Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Setting the Stage

A common problem I see in contest entries and pre-edited works is the lack of scenery. Characters do a lot of walking inside, walking outside, but the author gives us no detail. Sure, it's a challenge. And while many how-to books insist you need to use all five senses when writing a scene, I'm here to assure you if you can use any three in a scene, that's good enough. We all want our readers to be able to picture themselves in our stories. Give them a stage with three of the four walls, and trust them to fill in the blanks.

Take a simple segue between the living room of a house and the front porch. As your character exits, what time of day is it? Morning? Afternoon? Dusk? Night? 
What season is it? Is it cloudy? Raining? Sunny? Foggy? Snowing? 
What year is it? Contemporary? Historical? Futuristic? 
What's outside the property? Rural setting? City? 
What sounds does the character hear? Chirping birds? Heavy traffic? Crickets? Are there other people around? A plane whizzing overhead? The clip-clop of hooves? A dog barking? The rustle of leaves? Does the wind howl? Has the blizzard blanketed the world in white so that there is no sound? Can your character hear the whoosh of the waves kissing the shore? 
Does the sun bathe her face in warmth? Does the rain splash his shoes? Does the cold make your character shiver? 
Is the air heavy with the perfume of flowers? Fresh rain and spring mud? Salt and coconut oil on the beach? Garlic from the Italian restaurant across the street? The smell of burning leaves?

Yes, if you were to answer all of these questions, your book would wind up at 1000 pages. So choose a few to add to your scene. For example, using the scenario I started with, here are three entirely different options:

Cassie stepped outside onto the porch and watched the sun sink into the horizon beyond the barn. A brisk wind had kicked up while she'd prepared tonight's meal, and crimson leaves danced across the pasture. She shivered in her thin calico gown. 

Cassie stepped outside onto the porch and shielded her eyes from the morning sunlight glinting off the fresh snow. Another perfect day on the slopes waited. Once she'd cleaned up the breakfast dishes, she'd grab her skis and head to the lift before the crowds appeared for the holiday weekend.

Cassie stepped outside onto the balcony and looked down at the crowds ten stories below, beginning the daily rat race to work. The first sun had already risen, lighting the sky a pale pink and heating the temperature to wilt-worthy degrees. The second sun would be up soon, and she'd probably have to grab an air-skid to get to today's meeting on time. 

Three vastly different time periods and locales, all described in three sentences. 

So take a few sentences to set your stage in every scene. Your story and your readers will benefit!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

You Can Lead A Writer to Research...But You Can't Make 'Em Use It

There's an old saying in the writing world that the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. This is why research is so important in fiction writing. When I cite anachronisms, spelling errors, and other problems in a manuscript, 90% of the time, it's an error that could have been corrected with a little research.

Research is the writer's best friend. I spend a lot of time urging writers to double-check their research. Why? Because in minutes, with the magic of the Internet and my vast library of research books, I discovered a glitch in the story's timeline, the character's procedure, or a historical inaccuracy that cannot be ignored. Sometimes, what I find throws off the rest of the story, and I understand if an author's first reaction is, "I don't want to change that. It'll mean totally revising the manuscript." Yes, it's disappointing that a scene that hinges on three hundred pages is illogical or impossible. Yes, I commiserate with an author's need to protect his/her baby from deep cuts. You've already spent so much time on the story, finally feel it's perfect, and now I come along and rip it to shreds. So, of course, the author feels too protective to take a step back, consider my comments as helpful, and rise to the challenge. Since I'm a freelance editor, I don't have the power to make a writer follow my suggestions. All I can do is strongly advise. To opt against making changes is the author's prerogative, but an author shouldn't be surprised if that decision doesn't endear the book to readers.

What I discover too often are writers who write the facts around their story, rather than writing their story around the facts. Savvy readers will know the difference and will lose respect for the author who doesn't know the difference.

Last year, I wrote a post about the best habits for doing research. You can read it here. I urge you to do so and to follow these habits before committing to your story.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Need for Etymology When Writing Historical Fiction

For those who aren't familiar with the term, etymology is the origin of words. I'm in the midst of judging a contest, and my entries are in the historical category. I love judging, by the way. It gives me a chance to read some stellar works (I've seen some amazing stories and even collected new favorite authors from the contest circuit) and if the work is less-than-stellar, I have the opportunity to provide an author with the chance to improve.Today's post is one of those Public Service Announcements. Don't Let This Happen to You:

Last night, I picked up an entry and began to read. Within the first ten pages, I'd stumbled over four words that didn't seem accurate for the time period. A quick flip to my etymology references confirmed what I suspected: all four phrases were nineteenth century in origin, while the setting of the entry is six hundred years earlier. The editor in me cringed. Four? In ten pages? What else am I going to discover as I dig deeper into the manuscript? Because right there, the author lost me. He or she clearly didn't do the research and I'm now going to consider every phrase that leaps out at me as anachronistic.

Now, of course, I don't expect the dialogue in a modern book (regardless of historical setting) to read like a Shakespearean play, but at the same time, don't use 19th century slang (or even 16th century slang!) in a 13th century story. It takes seconds to look up the origin of a phrase. Those of us who know these things (and readers who flock to the same historical time period over and over do so because they *do* know these things) don't easily forgive that kind of "lazy writing." It makes us wonder, what else did the author screw up? And once that happens, the reader's no longer engaged in the story. 

Some helpful websites that every historical author should have bookmarked: 

The Online Etymology Dictionary
The Big List
Etymylogically Speaking

Monday, May 27, 2013

Announcing the New Website

I'm thrilled to announce I've finally launched the website for Excellence in Editing! You can find me at (note: there's no "in" in the middle). Bookmark it. On my site, you'll find details on my pricing, testimonials from other clients, helpful links for writing and editing.

I hope you'll visit and take advantage of all I have to offer!

Meanwhile, don't forget to drop me a line with questions you might have about the editing process and shopping for the right editor for your precious work.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

On References

Well, it's happened again. A writer I know went online today to complain that she'd paid an editor to review her manuscript and when she received the finished product, the errors and typos were out of control. In this case, the edited version was now littered with improper punctuation, incorrect dialogue tags, and spelling changes that reflected a European style while this book was intended for an American audience.

I really can't stress enough how important it is to know what you're getting before you pay an editor to work on your story. A true professional will not be insulted if you ask about punctuation placement, his/her stance on the Oxford comma (I'm a big believer, by the way), or if (s)he knows the difference between "affect" and "effect." 

Ask questions, my friends. Ask for references--not just the names of authors (where you might just get the editor's buddies who'll tell you what a fabulous product they received) but titles of books you can review for yourself. Ask more questions. Ask for a contract. Ask more questions. Be absolutely sure you and your prospective editor will see eye to eye on the majority of your concerns before sending your money.

Publishing is a business as well as an art. Put the left side of your brain in gear before hiring anyone to do work that will affect your bottom line!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ask the Editor: When Do I Hire an Editor?

Kevin D. sent me the following question: I've written the first hundred pages of my story (the other 200 or so are still in my head). Is it okay for me to take advantage of your Introductory Special to make sure I'm not wasting my time? Thanks in advance for your reply!

My answer? That depends on how much money you have to throw around and how serious you are about your story. To be honest, my "introductory special" is so successful, I don't see how I could stop offering it any time soon. And of course, even if it's not advertised, any writer who wants to make sure (s)he and I will see eye to eye on edits prior to hiring me to take on a larger project will always be welcome to send me a sample and I'll be happy to provide the sample price.

Here's the thing. Sure, you've got the story written in your head. But I strongly suggest you get it written on paper before you contact an editor. Why? Because a lot of times what's in your head doesn't translate to paper and you wind up with an entirely different story than what you'd originally envisioned. Because lots of people start a story and even write a hundred or a hundred fifty pages, then quit. Because it's more difficult for an editor to perform a structural edit on an incomplete manuscript.

The Internet's a wonderful thing and the sudden growth of self-publishing is grand. But it also means that people are in more of a hurry than ever to get their book "live"--often before it's polished and ready. Take a deep breath, put your head down, get those fingers on the keyboard and finish the story! Then revise and polish. Once you've done all that, contact me. I'll still be here and your story will benefit in the long run. I promise.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ask the Editor: Finding an Editor

James G. asks: I'm ready to find an editor for my completed novel. How do I go about it? How do I know what to look for? Are there questions I should ask? What if I'm not satisfied?

I'd love to say, "Just hire me and all your problems will be solved," but the truth of the matter is, finding the right editor for your manuscript is like finding the right doctor for your health. We all have different needs, different personalities, and different expectations. 

Let me tell you a story. 

A while back, I was shopping for an editor for my first indie-pubbed work. I did some online research, contacted writer friends for referrals and started with a list of ten options. Three of those were out of my price range. Down to seven. Three couldn't meet my time requirements. Four left. One felt a conflict of interest since she was currently working with a manuscript with a similar theme as mine and backed out of the project. With three left, I opted to go with the editor referred by one of my closest writer friends because I really respected her opinion. When I hired this editor, I explained that I prided myself on writing an uber-clean manuscript so I wasn't overly concerned with line edits (though she should definitely correct any sporadic typos or errors she found) and I wanted her to focus more on structure (did I leave any loose ends? Is the story credible? Could she see the character arc clearly?). She assured me she was up to the challenge. 

A few weeks later, I got the manuscript back, and I was major league disappointed. She had amended words from correct to incorrect usage (I used "sloe-eyed"; she changed it to "slow-eyed." Really? I mean, REALLY?!) Instances where I'd intentionally repeated a phrase or statement for emphasis, she deleted with the comment, "repetitive." (Duh.) There was absolutely no feedback regarding my structural concerns. I sent an email, thanking the editor for her work, but asking (again!) about my structural concerns. No reply. A week later, I sent a follow-up email and wound up with a, "Oh, yeah. It's fine" reply. The experience not only left a bad taste in my mouth, it made me think that this editor was more interested in my payment than in my manuscript. I wound up sending the manuscript to someone else to fix the edit mistakes she'd created. 

My unsatisfactory results with this editor ultimately led to my launching Excellence in Editing. No writer should pay for shoddy service! And an editor should deliver on what (s)he promises! do you know? Here are a few tips:

1. Get references and check them out. Ask for book titles, buy, and read! Remember, this is someone who will polish your work. If you see lots of errors or weaknesses in the stories previously edited, beware!
2. What experience does the editor have with your personal goal (contests, NY publishers, small press, or indie publishing)?
3. Ask for a sample! Some editors (like me) will edit a few sample pages for a flat fee. The good thing about a sample is, it gives each of you a chance to feel each other out.
4. Understand what you need and stress those needs to your prospective editor. Line edits are about punctuation, typos, grammar, and spelling. Structural edits are about the story.
5. Discuss payment and refund options.
6. Be sure the editor offers you at least one follow-up.
7. Have a contract! Editing is a business and shouldn't be handled fly-by-night. 

Have any questions or concerns, contact me, whether you plan to hire me or not. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Are You Guilty of Character Anachronisms?


anachronism [uh-nak-ruh-niz-uh] 
something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time, especially a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time: The sword is an anachronism in modern warfare.

Recently, I read a story wherein the heroine (age 28) referred to a television commercial that aired in the 1970s. The product itself hasn't been in existence (except through dealers in rare items) since 1976--nearly ten years prior to the character's birth. Needless to say, this jolted me out of the story. 

I see this a lot from contemporary authors who are at least a decade older than their characters. Their references don't jibe. They use phrases no twenty- or thirty-something would ever utter, recall television shows or popular songs they wouldn't have heard of. Their characters often come across as too savvy because they insert their personal experiences (which usually occurred much later in their lives!) into the character's much-younger background.

If you're going to write characters who are much younger (or older!) than you, be sure to research carefully. Spend time with people who are the approximate age of your characters. Use search engines wisely! Be sure the slang you use, the pop culture you reference, and the knowledge you give your characters is age-appropriate.

For example, anyone born between the years 1966-1976 are considered Generation X. Generation X children were more likely to have lived through their parents' divorce than any other previous generation. They were the first "latchkey" kids. As they aged, they've become focused on higher education, and financial and family security. They tend to use digital technology to simplify their lives through online banking and shopping. Gen X watched the OJ slow-speed car chase and the subsequent trial, which was probably their first foray into Court TV. They came of age during the AIDS crisis, the stock market collapse, and the 90s dotcom burst. This was the MTV generation (when MTV still aired music videos). Their movies reflected coming of age angst: The Breakfast Club, Reality Bites, Clerks,  Fast Times at Ridgemont High. On television, they tuned in to Beverly Hills 90210, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The X Files.

After 1976 to about 1994 are Generation Y, or Millenniums (also known as Echo Boomers since they are the largest segment of new population since the Baby Boomers generation). Generation Y kids had soccer moms and trophies for every player. This generation is more technologically savvy, thanks to the popularity of the PC and the Internet. For the most part, these are the bloggers and social media mavens. They're culturally diverse and more liberal in their thinking. Gen Y kids played with Transformers and Pokemon. They fell in love with Elmo. Pop music renewed the popularity of boy bands with 'N Sync and The Backstreet Boys, but added the hiphop of Eminem and Tupak. Their television shows were edgier: South Park, Family Guy, Two and a Half Men, as well as the glut of reality shows that burst from the networks. They grew up with Home Alone and The Lion King--on videos they could watch whenever they wanted--before discovering the films of Judd Apatow and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

What a difference a few years makes! 

To fully connect with your reader, be sure to research your characters, their pasts, and their experiences before creating their fictional journeys.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Choosing the (Im)Perfect Word

Recently, I was reading a work by a much-loved author and I came across the sentence, "He smelt the smoke in the autumn air."


Okay, so technically, it's a perfectly acceptable word in the context of the sentence. But when I hear (or read) smelt, I automatically think of the fish. Or the ore. "Smelt" as a past tense of "smell" is the last option my brain conjures up. This jolts me out of the story as I have to ask, What's wrong with "smelled"? 

Someone else I know can't read that a character "snickered" without thinking about horses. Laugh, chuckle, chortle, guffaw, if they must, but "snicker" just doesn't work for her.

Another reader asked me if "hared" was a real word (as in, "He hared off in pursuit of the child.") For the record, yes, it's a real word. It means to run like a hare.

A while back, I read a book that I didn't care for. One of the biggest problems for me was that the protagonist kept calling the paparazzi, "paps" and every time I read it, I felt like I should be making my annual OB/GYN appointment.

As writers, we're often torn between keeping our prose simple and coming up with that perfect word or description that will define an action or characteristic without the heavy use of adjectives and adverbs. It's a fine line we dance upon. And sometimes we stumble. When we stumble, our readers also stumble.

The thing is, we don't always know. I mean "smelt" went past the author and her editor, so who am I to say she should have gone with "smelled" instead? Maybe where they live, smelt has nothing to do with fish or ore.

That one reader who has trouble with "snickered" is probably in the minority. Right? You tell me if that particular term bothers you. I have to admit since I heard her argument, I, too, now think of horses when I see the word. <shrug!> The power of suggestion...

"Hared" is a rare word choice, but I see "rabbited" a lot and it's basically the same definition. Whereas "hared" can be confused with hard or hated by a reader, "rabbited" is pretty straight-forward.

Paps? That one's just unforgivable in my book.

What to do?

Well, editors have an acronym for this: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Don't use "queried" when "asked" will do.
If you're going to use a new or unique word, make sure it can't be confused with a totally different, more common term that has a similar or the same spelling. 
Rare is rarely better than common.

Your story is what makes your book unique, not how many words you look up in your thesaurus.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Suffering from Writer's Block?

Every once in a while, we all go through that period where the words don't come easily. Some writers will tell you they never suffer from writer's block and I think that's a great attitude. But work and life's little mishaps *do* get in the way of a writer's creative spark. Don't panic. This, too, shall pass. But you can help yourself with a few tips.

Music. Ever hear a song on the radio and you instantly click on a scene from a movie? For instance, every time I hear "Jump" by the Pointer Sisters, I immediately see (and sometimes do) Hugh Grant's dance from Love, Actually. Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" brings back memories of the football players doing the Electric Slide in a holding cell in The Replacements. And "Simply Irresistible" by Robert Palmer will always remind me of Queen Latifah's fight in the ladies room in Bringing Down the House. Soundtracks inspire, incite, and linger with us long after the movie is over. The same can be said about what you want when you're writing. So create a soundtrack for your book! Afraid you'll become distracted and sing along? Go for instrumentals! Check out Broadway and movie soundtracks at your library and choose music that will set the proper mood for each aspect of your story (introduction, conflict, crisis, climax, love scene, murder scene, etc.).

Exercise. Take a walk, go for a bike ride, punch a bag, do ab crunches. Get some endorphins flowing. Step away from the computer for a while. Your work will benefit from the break (and so will your body!)

Read. Re-read your WIP. Sometimes you lose the thread, but with a quick refresh of what you've written before, you can recapture what you've missed. Read another author's work. Leaf through magazines. 

Play. I love crossword puzzles and word games like Scrabble and Balderdash that will ignite a new idea. And you can play online so you don't have to wait for partners.

Got a tip to respark your dormant creativity? Share it here!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Taking on the Contest Circuit?

I've been a contest judge for more than a decade. I could wallpaper my living room with the thank you cards I've received from entrants who've valued my input. One author wrote, "I was about to give up writing until I received your judge's comments. You made me believe in myself and my story." Another told me, "Thanks to your suggestions, I made a few changes and I'm thrilled to tell you that my story won!"

Before you start dropping money on contests in the hopes of getting your work in front of your dream agent or editor, don't you want to make sure your manuscript has a chance to final? Take advantage of my Introductory Special and have your work reviewed for $1.00 per page to strengthen your story and increase your odds!