Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tips from an Editor and an Editor’s Authors

The following notes are from a talk I gave to a writers’ group a few months ago about the editing process for those writers who have never worked with an editor before.

What you need to know about...

Manuscripts: The rules for writing manuscripts for publication are the same as the rules for writing a resume. Don’t use flashy fonts, multiple fonts, varying sizes of fonts, or an alarming amount of bolds and italics. If you feel you need visual acrobatics to draw attention to your story, you probably have a weak story.

Formatting: All an editor wants is a double-spaced 12-pt font document for easy reading. Don’t format your manuscript. The publishing house has a formatting team to handle that. Paragraphs are nice, of course, but putting in your own style is a waste of time. Adding page numbers to a manuscript created in a word processing program is unnecessary and may cause problems if your page numbers differ from the word processing system’s automatic page numbers. Your table of contents doesn’t need page numbers yet, but if you want to hold their places with XX, you can do that.

NOTE: If you are self-publishing, you may have to do your own formatting. However, this should occur *after* editing rather than before.

Punctuation: If you aren’t sure you know the rules for using colons and semi-colons, don’t use them. It’s easier for an editor to insert them than it is for that same editor to have to keep moving, deleting, or correcting them.

There is rarely a reason to use single quotation marks. Don’t use them unless you have dialogue that includes a quote within a quote.

If you struggle with comma usage, it may be because there are 50 comma rules, according to the Pocket Guide to Punctuation by Merriam-Webster! Brush up on the main rules, but otherwise don’t sweat it. Your editor should be able to correct any comma or missing-comma mistakes you make. Just don’t sprinkle them liberally like pepper on a salad!

Never use more than one exclamation point at the end of a sentence. I mean it!

Public Domain: Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s free. Just because you credit the author of, for example, a poem, doesn’t mean it’s okay to use. You must have permission to publish anything that you can’t confirm is in the public domain, and if it is in the public domain, you still need to credit the author if the author is known. Works published before 1923 are in the public domain. Many authors want to quote popular lyrics in their novels but still need permission, even to quote just one short verse, and it will likely come with a fee.

Editing Help: Before submitting your manuscript to an editor, run it through spellcheck, and consider each change carefully. Don’t assume the editing program is correct in all instances! For more advanced editing help, I recommend PerfectIt’s proofreading software. They are based out of the UK, but they have a variety of styles, including American English, within the program. PerfectIt checks for inconsistencies, which is different from Spellcheck.

Misc. Notes: If you can’t handle anyone criticizing or making changes to your work, you aren’t ready to be published. A publishing house editor can have the power to stop you from being considered for future publication. Your reputation for being difficult will hurt you.

While there are obnoxious editors out there, most consider your working relationship as teamwork, not as adversaries.

Tips from Some of My Authors on Working with an Editor

Carrie Daws:  The one thing that I think helps me the most is this: before I even open the edited file, I remind myself that my editor and I are on the same team. She (or the occasional he) wants my book to succeed, wants it to be its best. Once that is firmly planted in my heart and mind, it’s much easier to open the file and read all the changes and comments without it hurting my feelings.

Daphne Self (DM Webb): Editors help make the book stronger, help catch things you miss (such as a complete scene that was forgotten), and are honest about your work and only want the best for the author. Finally and most importantly, an editor can be your friend.

Joanie Bruce: I would also add that editors are usually right about changes they think might make the book better. What I like about having Brenda edit my work, is that she is totally impartial....She sees the mistakes and doesn’t mind having me correct them, because she is unbiased and only wants what’s best for the book.

Lindon and Sherry Gareis: Okay, of course I agree with all of the lovely ladies who have commented, but I'll add another twist. Don't be afraid to speak up. If your editor is all he/she is supposed to be, your concern(s)/question(s) will be respectfully considered. If the editor overrides, of course best to deflect to their expertise, but don't hesitate to at least open a discussion. Take a respectful, no regrets approach.

Kathy Miller Howard: Since I have the experience of working with only one professional editor, my well of knowledge on the subject is limited. However, if it’s up to me, she’d be a keeper! Brenda taught me to trust her expertise, to ask questions, and to view her and her comments as allies. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Questions I've Been Asked about My Adopted Children

I was half of a white couple who, after seven childless years of marriage, chose to become foster parents. We didn’t care about race or gender; we just wanted to be parents, even if it was temporary! When our first two foster babies became available for adoption, we had already taken the adoption class. That’s how we became the forever parents of two brown-skinned tots, which sparked a lot of questions from strangers, both children and adults.

I don’t know whether other interracial families ever got this first question, but it left me flabbergasted. I was so excited to finally have a baby that I couldn’t wait to show my coworkers my beautiful bundle of joy, and I took him to the office. One coworker, let’s call her Linda, took a look at the infant in my arms and said, “Why is this baby black?

I gave her my best what’s-wrong-with-you look as I said, “Because his birth parents were.”

She laughed and slapped at my arm and said, “You know what I mean,” but I was speechless. I mean, do I really need to explain that all babies are precious and amazing and deserving of a loving family?

Curious children in the grocery store sometimes asked that question as well, but without the tone that Linda used. I was always happy to explain adoption to them. Today’s curious children could be tomorrow’s adoptive parents! 

Another question was often asked right in front of my children: “Are they siblings?” Why would someone ask if the two children that I have with me, who call me Mom, are related? Of course they are! They’ve been brother and sister since we adopted them.  

Do they know they are black?” In my head: Do you know you are stupid? From my mouth: “Of course they do.” I may or may not have included an eye roll with that answer.

Do they know they are adopted?” In my head: Do you know you are stupid? From my mouth again, as graciously as I could respond: “Of course they do.”  First of all, we’re different colors. And also, we were foster parents for a total of ten children over the years, though we weren’t blessed with any more adoptable children. Our children always knew their adoption story. It wasn’t a secret.

Where are they from?” People who ask this hope to learn that these children are from an exotic location. One person who had just met me and my kids went on to congratulate me on adopting children from Haiti. Do all black children come from Haiti? I was unaware of that. My children were born locally. Sorry if that disappoints anyone. (Not sorry.)

Personally, I don’t think anyone ever asked “how much did they cost,” as if I’d gone to the pet store and plunked my money down on the counter for my choice of puppies, but I’ve heard that many adoptive parents have faced this question. If you wouldn’t ask a birth mother how high her hospital bill was after labor and delivery (please tell me you would never ask), then you shouldn’t ask an adoptive parent money questions either. It’s different if a friend who is considering adoption for herself asks about expenses. But strangers just asking for curiosity’s sake are displaying poor manners.

I feel fortunate that I was never asked about the “real” parents, as if I was just a pale imitation of the real thing. (Pun intended! Teehee!) But, just so you know, we met all known birth parents (3 out of 4) and have their photos, which I shared with my children once they each turned 18. I continue to be the only mother they have ever known, and all the feeding and diaper-changing, discipline, tears and laughter, and memory-making make it as real as it gets!   

Neither of my kids ever threw “You’re not my real mom!” at me. I’ve heard about other adoptive parents experiencing that. I may be wrong, but I think my children felt like they’d lost three parents (not only two bio parents each but also their adoptive father, who walked out on us when they were just six and seven years old), and they were afraid to say anything that might cause the last remaining parent to leave—though they should have known that would never happen. Working, homeschooling, and taking them to extracurricular activities as a single parent was exhausting, but it was worth it to be there for them, encouraging them and watching them grow up. My 23-year-old daughter has often said, “I’m glad you adopted me!”

I’m not a saint. I’m just a woman who desperately wanted to be somebody’s mother and who was blessed to be able to adopt two foster babies as her forever children. And if you were to ask me if I’d do it all over again, I’d give you an emphatic YES!

2015 Crazy Christmas Family Photo

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

My Date with Similar Styles

Similar Styles: on the left, magazine photo; on the right, me outfitted by Similar Styles
and the Mossimo jeans were just what I needed for my wedges!
Photo on the right by Lynsie Crespo.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I pulled up to a local thrift store for my “date” with the creator and fashion blogger of Similar Styles, Lynsie Crespo. Her goal is to help clients dress in high end fashion without paying a similar price! Lynsie is able to recreate outfits similar to those worn by celebrities or catalog models—with thrift store finds. I first met her at a style workshop in January and began following her Facebook page and her blog. She appears regularly on local TV shows Your Carolina and Studio 62 with models who show off her similar styles for a variety of events. Her work is always impressive!

Similar Color Gradient
Eager to experience the fun for myself, I arranged my own Similar Styles session and sent Lynsie some pictures of outfits I found appealing and hoped to recreate from thrifted goods. I arrived to find that Lynsie had already scoured the store for similar outfits and had them waiting for me in the dressing room! (Why didn’t I snap a picture of that amazing dressing room? *smacks forehead*) There was nothing for me to do but step inside and begin trying things on. Lynsie waited outside the room, and if I said I needed something in a different size, off she’d go to try and find it for me. She far exceeded my expectations. Based on the vacation plans I shared with her, Lynsie pulled some other items she thought I might like. (And guess what? I bought one of them!) She showed me how I could adjust too-large items to work for me, and she looked for accessories to polish off a look.

Similar Navy Polka Dot Dress
In the end, I spent 1-1/2 hours trying on and modeling outfits and snapping photos in the mirror, and then out of the many tops, pants, skirts, and dresses, I chose six pieces, paying the store a whopping $19 for them. Imagine how much longer I would have had to shop if looking through the racks and pulling out possibilities had been left up to me!

I’m sold on Lynsie’s Similar Styles service! You can learn more about Similar Styles at

 The White Coldwater Creek Pants Were Perfect!

Have you ever gone shopping with a picture of an outfit you hoped to find?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

I Won Two Weeks at Curves!

In January, a friend and I attended a fun style and health workshop. Afterward, there were door prizes. My number was drawn first, and the prize was a free two weeks at Curves. (My friend won a pedometer, which made her happy.)

To be honest, I wasn’t excited about my win at first. Exercise is not my idea of a fun activity, especially not public exercise. I joined a large gym back in the mid-80s but didn’t enjoy it that much (although the colorful aerobic leotards were fun to wear). Since I like to get my money’s worth, I decided to make the most of those two free weeks, whether I liked it or not! After all, it would be good for me!

Guess what. I liked it! I began my experience with three sessions with a friendly and encouraging trainer so that I could become familiar with the strength training machines and the way the 30-minute circuit works.

There was no time to be bored. Their machines form a circle around the room, and each piece of equipment is different to work different muscle groups. Lively music plays as you work at a machine for about 30 seconds, then get off and dance, march in place, whatever you want to do for cardio, for about 30 seconds. Two cycles around the room equals a 30-minute workout! And if you hate a particular machine, you are relieved that you only have to work on it for 30 seconds! Then there is the stretching station to make sure you cool down properly. There are classes as well, and I thoroughly enjoyed the balance class.

I noticed an increase in energy after my first workout. The health benefits and fun kept me going back. The downside is that it was an hour round trip drive to take advantage my free two weeks, so once I used up my weeks, I didn’t register to continue using Curves. But would I consider it if one was located closer to home? Sure! The experience reminded me of how much better I feel when I work my body.

This experience motivated me to embrace a more active lifestyle. I needed that reminder that a 30-minute workout makes me feel better, and that feeling lasts all day! And if I join my daughter in Wii Dance, we share the fun! So, while I did not make a New Year’s Resolution to exercise more in 2015, circumstances have led to my making that a priority. Funny how things “work out,” huh!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

To Defend or Not to Defend ... When an Author Is Attacked (or it feels that way)

Through Hamlet, Shakespeare once said that “to be or not to be” was the question. For authors, it’s “to defend or not to defend” ourselves from negative media coverage, whether it comes in the form of critical book reviews or—from my own personal experience—news stories.

First, the critical book reviews. There are authors who scan every review of their books and then react publicly (or privately, using e-mail) to all the “bad” reviews. This tends to make the author seem whiny, petty, and insecure. While the temptation to defend yourself may be as strong as your breath after a garlic and onion sandwich, restraint is in order and can serve as your emotional breath mint. Publish good work, and the positive reviews will surely outshine the negative ones. Let those positive reviews be your defense. (I mean reviews from strangers, not relatives or friends; it’s easy to spot a review written by someone with a personal relationship with the author, and those do nothing to enhance an author’s credibility.)

It’s unrealistic to expect every reader to love your work. People with different interests, different tastes, different experiences, and different opinions are going to react to your work ... differently!  If you take the time to defend your work against negative reviews, you are wasting time that could be spent on researching and writing your next book! You are arguing with folks whose opinions are, honestly speaking, as valid as yours. It may be that you are feeding some trolls, who love to upset earnest writers and will return again and again to yank your chain. And you will be steeping yourself in negativity, which may affect your work, your personal relationships, and your health. Too much of that steeping may make you—and your writing—bitter! Don’t succumb to the temptation!

Here is a blog post that shares one such response to a review: Please Remove Your Harsh Review (Please finish reading my blog post before heading over to that one!)

Second, negative news coverage. Chances are, if you accept assignments and are given the task of writing a piece on a controversial topic that is then published with a byline, you will be criticized no matter how unbiased and factual you attempted to be. You are likely to be lambasted instead of the company that contracted you to write the piece! Suppose that your piece, which includes your byline, allows a reporter to track you down. Now the reporter, working on a hot story, invites you to defend your writing in the public arena. Yes, you are asked for an interview that offers you the opportunity to respond to criticism, to tell your side of the story. What then?

Consider the reporter’s goal. Isn’t it to grab the listener or reader’s attention, to sell papers or magazines, collects more clicks and shares, win awards? Don’t imagine that the goal is to clear your good name. That’s boring. (Sorry to be so cynical.) News stories are meant to stir up emotions. Haven’t we all heard stories of victims of the press, who were misrepresented by a reporter? Here’s a recent such story: Huffington Post Twists Sheriff’s Words

Consider the Miranda warning: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. It’s naive to believe otherwise.

In case you are wondering, I have not experienced the first situation, but I have the second. At the request of a client, I had written several of what I felt were unbiased, factual pieces on historical/political events that reporters then picked up and chose to use to add fuel to potentially controversial topics. The reporters were relentless in trying to reach me for comment, but I chose to remain silent, and the storm blew over in a relatively short time. Life is simply too short for unnecessary drama!

So, to return to the question, to defend or not to defend, I believe the best defense is no defense ... in most cases. People are going to believe what they want to believe. I won’t say there is never a case for defense regarding a misleading news story, but choosing to defend yourself should be considered carefully over several days; fire back a response in the heat of the moment, and you’ll only end up scorched. 

Do you agree or disagree? Have you seen authors defend their books from negative reviews? If so, what did you think?

NOTE: I do not own the rights to the historical/political pieces mentioned and therefore cannot provide copies, so please don’t ask.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

An Editor's Gotta Eat! My Original Recipe Pizza Salad

Confession: I love pizza, love all varieties of it with a great big “heart.” And I like to watch “Chopped” on the Food Network. And as you know, if you’ve seen this blog post from last year, Using Leftovers: My Original Recipe for Bloomin’ Onion Soup, the leftovers episodes from “Chopped” resonated with me, encouraging me to look for ways to transform leftovers into something new and appetizing. After all, an editor’s got to eat, right?

Today’s experiment, Pizza Salad, was a success! I’m going to share the steps with you so that you and your family can enjoy this dish too. (Photos follow.)

First, you take your leftover pizza out of the fridge. We had thin crust cheese pizza. We turned the pizza into croutons!

Preheat your oven to 300°F.

If you have a pizza cutter, you can quickly cut the leftover slices into small squares or diamonds. Otherwise, a knife will do.

Spread the pizza croutons out on parchment paper and slide into the oven to bake for 30 minutes. If your leftover pizza has a thick crust, you may want to add baking time, perhaps for a total of 45 minutes.

When time is up, remove croutons from the oven. While they cool, start preparing your salad. For our salad, I used iceberg lettuce, homegrown tomatoes, turkey pepperoni, shredded colby jack cheese, and Wishbone western sweet & smooth dressing. You can determine how much of each ingredient to use or whether you want to change the ingredients to suit your personal pizza preferences. (Balsamic vinaigrette may be another good dressing choice, but I didn’t have any on hand.)

This is a fun and easy way to use your leftovers and stretch your food budget. “Ciao” down!

1. Leftover Pizza

2. Start slicing pizza with pizza cutter or knife

3. Cut into crouton-sized square or diamond shapes

4. Bake in preheated 300° oven for 30+ minutes, depending on thickness of pizza

5. While croutons cool, assemble your pizza salad with your favorite lettuce and pizza toppings

6. I used iceberg lettuce, small homegrown tomato slices, turkey pepperoni, shredded colby jack cheese, and Wishbone western sweet & smooth dressing. The pizza croutons were the final touch!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Blast from the Past: My Experience at the first Southern Mystery Gathering Conference, or “What I Learned at Camp”

It was the summer of 1998, the summer before I suddenly became a single parent of two young children and stopped chasing the book-deal dream, but just for fun, let’s pretend it was this past weekend since I found my old notes and the info is still worthwhile. (I’ve updated any agent info included.)

I went to the first ever Southern Mystery Gathering, put on by the southeast chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, and I have the oversized t-shirt and tote bag to prove it. It was held at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville on the hottest weekend of the summer. As I frantically searched for a place to cool off, I discovered that those people do not believe in air-conditioning. In fact, they swore that it had never been that hot before. That was why the cabins, the lodge, the meeting rooms, and the dining room were all saunas. The person responsible for sending us to a place that was not heaven went into hiding in Florida, and thus there was no murder committed that weekend.

Me and author Teri Holbrook
There were eight of us in my cabin, and two just happened to be authors participating in the workshops. I really expected the big deal people to be hidden away somewhere, but there was Teri Holbrook, author of three thrilling mysteries, poking her head into the bathroom to visit with me! Or maybe to hurry me up ... Anyway, I discovered that published authors are regular people, as those I met were friendly and happy to talk shop and answer questions.

While I spent most of my time trying not to succumb to heat stroke, I did learn some tips that I can share with you. For instance, there are pros and cons in attending the first-ever conference. The cons are that the amenities may be less than you imagined, half of the scheduled agents may not show up (and your submitted manuscript may disappear with one of them), and some of the workshops may be somewhat disorganized and not what you expected. However, the pros are that fewer people attend or even know about that first conference, and therefore the buffet line at lunch isn’t long at all. Also, when you meet agents or authors, there aren’t many people vying for their attention, allowing you the time to talk at leisure with them and glean valuable insights.

Now, having finished writing a mystery novel, I was most interested in how to attract an agent or an editor, and that’s the kind of information I collected and recorded. Thus, what follows is that information.

Before you start looking for an agent, you need to WRITE THE BOOK. That idea was emphasized repeatedly. Agents don’t like to be dazzled by an eye-popping query only to discover that the writer doesn’t have so much as a chapter to send them. Author Evelyn Coleman learned that the hard way. She jotted down an idea, queried six agents, and quickly got six positive responses. She had assumed that nobody would ask to see the book before she actually got around to researching and writing it. [As of that day in 1998] this children’s writer and author of What a Woman’s Gotta Do hasn’t gotten around to writing that book. Without a doubt, she didn’t make a good impression on those six agents.

So, write the book first, but don’t stop there. You’ll need to edit it, polish it, and finally categorize it. An agent will want to know whether your book fits his interests. For instance, Jeff Gerecke of the JCA Literary Agency in NYC [currently dba the G Agency] looks at hard-boiled crime and women-in-jeopardy novels in the mystery genre, as well as books on pop culture, history, and business. You wouldn’t want to waste time sending him a mystery of the cozy type, or anything in another genre such as romance or science fiction.

Do your agent research. Agents really appreciate that. You can check the library for books listing literary agents and also look to see if any authors whose writing style is similar to yours have mentioned agents in the acknowledgments at the front of their books.

Next, present yourself as professional by following the standard format for manuscripts. You can easily find information on format in any writer’s market book or website. Agents listed two things that you should never use as attention-getters because it just annoys the phooey out of agents: brightly colored paper, and weird fonts. The agent will assume that you are trying to prop up a weak story and won’t give it a second glance.

Now, as a way of telling you what agents are looking for, I’m going to tell you what they don’t want. This information came from Susan Graham of the Graham Literary Agency [now dba About Words Agency] in Atlanta. She called it: The Top Ten Reasons agents Reject Manuscripts.

10.       Wimpy or unpleasant protagonist
9.         No point of conflict / just a slice-of-life story
8.         Disjointed flow, hard to understand
7.         No sense of place, or bad setting
6.         Story starts in wrong place, often too far in advance of the conflict *
5.         Mechanics: grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors
4.         Use of stereotypes or clichés
3.         Been done before and done better
2.         Problems with premise, plausibility, motivation, originality
1.         Telling instead of showing — the #1 problem!

Susan went on to say that multiple submission queries are fine, but when an agent asks to see your manuscript, you need to put in writing when you send it how long the agent will have an exclusive look before you pass it on to someone else. It can be anywhere from 2–6 weeks, your choice. The important thing to remember is that you are in control. That was a new idea to most of us at the conference.

When you query an agent, your letter should grab their interest. That won’t happen if you take several paragraphs to describe your book. What you need to do—but is excruciatingly painful—is to write what your book is about using only two sentences. To give yourself a better idea of how to tackle that assignment, you might try choosing your favorite book in your genre and in two sentences write what that book is about. Then go to the bookstore, pick a book by its cover, and then in two sentences write what you think that book is about. Then read the flap. (Tip: use active language rather than passive.)

Here, I'm sandwiched between
authors Gwen Hunter and Tamar Myers.
Finally, we were given a suggested reading list that included Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein, Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamont, and The Courage to Write (which, if it is the one by Ralph Keyes, wasn’t published before 1998, as far as I can tell, but it's all I could find).

All in all, it was a positive experience, and the negatives just make the story more fun to tell! I recommend that every serious writer, when presented with the opportunity, attend at least one writers’ conference.

*Tamar Myers’ habit was to write four books a year. She advised me to start my book the way she starts all of hers: with a dead body. After that attention-getter, she backpedals to hours or days earlier and works her way up to the beginning point and then forward to solving the crime.

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An Editor Answers the Burning Question on the Reader's Mind

You’ve asked yourself (and others) this question. Don’t deny it; I know you have! (In my pre-editor days, I asked the same question!) Whil...