Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What We Give Up to Be Writers

Every now and then it occurs to me how much of my upbringing I've had to abandon in order to be a writer. This may sound like the beginning of a long tale about walking away from a cushy life to live in a crummy studio apartment paid for by a soul-killing job behind a store counter in order to have time to write. I have no such story.

When I say I had to give up parts of my "upbringing" I'm thinking about all the good manners my mother struggled to instill in me. I made it through childhood and adolescence by giving lip service to the basic rules--don't stare, don't eavesdrop, don't ask impertinent questions, don't give your unvarnished opinion even if asked. But as soon as the parent's back was turned, I followed my own rules.

The subway is a great place to pick up ideas for characters. Of course, this means sometimes getting a good look at strangers, even staring and following them out of the subway car. If I hear an unusual voice, I might try to engage the person in conversation, just to hear more of it.

Some of my best stories come from eavesdropping on other people's conversations. I used to work at a social service agency where I spent hours chatting with people who had lived through all sorts of extremes that had never come near to what I had experienced. I once listened to a man and a woman, seated outside my office door, talk about how differently discharges were handled at a man's prison and a woman's prison. (The men got a bus ride back into town, to the spot where they'd been first picked up; the women were given a bus or train ticket back to the city nearest to where they lived, and after that had to make their own way home.)

On another occasion I got to listen to a man explain to his caseworker why he couldn't avoid getting arrested repeatedly because the best corner for selling drugs was only one block from the elementary school. What was he supposed to do? Where else was he to go to conduct his business?

I once shared a table with a teenage girl and her mother, who was explaining precisely how she should behave in certain circumstances, advice certain to erase any sense of her daughter's individual identity. Restaurants are among the best places to pick up accents, fragments of conversation, and distinctive voices.

These moments, which violate good manners and proper behavior, bring us (or me at least) the first pulse of a story. I hear the voices and the attitudes, imagine the years of life not moving in the hoped-for direction, and the character I've been looking for steps onto the page, and I'm off and typing.

I do make one concession to my upbringing. I try not to be obvious about eavesdropping. I do try to let people have their privacy, even though I'm hanging on every word. After all, I wouldn't want to make them so uncomfortable that they'd stop talking. The loss, for me, would be incalculable.

To find the results of this improper behavior, go here:

Friday, December 29, 2017

Another year, another resolution?

The end of the year is a time of rituals—holidays to be celebrated, the turning of one year to another, reviewing last year’s resolutions and compiling a new list for the coming year. I began this post thinking that I too would have a list of resolutions for 2018, but then I paused. Why?

The list of resolutions for 2018 could write itself because I’m essentially the same person I was around this time last year and the year before and the many years before that. For me it’s all about writing. We grow and learn and change, but the core of who we are remains the same. I like to think I learn to be kinder in certain challenging situations, or that I have learned new diplomatic skills. Perhaps I have, perhaps not. But in a list of resolutions, which will revolve around writing, no one will glean all that happened in the previous year, and when I look back, what I feel is gratitude.

My husband faced a life-changing health scare three years ago, and he faced it as he faces everything—quietly, and with determination. Today he’s out walking the dog in zero degree weather (not in his usual shorts, though) and chatting with the neighbors. He used the snow blower on the driveway and I shoveled the walk and cleaned off the car.

I had what turned out to be a startling but not life-threatening health issue, and I’ve turned to doctors who listen to me, explain things carefully while looking at me (and not at their computer), answer questions, and let me make my own choices. I’m grateful for all of this, including my underlying good health.

In the last year I finished the first in a new series, my agent (yay, Paula!) found a publisher (Midnight Ink), and I’m working on the second in the series. When I think of this three-book contract, I hear F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous remark, “There are no second acts in American lives.” And I know he’s wrong. Almost every mystery writer I know has emerged from one or more rejections to write a new series, a second act as it were. Along with the new series I’m working on a series of short stories set in rural America based on ideas that have been rattling around in my head for some time.

There is much about this year that leaves me sad and frustrated and sometimes enraged, not the least of which is our government and its leader. But I’m grateful for my copy of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and for the many good citizens who work to uphold the rule of law.

This is what I’ll carry with me into the New Year—gratitude for all that I have, good work to look forward to, family and friends doing well, and a hope for a better future for our democracy. I'll skip the resolutions for this year.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Editing; or, Stages in Book Preparation

On October 14, 2017, libraries around the country celebrated Indie Author Day by sponsoring programs for independent authors. Libraries held panels, readings, workshops, and group signings. During an Indie Author Day at a community library, the librarian handed out a guide to different kinds of editing.

As a former freelance editor and ghostwriter I was interested in the way the guide described the levels of editing. Things have changed a great deal since I was freelancing, but I question the divisions and descriptions, largely because they don’t match up with what freelancers were expected to do prior to POD and self-publishing. For my own peace of mind, I want to describe the breakdown for the stages of book preparation.

Before self-publishing, writers who wanted to write and publish went through traditional channels to reach an acquisitions editor. If the manuscript was written but not finished, which was often the case with nonfiction and less so with fiction, the editor might accept the ms provisionally while the writer worked on substantive issues, or the ms was handed off to an editor for developmental editing. The latter was often the case with textbooks and with ms by people who were not writers but professionals in their field.

Developmental editing for nonfiction involves fleshing out ideas, working through and rounding out discussions, reorganizing and sometimes adding material that is logically necessary to the text, and making sure the arguments presented make sense for the whole. This is where ghostwriters come in, and some earn a very good living finishing books for other people. In fiction, the developmental editor might suggest adding a scene, combining characters, increasing tension in certain scenes, or clarifying a subplot.

When the ms was completed, it might be passed along to a fact checker. These are often librarians who can take the time to do the work of checking facts in addition to their own duties. At a private library where I often did research, some of the assistant librarians were regularly engaged in a fact-checking job, and had to track down unusual or interesting details. The publisher pays for this in important nonfiction work such as a biography by an important historical figure by a well-known author.

After developmental editing, which the author must approve, the editor managing the progress of the ms sends it along for copyediting. This is where a lot of confusion comes in. What exactly is copyediting? When I began freelancing for university presses as well as trade houses, copyediting was everything covered in the Chicago Manual of Style. If you have seen the reference book, you know exactly what that means. Copyediting covers a lot. Yes, it covers spelling, punctuation, and grammar, as well as the specific style chosen for the book (AP, MLA, a specific university press style, or any other style).

In the simplest nonfiction ms, this means editing the bibliography, the notes, and the text, in that order, and making sure all relate appropriately. (Footnotes have a tendency to drift away from their anchor, landing in the middle of a paragraph where they are confusing rather than elucidating.)

Because of the technical aspects of university press publications, editors must rely on experts in various fields, such as mathematics or chemistry, to edit technical work. A good copyeditor in her chosen field learns to recognize something that sounds off and will either check it herself or call attention to it. If the author remarks that the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington State occurred almost exactly 100 years to the day after the explosion in Krakatoa, the copyeditor can easily check that. (No, they are not so related. Krakatoa erupted in 1883, and the other one in 1980.) But if she is unsure, she can tag it for the author. But she cannot miss the correct styling of the names. Mount Saint Helens? No. The correct form is Mount St. Helens. The editor must know how to style signs, lakes, artwork, plays and poems, and anything else that appears in letters.

Proofreading is sometimes mixed in with copyediting, but this is a different function tied to print, the version that is going to be checked and then bound and sold to bookstores. The purpose of the proofreader is to make certain that everything that was approved in the final copyedited ms appears in that form in the proof copy. If it is not there, the proofreader marks it to be inserted. If the author discovers an error that can be corrected without undue changes, she notifies the editor. Writers are warned not to start rewriting the book at this point. It’s done. Leave it alone.

Proofreaders are not perfect, as editors are not. The easiest way to discover if errors have crept in and not been corrected is to read the index (if there is one—a disappearing feature of books). Sometimes a reader will find two versions of a proper name listed in the index because the copyeditor failed to notice one of them was different, failed to query the author, or the author failed to answer the query. By the time the index is done, it’s too late. Some things you just have to live with.

These divisions are straightforward and logical. A writer who wants more help with developing the story or theme remains in developmental or substantive editing until she has a version she is happy with. Copyediting is a final polish, a way to catch minor errors (and, one hopes, not big glaring ones). The proofreader makes sure the entire ms is correctly transferred into the form available to buyers.

Self-publishing and POD services have changed publishing dramatically, but the process from first draft to final form should still follow a logical path to ensure the final result is as near perfect as possible. Yes, I’m a bit fussy about this. But the reader will appreciate the writer’s and editor’s careful work.

To find more of my work, go to

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Social Media Quandary

When I sold my first mystery, back in the early 1990s, not a lot was expected of me in terms of promotion. But I had a good friend who thought arranging a book tour might be fun, and she did so, lining up newspaper and radio interviews, bookstore visits, writers’ workshops, and more. It was a fabulous experience, not to be repeated.

Now, when a new book is launched, I, like many other writers, am expected to set up blog tours, FB giveaways, and newsletters. I might be given 20 or 40 ARCs (advance review copies) to send out to reviewers already known or perhaps new to me. I might find some through Goodreads or LibraryThing, or perhaps WattPad or The Reading Room. At the end of these reader contests, I get to carry piles of books down to the post office and mail them off. The goal is reviews posted on GR or Amazon and, we hope, advance orders.

This part takes work and planning. But through all of this I might never meet a reader face to face, or hear any of her opinions. Readers aren’t always inclined to post reviews. They might be happy enough to tell a friend or family member about the book they just enjoyed reading. I think this is sad. I want to know what my readers are thinking, what they liked or enjoyed or were surprised at. Further, watching someone talk, and listening to the voice and observing body language, is infinitely more engaging that reading something typed on FB or Goodreads. The choice of doing book events in brick and mortar bookstores, of course, is still available, but no longer an automatic first choice.

I’m pondering this situation now because this past week I read several posts about the most effective use of—of what? Should writers focus on their blogs? Should we get off FB and write? Should writers develop an interactive website? What about Instagram? And is anyone still using Pinterest? What bout Tumblr? What about newsletters? And what about Goodreads? What bout Twitter?

More than ten years ago I listened to a young editor explain why blogs were passe. I’ve forgotten his reasons but I didn’t even have a blog then. I do now. I’m not as faithful with it as some other writers in the mystery community, but I’m mostly faithful to a weekly post. And to my surprise, I enjoyed doing blog tours to promote the Anita Ray mysteries.

My web maven died almost a year ago and I finally built a website on my own. It seems to work—people have contacted me through it, which I take as a good sign. I post reviews on Goodreads, and play around with Pinterest. And yes, I show up on FB regularly. I occasionally do book talks, but mostly I stay home and write.

As I look back over the many options I’ve listed (and more I barely know about), I still don’t know which ones I as a writer should use and which I should skip. And, further, I no longer think that’s the question. As a writer I have options today that didn’t exist when I started out. None of us (outside of the IT world) could have anticipated what was coming. And I never thought the new online world would come close to replacing the face-to-face hand selling of books.

The sheer number of options means we have to make choices. I don’t think the answer is for all of us in the writing community to give up blogs and focus solely on a website; or drop Pinterest and only use Instagram.

I think the answer is for each of us to pick the options we enjoy and are most comfortable with, the ones we think of first when we have news to share or an idea to explore. But most importantly, I think no one, myself included, should become attached to any one approach, not with the now constant change in the cyberworld. I’ll enjoy what I can while I can, and then I’ll try something new.

Susan Oleksiw @susanoleksiw