Editing, et. al

The Non-Print Chronicles

Last Updated on Friday, 17 June 2011 09:05


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.


Color me annoyed

Friday, 21 May 2010 14:06


I am not a true synesthete. Synesthesia is a neurological condition that creates sensory overload in some fashion. Its victims have an involuntary reaction to certain stimuli, such as color.

I don't think science recognizes my own peculiar offshoot: I react to grammatical errors the way I do to nails scraping on a blackboard. I wince when I see signs in store windows that announce “Its official!” or “We have it’s sequel!” Never mind the dependence on exclamation points; what makes my skin crawl is the missing, or wrongly used, apostrophe.

I have a similar, but less intense, reaction to writers who don't understand the concept of the collective noun. What's so hard to fathom? People in a group are "they;" the group itself is an "it." So: "The members are planning a bake sale," but "The group is planning a bake sale." It is a question of intent: are you talking about the individual members or the group as a whole?

On the radio today, the newscaster said, “Will the government of Sri Lanka change their policies?” And, predictably, I yelled at the radio, "its policies, its policies!!"

Perhaps somewhere there's a scientist interested in synesthesia looking for a research project. Since I don't expect people's grammar to improve anytime soon, which would eliminate my symptoms, I'd be right in line to volunteer as a test subject.


Oh, hush!

Wednesday, 28 April 2010 14:47

When did "shut up!" become a synonym for "amazing!" or "I don’t believe it"?

"Shut up" has long been a strong and rather hostile rebuke. I always encouraged my children to avoid it … there were plenty of other ways to express their occasional annoyance with each other.

Now you hear "shut up!" everywhere … on television, from groups at a restaurant or coffee shop, in stores.

And it's not just young people doing it. I'd probably shrug that off as teen slang, something they'd outgrow with any luck.

The saddest part of this is that if you confront the people doing this—if you said, "I find it offensive when you tell me to shut up"—they would be surprised, say you were overreacting and that they weren't actually telling you to be quiet.

So maybe this expression is in the process of morphing. It has taken on new meaning, and over time the old meaning will drop away. In the meantime, it’s irritating, and makes me want to muzzle the offending speakers.


Where no one who cares about language is willing to go

Wednesday, 07 April 2010 09:22



I'm going to have to stop watching Star Trek reruns.

Not because I'm tired of hearing Jean Luc Picard say "engage," but because the former science fiction cable channel has driven my inner editor to distraction.

First it renamed itself, a clear violation of the "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" rule. What was wrong with being the Sci Fi channel? It was short, punchy, easy to understand—in fact, a good brand.

So now it's become Syfy. Apparently, a non-word is better for branding, as it can distinguish itself from competitors.

I suppose you could call yourself "doofus" and it would distinguish you from your competitors, but why would you want to?

The other reason for the renaming was to minimize the association of science fiction with nerdy guys. As a non-nerdy guy myself, I just don't see it.

Despite being peeved, I sort of ignored the Syfy name until its new slogan began popping up on the screen. That would be "Imagine Greater."

Greater what? "Greater" is an adjective; it is lonely without a noun.

And what does it mean, anyway? Does this mean "imagine greatness?" "Imagine greater programs?" Personally, I lean toward "imagine that we know what we are doing."

Why has mangling the language replaced creativity and imagination?

Even Lt. Commander Data can't answer that one.


Chamber error

Monday, 22 March 2010 07:27

A local chamber of commerce issues a quarterly newsletter that illustrates both the lure and the problem with modern technology.

Easily available software makes it possible for the chamber, like other small groups, to publish its own journal without the expense of going to a professional printer. The down side: it has no editor. Or perhaps I should say that whoever functions as its editor lacks needed editorial skills.

Maybe the chamber wanted to save money by not hiring a professional eye, but the result is a newsletter marred by grammatical errors that detract from its professional air.

I’m sure I'm not the only person to read, “Her and her husband loved the area so much they …” and wonder how something so egregious made it into print.

Then there’s "'I think it’s a great opportunity for everyone,' Terri Ishmael, assistant vice principal said." A competent editor would have put a comma in after “principal.”

A story about journalism students’ involvement in the newsletter mentions a Journalism teacher … why would it be capitalized? The mention of journalism students is lower case. So I know that no one explained to the chamber officials the importance of a consistent style in producing a professional look.

Those were not the only errors, but the point is the same: It’s a pity a product intended to sell the city and its businesses shoots itself in the foot by cutting corners.


No free lunch

Wednesday, 03 March 2010 14:46


I was solicited in the mail recently by a burial society.

For the longest time, I stared at the envelope, which said, "Free Pre-Paid Cremation! Details Inside."

The details I wanted was for someone to explain to me how something that is paid for, such as cremation, is "free." As far as I know, "free" means you don’t pay. Nor do you "pre-pay."

Besides, with funeral stuff you pretty much have to pre-pay, since you won’t be in any condition to pay afterwards.

This is a variant of that other marketing ploy: "free gift." Join this, or buy that, and get a "free gift."

There is no such thing as a free gift. By definition, a gift is free. A gift is something freely given. If you have to pay for it, it’s not a gift.

It's discouraging when words don’t mean what they are supposed to mean, and it becomes harder to communicate when we don't use the same vocabulary.


Journalism for Authors

Saturday, 06 February 2010 16:44

Sometimes it seems journalists don’t get any respect from novelists.

Authors on occasion include newspaper stories in their books, either to advance the plot or because the protagonist is doing research.

What's annoying—at least to an experienced journalist like me—is how poorly some of these stories within the story are written. I sometimes find myself muttering, "Any decent J school graduate could write a much better story than that."

I had a rather more personal interest when I found the faux journalism in Penny Warner's charming new book, How to Host a Killer Party. That's because the reporter in her book happens to share my name. So now I was muttering, "I could write a much better story than that."

I don't mean to pick on Warner. I have found this flaw in any number of novels. But I wonder why an author, who might do meticulous research into soufflés or metallurgy or literacy in the 16th century so that their characters sound authoritative, tosses off a newspaper story with little regard for verisimilitude.


On the Mark

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 14:40

One of the joys of book reviewing is hearing from readers.

Occasionally, someone disagrees with something I said, which is fine. Some books, movies and restaurants work better for some people than others, and I think the different opinions create a rich dialogue.

More often I hear from readers wanting to know the name of a particular book, about which they half-remember a few details. "You reviewed it a few months ago; it took place in England." Or, "It was about a woman whose husband had died."

These are a challenge. Lots of mysteries are set in England, and newly single women often turn up as protagonists.

Usually I cudgel my brain, and go through my files, and sometimes come up with an answer.

I also learn things from readers. Recently I heard from a man questioning my use of the word "sharpshooter" in a review when I should have said "sniper."

Based on his own experience as a Marine serving in Vietnam, he explained the way different levels of shooting expertise are classified by the military.

I’m grateful for the lesson. You can be sure the next time this subject comes up in a review, I will try to shoot straight.


Poisonous Pay

Thursday, 07 January 2010 16:45

In an era when anyone can get published, maybe it’s no surprise that websites are offering $10 or $20 for articles.

That’s my guess for one of the reasons freelance writers have become rather an endangered species.

According to James Rainey, who writes On the Media for the Los Angeles Times, approximately 31,000 writers and editors have lost their newspaper jobs in the last two years.

Let’s say a few have retired or become bike messengers. That’s still a lot of professional talent trying to hire itself out.

Meanwhile, freelance writing fees have been dropping as well. People who used to make a living at it are now struggling.

I understand that unpaid or poorly paid work may be appropriate for a beginner trying to accumulate what we once called "clips" but which now might be urls. Everybody needs to start somewhere.

But, traditionally, after a period of free or slave labor, you had enough samples to persuade an editor to trust you with real work.

Writing, a venerable craft, is clearly no longer respected. Otherwise, how could a website or publication offer such pitiful rates?

I think the growth of self-publishing, which lets anyone with the wherewithal be an "author," has cheapened the profession. If anyone can do it, why pay more for an experienced professional?


Social Responsibility

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 10:30

How much social responsibility is too much in a work of fiction?

My first requirement for a mystery is that it be entertaining. It also might be amusing, thought-provoking, chilling or profound, but it absolutely has to be entertaining. If I am looking for edification, I have other resources.

That said, I don’t mind when a well-written book teaches me something. There’s some marvelous historical fiction that both entertains and instructs.

But if the story reads like the characters were pasted onto a grid of the author’s cause of the moment, I’m out of there. The late revered Tony Hillerman fell into this trap in later life.

On the other hand, Betty Webb, whose Lena Jones series tackles polygamous cults, always makes the story come first. Now I hear Webb’s profile on Wikipedia has been tampered with in an ugly way. It has been suggested that her books have made enemies who harass her in assorted ways.

Recently I received publicity material for Iron River, a new book by T. Jefferson Parker.

According to the publicist, Iron River is about the illegal gun trade in which U.S. suppliers are selling weapons to Mexican drug cartels. Parker is described as "passionate about this social issue."

The publicist goes on to describe the depth of Parker’s research, and suggest media interviews "on this timely topic."

The rest of the publicity material talks briefly about the storyline, but also emphasizes that Iron River is "about [a] Real Place. Real Problem."

I don’t know how this approach is playing elsewhere, but it turns me off. The book feels too heavy to lift, much less read.


'The Witch in the Well'

Wednesday, 16 December 2009 15:04


I really can’t post a review of a book that came out in 2004, but I was a faithful reader of Sharan Newman’s Catherine LeVendeur stories for years, and was really irked to realize I had missed The Witch in the Well, which I think wraps up the series.

This 10th installment of the stories set in 12th-century France finds Catherine and her family traveling to the castle of her grandfather in Blois. It seems similar summons went to others in the family too, including Catherine’s estranged sister Agnes and their religious fanatic mother, who has spent the last 10 years cloistered.

Family legend has it that the family will thrive only as long as its well keeps flowing, and now it is drying up. It seems to have made the women barren, as there are no children in the place.

I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I am always happy to spend a little time with this well-drawn and intriguing family, which illustrates the often tense relationship between Christians and Jews at the time. On the other hand, the fantastical elements of the family legend are less satisfying and one of my favorite characters, Catherine’s father, is still off on a pilgrimage reconnecting with his Jewish roots. And a fair amount of the tension in the story is created when the characters are holed up in the castle waiting for an attack. Not so interesting, waiting for an attack.

Still, it’s nice to tie up some of the loose ends from this series, and Newman has certainly provided a lot of pleasure over the years.


The Absence of Editors

Monday, 30 November 2009 15:04

Like many lovers of language, I have bemoaned the loss of editorial help at publishing houses, and find my pleasure often marred by a series of misplaced apostrophes, for example.

But I’ve never seen anything as egregious as the dangling modifier that greeted me on the first page of a book called Brand Loyalty by F.M. Kahren. This is what the sentence said:

"Filled with a millennia of European art, her mother’s objective had been simple, to fire the child’s imagination, to awaken within her a sense of infinite possibility."

Literally, the sentence says that the mother's objective was filled with art, which makes no sense, and is not what the author intended, since the previous sentence mentions a museum. Obviously, it is the museum that is filled with art.

This gaffe stopped me in my tracks. How could I trust a writer who misused language? And why wasn’t this caught by an editor?

I looked up the publisher—Whimsical Publications. It describes itself as a royalty-paying house, not a subsidy press. It says nothing about its editing process, which the evidence suggests was either nonexistent or not very rigorous.

I am always aware that I have too many books and not enough time. I won’t spend that precious time on a product that isn't up to snuff.


Agatha Lives!

Thursday, 19 November 2009 15:12

Need a break from holiday stress?

Take a few minutes off, and read a previously undiscovered short story by Agatha Christie.

"The Incident of the Dog’s Ball" appears in the Strand magazine, on newsstands through January.

Here’s how it was found: When Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks died in 2004, her home was left to the National Trust. In it were Christie’s notebooks, and one contained this story, which features Hercule Poirot.

Christie later expanded the story into a novel called The Dumb Witness. "The Incident" shows how cleverly she developed a story from slight beginnings and how useful her pharmacist training was.

The Strand, which was published from 1890 to 1950, published several of Christie's stories. The current issue celebrates its 10th anniversary in its reincarnated form.

Harper plans to publish Christie’s notebooks in the U.S. next year.

The story itself, a model of economy, starts with a dithering letter written by an elderly woman and sent to Poirot. It’s got classic Christie elements… the old lady who doesn’t want to make a fuss, the cryptic clue, the companion given to spiritualism, the unimaginative Capt. Hastings and, of course, the genius detective who puts it all together.

What fun for fans to find!


Publishing Changes

Wednesday, 04 November 2009 09:47

Poisoned Pen Press, which publishes a lot of mysteries, has just announced something called NetGalley, which will include online galleys for its forthcoming books.

The idea is to reduce the number of paper advance reading copies (ARCs) that are sent to reviewers. With this system, a reviewer can read a little online and then ask for either a digital or print version.

Publisher Robert Rosenwald expects the new policy to be good for both his bottom line and the environment.

I admit I blanched a little when I read about this. I am among those who feel I spent too many hours in front of a computer screen as it is, and the idea that I’ve have to read review copies in a digital format was depressing.

"We will NOT be eliminating printed ARCs," Rosenwald said. "Mailed printed ARCs will still be sent to industry publications that require them. Mailed printed ARCs will also be sent to any legitimate reviewer or bookstore that requests one."

That’s a relief to me and my tired eyes.

I’m not opposed to technological or ecological advances; I just want the chance to opt out if it doesn’t work for me.

It reminds me of the situation when I was appointed to my local library commission. The city was pushing a paper-free policy, so the meeting agenda was e-mailed to everyone. That meant the commissioners had to print it out at home. It wasn’t "paper-free" by any means. It just meant the burden of supplying paper was shifted from the city to the individual.

Funnily enough, when I pointed this out to city officials, they just shrugged.


Write or Wrong

A recent posting on a job board for writers laid out its requirements in no uncertain terms:

"I don’t care where from you are as long as you can do EVERYTHING I ask for!

Job: 1) Proper English without ANY grammar, punctuation and formatting errors.

2) 10 rewritten articles a day/5 days a week (50 articles a week)

3) All rewrites must follow guidelines which you will get from me on PM if you apply for the job.

4) No excuses of any kind (electrical failures, health problems etc.)

5) I demand 2 rewrites to evaluate your abilities.

First payment after 2 weeks - after 100 articles done!"

There was more, but I needn’t repeat it; it was as insulting and abusive as the first part. I had fewer requirements on my list when I was looking for a husband.

People commenting on the writers’ e-list noted how sad it was, and that when they worked out the payment schedule, it was less lucrative than being a greeter at Wal-Mart.

Another pointed out that the ad may have been targeted at people overseas, notably India, where there are many graduates well versed in English, and expecting to earn as little as $300 a year.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen ads for writers that hardly pay for the electricity to warm up the computer. Sometimes these represent opportunities for people breaking in to the field. We used to call it acquiring clips; I suppose now it’s acquiring links.

Of course, in a free marketplace it is perfectly acceptable to seek whatever qualifications one desires, as long as the terms break no laws. I’d like to think the person who placed this ad got no—or only sarcastic—responses, but I’m betting that’s not the case.


Book lovers, unite!

Monday, 05 October 2009 15:45

Those of us who love reading are often shocked to realize that many people do not have overstuffed bookshelves.

It is a shocking fact that 60 percent of underprivileged children do not own a single book.

A Massachusetts-based organization called Reader to Reader is trying to correct that imbalance. The brainchild of an independent film distributor named David Mazor, the project began when he helped one small library.

Mazor was astonished to find such need in a wealthy state like Massachusetts. Then he found Durant, Miss., the poorest county in the poorest state, and discovered that its high school had been unable to buy a book in 40 years.

According to its librarian, all its funds went into repair of the building.

Thus was born Reader to Reader, which serves the nation’s poorest communities, including inner-city schools, Native American Reservations, and poor rural towns, where the need for books is acute. Its staff at Amherst College is assisted by local volunteers and work-study students.

It has put a lot of books into eager hands: more than 2,000,000 books shipped nationwide, more than 1,200,000 books shipped to rebuild school libraries devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and more than 400 schools with poor resources receive books from the Reader To Reader program throughout the school year.

There are major Reader To Reader initiatives in Bridgeport, Conn.; Louisiana; rural Mississippi; Detroit, Mich.; Massachusetts; rural Maine; the Navajo Reservation; and Compton, Calif. There are also projects in rural areas of New Mexico and Texas.

Financial donations are always welcome, as well as boxes of new or nearly-new books, packed in boxes not to exceed 35 pounds, and sorted by approximate grade level.

The address is Reader To Reader, Cadigan Center, 38 Woodside Ave., Amherst, MA 01002, or e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

You can find the whole story at readertoreader.org.


Agents of change

Wednesday, 23 September 2009 10:22

The conversation at practically every gathering of writers turns at some point to the agent dilemma. Most writers have discovered a) how hard it is to get an editor to read a work that is not represented by an agent and b) how hard it is to find an agent.

Since it seems that both the front and back doors to the publishing castle are blocked, some writers look for creative ways around the problem. Some turn to small independent presses that are willing to read anything that intrigues them or they go the self-publishing route.

Others try sleight of hand.

I was reminded of this by a story I read on the website of Nancy Means Wright, creator of a series I like featuring a woman running a farm in New England. At one point, Wright enlisted the services of her then-husband to pose as her agent.

To read the tale, check out “How I found an agent” at nancymeanwright.com.

She is not the first person to try something like this. I heard the following story years ago from the members of a writing group. They’d been meeting for nearly two years when a couple of the members had manuscripts ready to be submitted for publication. After collecting a number of rejections from agents, they jointly created a faux agent, then designed and printed professional-looking stationery for “her.” I got the impression that they had a good time putting this thing together.

It worked too, after a fashion. One of the members found an editor, and another met and acquired an agent at a writers convention, so the faux agent was allowed to die.

But it should be no surprise that creative writers will use their fertile imaginations to improve their odds.


Author, author

Wednesday, 16 September 2009 13:23

One of the trends in mysteries today is using famous authors as sleuths. I’ve seen books featuring Josephine Tey, Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen, among others.

And there are also some featuring a fictional sleuth re-interpreted, as it were. Two creative approaches to Sherlock Holmes include one that focuses on his wife, and one that features a late 19th-century cowboy who believes Holmes’ adventures are fact, rather than fiction. The earlier works are just a jumping-off point for these authors.

There are also stories featuring people famous for other things doing the detecting. A couple of political wives come to mind, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Abigail Adams.

By and large, the author-sleuths are less successful.

Writers of derivative fiction are constrained not by the limits of their imagination, but by what is known of the author’s life. You just can’t send someone who was known to have spent their whole life within a 10-mile radius of Somewhere-on-Thames off to six months in Turkey, even if that would help the plot.

To my mind, there’s something to be said for NOT providing fictional episodes that supposedly prompted the authors’ later works. I’d rather believe in their imaginations, or that they transformed real-life episodes in that magical way that distinguishes art from tripe.


Under threat

Tuesday, 08 September 2009 14:48

I’ve been hearing that times are hard for professional photographers, as so many amateurs with digital cameras have been cutting into their territory.

It seems there are plenty of eager shooters who upload their pictures to photo-sharing sites like Flickr. Magazines, ad agencies and other interested parties then buy the right to use them … and the pay is much less than a professional photographer would get.

There’s also been plenty of chatter on a freelance writers’ e-list about poor pay rates for writers at certain publications. Some have criticized the writers who agree to these rates, while others have pointed out that in tough times, some money is better than no money. Traditionally, it was mostly newcomers who agreed to peon wages, the theory being that once they had some clips and experience, they’d move on.

Both professional writers and professional photographers are under threat. The economy and new technology have changed the playing field, and that train has already left the station.

What’s not clear is where the professionals will find a home. Or even if we will.


You go, Nancy

Tuesday, 25 August 2009 14:13

Prolific author Penny Warner, creator of The Official Nancy Drew Handbook and the upcoming mystery series, How to Host a Killer Party (Penguin) says the secret to her success is what she learned from reading Nancy Drew mysteries.

Here she offers 13 Drew’s Clues for improving one’s writing skills.

1.    Create unforgettable characters:  “You know Nancy.” All agreed she possessed an appealing quality, which people never forgot. ~ Clue in the Diary

All stories are based on interesting characters—there are no exceptions. Introduce us to your character a little at a time, using action and dialogue (showing), rather than a thumbnail sketch (telling). Create realistic characters without using stereotypical traits, and include some surprises about the character that are believable. Finally, give the characters conflict—happy characters make dull characters.

2.    Use dialogue: Suddenly the young sleuth snapped her fingers. “I know what I’ll do! I’ll set a trap for that ghost!” ~ The Hidden Staircase

Dialogue makes a story come alive. It also helps move the story along, increases pace and creates drama. Listen to real conversations, for realism, then edit and tighten them to make the dialogue readable. Keep attribution simple—use action or “said,” rather than adverbs and euphemisms for “said.” Finally, read your dialogue aloud. 

3.    Set the scene: Many Colonial houses had secret passageways. “Do you know any entrances a thief could use?” ~The Hidden Staircase

A vivid setting gets the reader involved in the story. It also intensifies suspense and becomes a character in itself. Show the setting through the character’s eyes and include all five senses, telling details, and occasional metaphors.

4.    Add mood and atmosphere: Nancy had heard music, thumps and creaking noises at night, and had seen eerie shadows on walls. ~ The Hidden Staircase

Give a sense of foreboding through description. Mood and atmosphere give the story depth and reach deeply into the emotions of the readers. Don’t forget to include weather—and use foreshadowing to give the reader a feeling of unease.

5.     Outline your plot: Ellen was alarmed. “We must do something to stop him!” “I have a little plan,” Nancy said. ~ Quest of the Missing Map

Before you begin writing, outline your plot so you know, generally, where the story is headed. You can keep it simple and just jot down the major plot points of the story—where the story takes a surprising turn and how it ratchets up the suspense. Or you can write a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, with the option of veering off if the story requires an alteration.

6.    Start the clock ticking: “Hurry, girls, or we’ll miss the train to River Heights!” Nancy knew being on time was important. ~ Secret of Red Gate Farm

Begin with the inciting incident, which starts the clock ticking. Include not only the situation, but where it takes place, and who’s involved. This is where you ask the story questions: What if….? Think about your goal as start the story and where it will lead.

7.    Create conflict: Nancy struggled to get away. She twisted, kicked and clawed. “Let me go!” Nancy cried. ~ Secret of the Old Clock

There is no story without conflict. The protagonist must come up against an antagonist, which can be a person, an idea, a corporation or some kind of evil. Conflict helps reveal the protagonist’s needs, values, and fears, and causes her to confront her demons, challenge herself and become a hero of sorts.

8.     Pack it with action: “How do we get in?” “Over the top, commando style,” George urged. “Lucky we wore jeans.” ~ Clue in the Crumbling Wall

Today’s reader wants action, so give your protagonist opportunities to do something physical. Give her a choice between fight or flight, and when she fights—make her strong but still vulnerable.

9.    Spark readers’ emotions: Nancy was too frightened to think logically. She beat on the door, but the panels would not give way.  ~ Secret of the Old Clock

Crank up the reader’s involvement by increasing the character’s emotional risk. This way the reader will care about the story. If she can relate to the protagonist’s emotional jeopardy, she’ll be hooked on finding out what happens.

10.     Raise the stakes: In a desperate attempt to break down the door Nancy threw her weight against it again and again. ~ Secret of the Old Clock

The story begins with a challenge for the protagonist. But that’s not enough. As the story moves along, something worse must happen. And just when you think it’s safe to go back into the water, things become even worse. Keep raising the stakes to keep those pages turning.

11.     Make the situation hopeless: “We’re locked in!” Nancy exclaimed, and began banging on the door with her fist. ~ Nancy’s Mysterious Letter

When all seems lost and the protagonist is about to give up because she’s running out of time and is under extreme pressure, she must find the courage to go on, make another decision, and get herself out of this devastating trouble.

12.    Give the protagonist strength: “Girls don’t faint these days,” George scoffed. ~ Secret of Red Gate Farm

As the protagonist comes face to face with the antagonist, she must pull out all her reserves and use her own skills to change the situation. This heroic attempt must also create growth and change in the protagonist.

13.     Don’t give up: Nancy tried toopen the door. It was locked. Not easily discouraged, she tried a window; it was unlocked. ~The Hidden Staircase

Like Nancy, Penny Warner never gives up either. That's why she's been so successful.



Interactive lure

Friday, 07 August 2009 07:01

HarperCollins is trying a new approach with its eight-volume teen mystery series, The Amanda Project.

Book 1, invisible i, comes out in September. In the meantime, there is an interactive website, theamandaproject.com, which includes social networking, online games and user-generated content. The publisher hopes its target market will be sufficiently interested in unraveling the mystery of Amanda Valentino’s whereabouts after she suddenly disappears, to play along.

It is aimed at girls 12 and up. I looked over the site, but I am a long way from 12, so I consulted a preteen reader who has won her school’s prize two years running for reading the most books.

Her comments follow:

“The site sounded intriguing because it is set up in such a way that you wanted to get more. My mom and dad let me register and I am going to participate in the project later on. I do want to read the book when it comes out.”

Still, she didn’t like everything. “It didn’t tell me a lot about the mystery. I got it: she disappeared. But when I clicked on clues, it didn’t give me the whole story.”

And something else rankled as well.

“I disliked that it said it was for readers 13 and up. I was thinking there are others like me who read above their grade level. I was free to do it, but I don’t like being stereotyped, where they assume I’d be too young.”

Hear that, Harper Collins?

Self-published pariahs

Tuesday, 28 July 2009 14:56

Self-publishing has become increasingly popular, but such books are rarely reviewed and have trouble gaining shelf space in bookstores.

In my experience, and it’s one duplicated by reviewers and editors nationwide, I’m swamped with books as it is. The idea of facing a second pile, which has not gone through the traditional editing process and might, in effect, not have been vetted by anyone, is daunting.

Linda Lane, a writer and editor in Colorado, understands the problem.

“These books are often poorly written, unedited, and do not even come close to meeting minimum industry standards on a number of levels. However, this isn't true in all cases, and I have published some excellent novels by unknown writers,” she said.

Lane has a two-pronged idea to change the situation.

Part one is to create a board that certifies editors (who must take a workshop course, pass a comprehensive test, and be re-certified annually), who would then be authorized to “stamp” a book with the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

“That seal would assure bookstores, reviewers and readers that the book's content, cover, layout, and design meets or exceeds industry standards,” Lane said.

The second suggestion is to create a national “book reviews committee” for self-published books. “Perhaps only those books that had earned the “seal” or were otherwise shown to be of excellent quality would qualify for review,” Lane said.

I think these are interesting ideas that might level the playing field a bit for good writers who have chosen to self-publish. You can talk to Lane about her proposal at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


History and mystery

Wednesday, 22 July 2009 14:21

Since they made history as pilots for the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II, the 300 surviving octogenarian Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) went largely unrecognized until recent congressional action, awarding these women  the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States Congress — for extraordinary service.

A new mystery by Margit Liesche, Hollywood Buzz (from Poisoned Pen Press), is a story of these women. It is Liesche’s second WWII home-front novel based on actual events and well-known figures. Jacqueline Cochran, the real-life leader of the WASP, plays a key role in its plot.

“With this book, I set out to cast much deserved sunlight on this band of flying sisters,” Liesche said.

The book itself deals with the making of a documentary on the WASP. Flyer Pucci Lewis, who was introduced in Lipstick and Lies, is filling in for an aviator injured in a suspicious crash. Meanwhile, she is drawn into a homicide investigation when a Hollywood director is murdered.

A few WASP facts: Between 1942 and 1944, 1,074 women earned their wings. Collectively, they logged more than 60 million miles, flying essential non-combat military missions.

They were never awarded full military status and were ineligible for officer status.Following the war, the women pilots paid their own way home. And for the 38 women who died in the line of duty, their families had to pay to transport their bodies and arrange burials.


A light touch

Monday, 13 July 2009 09:05

Once again, Masterpiece Theatre is presenting an updated version of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories. Think of all the Shakespearean plays that have been set in other locales and other decades; it’s a tricky proposition, updating a classic story in a way that attracts a new audience without alienating the fans.

The last Marple go-round was a disaster, as the “rethinking” nearly destroyed what it was trying to preserve. Giving Miss Marple a back-story that involved a dead, married lover, adding a lesbian-themed component and changing the murderer’s identity were all dreadful ideas.

This time around, at least judging by the first offering, “A Pocketful of Rye,” it has done a better job.

The most substantive change from the written version is the substitution of a sister with an unsuitable boyfriend for the elderly Bible-spouting aunt. This works well enough, although I rather missed the old lady, whose glowering visage was a nice touch.

If you want to update something, heed a version of the carpenter’s axiom: think twice, revise once.



There’s been some discussion lately on an e-list for writers about wannabe-writers who not only don’t read, but are proud of that. Several contributors to the list who teach writing as well as write books have noted discussions with students who maintain deliberate ignorance about what’s out there.

It should be no surprise that there are people with their individual, not to say strange, ways of looking at the world. It reminds me of an incident years ago when my then-husband, a graduate student, was a teaching assistant in the English department of a major university.

At a teacher-student conference, one young man admitted he wasn’t interested in any of the assigned reading, and therefore didn’t plan to do it. His future was already mapped out. “When I get out of here, my daddy’s going to buy me a business,” he said.

Sometimes I wonder what happened to him.


Live long and prosper

Friday, 26 June 2009 08:54

At a recent social event, I was seated next to the boyfriend of one of my daughter’s friends. We made a little small talk.

He mentioned that whenever he had friends visiting from the Midwest, he liked to take them out for sushi.

“I don’t mind that things are raw,” I said, “but I wouldn’t want them to be still alive. After all, I’m not a Klingon.”

His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. “You’re a Trekkie?” he said. I shook my head. “No, I just …”

I never got to finish. He was off. What did I think of the new movie? He thought nothing compared to "The Wrath of Khan.” Had I ever been to a convention? And so forth.

As I listened to him enthuse, I thought how the secret to good interviewing was to find the right button to push.

Sometimes you can say to a source, “Tell me about Project X?” and they’re off and running. Other times, you have to extract the information one word at a time.

I also thought about why I had added the Klingon comment in the first place. I often find, in interviewing as well as social occasions, that sometimes interesting things happen when you step a little outside of what is expected..



Saturday, 13 June 2009 09:09

Years ago I worked with a copy editor who had very strong opinions about what was permissible. One of his pet peeves was the use of brand names.

He loathed mentioning any product by name, claiming that it provided free advertising. No amount of discussion by those of us who took a less rigid stance ever persuaded him otherwise.

Matters came to a head over a Sunday feature about a youth gang. The reporter had spent weeks hanging out with these kids, and had produced a package of stories that did justice to the complexity of the issue.

Enter our intrepid editor, who took issue with the description of a young man with a pack of Marlboros tucked into the sleeve of his rolled-up T-shirt. The generic “pack of cigarettes” did not have the same flavor. “Marlboros” went back in.

It hardly seemed like an advertisement for the brand, but that didn’t stop the copy editor from complaining loudly and suggesting the rest of us were sell-outs.

I remember him as a reason to keep my editing touch light.


Say what?

Friday, 05 June 2009 07:55

You can’t tell from my writing if I speak with an accent. (Hint: My rotten children used to fall over laughing whenever I referred to the stuff coming out of the tap as “wadda.”)

Which brings me to how a writer decides to present the speech of a character with a pronounced accent.

Do you mention the accent once, and then write the speeches in standard English? Do you render the words phonetically, as they would sound aloud? Do you toss in a few unusual or foreign words to give the flavor of the character’s speech?

My guide here is to consider the effect on the reader. I do not wish to plow my way through long paragraphs where I have to translate everything in my head. That slows down the story and annoys me.

I think the answer depends on how crucial the character is, and how thick the accent needs to be. I’m inclined to stick to standard English, with a “y’all come see me” and tres bien for flavor here and there.


Say it again ... and again

Thursday, 28 May 2009 15:37

When I teach a writing class, I usually suggest to my students that they use a redundancy filter. This is not part of their computer, but a read-through looking for things that are intended to emphasize something through repetition.

If they are used incorrectly, they diminish the impact, and make the writer look less reliable.

Consider “unique.” By definition, it stands alone. Something cannot be “very unique” or “the most unique.”

Or “first.” What does “first ever” do that “first” doesn’t do alone? By definition, first is first. Similarly, you wouldn’t have a “first annual” barn dance, since you don’t know at that point if there will be a second year.

Along the same lines: “The renovations were initially begun in May.” Why would you need “initially”?

A redundancy filter will make your writing leaner and cleaner.


Write Once, Edit Twice

Saturday, 23 May 2009 15:23

Every editor has experience with something with a double meaning slipping past them. The trick is to catch it before it embarrasses you.

I had my first experience with this on my college newspaper. On the staff was a sweet young thing who regularly blushed at the off-color comments of some of our colleagues. She was assigned a story about a visiting Chinese physicist.

I don’t remember the story but the hed was a gem: “Wang comes on campus.”

The (male) editor-in-chief made it my job to explain why this was not usable. “Why me?” I muttered. “Because you’re a girl,” he said.

I think he just didn’t want to do it himself. Girl or not, the discussion did not go very well, judging from the fact that she gasped in horror, ran from the room and never came back.


Comma Girl

Monday, 18 May 2009 09:17

I’ve worked with many writers with a weak grasp of the rules of punctuation, but one who stands out is the woman I think of as Comma Girl. I’m guessing that at some point she learned the importance of commas, and so ever since has kept a bowl of them on her desk.

Then, when she finishes writing something, she tosses a handful at the screen. Wherever they land, they stick.

How else explain a sentence like this: “The, man left the house.” There’s no series of things to connect, no need to link clauses and you certainly don’t need a pause in the sentence.

Sometimes the sentence was “The man, left the house.” Equally incomprehensible.

We had one brief conversation about this, in which she was surprised to hear that I was removing these commas. After that, I just removed them and kept my mouth shut. But I wonder what she’d do with a bowl of semi-colons.


What's in a Name, Part 2

Friday, 10 April 2009 16:00

Camille Minichino wrote a series of mysteries focusing on the Periodic Table of Elements. Then she started a new series, dealing with the world of miniatures (one of her hobbies), under the name Margaret Grace. She says it is easier for her to order pizza under her nom de plume.

Over the years, I’ve gotten any number of books from “new authors,” although the publicity material makes clear that they are not “new” at all. They just have new names.

I have never understood why the publishing industry thinks this is a good idea. Even if it’s a new series, or a different genre, wouldn’t a reader be pleased to follow a favorite author down a slightly different path? Are readers afraid of something new, or is the industry afraid that readers will be afraid?

I’ve done some work using a pseudonym, and found it an interesting experience. I discovered that my alter ego is brave and indefatigable. She will make endless phone calls to get the information she needs, whereas I am known to whine sometimes when I’m having trouble getting everything done.

No, I’m not telling you what my other name is. If I tell you, I have to kill you.


What's in a Name

Sunday, 29 March 2009 16:00


Ever noticed how certain phrases attach themselves to people in the news, and then become so commonplace it’s as if the person has a new first name? I realized this after the L.A. riots of 1992, in which a Caucasian trucker made a wrong turn, and got badly beaten up. Forever after, he was “white trucker” Reginald Denny.

A couple of years later, during the whole O.J. Simpson thing, the victims were described as his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and “her friend” Ronald Goldman. By the way, up until then, I had always thought it was redundant to describe a car chase as “high speed.” The Simpson case started with a “low speed” car chase. Who knew there was such a thing?

Sometimes, though, those faux first names fail to evoke the right person. These days, if you say “disgraced former governor,” you’ve got to specify which one.

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