Thursday, May 27, 2021

Writers Gotta Read, Right?—References and More

Looking to fine-tune your writing? Need a little extra inspiration to jumpstart your initial draft or your final edit? Well, we’ve got lists (and in some cases, lists of lists) of books for your consideration. So, in no particular order, let's jump in!

What do YOU have on YOUR writing reference shelves? (Photo: Camille Minichino)

And now, for a few personal recommendations:

What about you? What are your favorite writing references and/or books on writing? Please share in the comments below...

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for "editor/writer"). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit for more information.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Pros and Cons of Self-publishing, According to Me.

So you’ve written a book. You think it’s pretty good, send out queries to agents and small presses. Get rejection after rejection.

“Not right for us.”

“Don’t know where to place it on the shelf.”

“Too much like someone’s work we already represent.”

Yada, yada, yada.

I finally got an agent, but she couldn’t sell my books. I wrote a couple of erotic romances that were accepted by good online erotic publishers of the time, 2010, then decided to self-publish with Amazon the four suspense novels I’d accumulated from my previous years of writing. They made it easy and gave a good percentage. I was not sorry. Those first few years I sold a lot of books, got half dozen BookBub ads, gave a bunch away, which jump-started sales. 

There are a few things writers MUST do if you intend to self-publish your books.

      1. Write a good book (Duh!) 
    2. Hire a good editor             
    3. Hire a good cover designer     
    4. Learn how to market

The last one is the hardest. BookBub is still around, but it has priced itself out of my market. Yes, you make your investment back if you have the money to play with. However, they take on very few Amazon-exclusive authors now because it limits the click-throughs they get with a book on many different platforms, like B&N, Kobo, Apple, etc. When they started, they gave me a freebie for my mystery, Murder Déjà Vu. The ad did phenomenally well.I sold A TON of books. As time went on, the prices increased, big publishers caught on and now pay at least half of the ad for their clients. In 2012, I made more money with four books than I make now with ten suspense novels and four erotic romances published under a pseudonym.

Marketing is a full-time job, and it ain’t cheap. I admit, I'm terrible at it. You can run sales, but that comes with an asterisk. For example, the other day, someone on Facebook said that cutting a price to nothing or next to nothing cheapens a book. If an author doesn’t respect his/her book enough to charge a fair price, who will respect it? I don’t agree, but I understand the sentiment. That sale  or freebie  jump-starts more sales, and that's the bottom line. Readers find books they wouldn’t ordinarily find, and if they like the first book in a series, they buy the other books. It's a little harder for standalones, but many of my readers have liked a one-off book well enough to try others.

Times have changed. There are thousands of writers self-publishing. Some books are terrific; some are not. The biggest con is, and I hate to say this, there is still a stigma attached to being self-published. Writers who do well churn out books one after the other. (Actually, many well-known authors do that too, and they ride on their previous successes because some of their later books aren’t very good. My opinion.) Many of those writers who find success write 50-70K-word books, mainly series. That keeps them in the public eye. It’s smart, and I applaud them. My books run anywhere from 80-100K words. I might have to rethink my future writing. Amazon's new platform, Vella, might be interesting, and I will look into that.

Also, very few self-published writers win awards, no matter how good their books are. Part of that is the good-old-boy network of people who vote on books by authors who attend conferences and make friends. It’s difficult for someone outside that sphere to get a foot in the door. Part is the self-published authors don't get the traction unless they invest big time in the marketing, so it's really a vicious cycle.

Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Amazon and their publishing, can I say mini-monopoly? The authors of their imprints do amazingly well. They’re advertised on my Kindle, show up on their Monthly Firsts—a gift to Prime members—and amass incredible amounts of reviews with  Amazon behind them. You can forget the Big 5. I’ll take being an Amazon imprint writer any day of the week, but then we're back to getting an agent because Amazon only takes agented submissions. 

Amazon has changed how people read with Kindle. Is it a good thing? I don’t know. It was for me because I probably wouldn’t have a book in the marketplace without them. Am I doing as well as I did when I had only four books in 2012? Not even close.

Would I do things differently now, knowing what I know? Yes. Will I tell you what? No. Will I continue to write? I honestly don’t know. I know people say they can't not write. That's all well and good, but in the end it's like eating lobster: a lot of work for too little meat.

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. 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.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

10 Self-Editing Tips

We can all use a little help in editing our work before sending it off to another editor for a final go-through. I do my best with my books, and I'm always surprised at how many mistakes my editor catches after I think I've got them all. In my years of editing for others and teaching editing workshops, I've come up with a list of tips that you might consider a good resource. Some of these have been written about before, here and on other blogs dedicated to writers and writing advice, but they are basics that bear repeating as a reminder.  

1. Avoid using wordage that has become so common that it's almost a cliche. 

When writing our first draft of a new story, we put down anything that comes to our mind, and often that is the most ordinary wordage.  In the second draft, the challenge is to change those ordinary words and phrases to make them a fresh delight for the reader.

 One example of an overused phrase that comes to mind is having people turn on their heel. I'm seeing that a lot in books I've read recently for review. Authors use that phrase when they want to show a character who's moving with some strong emotion driving them - like exasperation or frustration. To have them turn on their heel is an adequate presentation, but do we want just adequate in our writing? There are other ways of showing the same thing. For instance: Blowing out a great huff of exasperation, Samantha turned and walked briskly to the door.

Those eyes of his. A common phrase used in romance novels that is now spilling over to romantic suspense and some women's novels. My first thought always is, well, who else's eyes would they be? The intent of the writer is to indicate how enamored the heroine is with the hero's eyes. But wouldn't this work just as well, or maybe even better: Sarah gazed into Ralph's deep azure eyes and knew she could stay there forever.

2.  Look for repetition of words.   

For example, in a scene with a car, how many times did you use the word car? Circle the word every time you see it, then go back and change some, take others out.

Circle a character's name. Can you substitute a pronoun for some of them, a noun for others? 

Circle the word 'said.' Can the dialogue stand without it? Can a character action take the place of an attributive? "Sit down," Mary said, motioning to a chair. "Sit down." Mary motioned to a chair.

3. Clauses used in the wrong place.

Awkward - He saw a vase of flowers on the counter that was right in the center. Smoother - He saw a vase of flowers in the center of the counter.

4. Subject/verb agreement.   

Words between a subject and verb do not change the number of the verb. Example: The beauty of the garden - the roses, irises, petunias- is a sight to behold. The subject is 'beauty' - a singular noun that takes a singular verb. 

5. Action/motivation not in the right place.

Wrong: He jumped, startled by a loud bang on the door. Right: Startled by a loud bang on the door, he jumped.

6. Be careful about using qualifiers such as: rather, very, little, almost, pretty.

Example: At the sound of the door opening, she almost lost it. Better: Hearing the creak of the opening door, she forced herself not to whirl in panic.

7. Avoid weak words such as: while, since, somewhat.

Example: As Fran raised the cup, she...  Better: Fran raised the cup and...

8. Look out for unspecific nouns and vague words such as: something, anything.

Example: A noise from the direction of the basement scared her. What kind of noise?  Better: Hearing the faint scraping of metal against concrete, Becky backed away from the basement door.

9. Avoid using weak verbs such as: was, is, are, to be, ‘ing’ words, starts to, begins to. 

Weak: Sam is not a very open person. Better: Sam protects his feelings like an emotional miser. 

Don't get me wrong. There are times when was or is can be used quite effectively, and don't go through your manuscript and take them all out - as some people suggest in writer's groups. An action currently in progress calls for the use of was or is. John is running through the park. Which means he's still afoot. John ran through the park, indicates that he is finished. 

10. Check for any phrase or word that is not needed.

Examples: laughed (to herself) shrugged (his shoulders) nodded (his head) thought (to herself). A final word or two about nodding. Remember that a nod is always a sign of an affirmative response to a question. One does not 'nod her head, no.' A shake of the head is a 'no' response, and there, since one can shake many body parts, it is important to say the character shook his or her head. 

I hope you find these tips helpful, and if you have any to add, please do share in a comment. 

Award-winning author Maryann Miller has numerous credits as a columnist, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. She also has an extensive background in editing. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page read her Blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Ask Us Anything About #Writing Part 2


Last month, we started our new Ask Us Anything About #Writing feature with Amy Shamroe, a novelist-in-the-making. 

Our Blogging Team continues to answer her questions with this important one! 


Is it better to just get scenes/plot points down and come back and fill in details or to spend time on everything you write in the moment? (i.e., get it all down NaNoWriMo style and go back and bulk it out or maybe spend two days on two pages getting it all down)...

The better way is the way that gets your story finished. I like developing outlines that are a bit in-depth with notes about what happens in particular scenes, things characters say and do, etc. Doing this gives me visuals to jump into when I begin writing the story in earnest.

For a beginning writer, I would highly suggest learning to plot to start with - simply because this will save you time in the long run. Experienced writers who write to a "formula" (eg., genre conventions, like a cozy murder mystery or a romance which each have certain steps that tend to fall into place and everything else just fits around that framework) can get away with just letting it unfold as they write, because their minds are filling in the structure and characterization behind the scenes. But if you were to mess up in the first draft because you hadn't planned it out well enough, that means a lot of editing and rewriting much of the book when you could be working on the next book in the series instead. I recommend studying the books "Save the Cat Writes a Novel" and Gail Carriger's "The Heroine's Journey" to get a solid handle on plotting.

Plot? What means plot?

A patch of dirt in a graveyard with a headstone on it? 😅
I am big into some form of outline with basic plot points. Divided into three "acts".

Oh, I'm so done with not outlining properly. Retrofitting an outline into a manuscript that's already written is a total pain.

Back-outlining is a great exercise though.

Yep, eye-opening. But the cutting and rewriting that goes with it: not so much fun.

I believe in the conflict outline and the bare bones plot. There is no point wasting time on characters, plot devices, descriptions, line editing, and proof reading for it only to get cut later. Better to “imagine” your way through the basic bones then go back and flesh them out once you have a solid skeleton.

My suggestion, and one I tell my editing clients, is to get the story down first. Write forward as long as the creative juices are flowing. Refining the story and the prose come in the second and third drafts. Don't shortchange your baby by only writing one draft and considering it done. So much can improve with careful rewrites. Choosing new refreshing words and phrases instead of the first ones that come to mind. Cleaning up awkward dialogue. And plugging up holes in the plot. But first get the story down.

Hmmm. Lots of interesting responses here! I start with a synopsis... usually five to ten pages that is mostly "here is the plot." Then I dive in and see where the writing takes me. Usually I follow the synopsis for a while and then... something unexpected happens! Oh boy!... and off I go, four-wheeling into uncharted territory (occasionally checking the synopsis "road map" to see if I'm more or less heading in more or less the same direction).

The past few books, though, I've been stopping short of halfway to make "chapter notes." These notes are the basic plot/character points I need to hit to reach the end, roughly divided into chapters (usually what happens is what I think will be one chapter ends up being two or even three). Those notes help me deal with the dreaded "muddle in the middle," where I *freeze* and wonder how the heck I got here and how I'm going to get out! 🤣
As for writing individual chapters, I let them flow, and sometimes I stop and research some quick bit I need. Sometimes I mark it with TK (to come) and rush forward.


I write cold and unplanned. I've tried outlining and it doesn't work for me. The downside? I spend a lot more time rewriting and fixing the timeline that a planner does.


I’d like to add a couple of things. I am a big fan of mind maps, maybe even as a preliminary for a more formal outline. And I use paper index cards with reckless abandon, while I am brainstorming, and later when I am writing from day-to-day. If you’re looking to get down the bones fast and furious, I recommend 2K to 10K by Rachel Aaron for excellent tips.

Hope that helps, Amy, and gives you some ideas and incentives to keep throwing out the words! Does anyone else have suggestions for Amy? Please leave us a comment. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Here a Book, There a Book

Once upon a time my life’s goal was to read every book in the library. I was devastated when I realized that was impossible.

I’m still trying to read as many as as I can, though. I rely on lists of books to keep my own “To Be Read” list current and full of titles from many genres.

I subscribe to the Shelf Awareness news via Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, CO. You can sign up for their newsletter at the bottom of the web page.

The lists of new releases from Mystery Writers of America each month is excellent. The list is published on the website.

International Thriller Writers does the same in their newsletter. You can sign up even if you’re not a member.

For more book lists in all genres, a simple Google search turned up these sites for May.

My personal favorite is the monthly blog post from Lesa’s Book Critiques where she describes the month’s treasures in her closet. With cover art and short synopses, this librarian/book reviewer gives a sneak peek at upcoming releases, mostly mysteries.

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. This novel is now available in a large print edition, ebook and trade paperback. Her short story, “Good Work for a Girl,” appeared in the Five Star Anthology, The Spoilt Quilt and Other Frontier Stories: Pioneering Women of the West, released in November 2019.

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

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was interviewed for the Colorado Sun’s SunLit feature that you can find at the Colorado Sun website.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

From Concept to Creation to Completion: the Art of Writing a Book

 Art of writing a book? Drawing is an art. Painting is an art. Sculpting is an art. Composing is an art of sound that creates moods, perhaps even more so than visual art. Writing? That's simply telling a story, right? Let's think about it.

Good writing produces a movie in the mind. This is a tall order for any author because he/she must fill the shoes of scriptwriter, director, producer, reviewer of the daily rushes, inhouse editor, and more before it's ready for a public viewing (reading). Having a specific list of requirements up front and a practical way to address them can turn a chaotic writing process into a smooth, organized production.

How does a writer (or writer wannabe) prepare for this multifaceted job? Listing the stopping points along the writing journey's route provides a solid starting place. 

1. Read, read, read. I first heard this years ago. "That's silly," I told myself. "I don't want to be a copycat." Since those days of ignorance and naïveté, I've learned that reading books written by others offers a full-blown course in effective writing, not a shortcut to plagiarism. It teaches sentence structure, flow, dialogue construction, character development, the vital role of punctuation, plotting, and so much more. It shows the importance of writing for a specific audience. For example, fans of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov might not be enthralled with Louis L'Amour's stories of the Old West. Who's your target audience?

2. Hone your craft. Back in the beginning, I heard this a lot. While the "hone your craft" admonition can apply to a wide variety of fields, the understanding of it is essentially the same in all of them. For example, being a handyman doesn't qualify one as a plumber or electrician. Working as an EMT doesn't make one a brain surgeon. A good rapper probably can't sing the role of Mimi in La Boheme or Lieutenant Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly. In other words, learn your job of choice.

A craft is a specific skill. Writing is a craft. Going back to item 1 above, we soon learn novels written by others become textbooks that teach us valuable lessons. So are writing courses (in person or online). Writers' groups often become classrooms where roundtable-type discussions and reviews teach the craft. While it's difficult to hear some else criticize our work, it can be extremely beneficial if we put aside our egos and listen carefully to what is being said. Often, words of wisdom are tucked into the comments of other or more experienced authors, even if the delivery isn't sugarcoated. 

3. Outline your story. Opinions differ on what kind of outline works best. For me, it's a general one that provides an overview of my story concept. In the beginning, I put a short outline on paper (or hard drive). Now, it's typically in my head—with a few notes listed on "paper" with the characters' names under the working title. 

Side point: One of the biggest surprises I received when writing my first book was the determination of my characters to tell their story their way. While seldom giving them a free hand, I do allow them to share their opinions. If I don't like where they want to go, we brainstorm. The end result, typically a collaboration rather than a compromise, incorporates the best of both ideas. This may sound unrealistic, but it works. Several writers I've edited for have made similar comments about their characters. Conclusion: don't automatically dismiss your characters' input. They may know where they need to go or what they need to do better than you do. 

4. Research components of your story with which you are unfamiliar. For instance, if you have scenes where police are involved, learn about police procedure in the city, state, or country where the story takes place. If you're writing about cowboys, astronauts, ballet dancers, high wire or trapeze performers, or clowns, make sure your scenes accurately depict these characters. When even the smallest details are correct, the writer's credibility rises significantly.

5. Write, write, write. This sounds like a given, but I spent decades planning my first book—and not writing a word. Then a novel by a favorite author sorely disappointed me. Naïvely claiming I could write a better book, I quickly found out that was easier said than done. Believe me, her poorly written (in my opinion) novel was far superior to the first drafts of my tale. "Practice makes perfect" isn't just an alliteration that sounds nice; it's common sense. How many people do you know who could buy the sheet music for "Flight of the Bumble Bee" and go straight to a concert hall and play it flawlessly in front of a full house? They need to practice, practice, practice. Writers need to do the same.

6. Use beta readers. Never underestimate the value of qualified readers in finding flaws. As writers, we simply won't see all the mistakes in our own stories, even after several in-depth proofreads. Writing may be a solitary profession, but getting a top-notch book out to the public takes a (writing) community. 

The art of writing can create some of the most powerful communications among people. It can even affect politics and governments. (Thomas Paine's Common Sense and The American Crisis) A good novel can touch readers in unexpected ways, perhaps even change their lives. A great book is a gift from an artist, a full-length movie or documentary in the imagination of the reader. This holds true whether it's fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, screenplay, stage play, or soliloquy. 

Is the journey from concept to creation to completion worth the effort? 

What will your readers think? What do you think?

Linda Lane is currently updating two previously written novels and is laying the foundation for her new cozy mystery series with a twist, the first book of which should be out in late 2021 or early 2022. She also has a number of partially finished novels that are scheduled to make their debuts in 2022 and 2023. Although still doing some fiction editing, she now focuses primarily on writing and on encouraging beginning writers to hone their skills and read, read, read. You can contact her through her writing website,

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Five Hats of Self-Publishing

Traditional publishing requires that you find an agent who submits to publishers and hopefully finds a home for your book. As a traditionally published author, you still have to write, revise, proofread, submit, get accepted. But your work isn't done there. You still have to revise and edit per the publishers instructions. They design the cover and come up with the promotional materials and some promotional opportunities, but you are still in charge of self-promotion.

With the publishing market in flux, many writers prefer to self-publish. Doing so involves you donning not one but five hats.

1. Crafting the Product

Writing a really good book means endless rounds of critiques, revisions, editing, and proofreading. If you target a specific genre, and understand it, you are half-way there. Learning how to write is a skill set. Your very first draft of your very first book will not be a best seller. Studying the craft of writing and practicing it is job one. Once you have a manuscript you feel good about, you should get people to look at it for a developmental editing. Your brain fills in all the missing information and understands the backstory of everything you put on the page. You cannot catch your own plot holes. You should either hire an editor or learn how to be one. You still need other people to catch your typos.  

2. Book Designer

Once you have a product you are proud of, you need to learn book design. Paperback interior design is different than e-book design. Luckily there are software and templates to make that part easy. Probably the easiest job you will undertake.

3. Publisher

Once you have designed your product, you become the publisher. You need to investigate the different publishers and decide which ones you wish to use. There have never been more choices: KDP (Amazon), Nook Press (Barnes & Noble), Ingram Spark, Google Books, Kobo, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, Smashwords, Apple books, etc. Do you want an audio book or foreign editions? 

4. Marketer

Once you have a distributor for your project, you need to learn marketing. This involves manipulating social media platform promotions and ads such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.  Some suggest building up emailing lists. This means research, research, research. You learn about ads, promotions, giveaways, review copies. You must write a description that grabs the reader.You need to figure out where your fans are most likely to see your marketing efforts. You may need to craft novellas, short stories, and blog posts to feed a hungry audience.

5. Publicity

You have to promote yourself. You need a website and social media presence. Join groups devoted to your genre. Build relationships. Don't spam people. You can learn how to make a website or pay someone to make one. You have to do this part no matter how you are published. You need to network with groups, influencers, and bloggers. Readers are more likely to buy a book written by someone they have heard of. 

Before you finish the process with book one, you have to be working on the next, and the next. You need to keep producing quality products and tie-ins. 

Sound exhausting? It is. But only you can decide if it is worth it.

Further Reading:

Posted by Diana Hurwitz, 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.