Friday, December 30, 2016

A Matter of Style—On or Off the Grid

This top post of 2016 was first published on March 17.

Image courtesy of vikas bhargava

Hello, dearies! While Mother Nature has seen fit to deck the yards in our neck of the woods (So many lovely daffodils!), there are a great many readers who are suffering the ravages of floods and other assorted nasty weather. To them we send our wishes for safety and a quick recovery.

I will admit that while the local weather has been mild, the interior of my home currently looks like Tornado Alley. It’s bad enough that the squirrels are laughing at me; I’m unable to locate my beloved Chicago Manual of Style!

Fear not, duckies. Whilst grumbling and tossing various bits of clutter, it is still entirely possible to set one’s mind at ease regarding elements of writing style. Simply visit the online edition!

For a fee, groups and individuals may access everything that the print edition has to offer, as well as taking part in the Forum, an online kaffeeklatsch for writers and readers of every stripe. Site visitors who do not purchase a membership may still access the always-helpful Tools and Q&A sections.

Well, I haven’t found my print edition yet, but I have managed to unearth that package of pencils that I bought last month. All I have to do now is find the sharpener …

Ah, well. It’ll show itself eventually. In the meantime, keep your chin up, keep your pathways clear, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style!

In keeping with the spring foliage, The Style Maven is "busting out all over," and intends to visit the gym as soon as possible in order to rectify the situation.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Writers Write

This top post of 2016 was first published on May 5.

SHEEP #1: Is that you?

WRITER: Are you talking to me?

SHEEP #1: Yes.

SHEEP #2: Where have you been?

SHEEP #1: You’re rather late.


SHEEP #2: Time to write!


SHEEP #1: But what?

SHEEP #2: You're not a goat. Stop butting.

WRITER: Writing is hard.

SHEEP#2: Are you a writer?


SHEEP #2:  Then write.

WRITER: It’s not that easy.

 SHEEP #3: Yes, it is. Write.

 SHEEP #2: It doesn’t have to be perfect.

 SHEEP #1: Let’s be honest, it won’t be perfect. It will never be perfect.

 SHEEP #2: But it will be words. You can work with words.

 SHEEP # 1: As a wise sheep once said, you can’t edit an empty page. 

SHEEP #2: Who said that?

WRITER: Wasn’t it you?

SHEEP #2: It probably was. I’m very wise.

SHEEP #1: And humble.

SHEEP #2: Yes. Yes, this is true.

WRITER: But I want it to be perfect. So I write the same paragraph over and over. I never get beyond Chapter One.

SHEEP #2: That isn’t writing. That’s going around in circles. You’ll get dizzy.

SHEEP #1: Writing moves forward. As a wise king once said “Start at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, and then stop.”

SHEEP #2: Who said that?

SHEEP #1: I just did.

WRITER: But who was the wise king?

SHEEP #2: It may have been the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. 

WRITER: I love that book. 

SHEEP #1: Yes. It made us look at white rabbits a whole new way.

SHEEP #2: It also proved our theory that white animals are wise. 

SHEEP #1: And that they can talk.

WRITER: You had a theory that animals could talk?

SHEEP #1: That’s not the point.

WRITER: What’s the point?

SHEEP #2: That writers write.

SHEEP #1: Go and write. Rejoice in the words. They don’t have to be good words. They just have to be words.

SHEEP #3: Spill them onto the page. Be reckless.

WRITER: Really?

SHEEP #2: It’s spring. It’s the time for planting. How can you harvest anything if you don’t plant? 

SHEEP #3: Start at the beginning, continue on to the end, and then stop.

SHEEP #1: Or start at the end.

SHEEP #2: Or start in the middle.

ALL THE SHEEP: But start.

Elspeth Futcher is an author and playwright. Thirteen of her murder mystery games and two audience-interactive plays are published by Her A Fatal Fairy Tale, Deadly Ever After and Curiouser and Curiouser are among the top-selling mystery games on the Internet.  Elspeth's newest game, Nice But Naughty is now available from her UK publisher, Red Herring Games, as is her Great British Bump Off and Once Upon a Murder. Elspeth's 'writing sheep' are a continuing feature in the European writers' magazine Elias and also appear on this blog from time to time. Connect with her on Twitter at @elspethwrites or on Facebook at Elspeth Futcher, Author.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Character Goals

This top post of 2016 was first published on April 21.

It's spring in the northern hemisphere, and a good time to check in with our goals (especially those we might have made a few months ago at the start of the year).
But what about our characters? To create a life-like character the reader will identify with, like, and root for, we must give that character motivation and goals.

What does your character care about? This element of caring sets the character up in how he/she is going to live life, how he’s going to react to certain things. Giving your character something to care about commits her to a stance to live by.

What next? We know what our character cares about, so now what? We have to challenge him, threaten her and what they care about. You throw them into a situation that challenges the part of them that cares and threatens the thing they feel is important.

A precious collection is stolen. A girl enters a dangerous relationship. Perhaps it’s a parent whose child has been injured/abducted/died. That parent’s goal could be healing, finding the child, revenge, forgiveness—all sorts of motivations that will carry him or her through this story journey.

You create risk. This doesn’t always have to be through a villain—it can be weather, hard times, a moral dilemma, friction between the characters. The twists and turns of your plot will come from these things.

How does the character react to this conflict and risk? Motivation is what causes the character to act. Is it to save his own life? Someone else’s he cares about? To preserve her reputation?

The reasons relate to the character’s inner character. Something drives him to rescue the kidnapped child, slay the dragon, challenge the alien invaders of track down the mass murderer.

Motivation also often comes from a desire for change. Give a character so compulsive a desire to make a given change that he can’t let it be, and you have the basis for a story. And your character MUST change. It doesn’t need to be huge, it can be subtle. It can be a character’s struggle with addiction, mid-life crisis—trying to get out of a rut, a change in attitude toward something or someone.

Readers don't examine stories looking for the motivational aspects. However, they instinctively know when they aren't there. They'll know the story is flawed and will stop reading.

So, we not only need goals as writers, but we need to create goals for our characters. What are some of your characters’ goals or motivations?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series is Dare to Dream, and a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, is also available. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Who's Telling This Story Anyway?

This top post of 2016 was first published on May 24th.

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee

I’ve heard some fiction authors talk about characters as if the writer is the boss and the characters are employees who do what the boss tells them to do. I’ve heard other authors talk about characters as if the inmates are running the asylum: the writer enters the schizophrenic place in his or her mind where imaginary people appear, and those people say and do things that feel outside the writer’s control.

Just who’s in charge here?

In the instance of characters as employees, sometimes the author has a plan and then changes his or her mind, and the characters follow the new plan. In the instance of characters as instigators, sometimes the author has a plan and then the characters change their minds, because they know that nobody with their characteristics would ever engage in such shenanigans. We sometimes say such characters have minds of their own, but since they live in our minds, aren’t their minds just another corner of ours? Perhaps the subconscious.

Maybe we can take it a step farther, and consider whether we and these characters form part of what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious: the human tendency, as a group, to be disposed to shared experiences and repeated patterns of behavior. In other words, we all share in human nature, so when we dive deep within ourselves for answers, we often find universal wisdom, something all storytellers dip into. We recognize archetypes of humanity and therefore have an innate sense of the way certain character types are likely to respond to certain situations.

That might sound like it takes the magic out of storytelling, but maybe it is the magic: the way the collective experience of human nature can still hold our rapt attention after so many millennia of stories. 

Sometimes authors write stories that seem to come through them as if from some other realm. If we’re lucky, we experience the feeling that the characters we create take on lives of their own. At those moments, the story almost writes itself.

Is that really so strange? After all, it’s not much different from the way we live our lives.

Every moment, life asks us to make choices that can carry us to a variety of destinations, some mundane some interesting. We never know exactly where we’re headed: life or death, love or loss, victory or defeat, peace or battle. Most of the time we may simply get out of bed, work, eat, use the bathroom, exercise, watch Netflix, brush our teeth, and trot back to bed. But one day we might answer a situation with a new decision that leads to the unexpected, uncomfortable, exciting possibility of change.

What if I quit my job and work for myself? What if instead of boarding my flight to the Midwest I switch my ticket to Asia? What if I step on stage and tell that story, sing that song, dance that dance that I never dared before? 

That’s what happens in stories, the “What if?”

We’re each living our own stories, the questions similar to those we ask when we write fiction: just who is running this show? God? Fate? Chaos? Me? I prefer to imagine a dance of all the above, which implies both greater meaning and personal agency. But, in the end, none of that changes the way I choose to tell my story: something happens, I make a choice, which affects the next thing that happens, which is also affected by other people’s choices. Then I make the next choice.

Sometimes I make choices so quickly I’m not fully conscious of them. Yet somehow, between my choices and the events that unfold in response, life takes shape. The bolder my choices, the more engaging my life. The same is true of my characters and their lives. 

What if we trusted that process, allowing our characters’ lives to unfold without wondering who was in charge? What if our fingers just kept moving words across the page and we watched to see what lives those words conjured? What if we trusted in the act of opening ourselves to the possibility that in a story anybody might do anything at any time, expected or unexpected?

I say we let our characters do what they want, and trust that it also happens to be what we want them to do, whether we’re aware of it or not. I say we trust that our characters and ourselves are all in this together.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.

Monday, December 26, 2016

How to Get Readers Hooked

This top post of 2016 was first published on April 7.

I don't claim to know all the ways to get readers hooked, but I know some I can share with you.

1. Get a Fantastic Cover. That's not so easy. One approach might be to study the covers of bestselling authors in your genre, and determine if those covers have anything in common with each other. Or, if an author you happen to know has a cover you really like, ask who designed it.

2. Start Each Book With A Hook. In this fast-paced world, an author has to grab the reader immediately. This may sound obvious, but it can be the most difficult to do. One way to accomplish this is to begin the first paragraph in the middle of an action sequence to pique the reader's curiosity about what's going on and what'll happen next. Or, pose a question. If it's a good one, the reader will want to know the answer.

3. Write a Series. If readers like your character(s), or a certain locale, they're more likely to come back for more, kind of like watching a TV series.

4. Do Giveaways. If you sell e-books through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, you're in luck, since they offer more than one way for you to promote an e-book through Giveaways, or a Price Countdown. If your e-book isn't with Amazon, you can still do a Giveaway through your newsletter, blog, or website. You can also do one on Smashwords, for a limited time, or all the time.

5. Make One of Your E-books Permafree. Click Here to get my permafree thriller, Two Wrongs. If your ebook is free at another venue, Amazon will match that free price and keep it free,even if it's not part of KDP Select, for as long as it's remains free at the other venue. A free sample, especially one in a series, can lure a reader to read more of your work.

6. Try For Followers on Your Amazon Author Page. Include the Follow button at the end of your books, also in links on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Google Plus. If you get enough followers,(last I heard the magic number was fifty), when you release a new book, your followers will be notified by Amazon. Every bit of publicity helps. That said, I'm trolling for followers, so if you're so inclined, please click Here to get to my Amazon Author Page. The Follow Button is on the left, under the Hailey's Chance cover there. For those who do so, I thank you.

7. Get a Mailing List Going and Send Out a Newsletter. Put a signup on your blog, also mention it on Twitter, or any egroups you belong to. Two popular sites with templates and other newsletter information, which can help you get started are and

I hope my suggestions have been helpful for you. Does anyone else have an idea on how to get readers hooked? Or, maybe you'd like to share how an author got you hooked.

Experience Morgan Mandel's diversity and versatility. Check Out Her Standalone Romantic Comedy,  Girl of My Dreams, the romantic comedy series, Her Handyman, and A Perfect Angel. For Mystery/Suspense, try Killer Career or Two Wrongs. For the small town of Deerview series: Hailey's Chance: Will Baby Make 3? and Christmas   Carol.Websites:Morgan Mandel.Com Morgan Does Chick Lit.ComTwitter:@MorganMandel

Friday, December 23, 2016

3 Steps to Reinvigorating Your Writing

This top post of 2016 was first published on April 12.

I have a confession to make.

I am a writer.

Well, I was before life stepped in.

Well, I was before I let life step into my home and make itself comfortable while my writing wilted in the back of a stuffed closet.

And, yes, I write here for Blood-Red Pencil, I write in preparation for teaching, I write in my journal, but you all know what I mean, write, er, right? I'm talking about the writing that transports you into a new world that you create, a world full of angsty characters and obstacles and drama and love and hate …and all the other wonderful components that go into making a story.

THAT's the writing I HAVEN'T been doing.

And when you are a creative at heart, this is painful. When you have characters and ideas taking up space in your mind, but your heart isn't moved to write, this can be extraordinarily painful.

Right now, I'm at an impasse. There has been NO progress in my writing life, and there will be no progress until I stand and make a choice to reinvigorate my writing life.

My most favorite quote is "Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." The brilliant athlete and person Arthur Ashe definitely knew what he was talking about when he said this.

As a writer, I'm in a place of non-movement. I think all people have been there before. You feel you know what you need to do, but for whatever reason, you are catatonic.

When in this state, the answer is not to remain stagnant—but to move. You don't have to move fast, but you have to move forward to get yourself out of the thoughts, feelings, inaction that keep you immobilized.

I want to act in my writing life, so I am slowly putting Ashe's thought into practice by doing three things.

Finding an Accountability Partner. I used to be good at keeping myself honest with work, but then life came and made me focus more on my circumstances than on what I could do while in those circumstances. My best friend, who also happens to be an excellent writer, Samara King has stepped into the role as my accountability partner (AP). As such, every month, we are telling each other our overall monthly goals and our smaller weekly goals, and we are e-mailing, calling, texting—whatever we can do to make sure we do the work…and to have the whip at the ready if we don't do the work.

Setting Goals. Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you that I'm a girl who loves to set a goal. I'm excellent at it. One problem I have, however, is focusing too much on the BIG picture and becoming so frightened by that picture that I stall and complete few things. To help combat this issue, I'm using the app todoist. I'm using it on the web, my phone, and my tablet. There, I am able to set those BIG picture goals, and I then set the small stepping stone goals that will eventually get me across the finish line. I have even connected my AP with this objective as she and I share a project to-do list so that we can cheer each other on and shake a ruler when our progress slows or stops.

Taking Little Steps. Go Hard or Go Home. Rise and Grind. Good Things Come to Those Who Hustle. We live in a world that suggests that if you're not living and doing at Red Bull Addiction speed, then you're not going for what you want. And that's simply not true. If you have the ability to go hard, to grind, to hustle, do so. But some of us who are unsure of where to step next should not feel the need to go for leaps and bounds moves—or to feel bad about ourselves if we can't make those lightning-fast moves. This is why setting big picture and small step goals is so important. This is where Ashe's quote definitely comes into play for me.

  • Start where you are. Where are you right now in your writing life? What are your big goals? 
  • Use what you have. What do you have in your world right now that you can use to achieve these goals? 
  • Do what you can. What can you do—right now—to achieve these goals? That "what can you do—right now"? That's the little step that you need to think about—the little step that moves you closer to your big goal, that ultimately makes you want to take more steps.

Finding an accountability partner, setting goals, taking little steps—these three things are all connected by one more aspect: habit.

I'm not saying it will be easy. In fact, I have done these three things before and not lived up to my own hype.

But with habit—with actually taking the calls, texts, e-mails from my AP; with looking at my calendar and happily checking off work completed; with taking those small steps toward an ultimate goal—I can learn to make these things as normal as breathing.

Like they used to be.

What's on your mind? How does it relate to writing? How can you use it to further develop your writing?

Creative Passionista Shon Bacon is an author, a crafter, an editor, and an educator whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her author website.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

In Case of Emergency

This top post of 2016 was first published on May 3. If you haven't yet followed Diana's advice below, make it your New Year goal.

There is no warning bell before your ride on the rollercoaster of life takes a dramatic turn or ends abruptly.

No one likes to ponder their disability or demise, but I believe in being prepared.

As a writer there are certain steps you should take now, just in case.

1. Firstly, you need a "person" or "persons" you can trust to assist. It may be your spouse, relative, child, best friend, or someone else to take care of all the nitty-gritty details, preferably someone organized and efficient. Make sure several people (attorney, accountant, business manager, family friend) know where to find your important documents in case there are multiple casualties.

2. Appoint someone to take charge of the business end of your writing and give them legal power of attorney to do so in case you are disabled temporarily or permanently.

3. Draw up a will. Copyrights are intellectual property and are treated the same as any other personal property. They can be left to an heir via a will. Designate the person you want to receive future royalties and who will own the copyrights. If you self-publish, make it clear whether you want your work taken down or to continue to be for sale and where. Make sure they want to take on the responsibility. Leave thorough instructions on how to do so.

For more information visit, or the US copyright office.

What if your publisher dies or sells his business?

What about rights to electronic publications?

Can you stop film or other adaptations?

4. Create a list of important publishing contacts, their phone numbers, emails, etc., that need to be notified or dealt with. Keep a master list regarding your submissions, contracts, etc., with copies of the works involved and make sure your person knows where to find them.

5. Create a master list of all of your published titles and anthology pieces, the venues, ISBN numbers, and whether they are currently on promotion. Provide contact information and steps that need to be taken.

6. Make a list of business banking account numbers, credit card numbers, and the location of physical checks and bank statements. Give someone access to the bank account where the direct deposits are made. It is important for your trusted person to have account sign-ons and passwords so they can change the bank account direct deposit information if necessary.

7. Make sure your articles of corporation, sales tax data, accounting paperwork, tax returns, etc., are easily available.  Provide a list of accounts, contacts, and instructions about what needs to be done when. Does a corporation need to be dissolved? Leave instructions. Do you need to close out your accounts and pay final taxes, etc.? Leave instructions.

8. Do you have a blog or website? Do you want them to continue to be available? Do you want them taken down? Leave instructions as well as sign-ons and passwords to access them and any other useful information. If you have a hosting service, make sure you leave their contact information, especially if your sites and domains are automatically renewed.

9. Make a list of all of your writing-related online accounts (social media, Goodreads, Amazon, etc.) with sign-ons, passwords, and any fees associated with them.

Consider whether you have any writing accounts or memberships that also charge, especially if they automatically renew. Leave contact information for all of them. They will have to be notified.

Note: This is important for everyone, whether you are a writer or not. Someone needs to clean up your web presence and cancel your memberships after you pass. Someone may need to take over for you if you are temporarily sidelined. Make your wishes known as to the accounts you want shut down if you die. If you want any of them to continue, make sure you have someone willing to take on the responsibility.

10. Consider purchasing a special fire-proof lockbox, file cabinet, safe deposit box, or home safe for your important papers and give someone else access (a key, a combination, location information, etc.).

I prepared useful forms for organizing your information (finances, personal information, health information, insurance, business, etc.) for a rare disease website for Stiff Person Syndrome. You can visit the Tin Man site and download the PDF forms for your use.

Expect the unexpected.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Things I Didn't Know on My Way to Publication

This top post of 2016 was first published on May 19.

I wrote my very first book in the year 2000. I had never written anything before other than ad copy for fashion layouts. My spring chicken days had already sprung, and I was a few years away from the age when many people retire. I wrote the book because I read one I thought was terrible. I challenged myself to do a better job almost as a lark, never expecting I’d complete a novel or that writing would become my fourth career.

I thought my story was good, but I knew enough to realize that my technical knowledge, the nuts and bolts of writing, was severely lacking. I sent the book to an editor I found online. His credentials said he’d written forty-two books, and he had, as a ghostwriter for some famous people. His wife was his editor, and she also edited my pages. I got two for the price of one, and they were great. His first email to me after reading the first forty-nine pages of my manuscript was: The story is fantastic; the writing needs work. I was filled with mixed emotions.

So I have the beginnings of a good story, but I can’t write worth … well, you know. The edit they sent me was a primer on not only how to write a novel but how to write. Comments on sentence structure, passive voice, repetition, telling not showing, and backstory filled the margins. They edited that book three times, all for the quoted price. I hired them for three books in total and learned more each time.

Meanwhile, I kept writing my stories, getting older.

After the third edit, I felt like that first book was as good as it could be, so I did what all writers do with dreams of publication: I searched for an agent. And searched. And wrote query letters. Collected rejections, which for some reason I still have.

Back then, a lot of querying was done by post with a self-addressed stamped envelope for their response. Then it changed to email. That made it a lot easier for writers, but it also made it easier for agents to send an automated rejection form or for them to ignore you completely. This went on for six or seven years.

Meanwhile, I kept writing my stories, getting older.

Then a friend called me and told me a writing group called Sisters in Crime was meeting in a city about twenty-five miles from my home.

I went, sat, and listened. Can’t remember if I said anything, but knowing me I probably did. I went again the next month, and two writers, Ellis Vidler and Linda Lovely, asked me if I wanted to critique with them. I was beside myself thrilled. They were real pros and taught me so much, especially the one thing that my editor didn't know because he wrote non-fiction: point of view. In other words, head hopping. I remember Ellis and Linda explaining point of view to me at one of our many lunches. It took me a while to comprehend it. I’m surprised they didn’t give up on me.

I finally got an agent who loved everything I wrote. She sent my manuscripts out to publishers, received more rejections. And more. This went on for a couple of years.

Meanwhile, I kept writing my stories, getting older.

In hindsight, one thing I would do differently is write and pitch a series first. (Who knew?) Mind Games, the first book in my Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, was my third or fourth book. Until that time, I was querying stand-alones, which I believe are harder to sell because there's no follow-up to keep a reader reading or gain author loyalty. Maybe if I were Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott the story would be different, but of course I’m not.

Impatient, I thought the best way to get published was to write an erotic romance for an ebook publisher. Guess what? It worked.

I wrote three, got all three published writing under a pseudonym, and now have the rights back to all of them. During that time, I saw some writer friends signing contracts, some with small presses, some with the big five—at that time six. Publication date, two years in the future.

Two years is a long time. Have I mentioned that by this time I was old?

So I said the hell with it. If no one wants to publish my books, I’ll do it myself. So that’s what I did. I had learned how to use Photoshop during my third career creating brochures for my business, and my first career was as an illustrator. Surely I could create my own covers. Another learning curve, but I managed to do it. Then with the help of one of my Sisters in Crime mentors, Ellis Vidler, who’s also a dynamite editor, I learned how to format my novels for both ebooks and print. The beauty of that is once you’re ready, Amazon is ready for you. No two-year wait.

Eight suspense novels and three erotic romances later, I’m still here and still writing my stories. I wonder if I’d have been as prolific if I'd gotten a traditional publishing contract. I do know that deadlines and the constant requirement to produce would have made me a nervous wreck. Writing at my own pace, answering only to myself, works for me. By the way, the first book I wrote was one of the last books I published, thirteen years later.

I wrote and rewrote Threads, never feeling it was good enough, until I did.

What other profession lets you to work in your pajamas if you want, without makeup, without the perfect hairdo, and have your dog or cat on your lap? It’s been and still is a great ride.

Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Editors Rant: Jessica d'Arbonne

This top guest post of 2016 was first published on September 13.

The stupid mistakes that put me in a rejecting mood:
As an acquiring editor, I spend many weary hours combing through my slush pile. Sometimes this process is exciting and fulfilling—like when I find exactly the sort of diamond in the rough I’ve been hoping to find for months. And sometimes it’s the worst part of my day. But it’s never more baffling, tedious, aneurism inducing, and annoying than when I’m faced with stupid and avoidable mistakes.

Many of these mistakes are merely nuisances, and not automatic cause for rejection. But think about it: why would you risk putting an editor in a bad mood right before she reads your query letter? Other mistakes are so egregious or just plain brainless that they immediately set off my highly sensitive Reject Reflex (every editor has one).

If you’re the sort of author who takes painstaking, neurotic care with every one of your query letters, it’s probably unimaginable that an aspiring author would be so careless as to not only irritate an editor, but to shoot their publishing prospects in the foot. And yet, I find authors making these same dumb mistakes every time I wade into the slush.

1. Research the publisher before you query them! If you've written a book of poetry, don't send it to a publisher of nonfiction. You will be rejected. Every publisher and agent has a different specialization, and we rarely deviate from our chosen path. We will not make exceptions for you. As soon as I see the word “memoir” in a query letter, I toss it in the pile of stuff to reject. I could’ve turned down I Am Malala three times by now and I’d never know because I. Do. Not. Publish. Memoirs.

2. Don't send your query letter to every single person at the publishing house. The rest of the staff will just forward your emails to the acquiring editor, who will then be inundated with copies of your query letter and therefore very, very annoyed. And in publishing parlance, “annoyed” is synonymous with “in a mood to reject the next poor fool who crosses me.” If you’re not sure who should receive your query letter, consult the submission guidelines.

3. Include your name and the title of your book in your query letter. I just... why is that so hard? I once referenced an author’s “untitled manuscript” in their rejection letter because they literally did not give me that information anywhere in their query letter. He sent me a very snippy note back informing me that his manuscript certainly was not untitled, it had a very nice title, thank you very much. I could have told him the title was missing from his query letter. But I didn’t. Because he got snippy with me.

4. If a publisher or agent has already rejected you because they don't publish books like yours, do not keep querying them. They'll just keep rejecting you. I know these repeat offenders probably aren’t reading my rejection letters (the irony is not lost on me), but if they did, they’d know not to waste their time anymore. I will remember you. And I will remember that I already told you three times we don’t publish books on chupacabra husbandry.

5. Proofread your query letter. Thoroughly. Sometimes there’s an obvious typo in the first sentence and you’re so wrapped up in other things that you miss it. But the query letter is a litmus test for your writing skills, and if you can’t even successfully proofread a letter as important as the one you send out to impress publishers and agents… well, then what does that say about your writing skills? Fix the typos or you will be judged.

By virtue of visiting writing blogs and being part of online writing communities, you’re probably the kind of author who takes a lot of time and care with their query letters, and not the kind who keeps making these stupid, time-wasting errors. So consider this a bleak look at your competition: those who aren’t putting in the same amount of effort you are to send strong queries out to the right agents and editors. Keep putting the same amount of professionalism and time into your query letters that you expect editors and agents to put into evaluating them, and you’ll be fine.

And for god’s sake read the submission guidelines.

Jessica d’Arbonne is an acquiring editor at the University Press of Colorado. She is an alumna of the Denver Publishing Institute and Emerson College. You can follow her on Twitter @JessDarb.

Monday, December 19, 2016

On My Mind…Senior or Seasoned?

This top post of 2016 was first published on April 14.

Back in the early nineties, I published a mini-magazine called the Seasoned Citizens Gazette: The Journal for the Not-Quite-Over-the-Hill-Gang. Because I lived in the Pikes Peak area, I invited seniors from Colorado Springs and surrounding towns to submit short stories, articles, poems, columns, etc. I, too, wrote pieces that were aimed at the AARP squad. My magazine was distributed free in senior communities and centers, pharmacies, and other places seniors frequented; it also could be subscribed to and mailed monthly (not for free) to private homes. Ads covered the printing. Beyond that, it was primarily a labor of love, as well as a fun way to keep my mind both occupied and creatively directed and provide an outlet for fellow seasoned citizens who had something to share.
by Verbaska on MorgueFile
It’s hard to believe that was some twenty-five years ago. A large number of my contributors are no longer with us, and I look back nostalgically at the experience of working with so many whose lives—and contributions to my journal—brought love and joy to others. I also reflect on what makes some of us “senior citizens” and others “seasoned citizens.”

What is a “seasoned citizen”? We have seen many seasons come and go; we can be spicy, tart, peppery, or sweet; we have weathered life’s storms and are still in there punching; we are survivors, persons for all seasons. It’s a mindset.

The Seasoned Citizens Gazette focused on ways to help ourselves, do for ourselves, share of ourselves. For the most part, we are still vital, healthy, life-loving folks. We are not a throw-away generation; in fact, we have more to offer in the way of wisdom and experience than any other group of people living today.

by Mockingbird on MorgueFile

What does this have to do with writing? Perhaps a lot. When I was publishing the Seasoned Citizens Gazette, I distributed hard copy by hand—after writing, editing, doing layout, paying printing costs, and buying gasoline to deliver the finished product. Today, it could be circulated worldwide on the Internet with little to no out-of-pocket costs. Advertising could still be an income source, and the yearly price of subscribing to the journal could be affordable for almost any budget. We could distribute nationally or even internationally, reaching an audience far wider than I could ever have done back in the day. We could advertise our books and/or our editing services in addition to publishing our own pearls of wisdom, as well as the gems contributed by others. We could encourage our contemporaries to get out of their rocking chairs, so to speak. We could launch a blog as Dani has done so capably here at Blood Red Pencil. We could build businesses based on our knowledge or learn to build websites to help others expand their businesses. All this requires written communication, aka writing. The pen is still mighty, and we can wield it with the proficiency of many years' experience.

Are you a senior citizen or a seasoned citizen? Or, if you’re still a young thing, which do you plan to be when you qualify for AARP?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at

Friday, December 16, 2016

Hot Under the Collar about Cold, Hard Cash

This top post of 2016 was first published on Aug 5.

There’s an old joke in the music biz: How do you make a small fortune as a musician? Start with a large one. The same can be said for the publishing industry.

In most industries, a worker, be they hourly, salaried, contract, or freelance, makes an agreement with The Boss to do X job for X amount of pay. When the job is done, the check is signed. If you’re an author or a copy writer, things get a little hazy. You may have to sell a certain number of books before you see a dime, or the company with which you signed may be a small start-up with limited capital. Either way, it is incredibly disheartening to see your hard work devalued and dismissed.

“Oh, you want to get paid? Hey, look over there!”

So what do you do if you feel that you’ve been stiffed? There are a number of approaches. Mine involves stomping around the house while grumbling and swearing, followed by downing a few shots of chocolate syrup.

Seriously, though.

You can take the Ralph Kramden Approach: The Nastygram. “You dirty bum, you no-good rat!” While this may temporarily relieve your stress, it rarely produces a positive ending. More often, you’ll get the finger and a reputation in the business for being hard to work with.

Then there’s the Doormat Approach: Do Nothing. “Oh, I’m sure it’s just an oversight. They’ll send that seven months of back pay any day now! I’ll keep working for free and hope they remember soon.” This approach, to be blunt, sucks. While your boss is likely not really a rat, they have More Important Things To Do. If you don’t plan to insist on being paid for your time, you might as well consider yourself a volunteer.

You might try the Firm Approach: I’m Worth It. “I understand that sales aren’t as good as we’d like, but the work has been done for some time and I expect to be paid. I’ll take half now and the rest in installments, and we can continue to enjoy a good working relationship.” Your results may vary. There may be some hemming and hawing before the check arrives, or the check may arrive promptly, accompanied by a pink slip. Either way, you and your boss will both know that you value your time, skills, and effort. Your boss should value those things, too.

The publishing industry is full of interesting tales, and not all of them involve books. The behind-the-scenes stuff can be just as thrilling, shocking, scary, laughable, and irritating as anything found in a bestseller.

What’s your story?

Audrey Lintner works as a copy writer, freelance editor, and columnist for various media outlets. Her hobbies include knitting, baking, and finding way to pay off her family's medical bills.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Encounters with Книги

This top post of 2016 was first published on May 10.

Дом Книги (Dom Knigi—the House of Books) - Moscow
Recently my editor told me translation rights for the first three books of my Daisy Dalrymple mysteries have been sold to a Russian publisher. As I studied Russian (50 years ago!), I’m hoping that not only do they follow through and print them, but that they send me copies, which doesn’t always happen. I would definitely attempt to brush up my Russian to read them—or at least bits of them.

If you’ve never been to Russia, you probably don’t know how incredibly generous the Russian people are. You have to be careful about what you admire, because they’ll give it to you. Before I realized this, I was given several classical LPs and some books. (Both were subsidized in the USSR.)

I still have all but one—a tiny volume, about 1 1/4" by 2", of poetry. I mentioned it to an academic librarian friend who was excited about having recently received a box of miniature books. She looked it up in the World Library Catalog. She discovered only one or two other libraries possessed it. I decided to give it to hers, as there was little chance I’d ever try to read it. The print was way too small!

One of my favourite stories from my youth is about books and Russia, though not Russian books. I went to the USSR twice, with student groups. On one of those trips, among my fellow-travellers (not in the Commie sense) was Sean, a young Irishman. When we reached the border, everyone had to get out, not only for customs but because the Russian railways’ gauge is wider than standard European so we had to change trains.

And go through Customs, in a large shed populated by grim-faced Soviet agents. Actually, Westerners tend to see all Russians as rather grim—the easy American smile of greeting is just not part of their culture. If you get a smile from a Russian, he really means it.

Customs men rummaged through our suitcases. One emerged from Sean’s with half a dozen books in his hands. He looked through the lurid covers, pausing at each one as Sean grew paler and paler. They were a set of paperback James Bond books. The agent reached From Russia With Love—and stopped.

He beckoned to the nearest man, who came over. They studied the cover together, flipped through the book, consulted each other, and went off with all the books to show them to—presumably—the boss. Several more gathered around to take a look. Sean was green by that time.

We wondered if they’d arrest just him or our entire group... But they returned all the books to him. He packed them up and we went on our way.

On the way home, in the boat-train from Dover to London, Sean disappeared for a while. When he rejoined us, he was wearing a full Red Army uniform, including the cap with the Red Star. He had swapped the James Bond books for it.

What with one thing and another, I would love to see some of my own books in Russian. I wonder if they’ll change my name, as a Czech publisher did (to Carola Dunnová), or leave it as is, like the Polish translator. At least I’ll be able to tell, unlike the Hebrew version of one of my Regencies, where I could only read one page—the copyright page, where they had spelled my name wrong!

If they invited me to a launch party at Дом Книги (Dom Knigi—the House of Books) in Moscow, I’d go like a shot.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies. The paperback edition of Superfluous Women is coming out in June.