Copy (select either Word document or PDF)

Word 2010:

File, Save and Send, Send Using Email

Make January the month that you get yourself into the regular habit of backing up your work until it feels as natural to you as clicking Save.

Elsa Neal
Elle Carter Neal is the author of the picture book I Own All the Blue and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. Find her at or

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Time Out For a Little Humor

 Once again, Tracy Farr, (who considers himself somewhat of a writing coach) steps in with some advice for writers:

Taking a look back at my Old Year’s resolutions

You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have asked me where I get my story ideas. I can count them on one hand. One finger, to be more precise. It was my mom. I think she was bored.

Anyways, story ideas come from everywhere – your pets, your car, your spouse (with prior permission), and other writers who live far, far away, because you’d be just plain stupid to “borrow” an idea from someone who might actually read what you’ve pinched. But sometimes an idea plops itself right down in your lap (usually when you’ve forgotten to cover it with a napkin), and you’d be foolish not to make something useful from it.

Here’s my latest thought:

The way I figure it, New Year’s resolutions are a dime a dozen. Everybody makes them. Everybody breaks them. Some of those people are writers who think their readership would really enjoy what they have to say about the subject. Most readers, on the other hand, find the comics more entertaining.

Since I wouldn’t touch the subject of New Year’s resolutions with a 10-foot polecat (which I swear lives out in the woods beside my house), I’ve decided instead to talk about the Old Year’s resolutions I made and what I learned from them – which is still not as entertaining as the comics, but at least I’ve come to terms with it.

First off, I resolved in 2010 to learn to speak Spanish fluently. Somewhere along the way I fiddled with French, and at the end of the year I was having a go with Chinese. I can say “Good morning” and “Where’s the bathroom?” in all three languages, but I still can’t tell the difference between an appositive or a negative.

What I learned – I should have resolved to improve my skills in English, my mother tongue, which I’m sure would have made all my friends and neighbors happy.

You probably won’t believe this, but in 2010 I resolved to learn how to do the splits. I’m not sure why I thought doing the splits was important, other than to be able to say I could do them, but it was a goal I eventually discontinued due to unforeseen difficulties – those difficulties being unimaginable pain.

What I learned – People my age should never resolve to do anything that requires a whole bunch of needless hurt that produces copious amounts of crying and cursing. Doing your taxes is bad enough.

At some time during 2010, I thought I’d get myself better in shape by “Walking Across America.” I’d walk and/or jog around the neighborhood, keep track of my mileage, and chart the distance on a map. I would start my “journey” in the Florida Keys with my ultimate destination being Fairbanks, Alaska. I reckoned I could cover the mileage within 15 months, just in time for my 50th birthday.

What I learned – I remembered that I hate exercise. After walking for a month and a half, I was able to calculate that it would take me 29 years to get to Alaska. The reality of the situation has made me so depressed, I have vowed to take an Alaskan cruise as soon as financially able.

During the spring of 2010, just when the grass started growing again, I made a resolution that I would do what it takes to make my yard the best-kept yard in the neighborhood.

What I learned – I have no desire to do what it takes to turn my yard into the best-kept yard in the neighborhood.

And finally, 2010 was the year that I would single-handedly breathe new life into the banjo, elevating it from a hick, back-woods novelty plaything to a mainstay instrument of all things hip, groovy and stylish. Ozzy would play it; Lady Gaga would be gaga over it; Kanye West would criticize it, then apologize, then take back his apology for his apology.

What I Learned – I come up with a lot of stupid ideas.

In closing, a wise man once told me that if you counted all your baskets before they had eggs in them, you wouldn’t know any more than what you already knew. I have no idea how that fits in with this story, but there it is.

Posted by Maryann Miller with Tracy's permission. He likes to share his humor here with a few more people than read his blog, which by the way is pretty darn funny. Trust me. He isn't paying me a penny to say that. 

Maryann's Web site - where you can find information about her mystery, Open Season, which just sold out the first print run and has Maryann dancing around her office... well, dancing as soon as she posts this.  

Tracy's Blog

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ask the Editor Free-For-All Is Back Today!

The Holidays are over. You know what that means. It's time to get down to business. Time to follow your New Year's resolutions.

If you're like me, one of your goals is to get your manuscript in shape.

To do that, you may need some help.The good news is you don't have to go it alone. Our Editors are ready and willing to assist. We invite you to ask our Editors a writing question.

Here's how it works:

Today, and every first Tuesday of the month, The Blood-Red Pencil hosts our Ask the Editor Free-For-All. I send an e-mail blast to various e-groups, Facebook, my social networking friends, blog followers, and anyone else I can think of, to come over and let our Editors share their expertise. You can get info here on submitting your manuscript to an editor or agent, publishing on Kindle, e-books, self-publishing in various formats, as well as the basics of writing. Don't be afraid to make youself heard. No question is too dumb. Everyone starts somewhere.

And, if for some reason an Editor here doesn't have an answer for you, we'll steer you to someone who does.

To Submit A Question, Follow These Easy Steps:

Leave a comment below in the comment section. When you do, include your name and blog url or website not only for promo, but so we know you’re not a figment of imagination. (One link only per person, please!)

One or more of our Editors will drop by today and answer your question in the comment section. If it seems your question requires a longer explanation, the Editor may devote an entire blog post on that topic at a later date. If that's the case, you'll be fortunate enough to receive extra promotion, along with the possibity of forwarding your profile and book cover jpegs with one of your buy links.

It's not a requirement, but a very good idea to leave an e-mail address with your comment. It also doesn't hurt to mention where you've heard about our Ask the Editor Free-For-All.

Other people will be asking questions, so be sure to stop by later and check their questions and the answers to them. Since some of you are on e-group Digests, questions and answers might carry over through Wednesday or Thursday.

That's how it works. Now, Start the New Year right. Ask your question and get your manuscript in shape.

Morgan Mandel
Killer Career now 99 cents on Kindle.

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Goal-Setting for Writers

The New Year is usually a time for reflection on the year past and making resolutions for the future. I don’t normally make resolutions (weight loss, be a better person, etc.) because I know I’ll break them immediately!

However, setting writing goals is something I’ve been doing for several years and although I don’t always meet them, it’s fun to look back and see how many I actually did get to. That helps make me feel better when I’m thinking I didn’t have a good writing year.

So, my challenge to you all is to set goals for 2011. Be specific and set dates. For example, my goals for this year:

1. Clean and organize my office first week of January
2. Plan Virtual Book Tour for February 10-20
3. Plan “reality tour” in Montana June 15-30
4. Finish first draft of WIP by August 1
5. Revise manuscript for submission by December 1

Some other suggestions might be:

1. Set a time for writing every day
2. Write 1,000 words a day (or five pages, or whatever is doable for you)
3. Find and join a good critique group
4. Make a list of potential agents and publishers to submit to
5. Send out your work

And most of all, have fun while you’re doing all this!

Happy New Year to all. I wish you writing success, happiness, and good health.

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently been released. 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, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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