Saturday, August 30, 2008

Five Tips to Improve Your Writing

by Lu Ann Staheli

I’ve been working as an editor now for a long time, first with students at school, but more recently I’ve returned to editing manuscripts for local publishers. As I’ve been working on the most recent projects, I’ve started to keep a list of suggestions that would help the authors improve the flow and content of their stories. Each of these is a simple fix, yet applying them could make a huge difference in the quality of writing, and improved quality means a better reading experience for your audience.

1. Use the Natural Order for Dialogue Tags

“He said” is the natural order of things and should be used whenever possible. Lately I’ve read three manuscripts where the author has elected to use “said he,” every time. Although an occasional use of this order works, using it too often makes the reader begin to focus on the tag and not the dialogue, the place where the focus should be. In an effort to avoid the same-old-same-old, authors tend to let the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction, thinking their new sentence structure will seem fresh and interesting. Instead, it feels awkward and annoying. My philosophy of writing is: Never annoy your reader. If your reader become too annoyed, they will no longer be your reader, and in the publishing world, that’s the last thing you want them to do.

2. Stop Telling Me How to Feel

Although it is important for your reader to experience a sense of place and character, adding a tag or beat that tells them how the character speaks easily becomes distracting. Words or phrases such as laughed, with a smile, in a serious tone, or asked happily are all examples of the author telling the audience. A better way is to strengthen the dialogue itself, so there is no doubt in the reader’s mind how the character feels when they say these words. Of course, an occasional directive may be needed, but most of the time these tags and beats can go.

3. Echoes are for Mountain Tops, Not Fiction

If you are in the habit of letting your characters echo or question everything that is said to them, you need to stop. When new ideas are thrown at a character, it is likely they will want to know more, but instead of repeating the key word from the previous dialogue, give them a question that covers new ground. Insist those characters listen the first time, then build upon the information they have been given. Stand-alone questions like what and huh are wasted words, something most novelists really can’t afford.

4. Put Your Dialogue Tags on a Diet

When you were in grade school, you probably had a teacher who insisted that you use a variety of words to replace said. It’s great that you know all those words, but in this case, your teacher was wrong. Dialogue tags need to be invisible. They are only there as place markers, a way for your reader to know who is speaking during a conversation with two or more characters. Keep your tags as bland as possible. Use said, whispered, and asked, always things a speaker can actually do with words. If you want to add a little spice, you may do so, but don’t change dialogue tags every time the character speaks. As a matter of fact, see how many times you can get away without using them at all.

One way to do this is to know how to use a beat, a descriptive phrase that also adds sense of place. Recently I edited a manuscript that used the following tags on a single page: said, questioned, replied, asked, replied, answered, said, said, questioned, answered, laughed. Not only were most of them too heavy, but the repetition of those heavier words stood out like an elephant in a group of penguins. An occasional beat like this might have worked better: “He could hardly keep the laugher from bursting through his words.”

5. Stop Beating the Dead Horse

Once you established a point, get on with it. Develop the information more if you need to, but don’t continue to tell us the same thing, just in new words. This might be harder for you to recognize in your own work than the other points I’ve made. Ask your trusted readers—the ones who see your manuscript before it goes to an editor—to look for times you’ve gone too far in making a statement. Sure, it might be significant to your story that the audience understands how handsome a character is, that another one is a klutz, and that they each have things they want, but give us credit for being able to remember that from the things they do and say, without you, the author, reminding us numerous times per page.

Final Words

These are the kinds of errors that are easy to make as we write with the muse. They are also corrections that are easy to do. Sometimes we need the help of other people to recognize we have fallen into their use, but most often, we can find them in our own work. Learning to write well requires constant work; each new piece brings its own challenges, but when we pay attention to detail and watch our writing improve, the rewards make all that work worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Opening a Vein--Or Not

by Annette Lyon

You've probably heard the quote from Walter "Red" Smith:

"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

Every writer, from beginning to seasoned, can relate (ever hit your head against a wall and just KNOW there's no way you'll finish your book? And if you ever do, it'll stink? Yeah.).

The writing life has more to drag you down than that dreaded wall: writer's block, rejections and everything (a universe more!) in between.

But what if you stopped writing? Would you be happier?

If you're ever to the point where you're stuck on the "open up a vein" and "this is painful" mentality, I recommend listening to A Conversation on the Writing Life with Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron.

The two-hour program covers a variety of topics, but even the first five minutes is enough to lift you up and remember why you started this writing gig to begin with.

Let me remind you: Writing is fun. It brings you joy. It makes you more YOU.

At least, that's what it does for me. Natalie Goldberg says that if she hasn't written that day and you run into her in the afternoon, you can tell. She's less grounded, less herself.

I'm the same way. If I take too much time off from writing, the house is messier. I have less time for the kids and my husband. My entire life seems to implode, and I can't ever catch up.

But when I take a little time here and there for writing, I'm more me. Everything falls into place. Paradoxically, I have more time for all my other demands. I'm a happier person. I'm a better wife. I'm a better mom.

Granted, now that I have deadlines and a publishing schedule, that "little time" can get out of balance and take up a LOT of time. I have to be careful not to let my life get too crowded by writing that other areas suffer.

But at the same time, even when I bemoan the latest critique I got or my low numbers or whatever the gripe of the day might be, I have to remind myself that I'm a writer.

It's who I am.

More importantly, it makes me more me. And that's something to celebrate.

Here's the dirty little secret with writing:

Most of the time, writing doesn't come from angst-ridden, drug-addicted artists starving in some attic in the winter cold. And most of the time there is absolutely no blood-letting involved.

Instead, writing is FUN. Shhhh. Don't tell.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Intellectual Property in the Air

Seven years ago, I shot straight up in bed. I had a fabulous idea for a book. It was going to be hilarious. I laughed just thinking about it, though tried to keep it quiet since the husband was sleeping next to me. I tiptoed out to my kitchen and penned the outline in the fever of maniacal giggling. I knew I had a bestseller flying from my pen to the paper. (this was back when I wrote all my novels in spiral notebooks and had no clue how to send an email.)

The entire book idea stemmed from a play on words from another bestseller. My book was going to be called How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. It was going to be a gag gift for all those positive thinking people that irritate us. It was going to be awesome.

That was seven years ago.

The book remains on my hard-drive--never submitted, though occasionally thought about.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the movies and saw a trailer for a movie that looked so lame, I determined I would never go see it. Guess what the title was.

Go ahead. Guess.

Yep: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.

&%$%#@*$@!!!!!!!!! What are the chances????????????? (All those exclamation marks and questions marks are the representation of me stomping my feet and screaming while tearing out my hair.)

This comes two months after I read the backliner of Stephenie Meyer's The Host and realized the whole premise of her book is about two souls living in one body. Guess what.

Go ahead. Guess.

Yep. Two years ago, I wrote a book that has a bi-soul as one of the characters. The bi-soul is seriously awesome. It's schizophrenia at its finest. Though this character is a minor character, I don't want to edit her out. She's funny. She's interesting. Her history and the history of the planet she comes from intrigue me and fill me with joy that I wrote something so cool. I love my character. The book hasn't found a publisher yet, but I am not editing out my bi-soul.

I am never EVER going to read Stephenie's book (no offense Stephenie, but I wrote my bi-soul before you wrote yours). At least that way, no one can ever claim I copied.

Seriously. How is this possible? What are the chances? I really do believe that ideas are in the air like pollen riding the wind. They are waiting to be plucked and put to use. Why do I always pluck and then come late to the putting to use part? Argh!

The moral of this story is
  • Tearing out your hair is painful. I don't suggest it to anyone.
  • The cosmos feel it unfair for them to hand you a cool idea when you're going to hide it on your computer for all eternity.
  • The cosmos have a wicked sense of humor and figure if you don't use your idea, someone else ought to get a crack at it.
  • If you have an idea for something, get it written and SUBMITTED.

I'm serious. What's holding you back from submitting? I will be honest and raise my hand and be the first person to admit it was naked fear. Sometimes I get so afraid of the rejection time and time again that I hang onto my ideas with jealous fervor. But hanging too tight to your manuscripts is like trying to hang onto that slime stuff kids play with. The tighter the hold, the more slime eeks out between your fingers until you're holding nothing at all.

So do yourself a favor and submit your manuscripts. After all, you never know when someone is going to take your idea and make a lame movie out of it before you have a chance to be brilliant.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Blowing it up; How Not to End Your Story

By Josi S. Kilpack

Over the years I've done several elementary school visits where I talk to the kids about writing. During these visits I have the class help me write a story. I start with characters, since no matter the plot, every story is about somebody who grows through the course of the story. We then move onto plot, since every story is about something that happens to that somebody, then causing the growth that is so essential. Once we have those two main points in place, we add the antagonist, the person that makes things hard for our main character, which leads to conflicts; ways in which the antagonist gets in the way of our main character getting what they want. Seeing as how I'm doing this with eight year olds, our stories usually go like this:

Kyra enters a jump rope competition that she wins every year. The new girl in school, Sasha, won the competition in her old school every year. Sasha cuts Kyra's jump rope, Sasha is better than Kyra, Sasha spreads mean rumors about Kyra to the school hoping Kyra will skip the competition. Kyra, however has grown through these challenges and she shows up to the competition despite everything Sasha has done to thwart her.

At this point we face the climax--critical mass for the story. What happens next? The climax needs to be intense and important and a worthy challenge for Kyra to overcome.

This is where the bombs come in.

Why bombs? Because the fact is that any story can end with an explosion that simply makes everything disappear--albeit dramatically. Take Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth doesn't need to admit she's in love with Mr. Darcy and has let her pride blind her for all this time. She doesn't need to suffer the embarrassment of her sister's marriage--everyone in the book can just blow up due to some cosmic thing that won't be figured out for another hundred years. Harry Potter--same thing. He doesn't have to fight Voldemort, he doesn't have to save the world from evil, they can all just explode via a spell gone horribly wrong. And Kyra doesn't have to face her nemesis at the jump rope competition, the boiler room can simply explode beneath the gym floor, obliterating all sign of character, plot, and conflict. Over. Done. The End.

Of course, none of us would read books if they all ended this way, but the point is they CAN end this way. It provides climax and conclusion in one felled swoop. However, it's rarely the right way to do it. The reason I use this example at my school visit is first, because all the boys that stopped paying attention when we mentioned jump rope, are now paying attention again, and second, because all writer's need the challenge to come up with something better--something satisfying, something fair, something more creative than explosives that fits their story, shows the character growth and allows the reader to put down the book without screaming obscenities at it.

While climax-conclusion is a very basic lesson in writing, as writers we too face dark days of our own that have nothing to do with elements of fiction. We are the main character in our story, the plot is laid out behind us more often than before us and we look back and marvel at how long it's taken to get here and the conflicts we've overcome.

And then we face a dark day. A day we thought was behind us, a day we didn't expect.

Your dark day might be a rejection, it might be a family member's snide remark about us choosing our writing over our children, it might be a negative review, a royalty check we expected to receive but didn't get because we had too many returns, it might be the story we just can't figure out an ending too. Wherever we are in our writing, there are dark days ahead and it's these days when we start thinking of the ultimate climactic conclusion to our writing days--a figurative explosion which is actually the opposite, an implosion of all we've worked for; where we throw our hands in the air and give up. This is especially tempting when the dark days have compiled. It's not just a rejection, it's the FIFTEENTH rejection. It's not just a snide comment, it's the NEXT snide comment after years of them. It's the SECOND bad review this week, and it was a royalty check we really needed because our book expense account is in the red.

It's hard to see the silver lining when the clouds get this thick and we find ourselves wondering what else we could do with our time, our talents, our passions; certainly we could redirect them to something else--something that would surely be more enjoyable than this.

This is the point that 80% of would-be-published-authors implode. They've had too many dark days and they can't see their way through anymore. They don't WANT this in their life anymore. And this isn't necessarily the wrong choice--for them. The question you have to ask yourself when you're the one facing the darkness, is it the right choice for you?

I will submit that there is not a single writer anywhere that does not consider the implosion on numerous occasions. I would submit that most published authors have faced weeks worth of bad weather, hoping and praying for sunshine without knowing if they'll see it again. I would submit that the fact you are facing dark days is similar to the conflicts you give to your characters. Will you press forward and be stronger for it in the end? Will you learn something here that will make the future easier to handle? Will you look for the joy of your writing even if it means digging in the dirt until your fingers bleed?

Each time I face a new dark day I have to go through this all over again--is it worth it? Do I want it? Can I keep going? So far, I can, but I know many people that are better writers than I am that finally determined they couldn't. I would like to offer an flashlight to anyone that feels suffocated by the darkness. If you've ever read by flashlight you know that it only illuminates a few words at a time, and you have to keep moving it as you go. If it all feels too big, if you're overwhelmed, and undernourished and questioning your efforts, just look at a few words at a time, and keep moving. Better days are ahead, imploding is not the only solution, and if writing is truly a part of who you are you won't be whole without it.

No matter the story, it's about somebody who grows through the course of the story. Be the hero in your own book and conquer.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Language Links and Helps

by Annette Lyon

A comment by Angela Michelle on one of my recent posts inspired me to post links to some great blogs that help with punctuation, grammar, and other English-language questions.

First off is the one I looked up after she pointed me toward it: Apostrophe Catastrophes (Great minds think alike; that was my post title!) After seeing enough funny wrong examples, you'll get more confident in using apostrophes correctly in your work.

Same goes with this humorous blog. It pokes good fun at misused quotation marks. I got plenty of laughs seeing signs where something very different than what is meant is implied by rogue quotation marks. The blog is appropriately called The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.

Now for a great resource: If you're unsure about a grammar, punctuation, or usage issue, consult Grammar Girl. She covers just about everything. (Her latest topic: misuse of the phrase, "begs the question." Bet you didn't even know that was an issue!) Subscribe to her newsletter, listen to her podcasts, and take her online challenge (a brief quiz). She's even got a new book out.

Not long ago, I stumbled upon another site that was not only educational, but it was great fun for word nerds like yours truly: Common Errors in English. I could spend all day surfing that site. Bookmark it; you'll want to go back to look things up when you're unsure. The man behind the site, Paul Brians, now has a book out by the same name.

If you're a total word nerd (celebrate with me!), you'll want to look into buying the Oxford English Dictionary (known as the OED) either on CD or by subscribing to it online. It's the most comprehensive dictionary in the English language and a boon to any writer's arsenal.

(Read about how it came to be in this book. The dictionary, a couple dozen volumes in length, is a truly remarkable feat.)

I rely on the OED to verify when words came into use (especially helpful with historical writing) by checking the printed quotes in a citation, which include the earliest known published usage of each word. You can also discover the history behind words, which has been loads of fun. The CD version gives you a word of the day whenever you start it up. (Mine today: familiarism.)

And remember, you can always e-mail a question to the editors here, and we'll post an answer. Find the address at the top right.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Apostrophe Catastrophes

by Annette Lyon

My latest editorial peeve: possessives that . . . aren't.

You know the kind of thing I'm talking about:

"Banana's were on sale."

"We visited the Smith's."

"How many book's have you read?"

ACK! Each of those are trying to be plural, meaning more than one. Try again:




Ding! Ding! Ding!

Why no apostrophe? Because the bananas don't own anything. Neither do the group of people with Smith as their the last name. And what exactly do the books own? Nothing, at least, not in that sentence.

A lot of writers should have their apostrophe allotment removed, the way they abuse them. Plain old plural doesn't take one of those curly marks. You just add an S.

Instead, use apostrophes to show ownership:



Lu Ann's

If you want to discuss something the book possesses, then you'd say:

The book's cover is blue.

Or if the Smiths (there are several of them, so no apostrophe) own something, you could say:

The Smiths' car broke down.

Note that in this case, it's both plural (several people named Smith, such as an entire family) and possessive (they own the car). So you add the S and then the apostrophe.

Don't let possessive pronouns trip you up. Even though they're possessive, you never add an apostrophe. Of course, the only pronoun that ever really causes trouble in this area is ITS (being mistaken for its friend, IT'S, which means IT IS).

But you wouldn't say M'Y or HE'R or THEI'R, so you wouldn't say IT'S when you mean the thing owns something, as in, "the book and ITS ugly cover."

To keep it simple, I won't go into the debate about whether to add "es" to names for plurals when they already end with "s" (Dickens/Dickenses) or how you deal with possessives there (Dickens'/Dickenses'). That's another post.

For now, have mercy on your reader.

Ask yourself:

Do I mean more than one thing?
If yes, use JUST an S:
  • the books were stacked
  • the houses along the street
  • the Smiths came to the party
  • the tables were round

Do you mean the thing owns something else?

If yes, use an apostrophe and an S:
  • the book's publisher
  • the house's front yard
  • the Smiths' baby
  • the table's shape

Easy as pie. Or pies. Or as yummy as the pie's filling. Or something.

Just keep those apostrophes in check. Don't let them out of their cage unless they behave.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Drawing From Personal Experience

At a conference I attended in my early years as a writer, I heard an author say that when people chose to become writers, they chose to be witnesses to life rather than participants in life. He said that writers observe the world around them and silently record what they see. He said that by choosing writing, they choose to live outside of the world--in a sense.

I agree and disagree with this author. I am a chronic eavesdropper. I love to hear dialogue play out around me. I love to watch people interact together. I do watch life; I do silently record the events happening around me. Yet, I also participate. I do not allow the world to move around me and without me. In the name of research, I've learned all kinds of new things and traveled to all sorts of new places. I definitely participate in life. And much of that real life I live finds it way into my novels.

But how much real-life experience is too much in a novel?

They say to write what you know and I believe that sometimes writing your own personal experiences can be therapeutic, but sometimes novelizing your personal life can pose a problem. They say most first novels are autobiographical. If this is the case with your work in progress (and before hanging your laundry in front of the world) you should ask yourself some questions:

  • Are you using information that is sensitive to someone else?
  • Are you using information that may be the intellectual property of someone else?
  • Will this come back and bite you in the backside at a later date?
  • Does your personal story have significance to anyone outside your personal family (who is your audience)?

If a novel involves characters based on real people, you should contact those people and get permission to use their story. The last thing an author needs is to have their friends reading about themselves in a novel. This is a great way to lose friends and strain relationships among family members. If you don't want to ask for permission, you'd better change the character enough to not have it become a liability.

If the story or idea for the story is based on someone else's experience, you may want to get written consent to utilize the story rather than face a lawsuit later on. There are all sorts of different circumstances for this, but for the most part, there isn't a reason not receive permission beforehand in writing (always in writing).

Your story is interesting to you, but will it be to someone else? Why will readers want to willingly hand over their hard earned dollars on your book? What will they get from the story when they close the book?

I'd hate to think that authors might not live life, but merely be content to record it. But I'd also hate to think that a writer wrote a reality too closely lived. Be sure to really consider your motivation for writing personal experiences and make sure not to alienate the people you love in the process.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

BEFORE you submit

by Heather Moore

In follow-up to Annette's submission advice yesterday, I'd like to share a few things that I've done BEFORE submitting.

When I research an agent or publisher, these are the steps I take:
1. I contact a few of the authors and ask how their experience was. I can usually find email addresses or websites by googling their names and books.
2. I see if the company has a viable website with proper contact information.
3. I check their ratings on Preditors and Editors and Writers Beware
4. If they are a small press, I ask them about their wholesale company or distributor.
5. I ask for a list of their recent books published (or recent books "sold" if it's an agent). I contact a few of those authors.

I learned this the hard way. Several years ago, I received a publishing contract from Harris Literary. I was so excited! I signed it and was ready to mail it back. Then something nagged at the back of my mind and I decided to do a little research--more than I had before. I contacted some of their authors and all of the ones that wrote back gave me the same feedback. Do NOT go with this publisher. One was even in a lawsuit situation with them.

Last year I was contacted by an agent who used an email that I don't normally query with. So I was a little surprised. Upon further investigation, I found that it was a scam artist. Here is the full story.

Also, for a list of some red flags, go here.

Please do your research, and do it thoroughly before submitting to an unknown.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Making Contact

by Annette Lyon

In response to some reader questions I've had recently, here's a basic refresher course on how to contact editors or agents about your work.

For more in-depth information, dig around. Find books and blogs about it. Lots of literary agents have great information about these things.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog is worth looking at. (Be sure to check out his sidebar, which has links to posts about manuscript formatting, query letters, and much more.)

Another is the famous (and, alas, now retired) Miss Snark. Search for "query letters" or any number of other topics on her blog, and you'll find a ton of great information straight from the horse's mouth.

When communicating with editors and agents, the basic rule of thumb is simple: Know what's expected, and deliver it. In even simpler terms: be professional.

Some basic dos and don'ts:

  • Use white bond paper.
  • Print on one side.
  • Keep your query letter to one page. Technically you can go over, but the longer it is, the less chance the whole thing will be read.
  • Use the editor/agent's name and spell it correctly.
  • Get others to read your letter and offer feedback.
  • Make sure your personality and voice shine through. This is the editor's/agent's first introduction to you and how you write. Don't hide your voice.
  • Proofread your letter.
  • Proofread your letter.
  • Proofread it again.
  • Include whatever the particular publisher or agency requests. If they ask for three chapters, give 'em that. If they ask for a synopsis, yep. Give 'em a synopsis. Or a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope). Whatever they ask for.
  • On your SASE, be sure to include stamps rather than a metered sticker, which doesn't work in all areas if it's being mailed back after the date on it.
  • If your work has been requested, say so on the outside of the envelope. That way you avoid being dumped into the slush pile.
  • If you met the editor/agent at a conference, feel free to mention it to help jog their memory. (Unless you were the one who spilled ketchup on them. Then jogging their memory might not be in your best interest.)
  • Mention what your book is about, how long it is, and what genre it fits into.


  • Use colored paper or perfume or send trinkets or do anything else "cute." Sure you'll stand out, but not in a good way.
  • Flaunt the publisher/agency guidelines because you think you're special. (If they don't take e-queries, they won't take yours. If they want something between 70,000 and 100,000 words, don't send something that's 150,000.)
  • Criticize or judge the publisher, agent, or the industry.
  • Or offer suggestions for the same.
  • Insist that your book is going to make them millions of dollars and that you're the next Brown/Rowling/Grisham/fill in the blank.
  • Include biographical information that isn't relevant. Unless you're writing about pit bulls, the fact that you own one is irrelevant. If this is your first attempt, no need to mention that, either. It might work against you to say so.
  • Submit something that isn't right for the publisher/agent. If you've done your homework, you'll know what kinds of things they're looking for. You may have written the best cookbook ever, but sending it to someone who works only with speculative fiction and romance is useless.