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

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Revisiting an Old Favorite

Earlier in the week I was considering several topics for this blog, and was about to settle on setting. This is something I consider crucial to a successful novel, a sense of the physical location as well as psychological space of the story and its characters. But I decided to abandon the idea after coming across two other blogs on the same topic. Both were well done, and I agreed with what both writers had to say. On a whim, however, I thought to look at one of my favorite writers and consider setting from her perspective.

In the 1970s I went through all of Agatha Christie’s books, including Sleeping Murder, the last Miss Marple, published just after her death in January 1976, and Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot mystery, published in 1975. I heard the news of Christie’s death in India, and her readers there were just as saddened as any in the UK. Since it has now been many years since I last read one of her books I have forgotten some of her standard techniques.

In Curtain, Christie approaches her story in a manner that is little used today in the traditional mystery. Even though the setting, Styles, a country house in Essex, is known from her first mystery and offers myriad opportunities for describing life in a country house in the modern era, Christie spends almost no time on this beyond telling us that Colonel and Mrs. Luttrell have bought the old place and turned it into a guest house. And they’re not doing very well at it either. The narrator, the hapless Hastings, tells us a lot about his sad state after the death of his wife and the launching of his four children, but little about the scenery.

Most of the novel is told in dialogue. If the author has to set a scene with characters showing up on the terrace or collecting drinks in the game room, she does it swiftly and efficiently. Her preference and great skill is letting us hear the suspects chatting away, noticing something and stumbling over their surprise, making a faux pas and trying to conceal it, or just behaving badly.

With her focus on dialogue and the behavior of her characters, Christie doesn’t waste time creating a mood or distracting the reader with descriptions of the copse below the house or the pub at the nearby village. The book is a scant 185 pages, and yet the mystery is one that keeps the reader guessing, with plenty of clues even though we don’t recognize them as such at the time.

Crime fiction has changed enormously since the 1970s, and I’m a fan of many of the newest books. But it’s a pleasure to return to an old favorite and find myself in such competent hands.

For more about Agatha Christie and her books, go here:

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