Roberta AlexanderIt's no mystery...

how I got here. I think editing makes the world a more orderly place, and I like seeing the jewel emerge from the rock.

I've been a mystery critic since 1995, and now I've turned to editing books, with a focus on mysteries.

Let me help you get your manuscript into the best shape possible. You get only one chance to make a good first impression, so it makes sense to improve your odds by ensuring it's in tip-top shape.

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Editing, et al.

The Non-Print Chronicles

Last Updated on Friday, 17 June 2011 09:05 Friday, 17 June 2011 08:55

The rise in e-books has made me question again my refusal to review books in this format.

From what I have read in the online forums for mystery writers, many are turning to e-publishing, either because they cannot break into the traditional publishing world, or they have a book that doesn't fit the mold of their usual work, or it's work that's gone out of print. Quite a few appear to have made this transition successfully.

In part my objections have been technological. Reading e-books requires a reader. There are several kinds available, and they are not compatible with each other. Therefore an e-book is created for a specific format. That sounds like a lot of trouble to me.

My other problem is that anybody can publish an e-book. Sounds egalitarian, doesn't it? But nobody's work should go directly from their computer to a published state. That is what editors are for, and we need them.

Ask any professional writer, and they will tell you how an editor saved them from making a fool out of themselves, or worse.

Some writers will hire editors to go over and clean up their manuscripts before pushing the "print" button (or, in cyberspace, the "publish" button). But some do not.

As a reader, I have no way of knowing whether the e-book in front of me had its grammar and spelling checked, much less whether someone pointed out that chapter 5 repeats too much of chapter 4 and that the description of the sheriff appears different each time he's mentioned.

And when would I have time to start reading these stories? I already have far more print books than I can read, and not a week goes by that I don't clear the stash a bit.

Eventually, the dust may settle, and there will be a clear technology and a vetting process for manuscripts. They're not here yet.


The Publishing Blues

Wednesday, 16 February 2011 10:43

A reader of my mystery reviews wrote to me the other day, seeking my help in getting his work published.

He described what he had produced--an autobiography, a couple of novels, some short stories and some children's stories--as well as his lack of success in getting anybody in the publishing industry to pay attention.

To write that much takes a lot of time and effort, and to do it without any encouragement from publishers requires very strong dedication indeed, more than most of us could muster."I, like most budding authors have gone through the usual steps to try to interest Literary Agents to represent me," he told me.

Regrettably, I was unable to be of any assistance. I have no list of literary agents beyond what is available to any writer who takes the time to acquire one. I could offer only the usual advice: join a writer's organization, go to conferences where you have the chance to pitch a story to an agent or publisher, network with others in the same situation.

It's a formula that works, at least for some people.

There's also a newer version of the usual advice, which involves self-publishing and marketing, lots of marketing.

That's a formula that works for some people too.

But marketing chops and writing ability are not always present in the same body, more's the pity.


The Space Shrinketh

Tuesday, 04 January 2011 15:41

Sisters in Crime, a writers organization interested in parity for female writers, has for many years run a monitoring project in which it tallied the space devoted to reviews in major publications--and whether the books selected were written by men or women.

The group's figures for last year--not yet complete--show a serious decline in the total number of reviews as well as a serious tilt toward male authors.

It made me look at my own numbers. When I started reviewing, one of my stated goals was to review more books by women; another was to focus on local authors.
It turns out that in 2010 I reviewed 51 books, 33 by female authors, 17 by male, and one by a mother-son combo.

But what makes the tally confusing is that sometimes my reviews are used by other papers in the company, and not necessarily whole columns. Perhaps they just have room for one or two books, or perhaps an editor thinks the subject matter would be of interest to readers. I know this has happened when I see the publicity material for a later book that quotes me and attributes it to one of the other papers in the chain.

What's not unclear is the shrinking news hole. Some publications have dropped reviews; others have allocated them less space. In my own case, I have the unlovely choice of writing shorter pieces or covering fewer books.

That's as big a problem as achieving gender parity, and I have no idea how to solve it.


Write and Wrong

Friday, 22 October 2010 13:35

I was asked the other day for some help with grammar homework.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm glad somebody is teaching grammar, and wish some of the reporters I work with regularly had had such a benefit. On the other hand, the particular assignment struck me as counterproductive.

The students were asked to decide which sentence used a simile, metaphor, personification, idiom or hyperbole.

So: nice to learn what these things mean. But recognizing them in a sentence is a pretty useless task. I mean, how often does someone note the use of literary devices on the page while reading?

And I can say pretty authoritatively that nobody sits down to write saying, "I'm going to get one simile and one metaphor on this page."

I wish the students spent that homework time writing, with class time devoted to going over their writing and looking for ways to make it livelier. And, indeed, that might mean using some personification or an idiom. I bet it would teach them more than the current exercise.


Gimme Grammar

Tuesday, 24 August 2010 15:28

It's hard to learn that Rio de Janeiro has set up a grammar hotline to help people who have difficulties using Portuguese while we are surrounded by people who think any word ending in 's' requires an apostrophe.

The Portuguese experts will help with spelling, syntax, and the use of accent marks. The Brazilians are said to be sensitive about making grammatical errors, which are often associated with a lack of education.

Imagine that! Here people who care about language are considered hopelessly out of date, not to mention out of sync with a Twittering world.

Apparently one of the areas of concern in Brazil is verb and noun agreement. If I had a buck for every time I correct this as part of my editorial duties, I'd have enough money for a trip to Rio.


Who Cares How Old He Was?

Tuesday, 06 July 2010 14:26

My local paper reported this morning on the death of a cleric in Lebanon. He was 75, the headline said.

Unfortunately, the first paragraph said he was 74.

There's only one explanation for the discrepancy, and it isn't that there's a dispute over what year this guy was born.

I'd call it sloppy editing, but what I fear happened is the absence of editing. Some overworked news desk flunky glanced at the story,slapped a headline on it and accidentally hit the "5" instead of the "4."

It happens.

But in this era of thin-to-the-point-of-translucent staffing, there was nobody to check it.

Newspaper staffing used to be based on the premise that nobody is perfect and that everything should be checked.

It's a sensible attitude; even if you are very skilled at what you do, in a fast-paced environment, anyone can make a mistake. When you are part of a team, you know that there are others who will check what you did, and you trust that they will find what you missed.

Sometimes the errors are just embarrassing, such as this one involving the wrong age. But they might also be libelous or offensive--convicting someone in print of a crime of which they've been accused, perhaps, or citing the wrong airline in the story of a crash.

The sad result of all this is that readers stop finding the paper a credible source; after all, if it can make this kind of dumb error, what else aren't they paying attention to?

And that's a pity.


Where Nun Have Gone Before

Tuesday, 15 June 2010 15:30

Sister Carol Anne O'Marie died last year after an unusual combination career as a nun and a mystery writer.

A member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Los Angeles, she lived in the Bay Area, which is where she set her series, featuring San Francisco-based nun Sister Mary Helen.

I interviewed her twice, once in conjunction with the series, and once when she co-founded A Friendly Place, a shelter for homeless women in downtown Oakland.

They say to write about what you know, and Sister Carol Anne knew about a nun's life. That's what made Sister Mary Helen such a lively and engaging character, at least for the first few books.

After a while [and there are 11 books in the series], it gets a little difficult to work a crime-solving nun into the plot. I began to wonder why anyone wanted attend the college where much of the series was set, as its homicide rate must have been off the charts.

The books were less successful in their depiction of lay characters, particularly the two detectives who kept trying to keep Sister Mary Helen on the sidelines. They simply did not talk like real people, much less cops, and I had to conclude that while the author might have learned the steps the police take at a crime scene, she didn't know how they acted.

Still, the books provided an entertaining look at a segment of society we don't usually associate with murder mysteries.


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