Friday, May 31, 2013

An Easy Way To Find A Winning Plot

What’s the easiest way to find a plot for a story or novel? Let it find you!

Just today I read a newspaper article about the chief executive of a media company - already a millionaire - who had voted himself a multi-million dollar bonus for the fifth successive year. Then he had used dubious schemes to avoid paying tax on it.

I was outraged. Was he worth such a reward? No. Did he invest his surplus wealth in Good Works? No. He was an icon of unmitigated greed.

And a plot started to emerge...

I drafted a story in less than an hour in a white heat of anger. I added conflict. I imagined that the tycoon had an underling, poorly paid. She faced a moral dilemma. Should she stay loyal to her boss, who had done her many personal favours, or blow the whistle on his illicit schemes?

On reflection, I made the man a decent fellow, brought up in terrible poverty and driven by insecurity to accumulate vast wealth. Did he deserve to be ruined? Hm...

At the end, there was no moral conclusion, no villain or heroine. (Nor is there in life, usually.) But I hope my passion made the characters - and their conflict - real.

That’s one way to write a gripping tale.

Don’t reach for a plot ‘off the shelf’. It has staleness built in. Find a real story - perhaps out of the day’s newspaper - and feel the emotion that’s already in it.

Why does it move you to tears, compassion or anger? Speculate upon the conflict situations it might reveal, if all the truth were told. Create characters that are authentic but sufficiently fictional to avoid libel. And drop in a plot.

If the original news story reflects an issue that’s perennial in the world - in the above case it might be ‘greed’ versus ‘need’ - your tale is likely to resonate with readers long after the local incidents have been forgotten.

Now you have a great theme.

Of course, a story is no better or worse just because it’s a ‘true’ one. (New writers often cry: 'But it really happened!' That's a poor defence for a bad story. So what?) You have to imbue it with your own passion. Even better, feel the passion that the real characters in that tale must have felt!
"Oh, my God. I can't believe what I just did."
One bonus of this ‘easy’ approach is that you don’t have to be a highly gifted writer to produce a winning result. The theme should speak for itself. Stand back and let it speak.

‘Literary’ authors might strain to breathe life into tired plots, using clever words and structures, but your tale will have a structure taken from life. It's real. It convinces. The plainest words will suffice.

In fact, the stronger your story the simpler should be your words.

No words could be simpler than those in Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Or in the classic tales of O. Henry. Or even in Aesop’s Fables. But their themes still move us. They are grounded in human imperatives, the primal emotional drives that must underlie any story for that story to sell, command readers and endure.

So stop looking for a plot theme. Let it find you. You’ll know when it arrives because you won’t be able to prevent yourself from writing that story. In just one hour. And breakfast be darned...

 Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Must We Really Be Dumb and Dumber?

A recent post by Susan Mary Malone bemoaned the dumbing down of books from an eighth grade reading level to a sixth grade level. After contributing a couple of off-the-cuff responses, I sat back and meditated on the long-term repercussions of such a reduction in standards and became even more concerned about the consequences of this thinking. Then I realized that the dumbing-down mentality is not new.

Think the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, etc. Then, nearly 20 years ago, a movie titled Dumb and Dumber was a smash hit. I didn’t see it because the title turned me off. While I’m not an intellectual snob by any means, I do like the movies I pay to see (and the books I read) to have some redeeming value. Nor am I opposed to something being genuinely funny. Humor holds an honored place in entertainment and in writing. Laughing at a hilarious joke, an amusing story, a giggle-producing autobiography, or reruns of Carol Burnett’s sidekicks (Conway and Korman) or Dick Van Dyke’s antics can be a huge stress releaser or a family fun fest. Great comedy is, indeed, an art form. However, it needn’t be dumbed down to utter stupidity for an audience to “get it.”

Several years ago I was discussing Harry Potter with a lifelong elementary schoolteacher and administrator. After mentioning that none of Rowling’s books had made my favorites list, I received a good scolding for my narrow mindedness; then she informed me that Harry had kids reading voraciously, kids who had never before willingly read any book and whose reading levels varied widely. Elle Carter Neal commented on Susan’s post that the more advanced vocabulary used in the HP books did not deter readers. In fact, the books were wildly popular despite the author’s challenging word choices.  

What’s the message here? Great stories trump dumbing down to sixth-grade reading level.  

How does this invaluable bit of information affect us as writers? We must write well—but exactly what does this mean? After all, well written pieces can be more than a trifle boring and uninspiring. Consider the following criteria for creating great stories: 

1.  Interesting plots keep story moving forward and readers turning pages to see what happens next.

2.  Strong, three-dimensional characters invite readers to connect and become friends who care or enemies who hate. Cheering sections form for threatened protagonists, and protestors rally against the bad guy(s).

3.  Great dialogue sounds so realistic that every word could be spoken aloud and accepted as actual conversation.

4.  Readers can step into story and become silent observers or perhaps even active participants, at least in their own minds.

5.  Imaginations spring to life as readers ponder the “what ifs” and expand the story beyond its current parameters.

6.  Story becomes a hiding place, a refuge, a place where life takes on meaning and interest, an inspiration to broaden horizons, a gold mine of coping mechanisms, and so much more.

Of course, many other elements contribute to a great story with potential to rival Harry Potter in creating reader interest. What points would you add to the above list?
Do you believe that we, as writers, inspire our readers to learn and grow?

Do you find any value in stunting that growth by capping your story at a twelve-year-old’s reading level?

Do you challenge your readers to rise above the occasional word that cries out for definition and head for the dictionary?

How do you stimulate readers to expand their horizons?

Do you believe a mandate to keep your writing at a sixth grade level should be honored?

Or do you think J. K. Rowling should be validated by our following her excellent example in showing kids (and adults!) how to enjoy reading while learning not to be satisfied with being “dummies”?  

Is it time to reverse this appalling trend and show the world that we are quite capable of being smart and smarter?

Linda Lane is proofing the ARC of her latest book and has begun working on the sequel. Several other novels ranging from young adult to thriller wait in the wings for long overdue attention and completion. Despite her busy schedule, she loves to help new writers (as well as more experienced ones) realize their dreams of creating press-ready books with great audience appeal. You may visit her editing team at

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

L.J. Sellers and Ann Parker on Beta Readers

Maryann Miller recently wrote about her beta readers in this post. But what exactly is a beta reader? Sometimes called “first readers”, these are the people who freely read an author’s latest manuscript, usually after the second revision when the story has come together and is fairly solid. Sending a book out for critique at this stage gives the author a chance to break away from the story for a period of time, and then come back with fresh eyes and the help of trusted critical reviews to consider. It’s my observation that beta reading and subsequent revisions make for a stronger story in the final version, even if the author hires an independent editor (especially if only for proofreading the final draft).

Beta readers and the help they give an author make dramatic differences in the quality of a story. Today we chat with two authors who both use beta readers, and for whom I’ve had the pleasure of reading early manuscripts. Meet LJ Sellers, author of the Detective Jackson Mysteries, and Ann Parker, author of the historical Silver Rush Mysteries. Welcome to the Blood-Red Pencil!  Let’s jump right into some questions.

Dani: When do you send a manuscript out to be read? How many readers?


LJ: I send my manuscripts out to beta readers after the second draft, and I usually send it to between five and seven readers.

Ann: I usually send the draft out when it’s close to “finished,” right before it goes to my house editor (who is my ultimate beta reader). As for the number of people, it varies, depending on who I can beg or bribe to read it. Usually it’s five or so. I also have two beta readers that I “save” for doing an ARC read. One is a proofreader by trade, the other is my husband. Both are very detail-oriented.

What kind of turnaround time? How many rounds for each title?

LJ: I typically ask my beta readers to get back to me within three weeks, but most of them read my stories immediately and send feedback within a week. For that, I'm very grateful. I don't send the novel out for second rounds with readers. They're volunteers, and almost no one wants to read the same story again in such a short time. But I have one loyal beta reader in the UK who always reads it twice because he wants to—the first time for overall story content and the second time for proofreading. (I love this guy!) After collecting all the feedback, I do a third draft and send it to my publisher. From there, the manuscript goes to a professional content editor.

Ann: I try to give beta readers a month, but that doesn’t always happen. Like LJ, I don’t ask folks to read it a second time. Sometimes (oh, this is embarrassing to relate!), I’ll have a beta reader read through “on the fly” as I finish up other fixes. Dani, you did that for me on Mercury’s Rise… I was on college tour with my youngest, and you and I did email/phone back ’n’ forth for a couple of long, long nights.

Once I have everything within the time-frame I need, I go through the comments, do a “final” draft, and send it to my editor.

(Dani: I love how Ann always puts "finished" and "final" in scare quotes.)

How often do you use the same readers? When and why do you change readers?

LJ: A core group of people read for me every time (because they want to!), but I also work with at least one new beta reader for every manuscript, and I try to find readers who have never experienced my work before. It seems important to get fresh perspectives and to ensure that even my series books work as standalones.

Ann: I, too, have a core group of folks who read all the books, including a wonderful research librarian up in Leadville, and Ms. Dani (who has the eye of an eagle and an electronic red pen as sharp as… a porcupine quill? I’m out of similes here!). I’ll add experts as needed—an expert in historical mourning fashion and etiquette, for example, or an expert in various aspects of the Civil War or mining. If I ask an expert to read for accuracy, I will offer to highlight the particular sections that involve their expertise. That way, if they don’t want to wade through the whole thing, they can just focus on the aspects that are in their area of interest.

What kind of guidance do you give them?

LJ: I give new beta readers a basic set of questions, such as: Is the beginning engaging? Are the characters compelling? Does the story have any sticking points or things that confused you? Was the ending satisfying?
But my regulars give me all types of specific feedback, including plot points and phrasing advice.

Ann: I usually provide a list of questions/things to look for as well. For instance, I ask them to scribble in the margin places where they think they’ve spotted a clue, or to periodically scribble their thoughts on “who done it” as the story progresses. I also ask them to note places where they get lost, or have to back up and re-read a passage (which indicates to me that I probably need to re-write it). Also, they are free to note anything else that catches their attention. If they feel something is anachronistic, for instance, I ask them to circle/note it in some way. Sometimes, the bit is historically accurate, but if it causes the average reader to stop and think or wonder, then I usually try to find another way to say it, or I explain in more detail. And, of course, I ask them to let me know if I surprised them at the end, and if the mystery was “satisfying.”

That’s very useful information! Thank you for sharing with us. In coming months, we’ll explore this topic in greater depth.

Readers, how many of you have fulfilled this function for an author? Authors, how many of you use beta readers? If not, what in particular do you want to learn about this writing tool? Please leave us a comment or question!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

All in the Family

Nobody likes to read about cardboard characters, but how can an author bring a fictional person to life?

One way is by including family members in a story. Here are a few ideas of how to insert them:

1. Part of backstory
Weave in small hints, or include flashbacks, which in some way tie in the past actions of a family member with a main character's present behavior. A mother who gave up a child for adoption, a father who cheated on his wife, or a sibling who received too little or too much attention, are some examples.

2. Immediate family interaction 
What's happening in the here and now can be compelling. Some examples are a loving husband and wife, or the opposite, an incompatible couple, maybe squabbling siblings, or those who'll go out on a limb to help each otherOne overused, yet still popular concept I often run into is the brother who gambles too much and the sibling who pays for the other's transgressions.

3. An important family event
One way to provide a glimpse of a character's nature is by depicting the death or funeral of a family member, either by natural or suspicious means. Lots of possibilities to depict grief, or perhaps jealousy over inheritance; or, on the other side of the coin, unexpected inherited debt.

Happy occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, are other ways to demonstrate how a character interacts with family members, be it for the good or bad.

Now it's your turn. Can you think of any other examples, or expand on one I've mentioned?

Experience the diversity & versatility of Morgan Mandel. For romantic comedy: Her Handyman & Girl of My Dreams. Thriller: Forever Young: Blessing or Curse.  Romantic suspense: Killer Career. Mystery: Two Wrongs. Twitter:@MorganMandel Websites: Morgan Mandel.Com Chick Lit Faves 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Salute to Memorial Day

“The muffled drum's sad roll has beat 
The soldier's last tattoo;
No more on life's parade shall meet
The brave and daring few.
On Fame's eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.” – Bivouac Of The Dead, by Theodore O'Hara 

Formerly known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated after the Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died. By the 20th century Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died in all wars. Many of us visit cemeteries and “decorate” graves on Memorial Day, and it is traditionally seen as the start of the summer season.

As writers, many of us can find fodder for our craft in the history of our wars and our ancestors who fought in them. My own father was a veteran of WWII and met my mother, a German nurse, during the American occupation. Their love story is the basis of one of my upcoming novels.

A friend of mine, Jennifer Wilke, has written a beautiful novel, The Color of Prayer, based on her great-grandfather, who served in the Civil War.

Simple scenes of family gatherings at lakes, picnics, or on campgrounds can serve as settings for your future stories.

Whatever you’re doing today, stop a moment and remember.

A native Montanan,
Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. 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.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Writer's Audience

So, who do you write for?  Yourself?  Your readers?  A combination? 

We all talk about this a lot. One side firmly states that you write for yourself. Of course, this has to be true, as you’re the one up in that sequestered (hopefully clean and well-lit, as Hemingway would suggest) place, toiling away. If you don’t like your people and story, odds are no one else will either. It’s funny, I see a lot of manuscripts where the villain is all villain, and all the evil gets pinned on his shoulders, which is not only unbelievable but belies that the writer hated him to the core. And that has the paradoxical effect of flattening out the character so that his effect is minimized. But that’s another discussion! The point being that the essence of writing, especially fiction, stems from your own inspiration and connection to your words. To your people. Your story. All of that has to be interesting enough so you keep stepping into that writing room. 
The other side says, “Know your audience,” a familiar refrain, and of course, this holds water.  Especially true when writing genre fiction of all sorts, as the readers invested in the different genres and categories and sub-categories read broadly in those specific lines. Those readers know the requirements, and are right ready to call foul for sometimes even the most minor transgressions. They expect perfection from the authors they follow, and if a book delivers, those readers will be loyal for pretty much life. Even forgiving said transgressions in later books (provided they’re not too egregious). 

But I ran across this quote recently that tweaked me, from Walter Lippmann: “It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing if the audience is deaf.” That got me to thinking about the dumbing down of our society, and how publishers have gone from targeting books to an eighth-grade reading level, to a sixth-grade one today. Gulp. The former statistic has always been disheartening but the latter is downright distressful. How do we write for such? 

We’re tempted to say screw it, I’ll write for myself and whatever audience is there, so be it. And that’s a noble position. One I take fairly often, before returning to reality. We don’t, in the end, want our stories and people to languish, unread. And yet, I confess that I’m more comfortable with that position in nonfiction (I had to rewrite Five Keys for Understanding Men five times, in order to make it accessible for the market, and many reviewers said it was still too highbrow). Fiction is a bit too close to the soul for that to sit well.

We all have to find our own personal balance, based on goals and dreams, on financial and family situations. I’m not sure that’s a fixed balance, but one in which the pendulum swings to and fro as occasions and our own hearts change with the ebb and flow of writing and life. Many authors use pseudonyms for different genres, which I like for its firm boundaries, and have thought at times to adopt. But I never actually do it. I like the idea of owning my work, no matter how well or not it does in the market.

In the end, no right or wrong answer exists to the question. There is no shame at all in writing to the market—that makes authors successful. And no fingers need be pointed at folks who stick to their guns and write what their hearts dictate, whether their stories sell well or not. The only answer is within each one of us, our own personal pacts with the universe. Once we make peace with that, creativity gets freed again to soar.

Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has five traditionally-published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tips for Productivity

Terry Odell, Mark L. Lefevbre of Kobo, David Boop
I had the great fortune of winning one of two Kobo scholarships to a local writing seminar that took place last week. I'm sharing tidbits I picked up—the conference was focused on the publishing business, and inspiring aspiring authors. (I'm sure there's an editorial term for that last phrase.) I'm also recapping more sessions at my blog, which will be ongoing.

For me, the experience was especially eye-opening because although a writer is a writer, we're not running in the same circles, and there are different approaches. These seminars were organized by a group of Science Fiction and Fantasy authors (with one romance author as a speaker), and their roads to success take different paths than mystery and romance authors. We tend to measure our success by our Amazon rankings, or royalty checks, so meeting these "successful" people whom I'd never heard of (nor had they heard of me), was fascinating.

At any rate, the organizer of the three-day series of seminars was author Kevin J. Anderson, and I thought I'd share his Eleven Tips for Productivity with you. After all, no matter what genre we write in, we have to write the book.

And, as always with tips—use the ones that work for you. We're all different.

1. Shut up and write.

2. Defy the empty page.

3. Dare to be bad. (at first)

4. Know the difference between writing and editing. One's left brain, one's right brain. Do one or the other, not both at the same time.

5. Use every minute. Give yourself permission to write three sentences if that's all the time you have.

6. Set goals and stick to them.

7. Work on different projects at the same time. (My note: Anderson writes a tremendous number of books, in many series, often with co-authors. He also edits anthologies, so he'll have projects at various stages to bounce between if he gets stuck with one. I can't do this. One book at a time is my method)

8. Create your best writing environment.

9. Think outside the keyboard. Pens still exist. Anderson uses a digital recorder to dictate while he hikes. (My note: I use post-its for tracking and my very limited "plotting.")

10. Get inspired. Do stuff. Learn stuff. Since "write what you know" is what we're told, the more you know, the more you can write about.

11. Know when to stop. Don't keep polishing when the book is finished. Submit!

Terry Odell
is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

World-Building 102: The Word-Smith's Craft

When I began writing fantasy, one of my goals was to present an imaginary world with depth enough to satisfy my own standards as a reader.  When my first novel The Burning Stone1 was released in 1987, a  reviewer for Locus Magazine complimented me on creating "a lived-in world, and lively one".

So what (besides geography and history) makes for a "lived-in, lively" fantasy world?

The definitive factor is what I like to call "deep structure".  Deep structure encompasses a range of background details which have created the situation your characters find themselves at the start of your story.  Contributing factors include customs, traditions, codes of behavior, technology, art, philosophy, and metaphysics (especially important with regard to how magic works in your world) Deep structure isn't meant to present itself as full-on exposition (the infamous info-dump).  Ideally, it should surface in the form of casual referencing. The technique of selective referencing is particularly well demonstrated in Philip Pullman's best selling novel Northern Lights.2 

Part One is set in "Oxford".  That this is not the Oxford we know is clear from the novel's opening sentence:

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall.

By the end of the page we know that in this world, all human beings are accompanied by daemons - external projections of their inner natures manifested in animal form.

Pullman uses invented terminology to establish a Victorian/Edwardian level of culture. Air transport is by means of dirigibles operating from aerodocks.  Lighting is supplied either by anbaric energy (a fantasy analogue to electricity) or by naptha (gaslight).  Pullman also lends substance to Lyra's world with references to landmarks (the Shot Tower), institutions (the Magisterium), and distinctive sub-cultures (most strikingly the panserbjorne, a race of sentient polar bears with a kingdom in the far North).

From a fantasy-writer's perspective, when you're "word-smithing", you're fishing for a word that conveys certain specialized shades of meaning.  Some methods of word-smithing are easier than others.  Here are three optional approaches.

1.  Go for an evocative combination of sounds: a beriaster sounds like it ought to be some kind of jewel (beri faintly suggests berry or beryl; aster is a flower).

2.  Play around in the OED with the aid of thesaurus until you find a rare or archaic synonym for the idea you're trying to convey.  (In The Burning Stone, I borrowed the term orison from the annals of medieval mysticism to denote a mage's working trance state.) Alternatively, survey a cluster of words related by concept, and see if you can replace a commonplace word with an unfamiliar close cousin.  (I ended up using the word prelate as a substitute for priest.)

3.  If your linguistic skills are up to the challenge, you can wire together a linguistically viable neologism.  (My husband can juggle Greek and Latin roots like beanbags.)

This business of word-smithing probably sounds appallingly pedantic to some of you out there. However, if you can invest the creative energy, the results are often spectacular. 


1 Just recently I learned, somewhat to my surprise, that another book entitled The Burning Stone appeared in print back in 1999, written by Kate Elliott.  If anybody out there is interested in trying to pick up a copy of my Burning Stone, make sure you check the author's name.  Hers in Volume III in a series called The Crown of Stars. 

2 Published in the States under the title The Golden Compass.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thank You to My Friends

In a recent blog post, Joe Konrath, a successful indie author, wrote a response to James Patterson's commentary about the death of traditional publishing being the death of literature. One of the points Patterson made in an ad he ran in the New York Times was that without traditional publishing there would be no quality control over what is published. Actually, he inferred that there might be no more books, quality or not.

Konrath wrote that just because the publishing paradigm is shifting, the future of literature is quite safe. As to the issue of quality control, Konrath pointed out that there are good freelance editors - ahem, those of us here at The Blood Red Pencil among them - as well as critique groups and beta readers to help writers maintain a high standard of writing. You can read Konrath's entire post on his blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. 

When I read Konrath's article, I found it supportive of the post Terry Odell did here last month on the value of critique partners, and it also reminded me of the recent experience I had with beta readers. In the past, I've been in critique groups that have helped me become better at this craft of writing, but I had never used a beta reader until I decided to go indie with my latest mystery, Boxes For Beds.

I didn't set out to get a beta reader. That happened in a round-about way when our own Dani Greer put me in contact with a good editor, as she did not have time to do a full edit. However, she did offer to read the manuscript and give some feedback. Her responses were quite helpful. She pointed out areas where the motivation for some actions was a bit weak, and she also made suggestions for strengthening the historical aspect. I had been so focused on the mystery and the relationships between the characters, I had forgotten about those little historical details that can firmly cement a story in a time period.

I also had another beta reader, Cathy Richmond, who was a member of the critique group I belonged to in Omaha, Nebraska and is a successful author of Inspirational Historical Romance. She read the manuscript after I made the changes, as Dani was not able to give the book a second read. Plus I thought it would be good to have yet another cold read, and I let Cathy know that I was particularly interested in feedback on the historical details and the motivations. She let me know where the changes had worked, and mentioned a couple of places that could use a little more clarification.

This is Cathy's latest book. Don't you love the cover?
The input from these beta readers, as well as the edit by Audrey Lintner, made the finished product much better than had I relied on my own self-editing, and reminded me that it is always so good to have a fresh perspective on a story. Back in the golden era of publishing that perspective would come from the editor at the publishing house, but since that no longer happens, we do rely on friends who will read for us, and for the freelance editors we can hire.

For those who might be interested, here is a link to an interview with Patterson on Salon.

Coming soon, Dani will interview two authors for whom she is a beta reader.  Both write very different mystery series, and they might give you ideas for organizing a team of your own beta readers.

Maryann Miller
is a novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her latest release is Stalking Season, the second book in the Seasons Series. The first book, Open Season, is available as an e-book for all devices. To check out her editing rates visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. Sometimes she plays on stage, but she does avoid computer games as much as possible. She is also very grateful for the support from her writing and editing friends.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Saying Boo

Photo credit: Google Images

Writers are often introverts. We dislike getting “out there.” Many of us are happiest (and feel safest) holed up in our snug workrooms, hunched over our laptops typing away. We are so much more impressive when we write than when we talk!

This goes double for ghostwriters. After all, the whole point of being a ghost is that you are invisible. Once in a while you may rattle a chain or two, or emit a low howl in the dead of night, but that’s about it. Despite the popular conception of what a ghost does, you must never say Boo! – it gives away your presence.

Of course, introversion is a poor marketing strategy. It doesn’t work for authors, and it won’t work for ghostwriters either. No matter how much you enjoy the background shadows, you have to get “out there” and let people look at and listen to you – and you must try to be informative, compelling, inspirational, or at the very least, nice. People simply won’t hire you otherwise. And they won’t recommend you either.


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 40 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit

Saturday, May 18, 2013

How to Pitch a Self-Published Book to a Publisher - Part Two

In the first installment on Wednesday we ended the post with the following question and comment:

What does a writer do who doesn’t want to hustle – just write?

It’s a growing worry for many authors, and it will get worse.

Now let’s fast forward to the year 2015. Let’s imagine self-publishing has matured. It’s accepted and respected in the publishing world. A lot of successful self-publishers have begun to ask themselves: what do I really want to do with the rest of my life? Become another J. A. Konrath or John Locke, and work 18/24 to boost my Kindle ratings? Or hype myself perpetually at Facebook, Google+ and Twitter? Or mount a thousand blog tours?

Again, do I write or hustle? What happened to my dream of being an author, a person who writes fiction, not advertisements?

 Maybe they thumb through that list of literary agents, long scorned. They decide that the traditional publishing route might have some merits after all. Goodbye to hard labour. Let the publisher do the hustling! And they prepare their submission to an agent…

But this submission breaks the rules.

Instead of comprising the usual cover letter, synopsis and first chapter, it’s an accountant’s prospectus.
‘Bids are invited for a going business with a $200,000 pre-tax income stream, $500,000 in back-list assets and a customer base of 10,000 loyal readers.’

It’s the sort of deal that agents routinely negotiate with publishers for novelists who have made their name with an established imprint, reached the end of their contract and are looking for a new home. Could it also be a model proposal for the self-publishing author of the future, when approaching an agent for the first time?

Maybe MFA programs in creative writing circa 2015 will offer authors a popular new module - how to write a persuasive business plan. Perhaps a new kind of literary agent will emerge, one with a background in business law not literature. Their task will be to represent an author’s sales record, not his or her books.

And self-publishing authors will be able to breathe a sigh of relief, quit the marketplace and return to what they really wanted to do - craft fiction.

Today, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for newbie authors to secure an agent. Instead, could they self-publish, build a successful business as Oswald and Hocking did - and then pitch an agent with their fan club? Will this become the career path of choice for authors in the future? What do you think?

 Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:

Friday, May 17, 2013

Busted!—Nick Hornby Caught Using Prismatic POVs

In his novel A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby uses four different points of view to explore the ramifications of one shared incident. On New Year’s Eve, these characters encounter one another on the roof of the most famous suicide tower in London. Ultimately they talk one another off the ledge and into a pact that will delay the decision for six weeks, until the second most popular night for suicides—Valentine’s Day. If any of them still want to die that day, they will honor those wishes.

Despite their huge differences, the characters spend a lot of time together. Check them out:

Maureen is a conservative middle-aged woman who has had intercourse once in her life—with a fiancé who then left her—and that act produced Matty, a brain-damaged son who even as an adult cannot speak or interact with her in any way. Maureen has no life; all of her time is spent caring for her son.
And once you have a child like Matty you can’t help but feel, That’s it! That’s all my bad luck, a whole lifetime’s worth, in one bundle. But I’m not sure luck works like that. Matty wouldn’t stop me from getting breast cancer, or from being mugged. You’d think he should, but he can’t. In a way, I’m glad I never had another child, a normal one. I’d have needed more guarantees from God than He could have provided. 

Martin was an aging morning TV host when he went to jail for sleeping with a fifteen-year-old, imploding both marriage and career. He now has a part-time gig on a minor cable channel.
Not once have I been the victim of misrepresentation or distortion. If you think about it, that was one of the most humiliating aspects of the last few years. The papers have been full of s**t about me, and every word of the s**t was true. 

Jess is the young, drug-addled, emotionally volatile daughter of an education minister who coddles her because his other daughter went missing years ago. Her useless boyfriend just broke up with her.
You should try to read the stuff by people who have killed themselves! We started with Virginia Woolf, and I only read like two pages of this book about a lighthouse, but I read enough to know why she killed herself: she couldn’t make herself understood. You only have to read one sentence to see that. I sort of identify with her a bit, because I suffer from that sometimes, but her mistake was to go public with it. 

JJ is the only American. He came to England to play guitar in a band with his best friend, his beloved girlfriend in tow. When his friend broke up the band he lost his friend, the girl, and the music that was his passion. He now delivers pizzas, and is embarrassed that he doesn’t have as good a reason as the others to kill himself.
“I got like this brain thing. It’s called CCR.” Which, of course, is Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of my all-time favorite bands, and a big inspiration to me. I didn’t think any of them looked like big Creedence fans. Jess was too young, I really didn’t need to worry about Maureen, and Martin was the kind of guy who’d only have smelled a rat if I’d told him I was dying of incurable ABBA. 

Hornby uses their varying voices and perspectives in an often laugh-out-loud counterpoint, all while deepening our sense of what it is that might make someone give up living, and why, and how even a stranger who has little in common with you might make a difference.

This is not a book you will read for its riveting plot. But if you’d like to study character and voice and the way varying points of view can give a prismatic view of a premise—and how each character reveals himself by the way he views the others—this is a quick, fun read that will do the trick.

Can you think of other books where multiple characters are used less to drive plot but more to comment upon a shared event, or one another? Have you ever tried this technique?

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation 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." Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How To Pitch A Self-Published Novel to A Publisher - Part One

News that self-publishing author James Oswald has gained a £150,000 ($240,000) advance this week from Penguin in a three-book deal will bring new hope to writers struggling to market their own novels. Oswald, a Scottish farmer, had self-published his crime mystery ebooks in a casual way for several years, but with limited success. The tragic death of his parents gave him a new determination to achieve stardom, as a tribute to their memory.

He followed the now familiar route of offering his first novel Natural Causes on Amazon as a ‘loss leader’ without charge. Buyers were encouraged to pay £2.99 ($5) for the follow-up novel.

He stumbled on the ‘funnel’ strategy now being used by many authors. Buyers went on an email list and were followed up. Repeat buyers were transferred to a ‘friends’ list. They got personalised attention, special offers, discounts, and lots of love. That’s how John Locke sold his first million ebooks and it worked for Oswald too. He had already sold or given away 350,000 novels when Penguin offered him a contract for Natural Causes plus two sequels.

Amanda Hocking took a similar approach in 2011 when she signed a four-book deal with St Martin’s Press. The 27-year old writer had sold over one million copies of her self-promoted vampire romances, using Goodreads, Kindleboards, Facebook, Twitter, and her own blog. In just eleven months between April 2010 and March 2011 she had built a big fan base.

St Martin’s Press bought, in effect, not her books but her fan club.

A new publishing paradigm

Hocking's $2 million contract shook the paradigms of the publishing industry. It was virtually the first time a major imprint had signed a self-publishing author. Until then, self-published fiction had born the stigma of the vanity press. No credible reviewer would look at a Lulu or AuthorHouse novel. No bricks and mortar bookshop would stock it. No book club would list it. But Hocking set a precedent.

Today’s profit-squeezed publishers are more likely to be swayed by the size of the author’s following than by the intrinsic quality of their work. Fans are a guarantee of future sales.

Cynics have likened this policy to the old adage: banks loan money only to those who don’t need it. But it’s good news for those self-publishers, already moderately successful, who have reached a plateau in their writing lives - and a dilemma. By manic effort, they’ve built a reader base, sales record, popular blog and a back-list of profitable titles. What do they do now?

They wanted to be an author and they find they’ve become a huckster. And they don’t like it.

What does a writer do who doesn’t want to hustle – just write?

It’s a growing worry for many authors, and it will get worse. On Saturday, I will be back with the second installment of this two-part series where we can talk about the actual pitch. See you then.

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Lighter Side of Editing

Every writer edits. Some edit as they go, some save it for later, some do it for a living. Whenever I head down that ol' editing highway, my writing sheep come along for the ride. 

Sheep #1: This is cheating.

Sheep #2: It is, you know.

Writer: Why is this cheating? I'm writing.

Sheep #3: But this is dialogue. You like writing dialogue. It comes easily for you. FOUL!!!

Sheep #1: You should be working on her prose.

Sheep #2: It does need work.

Sheep #3: And we're being kind.

Writer: I'm  aware work is needed. I've been searching and destroying her repetitive words.

Sheep #1: We know. We've named one of us 'Just' and another one 'That'. (lifts front hoof and points to the left) See that sheep over there? The one with the bland expression?

Writer: Aren't most sheep's expressions bland?

Sheep #2: That was uncalled for.

Sheep #3: We're a myriad of emotions. We're deep.

Sheep #1: You have no idea.

Writer: Anyway...

Sheep #1: (shaking head) Of course. That sheep over there is "Smiled". He was everywhere. Now he's shunned. Don't go near him. He's bitter.

Sheep #2: He bites.

Sheep #3: But it's not just the repetitive words. We want more description. A clearer picture, if you will. We want all our senses engaged.

Writer: I know. I'm doing my best.

Sheep #1: And tell her we want more conflict! Conflict makes us happy.

Writer: Conflict makes you happy?

Sheep #2: We told you we're complex.

Sheep #1: Now, don't get us wrong. There is a great deal of the story which has our approval.

Sheep #2: We like the food.

Sheep #3: And the horse.

Sheep #1: We want to drive the red car. Can that be arranged?

Writer: That might prove difficult.

Sheep #2: Fine. Disappoint us. We're only sheep.

Sheep #1: Just tell her to finish. We're ready to move on.

Writer: So am I.

Sheep #3: Good. We want new pastures. New views. New characters.

Writer: But two of the characters will be in the next manuscript.

Sheep #1: We know. We're fine with that.

Writer: Why?

Sheep #3: They're the ones who drive the red car.

Elspeth Antonelli is an author and playwright. Her murder mystery games "A Fatal Fairy Tale" and "Deadly Ever After" are among the top-selling mystery games on the web. All fourteen of her murder mystery games and two audience-interactive plays are published by She has also contributed articles to the European writers' magazine Elias. Connect with her on Twitter at @elspethwrites.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Writing in 140: Using Story to Kill Clichés and Freshen Up Metaphors

a clean slate

beat around the bush

step up to the plate

tall, dark, and handsome

ace in the hole

dark and stormy night

Some readers will cringe if they pick up your book and read stale metaphors and clichés like the ones above. With your first draft, you want to get the story on the page, PERIOD. However, in revisions, you want to make a pass for these metaphors and clichés and delete and/or freshen them up. How to do this? A few tips: think about your story’s setting – where are we, what's in this world? Think about your characters – who are they, what do they do? Revising metaphors and sprucing up overly familiar language so that they connect with your story’s context will make them more organic . . . and unique to your story.

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

Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both academically and creatively while also interviewing women writers on her popular blog, ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. In 2012, her second mystery, Into the Web and her short story "I Wanna Get Off Here" (in the short story collection, The Corner Cafe) were published. Her next release, Saying No to the Big O, was published April 2, 2013. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University ... and trying to find the time to WRITE.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Excuse Me, Please, I Need a Diagram

After some revealing comments about parts of speech following a recent post, I pondered my early education and why it is that I rarely am stumped about the function of a word in a sentence. Answer: I learned sentence diagramming. When a sentence is deconstructed and then reconstructed within a framework of lines that clearly delineate word function, “many things are made clear that else lie hidden in darkness.” (Profound apologies to Longfellow and Evangeline for my repurposing this wonderful line.)

It seems, however, that not all people (even in my age group) were taught this occasionally challenging but definitely enlightening sentence-structure tool. In the 1980s, when I spent several years working in the language arts departments of five elementary, middle, and high schools, I found even teachers seemed to have little understanding of its practicality in helping students to recognize parts of speech. This puzzled me. Is not a picture worth a thousand words?

I decided to explore why the ability to diagram a sentence can be a valuable tool for both writers and editors. My first thought was to include examples. Unfortunately, my lack of expertise left me befuddled about how to create and incorporate the necessary graphics into this article and unsure whether copying and pasting them off the Internet might be an infringement of copyright. But don’t despair — I’ll make sure to give you appropriate links.

Sentences that work are essential elements of good writing. Knowing the parts of speech helps us use words most effectively to create sentences that touch our readers and pull them into our stories. This builds our fan base — as well as being beneficial if we are editing someone else’s work, especially when we need to teach them to create great sentences to make their work more marketable. Can that happen if we don’t know the difference between an adjective and an adverb? a conjunction and a preposition? Of course it can. On the other hand, knowing how and why language works is a distinct benefit, whether we use it in our own writing or to help someone else with his or hers, because it allows us to employ language in the best way possible to accomplish our purpose.

Here are some examples of building sentences to create more vivid word pictures. Different parts of speech have been added to create depth, tone, heart, and texture. Note that the original ambiguous mind picture has been developed into a sharp vision of a specific scene.

Children play.

Little children play.

Little children play in the dirt.

Little children play in the dirt at the city dump.

Little children dressed in rags play in the dirt at the city dump.

Diagramming each of these sentences would create a grammatical roadmap to help us understand how different parts of speech work to build more effective writing. Check out the links below and then tell me whether you believe that understanding sentence structure and word usage would help you improve your writing. The third link, from the New York Times, is particularly enlightening. Its complex example from a Henry James work is a great eye-opener for those of us who love to expound in long, complicated sentences.

Diagramming Sentences (Capital Community College Foundation)

Taming Sentences (New York Times Opinionator)

Retiring editor Linda Lane still enjoys working with writers to help them create great books. Please visit her team at or take a peak at her under-construction site at

Thursday, May 9, 2013


How many of you have mentored a fellow writer? Editors, in many ways, could be considered mentors. They correct problems and work to make your story more "active" or to make the flow of the book smoother or faster. If you study the edits they make instead of just accepting all the edits, you learn how to not make the same mistakes. 'Course, they, in most cases, get paid.

In this case, I’m talking about volunteering to mentor a new writer -- helping him or her with their manuscript. It can be anything from correcting spelling to plot development. It could even involve helping them write their query letter or synopsis, or searching for an agent.

If this appeals to you, consider looking at the writing groups you belong to, such as Sisters in Crime (or a group that covers the genre you write) or your critique group. Is there someone there who has mentioned needing help in some areas? Someone who's struggling? Could you offer to read some pages for them and give your advice? Maybe meet in person to talk? If you're the one who needs help, have you asked?

The local group of Sisters in Crime (the Heart of Texas chapter) does a May event where writers can sign up to be hooked up with a mentor. Mentees can also sign up to get a mentor. We only had two writers ask for mentoring.

This year I've been matched with a writer from San Antonio. She sent me her opening chapter and I've looked at it, made a few edits and sent it back. If we lived in the same town, we could get together to talk. As it is, we'll probably not meet up until the May meeting. At the meeting, there will be time for the two of us to sit and talk about her book or querying agents or whatever she wants to discuss.

There aren't rules that say the relationship has to go beyond the one meeting, but I suspect it will. That's left up to the mentor and mentee. I’m looking forward to meeting my writer.

What about you? Have you ever had a mentor or mentee relationship? How did it come about? What were the results?

Helen Ginger
is an author, blogger, and the Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services 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 fourteenth year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, the contemporary fiction, Angel Sometimes. Two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Dismembering the Past, is due out in 2013.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Marketing 101

The first installment of this two-part humor essay from our friend Slim Randles appeared on my blog, It's Not All Gravy, last week. It's not necessary to read that one first to appreciate this installment, but it does add a bit more context to the story about building a business. We always appreciate it when Slim shares his cowboy humor with us.

Emily’s dilemma was obvious: how do you sell manure? Since she fell in love with Dewey Decker, she could think of nothing less than spending her life with him and embracing the fertilizer business whole hog, so to speak. Emily Stickles has never done anything halfway.

In her job with the county, she has kept a vigilant eye on almost every business around, encouraged where she could, and crushing hard if she needed to stomp on violators.

But Dewey’s business, scooping up cow manure and redistributing it to gardens all over the county, was a labor of love with her. This was her man’s business, and she would do what she could to help.

She had papers spread out all over the kitchen table and was jotting down ideas. The first and most obvious one was to take advantage of the local paper and send them a news release. Oh, they might want advertising money, too … they’re kinda funny that way … but a news release comes out looking almost like a news story. The trick is, it can’t look like a free ad for the business, which it is.

She looked down at story ideas:
  “Local Merchant Says No Shortage of Product in Sight.”
  “County Soils Need Biodegradable Amendments”
  “Avoiding Infertility: Spread the Word, and the Manure.” 

Well, that last one needs work. 

Tomorrow she’s going to corner Dewey and work up a business plan with him. Oh, she realizes all he wants to do is shovel … but he’ll need to graduate to supervisory work if his company is going to progress. 

Okay, how about “Valley Expert Says: Bovine Donations Enrich Local Gardens.” 

Maybe a cup of coffee will help her think.
Brought to you by American Book Preparation, editing and rewriting services. Inquire at
Maryann Miller is a novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent release is Boxes For Beds, an historical mystery available as an e-book. Stalking Season is the second book in the Seasons Mystery Series. The first book, Open Season, is available as an e-book for all devices. To check out her editing rates visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. Sometimes she plays on stage, but she does avoid computer games as much as possible. If he didn't live so far away, she would like to hire Dewey to come and clean her pasture.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What's Your Answer About Seasons

As the seasons change, so do readers' habits. People can get caught up in holidays, such as Christmas, and focus on little else.

During the cold winter months, outdoor activities are limited, and reading becomes popular.

Once the sun shines, the birds sing, and the flowers bloom, the great outdoors beckons.

My questions today focus on seasons, and how authors can relate to them. As usual, I'll ask a few questions, and offer my answers. Then, it's your turn to respond with your answers in the comment section.

 Here goes:

1. What's one way to work seasons to advantage? 

Write books focusing on a particular season or holiday. Better yet, do a series spanning the seasons. Mona Risk's Holiday Babies Series is a great example. To date, she's written Christmas BabiesValentine Babies, and her latest offering, Mother's Day Babies.

2. What's another way? 

Pay attention to seasonal changes, and how they affect nature, your activities, your moods. Enrich your stories by including these observations.  If writing about an unfamiliar place, do research instead of making assumptions. If you guess wrong, readers will notice.

Now it's your turn. Please offer a way to work seasons to advantage, or expand on mine.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Grammar ABCs: V is for Verbs

Which sentence “shows” the action best?
• Joe walked to the house.
• Joe strode to the house.

Verbs are action words and are key to showing rather than telling. Verbs themselves can be active or passive, as you can see from the examples above. Joe walked is pretty mundane. It’s not wrong, but you can show his state of mind by using a strong, active verb, such as strode, stomped, loped, or stumbled. You can also describe the character with a verb, such as Joe limped.

Watch verb “helpers”, such as the “to be” form. Joe was walking. Again, it is not wrong, but it is more passive than even the simple Joe walked.

The voice of a verb tells whether the subject of the sentence performs the action (active or strong) or is acted upon (passive or weak.)
• Joe was praised by Glen. (passive)
• Glen praised Joe. (active)

The passive voice can be used when the actor is unknown or is less important than the object of the action.
• Participants in the survey were asked about their changes in political affiliation. (OK, because “who” is asking is unknown.)
• I was surprised by the teacher's lack of sympathy. (In this case it could be that the teacher is less important than the subject’s surprise. Or it could be re-written as: The teacher’s lack of sympathy surprised me.)

Keep your verb tense consistent.
• Not: Immediately after Booth shot Lincoln, Major Rathbone threw himself upon the assassin. (Verbs are past tense) But Booth pulls a knife and plunges it into the major’s arm. (Verbs change to present tense. It should be pulled and plunged in the second sentence.)

I could go on for pages and pages about all the ins and outs of verb usage, but will leave you with the advice to pick strong, active verbs that “show” rather than “tell.”

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. 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.