Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review, a novel about a lively, humorous writing writer

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, published by Dial Press, is high on my “Enjoyable Reads” list. In her letters to Islanders she doesn’t meet until well into the book, main character Juliet Ashton spits humor like snakes spew venom. You’ll definitely feel it for more than a minute, and her aim is always spot on.

The book is made up entirely of letters, with each writer carrying his or her own voice with flavorful precision. After a while, you don’t even need to look at the signature to know who the letter is from. Reading the first few pages, as a writer I was skeptical, thinking—there is no way anyone can string together an entire novel solely of letters and still let readers see any action, without it sounding forced. How could you sneak in those little details and quirks about a person, or show them in action, without reminding the reader they are basically only reading a second-hand account of what happened, one person repeating something they saw.
Well, what else does an author do, if not that?
I guess I thought it would be difficult to describe how somebody else said something. You know, to mention that every time they said this or that, they had a little twinkle in the eyes? But mainly, I feared a reader might suspect author intrusion too many times.
But not once did I ever feel the author intruded on any of these characters’ original voices, thoughts, or manner of speaking. And just as praises had said, I literally forgot I was reading fictional letters, because I got so lost and caught up in each character’s life, the gossip spread about, that I forgot this was a novel, entirely made up. Perhaps the wealth of historical tidbits thrown in helped make this world real to me.
Forgetting that I’m only reading does not happen to me often, because usually when I study as I go along. I try to analyze why authors make one choice over another, how they structure their sentences, create tension, describe telling details. It was impossible to do this after the first few pages into THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, because I was no longer reading. I was experiencing.

I could never expect more from a book than that.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Passive Voice May Be Your Best Choice

Some writers argue against ever using passive voice, and when critiquing another's work, strike through was, is being, were on principle (with a little notation, change passive voice to active), without thought that passive may be the better way to go.

Active voice means the subject is doing the action. Passive voice is when the subject is being acted upon by the verb. True, passive verbs are widely judged as the weakest form, but there lies an exception or two with every guideline.
One exception turns up when the writer wants to put the focus on the recipient of the action, because the recipient is more important than the person or thing performing the action.

Consider: Sheila Townsmen, wife of Governor Townsmen, was brutally attacked by a stray dog last night.
In this case, the author wants to emphasize who received the action, and therefore gives the person acted upon more weight than the person or thing that performed the act. The story is not going to be about the dog, but rather about the woman, and how the act affects her. Passive voice is the correct choice for the sentence above.

Sometimes the doer of an action is unknown, which makes using passive voice the obvious choice.
Example: An original Kincaid, donated by Lucille Ball, was stolen from The Museum of Art yesterday.
The identity of the thief is unknown, so it’s obvious that what was stolen is more newsworthy than who did it; therefore, passive voice makes sense. If you change the sentence to active— Yesterday, a thief or thieves stole Lucille Ball’s donation, an original Kincaid, from the Museum of Art—puts the focus on the doer, or doers, which would change the intended slant of the story.

Another exception to the preference of active voice is when the writer is using the passive voice to parallel the passive stance of the character. Take for instance a woman who had been raped. While being examined and questioned by doctors and police, she might not be feeling too strong. At a time like that, it wouldn’t be unbelievable for her to be acted upon, and do little acting herself. 
It doesn’t happen often, but passive voice can be your friend, as long as you make a conscious decision of when and how to use it.

Can you think of any other instances where passive voice is the better choice?


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Editor Kimberly O’Connor on “A Hop, Clip, and Jump to Writing Success—Getting Clips!” and a Free Contest!

Clips are copies of your published work (include only the page with your byline when attaching to a query) which prove your work has been published in a specific publication. The more clips you have from different publications, the more experienced and professional you appear. Thus, clips are $$$.
Breaking into the big bucks—$200 to $500 per story— is like saving money for an expensive item. It’s best to use a step-up-the-ladder approach.
Editors of high-paying markets rarely look at the work of unknown writers. Start building your list of published credits by sending your work to blogs and e-zines, and later to newspapers and smaller publications.
Blogs get your name out, and not just through your own site, but as a guest blogger on someone else’s. It’s a mistake to think that because blog owners seldom pay monetary rewards, that they’ll publish anything. Think again. Send only your best. Many blog owners receive numerous articles to choose from, so yours still must shine if you want to see your byline, and you do need the credit.
You may even be invited to serve as a regular contributor for a certain topic, at which point your cover letter can legitimately say, “I am a columnist for Joe Schmoe’s Coffee-time Chatter (URL). Let’s face it – it’d be a tad more impressive to state that you’re a columnist for someone else’s blog, rather than simply the author of your own. The point you’ll get across to an editor is that someone else took a chance on your work.
Your next step is to land space in a print publication. Though newspaper editors appreciate freelancers with writing credits, they are easier to break into than magazines. To get in the door, submit a letter to the editor on a timely topic you feel passionate about that will interest area readers. This is one of the easiest and fastest credits to obtain. On your next cover letter, mention your writing has appeared in “Such and Such” newspaper.
Small publications are often open to new writers. Although low or non-paying, these markets maintain standards as high as that for larger paying markets. Send your best.
Once you’ve accumulated clips from non-paying markets, you’re ready to step up a rung on the ladder to writing success. Now write a cover letter listing your experience, attach a few clips and query an editor paying $5 to $25 per story or article. Once your byline appears in a few small publications, you step up the ladder again. It’s time to submit to a market paying $50. Accumulate as many clips as your creative brain will allow.
During your climb to writing success, there may come a time another aspiring writer who has not yet been published (remember when?) requests an interview, with plans to write a profile on you. Voila!  Although you won’t be the writer for this article, it will be about you as a writer. You may use this in your clips.
The markets shelling out $100 and more per story are becoming scarce; hence, they perch at the top of the ladder. It’s a long climb, but with persistence—and good writing—you’ll get there. Remember, you need to start at step one, paid or not, to arrive at step two, then three, and so on. Pay attention to the smaller markets; they are a key to your future success.
Try the ladder approach to marketing. Before you know it, you’ll be just one clip away from the big guys.
Contest: Enter to win! Edit and/or evaluate the above article, post it in the comments below or email it to You may win a free edit and evaluation on ten pages of your writing. As a freelance and ghost editor, Kimberly loves the red pen. Put yours to use. The best review of this article wins! Deadline: 9-14-12

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review—The Fiction Class, a novel by Susan Breen

Susan Breen’s The Fiction Class, a Plume book published by Penguin Group, offers a great story while feeding your creative brain like a portable fiction class.
To be honest, I was rushing to an appointment when I stole a quick glance through a secondhand bookstore and picked up this gem.(Couldn’t resist—I had five whole spare minutes.) I made the purchase based solely on the title. I assumed the book would be another one of those how-to-improve-your-writing texts. Why not, I thought? I didn’t notice the two little words “a novel” in the upper left corner.

Needless to say, my surprise turned to delight. Reading Breen’s work felt like gleaning the gold from a well explained how-to book, while diving into the lives of interesting characters and a setting I related to on Page 1.

Through a teacher and a class of eleven wannabe writers, Breen unveils the secrets to crafting interesting and believable characters, pumping up dialogue to grab the reader, plotting, pacing, and the question of theme, as well as the importance of voice. She even shares the assignments given to the class and offers discussions on the aspects of writing, all dramatized through engaging scenes. The novel speaks to the heart through the love between man and woman; mother and daughter; and the complex relationships, heartache, and loss that evolve through those loves.

You can read The Fiction Class as a novel, become fully involved in the characters’ bitchiness and silliness, dream for them and weep for them, while at the same time, learn to sharpen your writing as though you’d just taken a ten-week course on fiction.

I’d recommend this book to anyone, writer or not. Readers with no aspirations of becoming a writer won’t be dissatisfied, and writers will be enthralled.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Your Best Friend Is Your Best Resource

Have you noticed your best friend lately—the one who makes you laugh even when your eyes are rimmed with tears? The one who forgives your mistakes, because it’s more fun to dance through a pile of leaves on a breezy day than to waste time dwelling on darkness? The one who convinces you the bananas in your cream pie are fruit and therefore, the delicious slice of heaven is actually healthy? The one who convinces you to take a break on writing that Fibonacci poem you’re supposed to be working on, and instead sit on the deck and blow bubbles for a while?
Remember her? She’s your inner child—your best friend.

She can help you whether you are recovering from illness, wading through family or career obligations, or noticing the pain in your arm that is forever grasping at a bar that keeps rising as you near it.
Take a step back and pay attention to what your inner child is suggesting you do. I’m not saying listen to her evil twin who’s prodding you to take a year off, but if she is simply asking you to  stroll down the sidewalk while not stepping on any cracks ( please save your mother’s back), then do it. She is the one watching out for you, your sanity and preservation. Chances are, if you give her 15 minutes a day, the load you return to won’t feel nearly as heavy as it had.

Are you working on writing a legal thriller? Put on a striped hat and a polk-a-dotted jacket and jog around the block, waving at every dog you pass to see how loud the barking gets.

Are you revisiting that same spot again and again in the oil painting you think you’ll never finish? Cut out a picture of a goldfish, stick it to your trouble-spot and eat a chocolate bar as if it were an ice cream cone, while pretending you are a six-year-old with the freedom to paint anything you want, and work on the rest of the painting.

Are you stuck in that never ending rut of finishing the laundry? Give it up—throw away all those unmatched socks so that you never see them again. Socks are cheap. Buy a few new pairs, and let your imagination pick out the funky designs you’d never wear to church. Wear them anyway, with extra long pants. Wear them to places you think you shouldn’t, but secretly. You’ll be surprised at the little tingle you get every time you think of them. It’s the sneak of a thing that makes it fun.

Is one of your relatives still upset with you when you just want to call the feud quits? Write her or him a note that says:

 I’m sorry. Do you like me? Circle yes or no.
                       Yes          No

I bet you’ll get a good answer.
On your bad days, what does your inner child tell you to do? Do you listen?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Guest Author Edith Parzefall on Panic! The book's about to be released!

Since November, Francene Stanley and I have been looking forward to the release of our co-written post-apocalyptic fantasy novel Wind Over Troubled Waters. When we signed the contract, the release was planned for 2013. Then Double Dragon Publishing surprised us by scheduling the release for May 2012.

I've been counting the weeks till the release with the four-week span: in 6-10 weeks, in 4-8 weeks... Of course, I always rather expected the later date. When 2-6 weeks arrived, the publisher informed us the book would be released in 1-2 weeks. Excitement and panic embraced each other for a crazed dance around my study.

I hadn't yet sifted through all those links on marketing, book review sites, etc. Not to mention the two ebooks on marketing still untouched on my e-reader. I usually love to be prepared well in advance, but I felt certain I had plenty of time. And marketing isn't exactly the most favorite task for a writer.

Also, after years of collecting rejections, persevering and slaving on, it still seemed a little surreal that finally the first book should be published. Suddenly we only had a week or two to sound the fanfares and beat the pots with wooden spoons. No idea how that happened! Well, I do have a suspicion. Such a mind-shift isn't easy when you've been shooed away for so long, then stare at open doors, friendly faces, and arms waving you in. Also in November last year, MuseItUp Publishing accepted my thriller Strays of Rio to be published in September this year. Or so I think. Maybe MuseItUp is going to sneak up on me as well, when I least expect it--shortly before the planned release. Still, by then I might have learned from the experience with Wind Over Troubled Waters. Or not. ;-)

If you see me flapping around the Internet in headless chicken mode the next few days or weeks, don't shoot me, please! The head might grow back. I sure hope so. There's this new novel I want to write and a brain certainly helps.

Um, excuse my rambling. I just located a sliver of gray matter and realized Debi usually likes guest bloggers to actually provide useful information, give advice and insights. Well, I provided an example above of what you shouldn't do: neglect marketing. And there's only one advice I have: If writing is your passion, never give up! Listen to what the shooing folks say, if they talk sense or talk at all, work hard on improving your work, and keep knocking on doors.

Wind Over Troubled Waters
by Francene Stanley & Edith Parzefall

Oh, and here's more free advice: Don’t be shy about advertising your books when the time comes. Be bold but subtle. I’m still working on that. So, go buy Wind Over Troubled Waters from the publisher, or from Amazon, write a review and post it everywhere. Why? Because we'd love that. :-D

Links to my blog & website:
Wind Over Troubled Waters by Francene Stanley & Edith Parzefall

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Guilie Castillo on "Critic or Cheerleader?"

Do you belong to a writer's group? You do? Congratulations! It's essential to the process of growing as a writer, of honing your skills, of becoming an ace at the craft. By joining one, you've taken a major step in your career.

But here's a question: is your group a critique group? Or a chorus of cheerleaders?

We all need cheerleaders. Pom-poms and rah-rahs. Undying support from someone—anyone—that we can latch onto in those dark moments when the blank page seems the hardest thing to face; when your words, once sheer genius, have begun to look like so much crap. Ordinary crap, at that.  

We need cheerleaders to help us believe we can do this thing, that we have it in us, that our talent exists, that our writing is not ordinary.

If your goal is not only to get published, but to grow as a writer, to become the best writer you can be, you also need a helping hand in terms of craft. I know—you've read the books, you have an MFA from a prestigious program, you've been doing this for a long time. Hell, for all I know, you're Stephen King or JRR Tolkien. Whatever. If you're committed to this career, you want to be better. Write better.


Cheerleading is for the spirit. It's to keep you sane, focused, motivated. But it won't improve your writing. Unless it's balanced against objective critiques, it may even damage it.

What is the function of a good critique group? To improve your writing. How? By providing a bunch of objective opinions on it—what works, what doesn't. Suggestions on how to make a scene more alive, give a character depth, draw the reader into the narrative to the point where they cannot put the book down. A critique group is the foundry where your skill is tempered into cutting-edge precision. Like iron ore, you need to be smelted and continuously honed into the hardness of brilliance.

What a critique group is not: a cheerleader faction for your work. A support group? Certainly, when it comes to true improvement. Like AA, your critiquing partners shouldn't encourage you to hit the bourbon no matter how desperately you think you need it, but rather push you—hard—to stick on the right path, to rise above yourself. A good critique partner will tell you the hard truths you need to hear—and listen to—in order to take your writing to the next level.

A critique group is like your editor—but careful here: not your spellcheck. You wouldn't send a first draft to your editor, right? You'd check for misspelled words, for echoes, for repetitious scenes, for character and plot arcs. When it's as good as you can make it, and only then, you'd send it out.

And then your editor would come back with suggestions and remarks, and you'd start work on your final draft. 

Revise your expectations: a critique group should get your writing as good as you can get it in order to help you improve it. A rah-rah might feel great, but how much does it help, really?

When you join a critique group, you leave your ego at the door. You bring only your story. It's all about the story, about making it better, making it shine.

 Guilie is currently in the final revision process of her first novel, Restoring Experience, and working on another spawned during NaNoWriMo 2011. She blogs at, and her short stories have appeared in,
, as well as a few blogs, including an honorable mention in Clarity of Night’s contest in July 2011 ( 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Guest Author Mithran Somasundrum on Characterization

"Action is character," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a notebook, meaning that showing a person's actions, and more importantly his choices, is the clearest way to delineate his personality. But there is a distinction between character and characterization. It's one thing to make a man seem brave, petty or violent. It's something else to make him seem real. The best short description of characterization I've ever found was a quote on the back of a novel whose title and author I can't even remember. While they've gone out of my mind, the quote, by V. S. Pritchett, remains.  "[Author X]," he wrote, "knows the fantasy lives of his characters." 
When great writers look at the works of others, they often end up discussing themselves; and Pritchett's statement could just as easily have been a description of, and an explanation for, the vitality and life in his own work. Throughout the whole of his long writing career, you feel Pritchett had a direct line to the cinema playing behind his characters' eyes.  The cinema where they were the heroes and happiness unfolded.
While we judge the people we meet in fiction by their decisions, we believe in them largely because of what comes out of their mouths. Which ties good characterization inextricably into the art of writing good dialogue. "Good" doesn't necessarily mean clever or long. "You killed Miles and you're going over for it," is good because it's true to Sam Spade's hard-headed, uncomplicated view of his life. However, given that the main purpose of the pages of a novel—any novel—is to make you keep turning them, dialogue needs to be more than just true.  It needs to be interesting. 
The fuller section of The Maltese Falcon that I've just quoted is,
"I don't care who loves who. I'm not going to play the sap for you. I won't walk in Thursby's and who knows who else's footsteps. You killed Miles and you're going over for it."
This has a great rhythm and power, without moving outside the vocabulary Spade would use or the kind of ideas he’d express. Another writer of great hyper-real dialogue is Saul Bellow. His characters use ordinary idioms and phrases, but often at such a pitch of emotion their thoughts go tumbling into each other. From The Victim, when Leventhal finally decides he's had enough of Allbee leeching off him:
"You dirty phoney!" Levanthal cried huskily. "You ugly bastard counterfeit. I said it because you're such a liar, with your phoney tears and your wife's name in your mouth, every second word. The poor woman, a fine life she must have had with you, a freak like you, out of a carnival."
People reveal themselves in anger; they lose hold of the image they want to present to the world. But it's impossible to write a novel in which everyone is angry all the time. So the writer needs to find the smaller signs where people give themselves away. Great examples of these are scattered throughout Paul Theroux's collected short stories.
Theroux is a great describer of groups. Whether it's a reception at a London Embassy, the muggy heat of a Malaysian polo match, or four poets strolling through a frosty Amherst night, Theroux's group scenes bristle with life. This isn't because his characters are constantly screaming at each other—although their tempers do fray and irritations do flare—but rather because he creates the impression of separate human minds running on very different rails. Theroux's people talk to one side of each other, they enter conversations pre-armed with a view of the world, their minds snag monomaniacally on an idea and then refuse to let it go.
How much mental space an author needs to achieve this is moot.  Graham Greene often said he knew his characters had become real when they became capable of surprising him.  In contrast, Nabokov described his characters as "galley slaves."  And yet to the reader Humbert Humbert remains as disturbingly real as his desire for Dolores Haze. 
The issue of authorially-granted freedom has often led to novels being labeled as either plot-driven or character-driven; but the fact is, any wholly alive story is set moving by the hungers and self-deceptions of its people. The plot of The Maltese Falcon ticks along like a Swiss watch. But it's the low cunning and mutual suspicion of Joel Cairo, Brigid O'Shaughnessy and the Fat Man, and the almost amoral nature of the "blond Satan" (Sam Spade) they turn to who set the book ticking.
Who would you recommend as a great example of characterization, either to learn from or simply to enjoy?  Which writer and which of their works?
Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives in Bangkok.  His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Sun, Inkwell, The Minnesota Review, Natural Bridge, and GUD, among others.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Author Holly Michael on Ghostwriting

I began ghostwriting immediately after I quit writing. That’s right. When rejection letters, numbering in the hundreds, angered me into avowing my one-sided love affair with writing, I quit. Not only did I quit, I announced it to God with fervent fist-raising. I bolted that door shut. After my drama, I cracked the door a teensy weensy bit, in case God wanted to sneak in, work a miracle, and change my mind.

A few hours later, an editor with Guideposts for Teens magazine called. She wanted an essay I’d submitted a couple of months earlier. Someone other than my mother and maybe even God, liked my writing. Immediately, I pitched an essay I’d written about my struggle as a teenager overcoming the drowning death of my sister.

They published “Guilty” a few months later. A patient editor worked with me to understand Guidepost’s formula. Once I got that down, she offered regular ghostwriting assignments.
My first job took me near Little Rock, Arkansas, to interview a teenage boy who had survived a plane crash. I wondered how I, a mom in her thirties, raised in the north, could write in a teenage boy’s southern voice. As a natural born people-watcher, I listened to the way he spoke, his dialect, his mannerisms. Voices have tones and tempos. I compare ghostwriting to acting. You must incorporate the same techniques an actor would in taking on a role. You have to get in to the head of a person and understand how he or she would think, feel, speak. Is the person you are writing for friendly, formal, chatty, distant, quiet?

A more difficult assignment was an older woman who had survived a holocaust. I imagined her emotions as a terrified teenager, so many years ago.

For more than ten years, along with other freelance jobs, I interviewed teenagers, took photos, and wrote their stories for this magazine. As my young children matured into teenagers, they became a great help. When I wrote a story for a high-school basketball player, I showed it to my teenage son,Jake. He said, “Mom, no one says, ‘I shot a three-pointer. Say, ‘I busted a tre.’” Tre didn’t survive my spell check, but I trusted Jake.

In any writing, you have to study the voices of the characters (either real or made-up) and learn their lingo. Before the magazine went to an online edition only, I interviewed a teenage girl in India who had survived the tsunami. My husband is a pastor, and he and I were in India for mission work two weeks after the 2004 tsunami hit. The girl we interviewed didn’t speak English. My husband, a native of Tamil Nadu, translated her horrific journey of being swept up in the huge wave and carried through the streets of her village. Watching Tamilarisa’s mannerisms and tuning into her shyness and sorrow helped me write from her point of view.

Though I couldn’t speak her language, I understood the pain and anguish of a teenage girl who had lost a loved one in a drowning death. The assignment brought me full circle with the first story I’d pitched to Guideposts about my own teenage experience of suffering the loss of a sister who died from drowning.

Empathy is a key to writing from another point of view. You must hear the emotion behind the words.

I took what I learned from ghostwriting into further freelance writing work: writing a biography for someone, full time work as a features writer for a newspaper, and other freelance jobs.

Now, entering the world of fiction writing, I use what I’ve learned. A novelist must use various voices. In CROOKED LINES, my upcoming novel, I write from the point of view of two teenagers coming of age in totally different cultures: A boy from India and a girl from the Midwest United States. I carry them through to middle adulthood. My current WIP is I’LL BE SEEING YOU, a novel about a man in a coma and his children who come together with their own issues and agendas. It’s fun and challenging to write from the perspective of an elderly man in a coma.

I’m also looking forward to a future project. Jake, my son is a diabetic who is preparing for the NFL draft. He says after he gets drafted, he wants to write a book about kids, sports, and diabetes. If all goes well and we begin this joint venture, I’ll return to ghostwriting roots. If you want to read more about Jake and me, check my blog:

Subscribe or keep checking back for updates to what happens with the novelist and the NFL player. Holly’s novel, CROOKED LINES, is in the quarter finalists of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. You may download the first three chapters for free as well as rate or review it here:

Friday, March 16, 2012

Guest Author Francene Stanley on The Birth of a Novelist

          As a child in Australia, I grew up entertaining my two younger sisters with stories. Enthralled, they watched me dancing the role of Cleopatra, dying from the bite of an asp. Lost in the wonder of fluidity and the attention of my audience, I thrived.

With the passage of the years, when the body goes through the most amazing transformation from child to woman, I used this grace in my walk. I attracted an action man, strong, handsome and charismatic. Perhaps instinct drew me to a partner who would provide healthy children. Deep inside, I rejected the little voice warning me not to let him control me. I discovered that turning a blind eye to his rages would appease his jealousy. I committed to love and all it entailed—through sickness and in health.

By the time I reached twenty-four, three wonderful children occupied my time, and any chance of a career sailed right past me. Caught up in The Good Life, I taught my children to respect and consider others. Together, we collected rubbish on the beach, helped the aged and strove to be the best we could be.

My husband worked at an advertising agency, so I didn't see him much during my twenties. With his charm and talent, he caught everyone's attention while I acted as his side-kick. But the pressure of work caused him a nervous breakdown. My stepfather offered the chance to leave city life behind and move to a little seaside town—a place where my husband could relax and heal while building sand-hill protection with a view of the ocean crashing on the shore. Here, I went through another transformation. Although he recovered, I saw my husband's bullying with new eyes.

Fantasy became the powerful instructor I needed, the means to transport me into another world, one distant from his demeaning tactics. I read my grandmother's early, extensive collection of science fiction as well as Ayn Rand's novels and Edgar Cayce's readings on the afterlife.

When the children left home, my love went with them. I committed to keep faith with my pledge and continue to strive for my best.

My husband's illness pinpointed bipolar. Although he'd latched onto the sympathy of the first real friend in my adult life, he still wanted my support. When he moved in with my ex-friend, he gave me a freedom I wasn't ready for. Full of sorrow and torment, I forgave myself.

With no expertise, I worked as a nanny, eventually travelling to England. All alone in London, I survived amongst borrowed luxury. But my spirit longed for love. A prince in the guise of an accountant appeared.

Free at last, I explored other ways of expressing myself. First I wrote songs—at least fifty. Seven of the best, produced as demos, molder in files without me ever acquiring the necessary drive to get a producer's interest. Poetry, so similar in rhyme and beat, involved me next—a hundred tomes. The frustration of writing and writing, with no chance of airing the result, caused a change of direction. I wrote my life story for my family.

Right. Done. But what about all I'd learned during my wonderful life?

Use my story as the base of a novel. Show how a gentle, naive woman CAN survive in the face of aggression. Demonstrate how to use the power of the mind to overcome every obstacle with time, space and patience—as Edgar Cayce advocated.

And that's where fantasy came in. An inherited star moonstone ring sweeps Liliha, my heroine in Still Rock Water, away in random visions to help someone in distress. She's so much more than a woman borrowing the story of my life. Liliha took over and created her own circumstances. Her story will inspire each reader during the ride to the joyful ending.

Due to be released soon by Solstice Publishing, Still Rock Water comes first in the Moonstone series. The three books to follow will involve the reader in love, heartache and a fresh start for Liliha.

Francene's blog:!/FranceneStanley

Friday, March 9, 2012

Guest Publisher and Author Nell DuVall on the Importance of the Basics in Writing

What makes a writer? Ideas help, but knowing how to express them and to enthrall readers matters. Integral to that is learning how to write and develop a good story that holds the reader's interest. To communicate we need words, the right words used correctly in the right place. Spelling, sentence structure, grammar, and proper punctuation are necessary. The author's obligation is to provide the best version of their material in the cleanest form possible.

 Competition for agents and editors is fierce. More authors than ever before are submitting material. Wasting their time with an unreadable manuscript will place you on their DO NOT READ lists. Once authors have a reputation for sloppy writing, they risk losing the opportunity to submit to that agent or editor again.

 Agents and editors want a rousing story told in a unique voice, but will never find it if a manuscript is loaded with errors. Publishers in particular want material ready to print. Most publishers expect the manuscript to be clean and free of errors. Copyeditors are an increasingly rare breed. Good ones command premium salaries.

 Here's a quote from Etopia Press's Executive Editor Annie Melton.

"Self-editing skills. This is a different skill set entirely. Self-editing requires you to put aside your ego and take a good, hard, objective look at your story under harsh lighting conditions. Read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by King and Browne. Do the exercises and don’t make excuses for why the rules don’t apply to your particular story. They do. Even if you’re already published, your writing can always be tighter. Stronger. It’s amazing that I still reject stories over and over for the stuff in this one writing reference alone."

 So, what's an aspiring author to do? Read, listen, and learn. What are agents and editors buying? Study the published stories like the ones you want to write. What draws you into the story and keeps you reading? Do agents or editors offer any guidelines or style manuals? If so, use them.

 Most people learn the rudiments of English grammar in school. However, less emphasis is placed on the mechanics of language than on free expression. If authors are lacking in any of the basics, they should remedy their lacks. Additional classes, books, style guides, and critique groups can help, but first make use of the tools available.

 Wordprocessors offer spell checkers and grammar and style advice. Use the tools, but also be aware of their limitations. Words spelled correctly but used improperly will remain unless the author reads and corrects them. The tools suit most, but they do not always work well on fiction.

 Hiring editorial services is possible, but costly. One useful means is to read a piece aloud and see if anything doesn't sound right. If it sounds off, chances are it is.

 Punctuation is a difficult area for most writers. Plenty of punctuation books and style manuals are available. Use them. Misplacing punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence or an entire piece. The following example from Lynne Truss' Eats Shoots & Leaves, provides examples. One such shows how punctuation changes the meaning of 'a woman without her man is nothing.'

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, a man is nothing

 Another source of help is a good critique group, provided you make your piece as clean as you can. Critique groups, whether formal or informal are formed to help authors refine their material to the publishable level. However, with error-filled manuscripts, it is difficult to grasp the author's intent or to focus on a poorly written submission. The cleaner a manuscript, the more likely the author is to get useful feedback. Many critique groups are comprised of other authors who may not have strong editing skills. Good ones are invaluable. Too, critiquing others also makes the writers more aware of any similar faults in their own material.

Good writing takes effort. It doesn't just happen. Learning the craft of writing will make material publishable and readers happy.

Nell DuVall at a booksigning
World traveler Nell DuVall has visited all the continents except South American and Antarctica. She participated in marine surveys and archeological expeditions in Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Islands, and Turkey. Train to Yesterday was her first published novel. This year three more will published: When Lilacs Bloom, another time travel romance, and Beyond the Rim of Light, science fiction, in May, and Selvage, a murder mystery in August. She has a book of short stories and appears in two anthologies. She also regularly reviews speculative fiction for and mysteries for under Mel Jacob. Her nonfiction Domestic Technology provided a chronology of household technology. A member of the Internet Writing Workshop, she administer the Lovestory list. She also founded a small POD for illustrated children's, Sprite Press (

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Guest Author Mark Budman on Word Counts and Concise Writing

Word Count: Pretty Unsexy?

What could be less sexy than the word count of a literary work? Even the serial comma or a dangling participle wouldn’t. At least the former went to Harvard (or was it Oxford?) and the latter could be funny. Yet the word count speaks volumes in spite of its diminished sexuality. The right word count can make a difference between the boring amateurish novel and a modern masterpiece. Yes, a literary masterpiece can be long. Oft mentioned by the defenders of gargantuan manuscripts are War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy—560,000 words in length, The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later by Alexandre Dumas, père—626,000, and In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust—a whooping 1,500,000 words. More modern examples are Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling at 257,000 words and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace at 575,000 words. All these are examples of literary and/or commercial success. But should a masterpiece be long?

I saw the same question repeated in many writers' forums again and again. My novel is 150,000, 200,000, 250,000 words. No agent wants to see it, and no serious publisher wants to touch it. How do I make it shorter? My question for those writers is: how did you manage to make your manuscript long in the first place? My answer is: make it short to begin with.

An example from a war novel: “The cars bore the food, clothes, weapons and other tools of war.” But of course they were. The supply trains do that. That is their raison d'être. It would be worth mentioning if they didn’t bear the food because, let’s say, the general thought that the troops would fight better when hungry, or they didn’t bear the weapons because, let’s say, the soldiers used magic.

Don’t describe what the protagonist had for breakfast unless the menu sheds some new light on him or her. Don’t say: “I’ll be brief.” Just be brief.

Dear author! Be concise. Cut mercilessly. Cut the adjectives, the obvious, the irrelevant, the secondary characters, the dead-end plot lines. Better yet, don’t create a bloated monster that needs its stomach stapled in the first place. Write only what is necessary to propel your work forward, to develop your plot and characters. Stop and ask yourself: “Is this chapter, page, paragraph, sentence, word really necessary?” Cut them, re-read and move ahead.

But make sure that you get rid of the fat and not the muscles. Otherwise, “I want sex” or “Give me food” would be fine examples of concise but worthless stories.

Even if you are a novelist and don’t stoop to writing short stories, consider writing flash fiction as an exercise. Come up with a retelling of a famous plot and set up an artificial word limit. Say, retell War and Peace in 500 words, but do it with a plot twist or two and make sure you still have a coherent, appealing story and not the cliff notes. You will not be sorry. Even if you don’t become a flash fiction writer, you still could use the skills you would acquire in writing flashes as stepping stones. They would help you to grow as a novelist. I mean, to grow in strength and your appeal to the reader and not in girth.

Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union and is fluent in Russian. His fiction, poetry and book reviews have appeared in such magazines as Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney's, American Book Review, The Bloosmbury Review, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou'wester, Turnrow, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, The Literary Review, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, Short Fiction(UK), The Warwick Review (UK), Flash (UK), Neo (Portugal) and elsewhere. He is the publisher of Vestal Review, the longest-running flash fiction magazine in print. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim. He co-edited the anthologies You Have Time for This (Ooligan Press) and Sudden Flash Youth (Persea Books/WW Norton). He is at work at two new novels, and puts together an anthology “Condensed to Flash: World Classics.” This anthology will feature world classics condensed to 500 words or fewer.

See Mark's novels and other work at:
Order his book on sale now at:

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Barry Aitchison, beloved friend and fellow writer, may the muses of Heaven allow you to continue blessing us with your wisdom and inspiration. We'll miss you!

Barry Aitchison, author of Miss Alice Merriwether's Long Lost Cakes

Friday, February 17, 2012

Does your book cover have you stumped? See what artist Carole Lane James offers

My career designing book covers began with my love of graphic design. As an artist, it seemed a natural progression from paintbrush to keyboard. I worked in the field of menu design for restaurants for several years. The chefs made the entrees, and I snapped pictures and applied them dramatically on the menu with the goal to entice each guest into choosing the more expensive menu items.
Of course, the food alone couldn't make guests feel special. The art for the entire menu incorporated designs to give viewers a sense of atmosphere, from the front cover to the back page.
Book covers should do the sameentice readers to open the cover and become a part of the story. If the cover doesn't catch their eye, they don't read further. Give them a reason to open the book and turn the page.
When I began writing my first book, I had a picture in my head of my protagonist. I would sit back in my chair and stare at my words with a vision of the cover buzzing in my brain. I decided to create a book cover for my manuscript-in-progress. I couldn't get myself to wait until the writing was finished--my fingers itched to put out a correlating design. Besides, the artist in me needed the escape and to create visually for a while. As the chapters grew on the pages, the graphic image in my mind would change and grow. I fell in love with designing covers, right then and there.
The heart of the story needs to be the first thing a reader sees on the cover. That's not always an easy task with the miniature size the cover is reduced to when shown on a Kindle or other e-reader. By the time I began my second book, I was hooked on designing covers for others, too.
Every story leads me to a final design, telling me the depth, darkness or light to portray the words, beyond the first glance. My inspiration stems from the words on the page; they tell me where to begin. From there my imagination takes it to the final product. With so many authors publishing e-books today, it is essential that covers grab the readers’ attention while customers scroll through the list of books to choose from, which offers only a very small view.  
I love to watch that blank page come to life, telling a story, inviting the reader in. If someone is flipping through a snapshots of books, I want the cover to stop them long enough to take a better look at what’s inside.  I use many different styles to convey the type of book it is.
Cover art by Carole Lane James 

Happily Ever After is the novel I'm working a cover design on for talented romance author Christina Cole. The book will be released around mid March. Christina has been a joy to work with. She had an idea of what she wanted on the cover, and together we created a design that conveys the story and visually tells the heart of it.

The demands today on the pocketbooks of many struggling authors often don't include a budget for a well designed cover. I plan to meet the needs of those who can't afford a big-name designer by filling this niche with quality yet affordable graphic designs. Some traditional publishers also now require authors to pay for their covers. I can accommodate this need as well. I design each cover around the individual story; no two are alike, and the rights are retained by the author or publisher.
Every book is a work of love and endurance and deserves a good cover design. Authors work hard and put so much into their writing, the covers need to reflect their dedication. And that's what I want to do for them. Visit me at 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Guest Author Peter Bernhardt on Structuring a Novel

Structure—A Novelist’s Best Friend

You wake up in the middle of the night with this brilliant idea for your next novel and feverishly scribble it on a notepad kept on your bedside table for just the occasion when your muse strikes. When you make it to your computer during your regular writing time, you input your handwritten notes and then sit there, fingers poised over the keyboard, but not typing. What’s the matter? You still think the inspiration is great, but how do you get a novel out of it?

It’s a daunting task, isn’t it? Where do you start? Where do you want to go, and how do you carry your readers all the way to the end? Endless questions every novelist faces.

Can you say “structure” without images of constraint and limitation flooding your mind? If so, you’re on your way to writing a novel that follows a natural progression and is easy to follow. Proper structure does not stifle creativity but enhances it. You object: all this is rather abstract. All right, bear with me as I dig up examples from my two novels.

When I became serious about writing a novel a few years ago, I had to confront every writer’s fear: what could I possibly write that others would want to read? To a wannabe like me, the mantra “write about what you know” made sense (though now I subscribe to the notion, “write about what interests you”). For my first novel, The Stasi File [Stasi], I cooked up a plot featuring an American lawyer (Rolf) being sent on a spy mission to his native Germany. While I’ve never been a spy, I certainly know a lot about the other two areas. Problem solved, right? Little did I know that was the first of hundreds of baby steps that finally brought me to the overall story idea: a thriller detailing a Stasi plot to prevent German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now how could I make it interesting, distinct from other spy stories of that era? I drew upon my passion for opera and invented an aspiring opera diva (Sylvia) as a co-protagonist. I had to give her a past, both with Rolf, and with a terrorist organization. And I had to have at least one interesting subplot.

So how do you weave all these strains together in a plot complex enough to captivate readers yet not so convoluted as to confuse them? This is where the author needs to make several structural decisions. For this blog, I’ll focus on four: (1) whether to write significant backstory in a prologue or insert it in small doses throughout the main plot; (2) the number of POVs that will best tell the story; (3) the best way to write climactic chapters; (4) whether to switch tenses between story lines.  

1.       Significant Backstory: Both my novels have backstories that greatly influence the main plots. In Stasi, Sylvia’s betrayal of a terrorist boyfriend and Rolf’s abandonment of Sylvia drive the events of the main plot twelve years later. In the sequel, Teya’s Kiss, Rolf’s role in the expulsion of a fellow law school classmate comes back to haunt him nine years later. Neither novel features a prologue. While I never drafted a prologue for Stasi, I did write two drafts for Teya’s Kiss, but put them in the outtakes file. After consulting an excellent article on the subject, see I concluded that the structure would be better served by a strong first chapter, followed by incremental insertion of crucial backstory throughout the plots.

2.       Number of POVs: There are those who proclaim that a novel should be written from very few POVs, some insisting few means one. By paying such an arbitrary rule any mind, you jeopardize the structure of your novel and stifle your creativity. If you lay out your story in the best possible way, the number of POVs required will reveal themselves. You would be a fool to reduce them based on someone’s rigid pronouncement. My thriller detailing a Stasi plot to prevent German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Stasi agent trying to defect with secret documents, a West German terrorist group’s involvement, and Sylvia and Rolf’s running for their lives in communist East Germany required no less than twelve POVs to tell the story in a compelling and understandable way. Teya’s Kiss is not as complex, but with the intertwining story lines that are three centuries apart still demanded six POVs. If you have done a good job outlining the structure of your story, you will know how many POVs will serve you the best, and you won’t be tempted to let someone talk you out of your well-grounded decision.  

3.       Climactic Chapters: Conflict is what drives most novels. The question is how to best write tension-filled chapters and scenes. In some novels the best way is to write a climactic chapter from the protagonist’s POV. Others are better served by switching POVs, perhaps between the protagonist and the antagonist. In Stasi, I chose a different approach: numerous and rapid POV shifts in a climactic chapter featuring an escape scene in the East Berlin Opera House. The POV switches no less than sixteen times among six different characters. I chose that structure to keep tension at the highest possible level throughout the chapter.  

4.       Tenses: As the muse whispered the story idea for Teya’s Kiss into my ear, I shuddered at the challenge of writing two plots separated by three centuries and having them converge at a crucial plot point. Moreover, how could a German white male possibly write convincingly in the voice of a thirteen-year old Pueblo Indian girl who would play a crucial role—in the author’s imagination—during the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 that drove the Spanish from New Mexico? How to write the two stories side by side in a way that would keep the reader engaged?

Going against convention and well-meaning admonitions, I wrote the current (1990) plot line in past tense and the 1680 story in present tense. The only novel I’m aware of that has used a similar approach is Anita Shreve’s, The Pilot’s Wife, but if I may say so, it’s not nearly as daring. Her backstory in present tense involves the same two characters as the current story in past tense while in Teya’s Kiss the two story lines feature completely different characters. I believe adhering to a logical structure was a key factor in pulling this off.

In these and other instances, I found that far from hemming me in and restricting my creative juices, a well-thought-out structure freed my imagination to guide me to a unique creative endeavor. It can do the same for you.

Peter Bernhardt, Author, The Stasi File: Opera and Espionage - A Deadly Combination; Quarter Finalist 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award; Amazon/Amazon Kindle; Sequel: Teya's Kiss. - - tweet @sedonawriter

Peter also shares these thoughts at