23 July 2018

Why Workshops?

by Steve Liskow

I loved teaching. If it were still about interacting with the kids and helping them grow and develop--as opposed to getting them ready for a pointless standardized test that keeps getting dumbed down and is only used to gauge a teacher's performance instead of the kids it pretends to test--you'd still find me in the classroom, funky tie loose and sleeves rolled one turn below my elbows, 183 days a year. But it isn't and I'm not.

That's why I still conduct writing workshops. Sure, I get paid almost enough to cover my gas to and from the event, but the truth is I still have a major teaching jones. It took me a long time to learn this stuff, so I want to help other people learn from my mistakes.

When I turned in the key to my classroom for the 33rd time, I knew how to write a decent sentence and even a passable paragraph. But I didn't know how to tell a good story. That's harder than it sounds. You probably have at least one friend or relative who can mangle a knock-knock joke or put everyone to sleep telling about something that happened to them, don't you?

Once my writing collected enough form rejection letters to make the point, I went back to what my adviser on my sixth-year project (A novel, by coincidence) told me years before. He directed me to the paperback racks in the local drug store (If you're under about forty, you may have to Google those terms) and read the first chapter of ten or twelve books at random.

 "Don't read Austen and James and Conrad," he told me. "Read Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace and Jacqueline Susanne and Mickey Spillane. Read Michener (He hated Michener). Figure out what they do in those first few pages that you don't. You don't have 'first-chapterness.'"

Plumbers, carpenters and electricians all train apprentices. So do doctors and teachers. People take dancing lessons, music lessons, golf lessons and painting lessons. We know that one-on-one training works. How do fish learn to swim and birds learn to fly? You can buy a bunch of books and read them, but a good writing workshop is even better.

Many writing conferences offer sessions by writers who are also excellent teachers. They may even feature a one-on-one manuscript critique. At the New England Crime Bake, Kate Flora analyzed an early version of my own Blood On The Tracks and turned problems into opportunities. At the Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt looked at an even earlier draft of that same book.

When I met him over coffee (We both wanted beer, but we were on campus), he said, "You write excellent dialogue, and you probably know it. But that's both good and bad."

"How can that be?" I asked.

"Well," Offutt said, "it's good because it is good. But it's bad because you know it, so you try to make that dialogue do too much of the work. Have you ever done theater?"

At that time, I was acting, directing, producing or designing for four or five productions a year.

"You need to learn to write better exposition and description. Even plays aren't just the dialogue. The other stuff is the context that gives it meaning. And that's even truer in novels and stories."

My bookshelves sag under the weight of fifty or sixty books on writing, including a few on dialogue. None of them ever said that. The fifteen-minute chat helped more than all those books.

Now I pay it forward. I have five workshops scheduled through mid-November, and I'll share handouts with examples, both good and bad, and leave lots of time for people to experiment with them and ask questions. We do group activities, too: creating characters, punching up plots and premises, sharpening dialogue. Every time we encounter a problem (Which I often recognize in my own stuff, too) we figure out how to fix it. Mistakes are the best teachers I know, and I'm still learning every time I teach.

Most of the venues invite me back, which is great, but I don't do it for the money. Fortunately.

I do it because I still love it.

22 July 2018

Dis Content

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Leigh Lundin

The Long Wilder Winter

The Little House
A couple of weeks ago, friends Darlene and Sharon sent me articles about the literary fall of the author of the Little House series. One column was titled ‘The Savaging of Laura Ingalls Wilder’.

That sums up my attitude, that and a rift of anger. Maybe the family trace of Indian blood runs too thin to take exception to Wilder’s writing, but what the hell. I wrote back:
“Bah! Humbug! Political correctness has always been so stupid that even the name says serves as a warning like rattles on a diamondback… and still people embrace it. … Some people look for excuses so they can say, ‘Look how woke I am.’”
When questioned about the last sentence, I replied:
“‘Woke’ is the most annoying, grammatically poor, pompous, self-inflated, politically correct term to brag about how socially conscious and aware one is. ‘Look how “woke” those who trashed Ingalls be! They be woke!’”
A Cold, Cold Prairie

My thoughts rushed back to Soviet era renunciations. Politically suspect, out-of-step authors, artists, actors, and poets found their lives erased not merely from the rolls of the living, but from the public record as well. At the other political extreme, they followed upon the Nazis and fascist committees.

This is nothing new. Ancient Egyptians chiseled names and cartouches (personal seals) from walls and tombs. We know of one pharaoh only because ‘political editors’ happened to overlook a single instance of his name.

The Lost Years

An unforeseen consequence of bowdlerizing works or ripping literary accomplishments from public view is that we also edit history. Obviously that’s a goal when striking public enemies from the record, but consumers of saccharinized works lose touch with that distant historical landscape. A snowball effect causes desensitized to the thinking of the era.

Both sides of the issue often cite Huckleberry Finn. The one issue they agree upon is that words exert power.

Fahrenheit 451 flamers trip over the N-word, completely losing the fact that Twain was anti-slavery and sympathetic toward the disadvantaged. We can be thankful the bonfire folks haven’t discovered Pudd’nhead Wilson, sort of a Prince and the Pauper in colorful black and white.

Wilder Rose
Out of the Big Woods

SleuthSayers have written about Wilder and I doubt most have taken kindly to the Library Association’s attempt at rewriting history. However, credit for our most interesting Little House article, the solution of a mystery, goes to author Susan Wittig Albert.

Within our own ranks, Eve Fisher and Bonnie Stevens have expressed deep fondness, even love for Wilder’s Little House series. Eve in particular gives the impression the books for her proved formative, perhaps transformative.

Politically correct me if you will. What is your take? Was the ALA right or wrong to purge Wilder’s name from the ranks of American literary greats? And where does a sensible society draw the line?

21 July 2018

Full Disclosure


by John M. Floyd



One of my former students asked me a good question the other day. It was a question I've heard before--all writers have--but it's still an interesting one: How much backstory should I include in my work?

As it turned out, she was asking about short fiction, and that's a whole different animal, but the answer's the same. My take is, you should include enough backstory to explain to the reader why your characters might later act the way they do. Sometimes it's a lot and sometimes it's not. Done well, backstory can give depth to the characters and make the plot more believable and strengthen the reader's connection to the story. Done poorly, it's a prime example of telling instead of showing.

My favorite definition of backstory comes from Story author Robert McKee. He says it's "an oft-misunderstood term. It doesn't mean life history or biography. Backstory is the set of significant events that occurred in the characters' past that the writer can use to build his story's progression."


Spelling it out

If you want to see backstory galore, read almost anything written by almost any old-time author--Daniel Defoe and Edgar Rice Burroughs come to mind. Not only was there a ton of backstory, it often happened at the very beginning of the tale--something contemporary writers are warned not to do. (Remember the first chapter of Hawaii?) But that was a different era, with very few things competing for one's time and attention. A reader was more apt to hang in there and wade through pages and even entire chapters of a character's (or a setting's) history before anything really happened. Today, it's a good idea to have the dinosaur eat one of the scientists on the first page.

(Maybe it's a sign of the times. When my 92-year-old mother meets someone, she likes to know (beforehand, if possible) where he's from, who his parents were, where his parents were from, and what church he attends. Folks of my generation, and certainly of our children's, don't worry about all that. Just the facts, ma'am.)

While there are many, many authors who prepare and forewarn readers with a lot of character history (the first page of The Great Gatsby was almost all backstory), I can also think of many who don't. My most recent SleuthSayers column discussed two of these. The late Fredric Brown and Jack Ritchie both had a spare and straightforward style that included almost nonstop action and not much exposition or description (or backstory). For them, that worked well. Also, of course, they were short-fiction writers as well as novelists--Ritchie wrote almost nothing but short stories--and most shorts don't need much in the way of backstory.

Motivation, anyone?

How much, one might well ask, DO short stories need? And I think the answer's still the same: enough to make it clear why folks later take the actions they do. If your protagonist experienced a traumatic event during her childhood, or has lived his entire life in an Eskimo village, or recently won the state lottery, or lost both legs in Desert Storm, or was just released from a mental institution, etc., those things are important to the story. They influence the way that character thinks and acts and reacts in certain situations. (And this goes for the antagonist as well as the hero.)

Again, though, this doesn't have to be revealed in an information dump at the beginning. It can be filtered in later, when needed, as a part of the narrative or via dialogue. A question from one character to another, like "How's Joe doing, since his wife passed away?" can be considered a piece of backstory.

One more thing: properly-timed backstory can be one of the tools that allows the writer to increase the suspense of the plot.


True confessions

That student I mentioned earlier also asked me how much backstory I use in my own stories, and cornered me a bit when she suggested I give her some examples. Before sending those to her, I pulled out my story file and did some quick research, and what I found surprised me a bit. Most of the recent stories I've written that somehow went on to achieve at least a bit of after-the-fact recognition did include backstory.

Some of the examples I gave her, from my own creations:



"Dentonville," a story that appeared in EQMM and won a Derringer Award, featured a full page of narrative backstory about the main character, although not at the beginning of the story. First, I introduced the three main characters and got the plot going. (And while one page doesn't sound like much, it amounted to about five percent of the story.)

"Molly's Plan," written for The Strand Magazine and later chosen for Best American Mystery Stories' 2015 edition, included maybe half a page of detailed narrative backstory about the two main characters--and pretty early in the story.

"200 Feet," another Strand story--it got nominated for an Edgar that same year--had a fair amount of backstory, but all of it was injected via dialogue between the two lead characters throughout the first half of the piece.

"Driver," yet another Strand story that won a Derringer and was shortlisted for B.A.M.S., crammed all of its backstory into the opening two pages, as soon as the three main characters were introduced, and it was mostly revealed through their dialogue.

"Gun Work," which appeared in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes last year and is upcoming in Best American Mystery Stories' 2018 edition, included substantial backstory about its protagonist, but this was sifted in through both dialogue and exposition throughout the story.

But, having said that, I've also had several earlier stories (four shortlisted for B.A.M.S., one Derringer winner, and two nominated for the Pushcart Prize) that included no backstory at all. What the reader saw onscreen, happening right then, was all he got.



One size seldom fits all

Bottom line is, I think backstory can be useful but isn't always necessary. Too little can be confusing and too much can be boring. Because of all that, this whole discussion is one of the more subjective issues in writing fiction, and especially short fiction.

What are your thoughts on backstory, in both novels and shorts? Do you find it difficult to write? Tedious to read? Do you welcome it because of the clarity it provides? Do you think editors do? Any examples from your own works, or the works of others?

Speak up--don't be shy.  Full disclosure!







20 July 2018

Summertime Writing, A Semester Looming, and Bidding Au Revoir (for now)

By Art Taylor

As I've said before (too much likely), I'm a slow writer—and I think that my inclination toward writing short stories stems in part from that slow writing pace as well. While my process can vary somewhat from story to story, across the board I generally write in a piecemeal fashion—letting plot and character percolate in my head, sketching scenes at various points in the story rather then working through the draft in order, filling in bits and pieces of scenes as I discover myself what's needed or what's missing, slowly urging the whole mess into shape until it looks like something complete. (And then trying not to read it again after it's published so I won't be reminded of all the spots I should've done better.)

Earlier this summer, I worked on drafts for two stories—one possibly finished (a collaboration with my wife, Tara Laskowski; we'll see what our editor says) and the other set aside yet again because of aspects of it I couldn't figure out to my satisfaction (this one, a novella, has been lingering for years, sadly). Over the last few weeks, I've turned my attention more fully to a novel I've been working on intermittently over years as well—promising myself to dive into it deeply, immerse myself in it, push through a full draft, try to finally get it done.

Applying my approach to short stories to this novel is... well, part of my problem maybe, though I think it's probably still truer to how I work than what I've tried before with this manuscript. In my previous attempts to draft the novel, I've attempted to write through scene by scene, chapter by chapter, building it one block at a time—and lost both perspective and steam. Lately, I've just given myself over to writing it like I write short stories, crazily all over the place. The scene I wrote yesterday, for example, is from probably two-thirds of the way through the book, and I don't have the scenes or chapters immediately before it or immediately after it written in any form. But in my head, I know what needs to happen in this specific scene, and so I got it down on paper—one piece in a bigger jigsaw, and I'll find/make the other pieces later.

Keeping track of a book-length story in my head, though.... well, that's tough sometimes. (Thanks Scrivener, for giving me space to pin things down, placeholders to figure out later.) And the scattershot approach to writing this isn't just about figuring out the order of plot points, but also discovering the full depth of characters, sharpening voice and style, then going back and fixing the disconnections between plot points, the slips in character, the imbalance of voice and style and....

And again, doing that for a 25-page short story is different from doing that to what's likely to be a 300-plus page novel manuscript—a bigger mess. How much of a mess? Well, that scene I wrote yesterday is in third-person, while everything else I've written is in first person, and I found that I like third-person better. Much to go back and rework already.

Still, my wife Tara—who  recently completed her own novel, now on submission to publishers through her agent—has told me time and again to push through, get it all down, that it'll work out in the end.

I'm trusting that she's right.

But I know it's gonna take time and focus and persistence, and while summer has given me a more flexible schedule to explore and indulge, I've also agreed to lead sessions at two big programs in August—the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival and Deadly Ink—and the new semester is looming just beyond those events. In a little over five weeks, I'll be back in the classroom and I've already been taking on new responsibilities over the summer, having recently been named assistant director of the creative writing program at George Mason University—more admin duties ahead on top of the schedule I currently keep. And as many folks here know, I've also been maintaining another weekly blog, having taken over the First Two Pages blog series after the death of B.K. Stevens, long a part of this group as well.

All that said, I'm recognizing that I need to streamline commitments in other areas... and so I've told Leigh and Rob, our fearless leaders here, that I need to step away from SleuthSayers, at least for a while. While time is part of the issue, the other is that too often I've found myself struggling to come up with ideas for new posts. When my week looms on the calendar, I often end up asking Tara "What should I write about this time? I've got nothing new to say, nothing to offer"—and that too takes a lot of mental energy, energy that I might need to keep in reserve a little for my slow slog through writing this novel.

I feel like this might come across as complaining; it's not meant that way. Just recognizing that I've kept a couple of projects on the back burner for too long and need to give the novel at least some less-divided attention.

Leigh and Rob have been kind enough to say that I could come back for guest posts, and maybe once I finish up the book, find myself on firmer footing, I might ask to get back in the rotation as space allows. And in the meantime, I'll still read regularly the posts by my fellow SleuthSayers—always a highlight of each morning.

See you in the comments sections! And at Bouchercon in a couple of months too, celebrating the award attention that Barb, Paul, and I have received this year on the Anthony, Macavity, and Shamus slates—hooray!

And in the meantime, thanks so much for letting me be a part of this fine community of writers.Y'all are the best.

19 July 2018

Yet Another Innocent Abroad

by Eve Fisher

I got back from vacation June 28th and walked straight into the arms of grocery shopping, laundry, mail, e-mail, and jet lag.  It took me a good week to climb out and start getting on top of things again.  We've all read that Americans take less vacation time than anyone else in the industrialized Western world.  Well, I think it's because we all know we're going to have to work twice as hard when we get back to catch up.

We went on a European cruise, and it was great.  I'm not going to give you all a travelogue, other than the fact that I won
"Stump the Tour Guide!!!" 
in Ghent, when I asked where John of Gaunt (medieval pronunciation of "Ghent") was born.  The son of Edward III of England and Philippa of Hainault (medieval Belgium/ Netherlands), John of Gaunt fathered eight children by 2 wives and 1 mistress (Chaucer's sister-in-law, you might remember) who became his wife in old age.  Anyway, the guide had no idea where he was born, but the answer is in the abbey that used to be behind the St. Bavo Cathedral church on the right in the photo.

Actually, it was a John of Gaunt kind of trip:  I also saw the tomb of one of his sons, Cardinal Beaufort, in Winchester Cathedral in England (see photo at right).

Just as exciting, Winchester is where Jane Austen is buried, and I paid my very deep respects to her.  Let us never forget that, at heart, "Emma" is a mystery story, and "Northanger Abbey" is a satire of a Gothic thriller.  Add in the fact that Miss Austen practically invented the romantic comedy, and you have an incredibly versatile author who is still a delight to read.

And read I did:  "Emma" was my traveling companion this vacation, mainly because of something someone, somewhere wrote (and I cannot remember where), that if you really want to know what's going on in this novel, you need to listen to Miss Bates.  I thought I'd double-check.  And they were right.  Tucked into all those garrulous monologues is the absolute truth, rarely found anywhere else.  Everyone else is an unreliable narrator.  Witty, but unreliable.  After a hard day's sightseeing, it was the perfect vacation novel.

All in all, it was a great trip, and my only real moments of horror involved people with smart phones.  At least in the old days, when cameras required expensive film, there were fewer photographers, less photos were taken, and most people bought postcards instead.  (Believe it or not, the postcard and calendar manufacturers can still produce better photographs than the average person with a smart phone.)  Now, everyone has a smart phone, and they cannot put it away for one second, but have to snap 100 shots per minute of anything and everything that is directly in front of them, and don't even think of trying to see around them or asking them to move.

And the selfies!  I now truly realize that, to many people, if they don't have a selfie of it, they weren't there.  Now I know that egomania has never known any bounds, but I still think that selfie sticks should be declared hazardous to everyone's health. For one thing, sooner or later I'm going to wrest one out of someone's hands and start beating them with it.

And, finally, the video games.  We were on a nine-hour bus tour of the Scottish Highlands:

Ben Nevis (Wikipedia)

Fabulous.  Beautiful.  I saw deer.  We saw Loch Ness.  We saw Ben Nevis and other "Munro" mountains.  And, in front of me, was a lady who spent the entire 9 hours on her cell phone, playing Tetris.  At one point she wanted to close the bus curtain, so she could see the game better.  Her husband (thank God!) objected, so I didn't have to, and she moved across the aisle, where she continued doggedly with her game.  Whenever we stopped, for photo ops, a little walk, comfort, lunch, etc., she got up and went outside and posed as if she were thrilled to be there - including taking endless selfies! - and then went back to her seat, and back to Tetris.


Image result for head pounding meme


Meanwhile, in keeping with Miss Austen's wit, a few common phrases heard on cruises:
"The food was better last year."
"I've never told anyone this before."
"It looks smaller in real life."
"I think they're cheaper in ___"
"When's happy hour?"


BTW - Breaking news tells me that Mariia Butina has been indicted and arrested for being an unregistered Russian agent, i.e., a spy.  For those of you who have followed my blogs on South Dakota politics, you may remember that I talked about her in Just Another January in South Dakota.  I'll be talking about her South Dakota speaking tour, and her arrest, and who knows what else in my next blog post on August 2nd!

18 July 2018

The Big Neurotic meets the Big Easy

O'Neil De Noux and I at the Cafe Abyssinia for lunch
by Robert Lopresti

In June my wife and I visited New Orleans for the first time.  It was great fun and quite a change from  my Northwest home where we were still celebrating what we call Juneuary.  (As I write this it is Febjuly.  The temperature is 64 degrees and it is drizzling.)

One of the highlights was meeting O'Neil De Noux in person for the first time after years of digital friendship.  O'Neil was kind enough to take us on a tour of the city where his family has lived for hundreds of years.  Boy, was that great.  He is quite a raconteur.

But here was the best part.  O'Neil stopped the car in front of one building and announced that this is where Lucien Caye had his office.  Caye is one of O'Neil's series characters, a post-war private eye.

Just beyond the building there is a park and I immediately remembered the beginning of O'Neil's Shamus-winning short story "The Heart Has Reasons."  Lucien Caye looks out his window and spots a girl sitting in the park.  And that was the  park.

I actually shivered.  It is weird how fiction can do that to us.  It explains why fans have put up marking locations of Baker Street, West 35th Street, and the Reichenbach Falls.

Several friends assured us that the best thing about New Orleans was the music so when my wife and I had a free  evening we decided to see what was on offer.  I'm not a big fan of jazz or Cajun (sorry) but there was one performer listed as folk.  Through the miracle of Youtube we were able to check her out and I would say she was more Bonnie Raitt than folk, but that was fine.

So we strolled over to the French Quarter to the bar where she was playing.  There was nobody and nothing on the stage.  Not so much as a piccolo.  We were greeted by a man at the end of the bar who appeared to be the owner.

"When is the music supposed to start?" I asked.

He smiled.  "Eight thirty."

"And what time is it?"

"Eight thirty."

"But she's not here yet, huh?"

"Nope."

So we strolled about the Quarter for half an hour.  No sacrifice, I assure you.  Coming back at 9 PM we found the stage was still empty.

I looked up the singer's Facebook page and found a notice to her fans that the gig had been cancelled.  I showed it to the apparent-bar-owner who was quite astonished by the news.

So, on the whole, I was not that impressed by the music in New Orleans.

Resident of the Audubon Zoo
I have to get serious now.  That weekend was the 45th anniversary of a famous crime in the city: the UpStairs Lounge arson.  A gay bar was burned and thirty-two people died horribly.  While no one was ever convicted, it is considered pretty certain the culprit was a gay man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier.  (He killed himself a year later.)

A tragedy without doubt.  But the main reason it might be of interest today to those who knew no one involved was the response.  The news media generally ignored that it was a gay bar.  Radio shows made jokes about it.  No government officials mentioned the death of thirty-two citizens.

Many churches refused to hold funerals for the victims.  One Episcopal priest did and was criticized by his parishioners and bishop.  (Unitarians and Methodists stepped up too.  More power to 'em.)  Some families never claimed their deceased's remains.

If there is a positive side to that story it is comparing it to how the nation reacted to the Pulse massacre of 2016.  Looks like we had matured a little since then.

I haven't mentioned the actual reason we were in New Orleans, which was the American Library Association conference.  That's the topic for next time.



17 July 2018

Find Your Perfect Editor

Introducing Mary Feliz…
When I invited Mary Feliz to blog at SleuthSayers today I gave her wide latitude. I didn't ask her to focus on why she chose to write a cozy mystery series involving a professional organizer in Silicon Valley. I didn't want her to feel obligated to talk about why she made a golden retriever her main character's sidekick or how a wildfire factors into her newest book, Disorderly Conduct, which was published last week. All I asked was she blog about something related to writing. Anything. Little did I know she'd send me a column about how to find a great editor. Let me assure you that Mary is not my client, and this is not a subtle push to sell my services. But Mary does give some good advice here, so get ready to take notes. And without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present Mary Feliz!

— Barb Goffman

Find your perfect editor

by Mary Feliz


To start a rumble among writers, try asking “Would you pay an editor?”

Personally, I think great editors are priceless gems. Lousy editors are a waste of time and money. But how do you tell the difference, especially when the perfect editor for your best pal could be the worst one for you?

Make sure you’re ready

Writing advice abounds in low-cost classes, seminars, critique groups and manuscript swaps. Exhaust these options and hone your skills before considering an editor. Jumping the gun means shooting yourself in the foot.

But how do you know you’re ready? Have you polished and submitted at least one manuscript to agents and small publishers, received several requests for full manuscripts, but weren’t offered a contract? An editor might help boost you over the last barrier. Have critique partners given you conflicting advice, but you can’t think of a third solution that will take your baby to the next level? Objective professional editorial advice could help.

If the price tag seems like a good use of your money, you’re either ready or stinking rich. Great editors are pricey ($1,000-$2,000). If you’re prepared to take a second job to pay for the extra help, go for it.

Ask for the right thing

Editorial services have a specialized vocabulary. Make sure you’re asking for (and paying for) only what you need.

  • Developmental editing is what most writers need when they consider hiring an editor. Are your characters strong and individualized? Is your dialogue crisp? Is your plot tedious or full of holes? Developmental editors won’t touch grammar, spelling, or punctuation, but can point to places your submission lags. They won’t make changes for you. Developmental editors are teachers, coaches, and guides. Working with one can be like taking a master class in literature with your own work as the topic. My favorite editor typically nails me on elements of the manuscript I knew were problematic, but that I somehow thought I could get away with. She frequently has to remind me that I'm writing a mystery, not a dog book.

  • Line editors and copy editors scour text for typos and other problems. Line editing may include fact-checking and searching for problems like echo words, clich├ęs, and expressions you use too often or don’t need. I think of them as employing a fine mesh filter to weed out small problems I might not notice on my own, but that are easy to fix. For example, in my latest book, (Disorderly Conduct, which released from Kensington Lyrical on July 10th), a copy editor suggested that I take another look at a segment in which Maggie, who is fiercely protective of her teenaged boys, calmly allows them to climb on a helicopter with a guy who, up to that point, she has suspected was a drug lord. It was a quick fix to have someone point out to her that the boys were well protected, it was an emergency, and well, the dogs weren't afraid of the guy, so maybe there was more to his story. That story is laid out as soon as Maggie has a chance to learn more about the mysterious stranger.

  • Proofreaders come on the scene after all the editing is done to make sure you didn’t install new errors while taking out the old ones. They’ll look at formatting, too. I think of them as quality-control technicians. In Disorderly Conduct, a final proofing after several rounds of edits revealed the presence of a "rattle snack." A quick change of a few letters changed something that sounds like a cat treat back into the dangerous creature the tense scene required.
The 4th book in the
Maggie McDonald series.
Book 1, Address to Die For,
was named a Best Book of
2017 by Kirkus Reviews.

Define your search

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to know when you’ve found it. I outlined my parameters by saying I wanted an experienced developmental editor, preferably one with publishing experience who had worked in my genre with authors I enjoyed reading and respected.

Shop carefully

I asked every writer I knew to suggest editors. Some of them asked agents or publishers. I measured each suggestion against my pre-established criteria, starting with the editors’ websites. If I a website seemed unkept, out-of-date, or sported spelling or punctuation errors, I put a line through their names. I also nixed anyone whose website just didn’t sit right with me, even if I couldn’t put my finger on why. Editing is as personal a professional relationship as you’ll ever have. Trust your gut.

Ask questions

You need be sure that you and the editor are literally on the same page, so you’ll need to ask questions. So will they. Ask how long the process will take, how fees are calculated, when the editor can start, and how they like to communicate. I recommend working with someone who includes follow-up questions in their fees, and who will provide an editorial letter along with any line edits they may also do.

Some editors became prickly when I asked for client names. I crossed them off my list. I needed to feel free to ask any question of my editor, without worrying that it would offend them or make them think less of me.

Samples

Most good editors will ask for a sample of your work. This step is their way of evaluating your writing. If an editor suggests you take more classes before trying again, soothe your hurt feelings with the knowledge that she’s saved you money, time, and frustration. Even the priciest class is less expensive than editorial services.

The perfect match

Ultimately, I found a great editor who fit my genre, writing style, and me. Her suggestions helped catapult my work forward. Her experience as an acquisitions editor for a top New York publisher meant she had contacts among agents to whom she willingly referred me. (Not all editors will offer this surface to all writers.) With her help, I nabbed my initial three-book deal with Kensington. It has expanded into a six-book series with audiobooks.

The not-so-perfect

Why do some writers curse editors? Maybe they had a bad experience. Or maybe they hold the outdated belief that publishers nurture newbie writers, taking a spark of imperfect creativity and fanning it into a conflagration of book tours, movie deals, and celebrity status. It’s a nice fantasy, but if it ever existed, it no longer does. Possibly, these writers believe their non-fiction expertise is sufficient for them to professionally publish their novel without help. I’ll bet my breakfast that they’re wrong. Self-publishing is a misnomer. No one succeeds alone.

Golden retrievers give unconditional
love. Editors, not so much.


Whether you’re hoping to nab a traditional publishing contract or produce a polished project under your own imprint, development editors can help. But only if you do your homework. A bad developmental editor, or one that you chose badly, is worse than no editor at all.

Under what circumstances would you pay an editor? What criteria would you look for?