advice

Tips from the Editor

Here’s Lookin’ at You, Baby… Because I’m Talking to You

I looked at him. “I really think it’s important.”

“Well, sure,” he said.

“Don’t you think so?”

He looked at me. “I guess so.”

Yes, if you’re a cop on stakeout, you’re probably looking at something other than the guy sitting beside you in the car. If you’re a guy who’s focused on the playoff game, which has just gone into extra innings, you’re probably not looking at your wife, even though she’s talking to you. If you’re a super-busy mom trying to keep track of two toddlers, you’re probably looking at them and not at your friend Katie, who’s trying to tell you about her impossible boss.

But if you’re having a quiet, important conversation with your S.O., sitting out on the back steps or on opposite sides of a little bistro table, you’re probably looking at the other person more often than not. That’s also true for your characters. If they’re having a game-changing conversation, they’re going to be focused on each other.

It’s a given. You don’t need to keep telling your readers, He looked at me. Really, what else would he be looking at?

Newbie writers often fall into the trap of trying to fill those awkward spaces between lines of dialogue with small actions: He looked at me. He blinked. He smiled. He nodded. Those bits of information are okay… IF the action adds something to the scene, something you want your reader to take notice of. But if your characters are looking and nodding and smiling several times per page, you won’t draw your reader deeper into the story. You’ll be taking the chance of boring them and pushing them away.

Ask yourself, Am I including something important, or just filling up space?

Avoid stating the obvious. Make every word important!

 

writing

Too Many Voices…

I’ve been meaning to post for… well, six months now, which is probably enough time to convince you that I’m a terrible blogger. At the very least, an unreliable one. And you wouldn’t be wrong. Slapping a couple of random thoughts up on Facebook (usually accompanied by a random photo of something) is one thing, and putting together an essay that I figure other people would enjoy reading is a whole ‘nother one.

But blogging is nothing compared to putting together a new book for publication.

gray lake crop

Last fall, I ran out of juice. I had several new stories underway, but couldn’t put together the ambition to work on them. Time went by, then more time went by… and I’d made no progress. Then, after the holidays, I had a sudden burst of inspiration and put together all the pieces for a brand-new series. I zipped through first drafts of the first three books, bought the covers, laid out a publication schedule… and then I ran out of gas again.

Why is that? you might ask.

Because the world is full of voices. People with suggestions. People who were happy to tell me just what worked for them. People who posted their sales numbers, which are up in the stratosphere compared to mine. People who were complaining about one thing or another (or a lot of things). That’s a LOT of noise, particularly for an introvert who’s easily overwhelmed by too much input — and it resulted in my completely running out of gas again. I wanted badly to publish these new books in April and May, but every time I looked at them, my heart would sink. The whole world started to look like that picture of the lake I included up above: gray and stormy. Not only couldn’t I envision publishing anytime soon, I couldn’t envision publishing at all.

Then a friend suggested, “Listen to your heart.”

Which is what I wanted to do all along, but other people were telling me I was wrong. Telling me the choices I’d made wouldn’t work, that I should tinker and juggle and cut and redo. Buy different (and much more expensive) covers. Good advice, maybe — for someone who’s not me.

For me, writing is very personal. Most of the time, I’ve done the tinkering and juggling all alone, without offering anyone else the chance to weigh in. Usually, I’ll reach a point where I can look at the story and say, “This is finished now. This is the best way I can tell this story.” At that point, I hit “Publish.” Some of the stories have done very well, from my perspective, at least. Others have faded nearly into oblivion. They didn’t work for the readers.

Would they have worked better if I had let other people weigh in, and followed their instructions? Maybe. But for me, part of the heart of the story would be gone. The story would have become a group effort, and not just the product of my struggling writer’s soul, the story I needed to tell, in its own time, in its own way.

I’m going back to that now. I’m going to turn these new stories loose and see what happens. They may fail; they may succeed to a degree that makes me smile. Either way, they’re true to what I wanted them to be.

I figure that’s worth a lot.

advice, editor, writing

It Needs to Be More Than Okay: Working with an Editor

So… you need an editor for your book or short story.  Maybe you’ve already published it, and you’ve been hit with reviews crying, “OMG, this needs to be edited!”  Or maybe it’s safely tucked inside your computer, and you know it needs a good overhaul before you even venture toward that “publish” button.

I’m an editor, but this isn’t meant to drive you toward hiring me.  It’s to help you improve your experience with any editor you hire – to make the road easier to travel for both of you.

Ready?  Let’s get started.

You’ve done your research, and you’ve found one or more editors you’d like to contact.  Here’s what to include in your query:

– The length of your story

– What genre it is

– Is it finished, or are you still working on it?

– What publication date you’re aiming toward – next week? Next month? Whenever it’s ready?

– What type of editing you’re looking for

That last one is ultra-important.  If you don’t know the difference between proofreading, copy editing, line editing, and developmental editing, do a bit of Googling and investigate.  If your manuscript is already polished, you probably just need a proofread for tiny bloopers.  If you know your spelling is horrendous and you aren’t at all sure where the commas should go, you’ll need either a copy edit or a line edit.  And if you’re aware that your first draft is a hot mess, but you have no idea how to fix it, you’re looking for a developmental editor who can help guide you step-by-step to a final product with no dangling plot threads, no “WTF?” moments, and no completely unbelievable characters.

Whether you’ve sent a query to one person or ten, give them a little time to reply.  A good-quality editor is probably busy, and it may be several hours, or even a day or two, before you hear back from them.

Key Point: If an editor answers your query with anything other than an outright “no”, respond to them.  You may have already decided to sign on with another editor, but leaving someone’s e-mail unanswered when they’ve expressed an interest in working with you is… well, colossally rude.  Take a minute to write back, “I’ve decided to go with someone else, but thank you for your time.”

Okay, you’ve gone through the process and have chosen an editor who sounds like a good fit.  Don’t be afraid to ask them for a sample edit of a few pages of your book.  Any reputable editor will be glad to do that for you (although they may not be able to do it immediately).  A sample will benefit both of you – the editor can get a sense of your writing style and the condition the manuscript is in, and you can get a feel for the type of editing you’ll receive.

If the sample looks good, now’s the time to lock down dates and prices.  Ask the editor what his/her turnaround time is.  Do they want a deposit up front?  Do they have any special formatting requirements for the manuscript (specific margins, double spacing, etc.)?

Key Point:  Editing may cost several hundred dollars – or more.  Make sure you’ve got those funds available when you send your manuscript to the editor, and that you’ll be ready to pay on the required date.

Aaaaand… the time has arrived!  Time to submit your manuscript to the editor.  Make sure you’ve got it formatted per the editor’s requirements, and that you’ve paid any deposit that’s due.

But…

Say you’ve changed your mind.  The manuscript isn’t ready.  You’ve hit a roadblock, or a real-life situation has interfered.  You may not be ready for another week… or ever.

Contact your editor immediately!

Your editor isn’t a “spirit” out there in the fog of the Internet.  He or she is a real person with a real calendar and real bills to pay.  Your not showing up to keep your appointment means that (more than likely) your editor will have no income for that time period.  How would you feel if someone who promised to pay you a hundred dollars – or several hundred – didn’t show up?

Yeah, not cool.

So do your best to keep your appointment.  But if you can’t, get in touch with the editor right away and let them know what’s up.  Chances are they’ll be okay with rescheduling, though you may not be able to lock down your ideal date(s).

Key Point:  If your editor has agreed to do the work on one specific day, send her your manuscript the night before.  That way it’ll be ready and waiting when she’s got her first cup of coffee in hand.  Don’t wait until late afternoon, or, God forbid, 10:00 at night and expect the editor to sit up all night to do the work.

And…

Key Point:  Keep an eye on your e-mail while your manuscript is in the editor’s hands.  They may have a quick question that needs an answer before they can proceed with the work.  If you don’t answer the question, your editor may have to set the work aside, or make a decision that you may not like, which will result in extra work for both of you.

Woo hoo!  You’ve got your edited manuscript back.

And you may be feeling any number of things.  Excited.  Eager to examine the edits and do that final polish so you can publish.  Or you may be disappointed.  Or even angry, or deeply hurt.  Know what?  You’ve got the absolute right to feel any or all of those things.  Maybe you were expecting the editor to tweak a word or two, insert some additional commas (or take some out), and fix a misspelling.  Instead, your manuscript is loaded with red edits.

I’ve been an author for fifty years, and I’ll agree wholeheartedly: that stuff hurts.  But here’s the thing.  If you’ve hired a good editor, one who truly knows their business, and the two of you agreed ahead of time what sort of edits he or she would make – take a deep breath.  Take a walk.  Set the manuscript aside for a while.  Then come back and take another look, remembering: these are only suggestions.  As the author, YOU have ultimate control over your manuscript.  You can say “the hell with this!” and publish it as is.  That’s your right.

But I’d suggest that you sit down (after you’ve stopped crying, or wanting to punch someone) and examine what the editor is trying to tell you.  Do you use a particular word(s) or type of sentence too often?  Is your dialogue stiff?  A lot of beginners are afraid to loosen up with their dialogue, afraid of using contractions (“I’m going” versus “I am going”) or simpler, everyday words.  There may be other problems you weren’t at all aware of, but which jumped off the page at your editor.  Spend some time looking at the edits and considering them.

If you’re still confused, or upset, ask questions.  Ask the editor to explain what’s going on – what he or she felt you were doing wrong.

Remember, no one’s telling you that you suck.  No one’s trying to hurt your feelings, or tell you that you should give up on writing.  No one’s trying to be mean to you, simply for the sake of being mean.  If an editor is worth his salt, he’ll be trying to help you tell a better story.  To tell your story in a smoother, more professional way that will appeal to more readers and will help you avoid those dreaded one-star reviews.

I’ll offer you a quote from one of my writing mentors, a man who was in his 50s at the time and had an enormous amount of success under his belt.  I sent him some of my work to look at, and he sent it back with this note:  “It’s okay… but it needs to be more than okay.”

Keep that in mind, because more than likely, it’s what your editor is trying to tell you with all of those nasty red edits.

IT’S OKAY, BUT IT NEEDS TO BE MORE THAN OKAY.

Again, the final choices are up to you.  When it comes to your book, you’re the boss.  (Hooray for self-publishing.)  It could be that your editor actually did go too far – tried to turn your story into their story.  That they changed your voice, and the story you were trying to tell.  If you’re a beginner, it can be tough to sort out good advice from bad, and “enough” from “too much.”  You may feel like you don’t know what to accept and what to reject.  In that case… just go with your gut.  Remember that your editor is trying to help you move past okay to terrific.  From meh to OMG I love this book!  If you’ve found the right editor, he or she will be a solid part of your publishing team… and will be standing at the finish line applauding you as you start collecting those 5-star reviews from your readers.

Be proactive, and interactive.  Make it work.

My final note to you?

Good luck!!!

(P.S. – Feel free to ask questions in the comments.  Are you confused as hell about something?  Have no idea how to find a good editor?  Want to vent about something?  Go right ahead!  If you need help, I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction.)

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To Thine Own Self…

College portrait
Me, a few months before I entered the Big Wide World of Work

A few weeks ago, someone e-mailed me to ask if I’d do a blog post advising students how to succeed in the Big Wide World of Business.  Should they learn how to “rock that interview”?  Become familiar with the latest software applications? Et cetera, et cetera.  I was too busy to do a post when the request came in, but I’ve given the subject matter a lot of thought.

Succeed in the working world?

Learn how to make the other guy look good.  It’s not about what (or how much) you know, no matter what field you choose to go into.  It’s — forever and always — about the other guy.  Make their job easier.  Help them look like the greatest bundle of awesome that ever awesomed, and you’re guaranteed a solid spot on the company totem pole.  More than likely, you’ll score some rewards: raises, promotions, nicer Christmas gifts.

But where will YOU be?  The real you.  The authentic you.  The you that you’ve always dreamed of being – the one who feels fulfilled, satisfied, content, happy.  That’s the real challenge in the working world: is it possible to keep the other guy looking like a star without completely burying yourself in the process?

I was part of the 9-to-5 thing for 38 years, beginning just a few weeks after I graduated from college.  My dad had ingrained in me the rule that Thou Must Always Have a Job — not necessarily a great job, or even the right job, but A Job — so I was both pleased and disgruntled when a vacation at the lake was interrupted by a phone call that said Come now, and start working.  That was the beginning of almost four decades of Making the Other Guy Look Good, and watching myself become more and more buried.

See… I’m a writer.  I’m also a variety of other things (daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, consumer, viewer), but in my heart of hearts I’m a writer.  A storyteller.  I’m the most content, the most at peace, and feel the most complete when I’m writing.  When I can’t write, I feel as if I’m being locked away from a loved one.  So whenever I could, during those 38 years in the corporate world, I used little bits of time to tell stories.  A day felt like a success not if I managed to put together a pile of legal briefs or sales flyers, but if I found the time to write a page or two (or twenty).  Over and over, I searched for jobs that would allow me to write… something.  During one job interview, I was promised that I’d be able to contribute to the company newsletter.  Did that happen?  It did not.  The best I was ever able to manage was drafting boilerplate business letters — not at all an exercise in creativity.

I had a regular paycheck.  I had “a good job.”  (Actually, I had seven good jobs, not counting the soul-killing temp assignments, during one of which I had to pick up a Fleet Enema kit for a boss who seemed determined to make me feel Less Than.)  But I never felt like a success.  I tried my best to make all the other guys look good, because I was trained to fit into that age-old image of The Good Girl, the quiet, obedient helper and listening post and whipping boy(girl) — even when it was killing me.  The whole time, I kept writing.  I published two books and a long list of fanzines, shared hundreds of stories online… and no one really took that seriously.  After all, it wasn’t my Real Job.  It wasn’t the thing that brought in the cash.

Finally, I hit the wall.  I’d been looking at retirement, figuring it was still a few years off, years I thought I could manage.  But reality was looking me in the face.  I was about to turn 60, a point at which we have to admit that what remains of the journey is much shorter than what’s already gone by.  I started to ask myself, When do I get my chance?  When do I get to nurture the real me?  I didn’t know when that would be, and I started to panic.  Literally: I had a panic attack.  My hands trembled uncontrollably, and my vision got foggy.  I had to struggle not to throw up.

That evening, I decided that enough was enough.

This past May, I said sayonara to the business world, to being constrained by office hours and limited space and other people’s needs and whims.  I became my own boss.  Now, the person I’m trying to make look good is me.  And finally, I feel at peace.  I feel like I’m nurturing the person I’ve always tried to be, the one who tells stories.  Finally, I feel like a success.

So…what advice would I give to a student who’s about to enter the working world?  Do you need to “rock that interview”?  Do you need to become a master of the latest software?  Sure.  Go ahead.  Do that.  But at the same time, be aware of the most important person on your team: yourself.  If you ignore who and what you really are, you’ll never be content.  You’ll probably start marking time, and complaining to your family and friends that Oh my f-ing god, I HATE MY JOB.  Which isn’t to say it’ll be easy to find work that fulfills you – or at the very least, doesn’t make you want to walk in front of a moving train.  Chances are, you won’t find a job that makes you want to hurtle out of bed in the morning…but do look for something, somewhere in your life, that gives your soul a chance to speak.  Find time for that.  MAKE time for that.  Write.  Draw.  Compose.  Sculpt.  Garden.

Something.

That’s how you succeed.  That’s how you’ll survive.  And with luck, you’ll find the right opportunity to shine on your own terms while you’re still sane enough to enjoy it.  So go forth, young Skywalkers, and make the other guy look good.  But don’t ever lose sight of yourself.

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Quick tip for newbie writers: it’s all in a name

My dad’s told me many times that he and my mom chose my name very carefully.  I was originally going to be Karen, but our neighbors had their baby first… and decided she was a Karen.  So I became Carol: a name that’s tough to misspell, and tough to make a nickname out of, both of which were important considerations to my dad.  When my brother came along a few years later, my parents took one look at him and decided that the name they’d chosen didn’t fit him, so they switched his first and middle names.

name badgeNew parents face that same situation every day: what to name this new little person?  Something old-fashioned, or quirky?  Something that will sound professional, suited to someone who becomes a lawyer or a doctor?  Or something that will say, “This person is a LOT of fun to be with”?

It’s no less important to choose the right name for your characters.  If you pick the wrong one, it won’t ruin someone’s life, or make them the target of ridicule — but just as it does in real life, saddling your fictional “child” with a name that’s too fussy, too quirky, too old-fashioned or too complicated will give the wrong impression to your readers.  A story about a married couple named Ralph and Ethel will attract different readers than a story about Tyler and Alexis.  (Think about it: without being told anything else about these four characters, how old would you guess they are?)  It’s fun to play against type with names — and it can give an extra layer to your character — but unless you plan to build that into the story, it’s best not to name your high-powered business exec “Timmie” (even as an homage to your best friend from grade school).

baby me
Not-Karen!

Speaking of friends: be wary of naming a character after someone you know.  If that character drinks a little too much, is unscrupulous in their business dealings, or cheaters on their partner — that won’t go over well if others in your circle (or your friend’s, or family member’s) look at your story and go, “OMG! Is Dave really having a little sump’n-sump’n with the girl in IT?”  Or, “Did Cathy really have a baby when she was 15?”  Along those same lines — you may loathe that guy down the street, the one who loves to blare music all night long and hasn’t mowed his lawn in ten years, but it might come back to bite you if you name your serial killer after him and include enough shared characteristics that your other neighbors can easily identify him.

Long story short: treat those characters like your babies!  Give them the best start in life that you can.  Get to know them for a while before you send them out into the world, and make sure their names fit them like a glove.  If you’re lucky, they’ll end up being as memorable as Scarlett, Harry, Ebenezer, Huckleberry, and Katniss!

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Five Tips for the Newbs…

I’m no expert on the subject of writing.  If I were, I’d be selling a lot more books.  But I’ve been at this a long time, my stories have always been reasonably popular, and I suppose that makes me a reasonably reliable source.  So here goes: 5 small pieces of advice for the newbie writers out there — the folks who are wondering how to whip their story into decent shape before they plunge their toes into the ice-cold water of indy publishing.

1)  Write what you know.  You may be dying to write about the life of a New York City detective, or an ER nurse, or a lumberjack, but if you’ve got no clue about the ins and outs of those professions, and you aren’t willing to thoroughly research them… don’t go there.  Readers who are more savvy than you are will object.  A lot.  If you’re a student, write about student life, or small-town life, or young love, something you understand right down to your gut.  If you’ve got a mundane job, write about that, or family relationships.  Don’t just “make shit up.”  Unless, of course, you’re writing Sci Fi.  Then, by all means, make shit up.

2)  Listen to people when they talk.  Everywhere.  At work, on the street, at the mall, on TV and radio.  Pay careful attention to what they say and how they say it.  Does your wife (or your mom) actually say to you, “I would like you to stop at the store and pick up several items”?  Don’t be afraid of contractions.  Develop a sweet love affair with contractions, and figures of speech.  If you’re unsure whether your dialogue sounds genuine or fake, read it out loud.  Seriously: READ IT OUT LOUD, at a pretty fast clip.  Then ask yourself: do people talk this way?

3)  “Just because” is not a good reason for something to happen.  Your characters are human beings.  Don’t force them to do things no normal person would do, just because it sounds good, or it fast-forwards the plot.  Yes, in the BBW/Paranormal Romance genre, perfectly sensible women walk away from their lives, their jobs, their friends and family to live in the woods with a pack of werewolves, but if you’re writing non-PR fiction, your readers will be a lot happier if your characters display some common sense.

4)  Don’t get fancy; just tell the story.  You may adore The Road with every fiber of your being… but you’re a newbie, not Cormac McCarthy.  Elaborate styles and fifty-cent words don’t make your story better, all on their own — unless you’re skilled at handling them, they’ll actually bury your story.  Remember the acronym KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid?  That’s your best bet.  Don’t hit “publish” on something that’s going to prompt readers to ask… WTF?

5)  If you can’t spell and punctuate properly, find help.  I’ve read a number of times recently, “If the story is good enough, I’ll force myself to overlook the mistakes.”  But why put a reader in that position?  Particularly if you’re asking him or her to part with some hard-earned cash in order to read your story.  Take pride in your work!  Make it as perfect as you possibly can.  You might not be the best writer in the world — but you can make sure that your housekeeping is done.  Publishing a story that hasn’t been cleaned up says very clearly to the reader, “I didn’t care enough to make this look its best.”  If you can’t afford an editor, offer to swap skills with somebody.  Offer to beta-read their story.  Offer to mow their lawn, or paint their front steps.  Do whatever it takes to present the best possible product to your potential customers.

A final bonus tip:

DON’T GIVE UP.  Don’t let anyone tell you, “You’re not a writer.”  If you’ve got a story to tell, tell it.  Then tell another one.  And one more.  As one of my writing mentors instructed me years ago: WRITE YOUR FACE OFF.  With practice, you’ll get better.

I promise.  🙂