Saturday, December 29, 2018

How many editors does it take to....?

This post was first published here on November 12, 2008

Today, we talk to Hank Phillippi Ryan, author of the Agatha-winning book , Prime Time, the first in the Charlotte McNally mystery series. Thanks for joining us, Hank, and for answering a few questions about how your books get edited. Let’s start.

Dani: How many of the various types of edits does each of your books go through from start to finish?

Hank: Depends on the page—sometimes on the words! to quantify. Every day when I begin writing, I go back over my pages (or words!) from the day before. I polish and tweak for flow, pacing, logic, story and rhythm. I also go back, earlier in the manuscript, and insert clues or connections that are needed.

By the time the first draft is complete, it's been nipped and tucked several times. I wait a week, then go back over once again for logic and continuity. For dialogue. For clues and continuity.

How may full edits at that point? Some parts never change. Some parts change dramatically. It's a process that's continuous and rolling.

I send the completed manuscript to my independent editor, the only other person who reads it before it goes to the publisher. She gives me suggestions, many of which are wonderful. I incorporate the fixes, make the changes, and then go through to make sure they haven't toppled some dominoes in the rest of the story.

Then it goes to the publisher, where my dear editor looks at it again. She's a genius for pacing and motivation.

I fix it one more time.

Then it goes to the copy editor, who looks for those inevitable and unavoidable typos, inconsistencies and grammatical errors. We battle over hyphens and commas, and generally agree at the end. (In Prime Time, I had 26 pages listing typos, mistakes and dropped words!) At this point, I can also make a few tiny changes to the writing, but not many.

Dani: How many "editors" for each book then?

Hank: Me. My independent editor. My editor at MIRA. The copy editor. So four total.

Dani: What is the absolute last time you can make corrections before publication?

Hank: After the copy edit, it's done. And I cross my fingers.

Dani: Thanks, Hank. It sounds like non-stop editing throughout the process. Be sure to stop by Jungle Red Writers to visit Hank and her compatriots there.

Next, we spoke to Karen Syed, publisher and editor at Echelon Press, for her perspective about the process.

Dani Greer is a professional artist and writer who is one of those aforementioned independent editors for her favorite writing pals. She prefers to read historical and cozy mysteries. Dani is the founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Ask the Editor - How do I get back cover reviews?

This post was first published here on January 16, 2009

Mark Goldwich, author of UNCOVERED: What REALLY Happens After The Storm, Flood, Earthquake or Fire asks, "How do I get back cover reviews from the people I want reviews from?"

Good question, Mark. Thanks for asking.

The quotes you see on the backs of books come from two sources. Most are blurbs - short recommendations written specifically for the cover. Others are excerpts from reviews. I first learned about blurbs in Austin Camacho's marketing text. I recommend you find a marketing book for writers that will work for you. Many exist.

How do you acquire blurbs for your book? The short answer is you ask for them. I know this is not an easy thing for many writers to do, but it is a necessary part of our business. If you are not comfortable writing request letters, find a friend who is and ask for help.

When deciding whom to ask for a blurb, consider your target market. What name (or title) would your readers recognize as an expert? Fiction writers often turn to other writers in their genre. Non-fiction writers are more likely to look for recognized experts in their field. If your target audience includes victims of natural disasters, you might go in two directions - ask recognized experts (news media, government officials, social scientists) and ask people (especially celebrities) who have been victims in the past and may have benefited from the wisdom in your masterpiece.

Your initial letter should be a simple request - will they read your book and provide a cover blurb? Include a compliment that explains why you're asking. If a mutual acquaintence recommended them, say so. Offer to send a signed manuscript to read for the blurb and a signed copy of the book after publication. For individuals outside the book industry, include an example blurb so everyone understands you are requesting a short quote.

Chances are, no one will reply with an unconditional, positive response. Those who are interested in seeing their name in lights will want to read the book first. Their responses will say so. This is when you thank them for their time and consideration - and send the manuscript. Always include your contact information - email address, SASE, any thing else you can think of to make it easy for others to help you.

Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, 2009 President for The Final Twist Writers Group, and contributor to multiple blogs.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Choosing a Working Title for Your Book

This series of posts was first published here on December 11, 2008

Sometimes the right title for a book is easy to think of and it fits perfectly with the storyline through any rewrites. Other times you may struggle to find a title you’re happy with, or the one you chose early on doesn’t bear any relation to the story once you change some aspect of the plot that the title initially referred to.

If you’re not sure of your title, or don’t yet know enough about your story to choose one, you might want to settle for a working title so that you have something you can use to refer to your story, save it as, and file your notes under. Personally, I tend to refer to each of my stories by the name of the main character, even if I have a perfect title. It’s usually shorter and easy to remember.

But think of what defines the story for you. If you write a lot of mysteries with the same protagonist, using his name won’t work for you, but using the murder style or weapon might be a better reference point.

Continue reading:

Part 2: Brainstorming Ideas for Titles
Part 3: Checking Your Proposed Title

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Keep It Real, Only More Interesting

This post was first published here on October 14, 2008

Some people may think an editor looks only for the commas, split infinitives, missing words, misspellings – all the mundane stuff. Yes, we read a manuscript and find those things. But we also look beyond the basics.

For example, we note the minutiae that need to be cut. And we note when the small details are not actually minutiae, but important stuff that has to be left in.

Even if you’re writing a memoir, a person’s everyday life does not make for an interesting book. Let’s face it, our daily lives are boring. Even when something different happens, it’s boring.

I got locked out of the house last week. So what? I unloaded the groceries, put the refrigerator and freezer stuff in the freezer, then headed to Starbucks for coffee. I talked to a friend of mine who recently went for a walk and got lost. Totally lost. Completely turned around. By the time she got back home, she’d been out trying to find her way for five and a half hours. I call that an adventure. But to put it in a book, there’d have to be more than just her walking, going in circles, for hours.

If a book character gets locked out of the house, something would need to happen, like she’d hear the phone ringing and someone leaving a threatening message, but she couldn’t see caller ID … or a wild-eyed woman would appear from the back of the house, gun in hand. If a book character goes for a walk and gets lost, she’d have to be stalked, or kidnapped, or fall off a cliff or lose her memory. Or perhaps encounter a handsome stranger. Or whatever.

Not only does every scene have to have purpose and move the story forward, you have to cut the mundane wherever possible as long as it’s not relevant. You could write:
Stephanie grabbed the keys from the bowl on the entry table, then took one last look around.

Her car shuddered as it pulled from the curb.
If we don’t really need to know what happened in-between those two things, then don’t tell us. Do we need to know she slung her purse over her right shoulder, swiveled and walked to the door? Closed the door behind her? Crossed the porch? Walked down the four steps to the sidewalk? Walked to the car? Opened the driver-side door? Inserted the key into the ignition? Adjusted the mirror?

I’m not saying cut all the minutiae. Sometimes details can be very telling. Sometimes you can hide important clues among a list of unimportant things. But everything is not always important.

If your character gets locked out of the house, have something interesting happen. If your character gets lost, make it worth reading.

Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and writer, and former mermaid. You can visit her at her blog, Straight from Hel.

Monday, December 24, 2018

A Book Reviewer’s Criteria for a Good Read

This post was first published here on March 31, 2011.

Writer, editor, and book reviewer Wendy Noble is our guest today at Blood-Red Pencil, with some advice from the perspective of a reviewer.

I’ve been reviewing books for over seven years. Four important elements stand out for me as the keys to producing a really good book, which will gain a glowing review.

These four elements are:
  • Text
Give me some ‘golden lines’. Use imagery – without being silly about it – and make sure your nouns and verbs are so strong and evocative that only the rare adverb or adjective is needed.
  • Dialogue
Don’t start every second line of dialogue with um, err, oh, well, uh… or they’ll be as irritating to the reader as a dripping tap. Use them sparingly and they’ll shine like diamonds. Also, please remember that most people use contractions when they speak: it’s, we’ll, they’ve…
  • Plot
Make me want to keep reading. Give the protagonist a goal (big or small). Have difficulties get in the way, threatening to keep him/her from achieving that goal. The protagonist must change in some way: learn something, find something, achieve something, or become something. If these elements are missing you will have written a scene (even if you took 300 pages to do it) but it won’t be a story and (the unforgivable sin) you will bore your reader.
  • Characters (This is the Big One)
Give me characters I can believe in, worry about, cry for, cheer on, and daydream about. I want depth of personality, interesting character traits, and, most importantly, a reason to like or hate them. I want, for a while, to inhabit their world.

Wendy Noble (Adv Dip T; Grad Dip CS; MA Creative Writing) reviews Young Adult and Children’s books for Good Reading Magazine in Australia. She is the author of the fantasy trilogy BeastSpeaker, and also an editor and public speaker. Visit her blog at

Friday, December 21, 2018

Where Story Ideas Come From

This post was first published on October 13, 2010.

One of the questions most frequently asked of writers is: “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s not a popular question among published authors. Maybe they consider the question too silly to answer, or maybe they don’t want to share.

I don’t think the question is silly, but I can’t always explain where my inspiration originated. It's amazing how new ideas weasel their way into my conscious mind. The process works in many different ways. Here’s one example.

I belong to a local face-to-face critique group that meets every other week. One of the things we do is exchange thoughts on writing in general. Last week our conversation went like this (with lots of paraphrasing):

M: Did you know Willa Cather is going to be here? I thought she was dead.

Me: Blank look.

M: My Antonia is one of my favorite novels.

B: Willa Cather? She’s dead.

Everyone laughs.

Me: I’ll bet it’s one of the historical presentations where someone acts the part of Cather. (I checked the next day, and that’s exactly what the event will be).

Our discussion focused on My Antonia for a few minutes and then wandered onto other books until someone mentioned Lord of the Flies.

Me: Lord of the Flies is one of my favorites. I thought the movie was excellent as well. I always wondered why no writer has taken the idea and substituted girls for the boys.

B looked at me for a moment. I could almost see the little wheels turning in his head.

Me: I think it would need a horror writer to do it justice.

B: Definitely a horror writer.

This might seem an amazing coincidence, but B writes horror. The idea was taking hold. We spent the next few minutes discussing how young the girls should be to make the story work. Will B take off in a frenzy of writing? We'll see.

There was another idea embedded in that critique group discussion. What would happen if the real Willa Cather's ghost showed up during the the actress Willa Cather’s performance?

If anyone who writes paranormal romance or mystery wants that one, it’s all yours.

There are many other examples of writers changing up a well-known story with a unique twist. Colorado author Paula Reed teaches high school English, and one of her favorite novels is The Scarlet Letter. Her book, released in February, 2010, is called Hester: The Missing Years of The Scarlet Letter. It's a fine story, especially since she abandoned Hawthorne's unknown omniscient narrator.

Ideas are everywhere. For a different approach, read Shon Bacon’s excellent February post on Ideas for Writing.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Colorado Sun/Colorado Humanities weekend SunLit feature.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

BSP - It's all About Buzz

This post first ran on October 6, 2015

Okay. First off, let me say I know zilch, nada, nothing about marketing - which is what self promoting is all about. What I've learned from online resources, such as Kristen Lamb's interesting and entertaining blog and others, just highlights how much more I have to learn. But when it comes to promoting, the first thing a writer must do is come out of the closet  - so to speak.

Back in 2009, I wrote a post here about Glenda Gibberish, who worked on her stories while hiding in the closet so nobody would find out that she was a writer. She didn't want any attention, and she didn't want to have to explain what she was doing if one should happen upon her writing at a desk. However, she finally reached a point where she had to tell someone, so she invited her best friend out to lunch. After hearing Glenda's tale of surreptitious writing, the friend assured Glenda that she would keep the secret, to which Glenda responded, “Actually, I wouldn't mind if you told a few people. My book comes out next month and I need the publicity."

When I wrote that, I swore that my middle name was not Glenda, and it really isn't, but Glenda is definitely a part of me. I am awful about promoting myself. I hate it. Maybe it's my Catholic upbringing: "the last shall be first" and all that. Or maybe it's because I would rather stand in the background and have the spotlight shine on someone else.

So let me tell you about my blog, where I point that light on other authors, and do my part to create some buzz. (I bet you were wondering if I was ever going to get back to the blog title. And don't you just love the little bee with the bullhorn?)

The blog is titled It's Not All Gravy, taken from the title of the weekly humor column I wrote for many years for a Dallas suburban newspaper, The Plano Star Courier. Making a transition from column writing to blogging was an easy step for me, and It's Not All Gravy has evolved into a blend of commentary, humor, book reviews, author interviews, and author guest posts.

By the way, if anyone would like me to review a book, here are my review guidelines.  To be a guest, you can either do an interview or submit a guest post. Here are those guidelines.

And now, because that bee has done nothing but sit there and look cute, I'll have to start my own buzz. First I want to do a shout out for my son's book, Austin's First Cookbook. Mike Miller is the archivist for the City of Austin and Manager of The Austin History Center The project evolved from an exhibit about food in Austin through the years, and the book has wonderful old recipes and stories of the people who created those recipes. Anyone who loves history will enjoy this book.

My most recent publication is a short story in the Short and Happy (or not) anthology that was published by S & H Publishing last fall. The collection is comprised of stories written by authors across the globe and it is quite fun to read the offerings. My story, To Love Again, about a woman who finds new love in her golden years, starts on page 106. (smile)

Another short story, Escaping Raul, is part of the Thrills & Mystery Podcast series, which is free at Podiobooks and will soon be an ebook. The story is an adaptation of the prologue of Stalking Season, the second book in the critically acclaimed Seasons Mystery Series. That prologue introduces the first murder victim, and the reader gets just a glimpse of the killer. For the short story, I used most of the original prologue, adding a beginning and an ending that created a complete story. A young prostitute wants to get out of the business, but she doesn't dream of how she will accomplish that.

In addition to the wonderful STARRED review from Publisher's Weekly, that Stalking Season received,  readers have said such nice things about the series including this  "Look out Riggs and Murtaugh, Here comes Kingsley and Johnson!"

 So, what is your take on BSP? Are you more comfortable tooting someone else's horn? If so, the one thing that you can do to help any author struggling to get books noticed amongst the millions out there, is to add to the buzz. What have you read lately that you loved? Mention the title and author on social media and rate the book on Amazon.  And if that happens to include any of my books, I do thank you for your support.

Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. She won her first writing award at age twelve with a short story in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Awards Contest and continues to garner recognition for her short stories, books, and screenplays. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Pageread her  Blog,  and follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Using Commas with Adjectives

This post was first published here on March 20, 2009

If you use several descriptive words in a row, where do you put commas? Or do you?

Here are a couple of my theories on that subject. First, if you can put the word and between the words, you should use a comma between them.

For example, Mary is an impish-looking, animated, slim white girl.

This sentence easily could read this way: Mary is an impish-looking and animated and slim white girl. But you wouldn’t say she was a slim and white girl. So, according to that example, you put a comma where you use each and.

Here’s my second theory. If you can rearrange the descriptive words, you should use a comma before each of the words that you can move.

Using the same example, you could write that Mary is a slim, animated, impish-looking white girl. However, it wouldn’t work to say Mary is a white, slim, animated, impish-looking girl. The word white needs to stay next to girl because it is an integral part of her basic description, so you don’t need a comma before it.

These theories hold true for a similar example: She was a smart, insightful, funny woman. You can insert and between each of these adjectives, and you can also rearrange them without changing the meaning of your sentence.

And here’s another example that conforms to my ideas: Tom owns a rusty, nicked, dull fishing knife.

But, fellow editors and other interested parties, how would you punctuate these examples, and why?

1. Justin has a long lean frame.
2. Sarah prefers soft white cotton briefs.
3. Eric prizes his shiny maroon restored ’57 Chevy.
4. The girl wore a hooded red rain cape.
5. She was doused in a sadness as pervasive as spilled cheap perfume.

I wish the English language would always comply with my theories. It would be easier on everyone, especially me.

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Beta Readers and Critique Groups

This post first ran on April 25, 2013.

Today I'm talking about critique groups, specifically the sort where work is presented in small bites rather than having someone evaluate an entire manuscript. The ideal critique group has people who write as well or better than you do, and understand your genre. Members should agree to a schedule for submitting and giving feedback. They should be willing to accept the positive and the negative, and understand that if several people have problems with an aspect of the work, it deserves rethinking no matter how good you think it is.

Critique groups can be Face to Face, or they can be done online. I've done both, although now I'm with a small (3 member) online group.

Face to Face gives you a chance to discuss critiques in more depth. One of my constant questions as a beginner was, "Am I writing it wrong, or are you reading it wrong?" because I thought I knew what I meant to say, and needed to know where I'd gone wrong. The feedback in a live group is immediate, and can go into some depth. However, it's also slow, depending on how often you meet. If you're only allowed to present a limited number of pages once a month, then you're likely to be writing faster than you get feedback. It's not unusual to find that you're finished writing, but your group is only halfway through the book.

An online group lacks that immediate feedback. In some groups, you still might have restrictions on how long a submission can be, and how often you can submit to the group. There are some groups online that seem to be filled with people who want to hear only the good, and they refuse to accept any flaws in their work. Get out of those. Fast.

I remember one of the first online groups I found, where the leader told me she didn't want to see any more bad stuff happen to Sarah. I left that group, too. Clearly the leader didn't understand there has to be conflict in a story.

My current group has been through at least 4 or 5 manuscripts each, so we know each other very well—or at least our writing. We've never actually met. We've reached the point where we don't need to be stroked. Yes, we like the warm fuzzies, but we need to see the weak spots more. We want to know what's wrong so we can fix it. A newcomer to the group would probably find us harsh, but we know that if comments are sparse, it means "good job" without having to stop to point out all the good stuff. And, I'm pleased to say that thanks to my partners, my editor knows she's going to get a 'clean' manuscript from me, and that ends up saving me money.

I asked one of my partners to share her thoughts about being in a critique group. She said, Beta readers are most helpful for brainstorming. I find that sometimes I'll write a chapter that I'm not sure of, and a beta reader can check me by pointing out what I've overlooked or missed, or when I've gone too far afield. They also provide a good thermostat for what's working/not working.

Even though we write in different sub-genres, my partners and I have learned a lot about each other's niches, and we understand that if we point out something that bothers us, an answer of "readers in my genre expect it that way" is acceptable.

Have you worked with critique partners/ groups? What has worked for you? Any warnings?

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.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Building a Critique Group

The following article from Diana Hurwitz reminds us that, even though it was published in October 2014, it is as relevant today as it was when it was written. Writing may be a solitary profession, but it requires a team to take a book from concept to creation. Be sure to note the ten points she mentions—lots of wisdom there. ~ selected by Linda Lane ~

Midwest Writer's Workshop 2008
I'll start out by saying, I am not a group-oriented person. I like working alone. I work faster and better without distractions. As a writer, that is a good character trait to have. You have to spend time alone and palely loitering over a pad of paper or keyboard to get the story out. I can disappear into a project for weeks and forget to eat, sleep, and bathe.

That does not mean I don't enjoy other people. I love other people: witty people, clever people, preferably with a wicked sense of humor and an appreciation of the ridiculous. Writers, artists, and other creatives make the best, funniest, and most interesting friends and acquaintances.

You can write alone, but you cannot publish or promote alone. You need people to help you edit, to point out the things you miss, and make certain you are telling the same story on paper that you tell yourself in your head.

My first experience with a group was when in I lived in my home town of Cincinnati. I started attending classes at Women Writing for a Change. "Class" isn't the right term, though tuition was involved. It helped pay for the building, the session leaders, and the outreach programs, and, quite frankly, encouraged people to show up regularly.

WWFaC was an excellent greenhouse for my budding voice to bloom. It forced me into public speaking at read-arounds, a concept that still makes my knees feel like jelly. I even guested on the radio show where no one could view my panic attack. I spent many happy years there. Then we moved.

My transplant to south of Indianapolis was bumpy. Friends, family, and greenhouse were two hours away and I did not immediately find my tribe. In fact, we had to move north of the city to find them two years later. I was introduced to the Indiana Writers Center and met the first of my critique partners.

I then attended the Midwest Writers Workshop where I met more talented writers.

Critique partners have come and gone along the way, each one mega-talented in my humble opinion. I have been inspired by all of them. I could not have published my young-adult series without their sage advice and encouragement.

I am currently part of a critique group called the Ladyscribes, made up of myself (YA Fantasy and nonfiction), Rita Woods (YA Fantasy/Paranormal), Sharon Pielemeier (High Fantasy), Cameron Steiman (Sci-Fi, Steampunk, and Literary), and Cynthia Adams (YA Paranormal). I decided to go indie. Rita is agented. The others are waiting for that golden ticket to the traditional route.

I feel each member has a unique voice, exceptional worthsmithing skills, and an excellent grasp of plot and character.

We try to meet in person at least twice a quarter, sometimes closer to Chicago, sometimes near Indianapolis. Sometimes we meet in the middle for a day. We make it a long weekend when possible: combination writing retreat and critique session.

We each submit 20 pages (double spaced) and prepare a written critique before we meet. We then take turns giving our feedback for each piece. When time isn't limited, we have hilarious, lively debates.

As with any group, there are challenges. We all have lives that keep us busy, illnesses, and family crises.  Some have kids at home, grandchildren to spoil, and full-time jobs.

Here are my tips for creating a successful critique group.

1. The crucial secret to success is to seriously commit and make it a priority. There is no other way. It's too easy to let life intervene.

2. To build a critique group you have to get out and meet other writers. Local is best. Long distance is harder, but well worth it for the right group. Skype is also a possibility. Email and forming an online group on Facebook, Yahoo, etc. can also work.

3. It helps to be at a similar level of skill. We are all advanced craft. It would be hard to work with someone who has never heard the term story structure. It also helps to be in similar genres.

4. Communicate your wants and needs up front in terms of critique. What exactly are you looking for? Do you want advice on how to fix it?

We do it all: line edits, plot arc, character development, word usage, grammar. We each catch different things.

5. You have to have mutual respect. We've become good friends. That helps. Ego and defense shields are left at the door, along with the cell phones. We do our darndest to never hurt each other, but are honest in our feedback. If you start from a place of caring and want each other to succeed, that is half the battle. It also helps to cross-promote one another.

6. Dissension is okay. We don't always agree. If one person says something, we listen. If two people notice it, we pay close attention to the details. If three people notice it, we change it, period.

7. A sense of humor is a must. If you can't laugh at yourself, you probably won't do well in a group. You have to be able to take the critique for what it is: an analysis of a product, not a personal attack. Which leads to ...

8. Bullies, snobs, and narcissists need not apply. There is no room for anyone in a critique group if they aren't there for the right reason: growing your craft and helping each other create the best product you can.

9. If there is a rift or misunderstanding, heal it immediately. Simmering conflict is counterproductive. Personality clashes can ruin a group.

10. Keep it even. Everyone submits. Everyone critiques. If one of us does not have a submission for some reason, we still have to critique everyone else's work and at least present something story related to discuss.

Most of all have fun. If it isn't fun, you won't make it a priority.

Further reading on critique groups:

Finding a Critique Group

How Not to Burn Your Critique Group to the Ground

Beta Readers and Critique Groups

Readers, Writers, and Pressing the Flesh

The Importance of Communities for the Writer

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.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Semicolon, my new love

This post was first published on June 11, 2009

My knowledge of all things punctuation-y is flimsy. In the past, I’ve thought- “Okay now I’ve got it” but, sadly, I didn’t, and when someone pointed it out I felt a bit embarrassed about my proclamation made firmly from Dunderhead Land. I bought Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (ESL) and somehow feel I’ve made a breakthrough. I think I now understand the scariest punctuation mark of them all: the semicolon.

Before ESL, I avoided the semicolon. I just accepted it was a punctuation mark out of my league. It was for writers who really got it; people who know what a non-defining participle clause is, for example. Those people do not include me. I just accepted that I would make my way through the writing world with the comma and the full stop. I would manage. If I needed more, I might resort to a dash, but that was moving toward shaky ground. It was okay. It was a smaller life, but still a life.

But after ESL, I feel I can now use the semicolon with a bit of authority. And doesn’t writing look so nice with a semicolon? It is one of the handsome punctuation marks, not the most handsome though; I still love a question mark, but frankly, who doesn’t?

Semicolons alleviate your reader from that timeless question all readers battle with-“Did I pause long enough there?” The writer who is adept with the semicolon allows the reader to rest at ease, literally. She takes the reader by the hand and says, “I don’t want you to pause as long as a full stop or rush off in a comma-like sort of way. I want you to wait for that in-between length; a semicolon length”. It makes the reader believe that you know what you are doing, that you know why an intermediate length pause is needed at that particular spot. It is a reason quite highbrow and literary, and it will be very difficult for the reader to figure it out. They must just accept that you know what is best for them. And that’s good; readers like that- being bossed around. Of course, the side benefit is you come off looking far smarter than you actually are. It’s win-win.

So use that semicolon; there is nothing to be afraid of. (Unless you use it incorrectly on your blog and some smarty pants points it out. That is not a threat. Really.)

Lauri Kubuitsile is the author of The Scattering and Signed, Hopelessly in Love, which was recognised by South Africa's O Magazine as one of the best reads of 2011. Lauri has won or been shortlisted for numerous awards. She twice won Africa's premier prize for children's writing, The Golden Baobab. She also won the creative writing prize sponsored by Botswana's Department of Youth and Culture. In 2011, she was shortlisted for Africa's most prestigious short story prize, The Caine Prize. Lauri blogs at Thoughts from Botswana

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

About Those Trolls…

This post was first published on October 10, 2014.

A post by Merry Farmer struck such a chord with me that I felt compelled to further ponder the role fear plays as we writers embark on and pursue our careers.

Like Merry, I dreaded public criticism of my work. Even the idea of private trashing made me cringe. Why? I harbored a deep-seated fear that my dream would be crushed. That dream of becoming an author, nurtured since childhood, was still quite fragile. Also, the book’s secondary theme, domestic violence, contained scenes of abuse based on real incidents—mine and others.

Because the cost of an editor at that time was well beyond my means, I joined a writers’ group to get an evaluation of my manuscript from objective strangers who would likely be more open and honest than family or friends. However, I was emotionally connected to the story in ways that worked against my ability to handle harsh criticism and was too inexperienced to appreciate the difference between constructive critique and personal attack.

The lady who had formed the group was young and unpublished and had recently embarked on her adult life with a husband and babies; at that time, I was probably older than her mother. She was also very opinionated—or so I perceived—and quite vocal about those opinions. Long story short: her blunt comments and insistence that I had not written the story I really wanted to write blindsided me and almost ended my career along with my dream.
kamuelaboy via morguefile

Now, nearly two decades later, my take on her painful words comes from a different place. Did she share her review with others? I don’t know. Was I overly sensitive in my reaction to her criticism? Probably. The critique—3 or 4 pages long, single spaced, and very thorough—was extremely well written and definitely deserving of more consideration than I gave it at the time.

Was she a troll, out to shred my five-years-long effort to produce novel number one? Did she intend to end my writing career before it even started? Then I might have said yes, but now I know otherwise. Was the book published despite her exposure of its significant shortcomings? Yes. Self-pubbing allows that to happen. Did it get rave reviews to offset her critique? Family and friends posted some nice—although somewhat biased—comments. How do I feel about my story now? The basic story remains good, but it needs major work. I’ve pulled it out of circulation and plan to rewrite several parts of it this winter. Will I make my subplot the main theme as she suggested? No. However, I may write the sequel that was part of the original plan, and in it the secondary character she insisted should be my protagonist will finally fill that role.

Lessons learned:

Most critiques are not missiles aimed ruthlessly at the hearts of writers and should not be feared.

We are often emotionally tied to our works. The keynote speaker at a writing conference several years ago stated that our works are not our babies. He was a guy. We women are often more sensitive about our stories and our characters—our books are our babies.

Serious critiques deserve consideration. Will they always be right? Not necessarily, but that doesn’t make them wrong either. On the other hand, reviews on Amazon or similar sites should often be taken with that proverbial grain of salt—or ignored altogether.

The road to full-fledged author status from fledgling writer is a journey. Journeys have bumps and detours, but a good map and an unwavering belief in dreams can keep us on the road. While reaching our destination doesn’t guarantee huge success, it does offer the satisfaction of a job completed and the promise of another trip should we opt to take it. Hopefully, lessons taught by the chuckholes in the first journey will result in a smoother ride the next time.

Are you emotionally tied to your work? Are you devastated if anyone suggests your baby is less than perfect? Has negative criticism increased your determination to create a better work, or has it undermined your belief in yourself as a writer?

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her at websites: and

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Ask the Editor: Internal Monologue

This post first ran on February 12, 2009 and it's as relevant as ever! ~ Dani

QUESTION: What is your take on internal monologue? How frequently should it be used and how should it be formatted? Contrast its usage as opposed to indirect thought exposure where summaries of what goes through a characters head are exposed but not the exact wording.
Donald James Parker
Angels of Interstate 29
ANSWER: Internal monologues -- sometimes thought of as stream of consciousness or internal dialogue -- is different for different types of novels. A literary novel may have pages and pages of stream of consciousness. James Joyce, anyone? But it takes a deft hand to pull that off and not lose the reader in a jumbled mass of disconnected thoughts.

In most contemporary commercial fiction – which encompasses a wide variety of genres – internal monologues should be used sparingly. Readers come to mysteries and romances and westerns and science fiction more for the stories and the actions, not so much for the kind of character development that calls for a lot of internal dialogue.
One thing to keep in mind is whether a particular character would be prone to talking to himself or herself. Don’t just do it because it appeals to you as the author. And does everyone in the story do it, or just the central character?
Also keep in mind that internal dialogue is not the same as having a character think something, although sometimes the lines between the two have been blurred.
For example:
This is really creepy, she thought, stumbling in the darkness through the brambles. There was an old barn here somewhere. She’d be okay if she could just find it. Suddenly the barn doors burst open and a tractor bore down on her. Oh, my God, I’m going to die.
The first part of that example contains her thoughts. She’s not really talking to herself until, Oh my God, I’m going to die. Current formatting guidelines from most publishers say put internal dialogue in italics and in first person, present tense.
When writing a character’s thoughts, I have not been able to find a hard and fast rule on whether a writer should include “she thought”, but I personally don’t like using it, so I would prefer the example to start: This is really creepy. Sarah stumbled in the darkness through the brambles….etc. It’s still clear that the thought belongs to her, and the reader gets it, I’m sure.
Whatever you decide on your usage of internal monologues, remember that less can be better than more. Internal dialogue often reflects what a character is unable to say aloud, and sometimes will even contradict what he or she just said. If that technique is over-used it loses effectiveness.

Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. She won her first writing award at age twelve with a short story in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Awards Contest and continues to garner recognition for her short stories, books, and screenplays. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Pageread her  Blog,  and follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Monday, December 10, 2018

Scare Quotes Everywhere!

This post first ran on 1/31/2009 and we still don't like being "scared" this way! ~ Dani

Quote marks are probably the most overused form of punctuation. Quote is short for quotation, so essentially, quote marks should be used only to set off a quotation—the verbatim text of something that was said or published. If you’re writing a novel and using quote marks for anything but dialogue—take them out!

Writers everywhere like to use quote marks around words they consider special for some reason or around words that are not being used in a traditional way. Old school editors call these scare quotes, a way of alerting the reader that the word may not mean what you think it does. Ninety percent of the time, the marks are completely unnecessary. If you’re writing logical sentences—even using euphemisms—readers know what you mean. Here’s a few examples of unneeded quote marks.
  • “Quote” is short for “quotation.” (Did anyone misread the sentence when I wrote it earlier without the punctuation?)
  • After a few minutes in the club, John decided to wander back and watch the “dancers.” (Yes, we all know that dancers is a polite way of saying strippers. Does your character think of them of dancers or strippers? Use one or the other without quote marks, because it tells us something about your character.)
Many editors will argue that in my first example quote marks are necessary to set off the words used as words. In some cases, this may be true. (Oh the discussions I’ve had about words as words!) The real test is readability. If the sentence reads fine without the punctuation, don’t use it. Less is better. If you have to set off a word used as a word for readability, please use italics, which are much less intrusive and preferred by the Chicago Manual of Style.

For a look at some extreme examples of excessive quote mark usage, check this site.
The Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and editor and is the author of 23 novels, including the Detective Jackson mysteries series. Find her at: and
Write First, "Clean" Later ;)

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Distractions vs. Discipline

This post was first published here on March 19, 2014

One of the most important elements for a writer to learn is discipline or structure or whatever else you want to call it. Discipline is different from perseverance. A writer has a story. The story isn’t working out; she perseveres until she finishes it. But what happens when she gets up in the morning to work.

I can tell you what happens to me, and I hate to admit it. I have my coffee and raisin toast at the computer. My home page is Yahoo. I know, I’d have fewer distractions if I had Google or some other blank home page. I just looked at Yahoo and saw that Savannah Guthrie got married, and she’s four months pregnant. Then I got hooked on an article about Nicole Kidman’s relationship with her children with Tom Cruise, and then flipped through all the photos of the eclectic Malibu house Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell sold for 9 million, then… you see where I’m going.

These were distractions while I was trying to write this blog post. Never mind the mornings after an awards show when I spend too long looking at the gowns on the red carpet, and don’t get me started on political stuff. I get hooked reading that too.

I hate myself, I really do.

In all fairness, I don’t read People magazine or watch reality TV. I watch very little television, period. Justified and Homeland are my never-miss shows, even if I watch them marathon-style. So Internet gossip is my guilty pleasure. Oh, and I may play a game or two of Spider Solitaire or do an online Sudoku puzzle when my brain freezes, but these are all distractions that cut into my writing time, no matter how I try to justify them.

Then it’s business. I open the first of my two email accounts. I belong to a few writers’ loops, so I scan those, check the other emails, delete the ones I don’t want to read or think I’ll read later and never do. My second account has all my professional and Twitter business. I tweet, but I’m not crazy about doing it. Tweeting has worked to boost book sales of a few of my friends. I really can’t tell if I’ve had the same results. I don’t think so, but I still do it. I try to limit my time to an hour, sometimes less, but I check throughout the day to keep me updated and try to convince myself I like Twitter.

On to Facebook. This is the worst because I like it best. I’ve made friends there, post two to three times a day, read other posts, and hope I don’t get hooked on something, which I always seem to do. When I finish all that, it’s lunchtime. I eat early because I’m hungry early.

If I can resist all the other distractions, I get to work. But first I have to listen to the audio chapters to approve for the audio book of Mind Games.

Now, work—after I take the dogs for a walk.

By the way, my house is a wreck. Maybe a few minutes for dusting and laundry.

Now it’s late afternoon, and I should start thinking about something for dinner.

I really must be more disciplined. I will be. I promise.

Tomorrow I’m shutting off the Internet and getting down to work. Really.

Polly Iyer is the author of eight novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, 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.

Friday, December 7, 2018


Old but good advice, which we first shared on 9/16/2008. It's always important to fact-check your writing, maybe more today than ever! ~ Dani 

Punctuation marks and misspellings are not the only thing that can trip you up and de-value your writing. Poor vetting erodes the confidence the reader has in your story and can even go so far as to void the suspension of disbelief. Facts, even the “fictional facts” of a novel, must work together to create a story into which your reader can escape. No cognitive dissonance allowed.

Of course, the writer must watch this as the work progresses, but at least one of the final read-throughs needs to focus on questioning and verifying, checking and authenticating. Perhaps “questioning” is the most vital of these…you simply must question everything. Anything not known as confidently as you know your own name must be verified.

Here’s a little laundry list of things:

1. Are all names spelled correctly? Confirm the spelling of actual persons, and make sure that a character’s name is spelled consistently throughout. (Billy vs. Billie, Susie vs. Suzie)

2. Make sure that two characters are not tagged with the same name. (I see this happen often with minor characters.)

3. Verify the spelling of brand names. (It’s PACO RABANNE not POCO RABANE!)

4. Verify real life information to be sure it is hasn’t become outdated. For example, it’s probably no longer a good idea to refer to Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt as a happy couple.

5. Fix incorrect references. If your novel is set in the real Milwaukee, WI, your character must drive south to Chicago, not north. If your characters are on their way to Woodstock, it’s highly unlikely that one of them will yank a cell phone from his Levis pocket.

6. Keep your setting honest. If it’s a desert town, it’s not likely that someone will be chased into the woods. If you write a scene at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, it’s unlikely that there will be snow in the air.

In the search for new projects for my indie press, I have the opportunity to read many manuscripts. I’ve found that the biggest turn-off, the thing I am most unwilling to overlook, is poor vetting. At some primal level, I just get the feeling that, since there is such disregard for fact-checking, there must be serious story flaws that would exhaust my resources and be a stumbling block to a successful book project.

With Google and Wikipedia, checking everything is a snap, so why gamble with the accuracy? Check everything!

Billie Johnson was a publisher and founder of Oak Tree Press. She passed away in 2018.
You can read a tribute to Billie by Leslie Diehl.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

L.J. Sellers and Ann Parker on Beta Readers

This interview first published 5/29/2013 and is still a challenging part of the writing process. Don't try to skip it though. ~ Dani 

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!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Proofreading Part 2 of 2

This post was originally posted on June 7, 2017

Recently, I had to take a long road trip. I decided to proofread while my husband drove. By sending the document to my iPhone, I realized that seeing it on the smaller screen highlighted certain errors. It also gave me a feel for how the e-book version would look on a mobile device.

1. Save your document as a PDF from Word. If you do not have this option with your word processing program, you may be able to upload the word document itself or convert the word document through another source, such as Nuance PDF or Adobe online.

2. Email it to yourself.

3. Open the email on your phone.

4. Upload the PDF to iBooks or other PDF reader.

Note: iBooks allows you to annotate.

4. Read and take notes.
5. Update your draft.

Keep proofreading until you can't find any mistakes. It helps to have other people read the final draft as well. They catch things you cannot because you have read it so many times.

Especially if you self-publish, I recommend having a professional editor look over your manuscript, even if you aced grammar in high school or college. If you don't have access to one or can't afford one, then thorough proofreading is your best weapon.

I would not waste time with endless proofreading passes until you are certain your story is complete and ready to be spit-shined. That said, proofreading may uncover problems you didn't realize you had. Consider picking up a copy of Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers. It will guide you through multiple proofreading and revision passes before you reach the final proofreading stage.

If you have enough time, put the final draft away for a week or even a month. Go back and look at it again with fresh eyes. Bribe friends, family, or critique partners into giving it a once over if possible.

When you self-publish, it is critical to eliminate 99% of errors. I would say 100%, but even traditionally published books have a few typos nowadays. A book full of typos earns negative reviews and costs you fans.

Presenting a clean manuscript to an agent or editor can lift you to the top of the slush pile. If you present your manuscript for a professional critique or pitch at a conference, the agent will look favorably upon you. It is a relief to find a smooth submission as opposed to one riddled with typos and gross abuse of language.

Editors have been thinned out even at the large publishing houses. Clean manuscripts make an editor's job easier, which makes your project more desirable.

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.