Mindfulness and the B Word

iStock_000006823591XSmallIt’s alarming enough to have something growing on your body that’s not supposed to be there without the added joys of waiting for a professional to tell you what it is and what should be done about it.

Several times in my life, these stowaways have required a biopsy. So far, most have been benign or at least precancerous, and they were handily dispatched. Right now I’m wearing a bandage on my left temple while a recent removal is healing. It’s benign, which is one of my favorite b-words.

But don’t fret—I’m not here to get all TMI about icky skin things.

It was the wait that got me thinking.

I’m sure it’s not intentional on the part of the office staff to leave me hanging overnight to call about test results in the morning. Not the first time that’s happened, either. But there I was, alone in the house with a message I couldn’t return, an answer I didn’t have.

I did the human thing for a few minutes and worried. What if I wasn’t lucky this time? I’m from a family of fair-skinned people who have dermatologists on speed-dial. What if it required more treatment, more cutting, more money I didn’t have?

And then it hit me.

I’m alone in the house. My husband works from home. I’m almost NEVER alone in the house. And there I was, wasting that precious time and energy with worry about something I couldn’t control. Something I didn’t know. Something I couldn’t, at that moment, know, unless I felt like getting my stalker on and paying a visit to the dermatologist’s office, and perhaps the local jail.

I smiled.

Then I bopped around the house doing my bad Annie Lennox impression, had a conversation with a few of my characters to work out a few of their issues, then sat down to edit for the rest of the evening, without a thought that my style of reading aloud would bother anyone.

If I’d spent that evening coiled like a spring, regardless of the test results, I’d have regretted it. Learned from it, maybe, but regretted it.

Score one for living in the moment and not letting the worry win.

The Editing Myth

dreamstime_14649214On Indies Unlimited: Food for thought by Melissa Bowersock about her experience with being edited (or not, actually) by traditional publishers versus the editorial control she has as an indie author.

Although for most authors, I recommend hiring a professional editor, at the minimum, get your manuscript in front of beta readers who can give you honest, thorough critiques and fresh eyes to catch errors. As Martin Crosbie has frequently written in his posts and in his book, How I Sold 30,000 eBooks on Amazon’s Kindle: An Easy-To-Follow Self-Publishing Guidebook, we indie authors have a larger target on our backs than traditionally published authors. Therefore it’s up to us to ensure that we’re producing the best quality product that we can.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

How Writing 200 Install Sheets Improved My Editing

IdeaMany years back, I worked in the marketing department of a lighting manufacturer that asked us to create installation instructions for each of their 200-and-some products. It was challenging to translate from engineer-speak into English and to get all parties on the company-wide team to agree on the simplest of concepts, but we did it.

In the process, which took many drafts, many months, and many cups of coffee, I sharpened my editing skills. Here’s what I learned:

Be Clear. There is not much worse than being atop a ladder with half a light fixture in one hand, a screwdriver in the other, and installation instructions that read like they’ve been translated into Norwegian, and then into Mandarin Chinese, and then back into English. If it’s impossible to install this fixture any other way than to assemble the whole shebang on the ground and attach it to the ceiling with the help of three other guys and some duct tape, say so. Or you may never get a second order from this customer, because you’ve made him squander valuable union contractor time and money taking the #$@$% thing out of the ceiling and reassembling it.

 Be Concise. Contractors don’t have time to parse out flabby language. Say you write, “In order to properly install the battery pack onto the frame, make sure you have selected the correct screwdriver, which should be a #5 flat head screwdriver.” Not only is this an eyeful to read, it’s insulting. Of course a competent contractor would install something properly. So this sentence becomes, “Attach the battery pack to the frame using a #5 flat head screwdriver.” Done.

Be Accurate. Check all your facts before the boxes leave the warehouse. When a customer has a hundred fixtures on site is not a good time to discover you’ve neglected to include (let alone write) programming instructions for the whiz-bang remote that controls the dimming on all of them. Or that you’ve told them to use the wrong screwdriver to install the wrong widget. Know your widgets, people!

Be Compact. Anyone who writes has probably been told showing is better than telling. It’s the same for installation instructions. If Steps 4, 5 and 6 require a clear diagram, you’ll have less room for text. Carve those unnecessary words from the text, and you can make the visuals even bigger.

Know Your Audience. An install sheet for a licensed electrical contractor reads very differently than one designed for a residential customer. Just as you’d never assume the average homeowner knows how to install something “according to local code,” don’t tell the contractor to screw in the “light bulbs.” These, in non-residential land, are called “lamps.” Bulbs, they say, grow in the ground. You will be laughed at and made to buy the coffee and donuts.

Consider Industry Standards. Construction codes and legal liability dictated that we include certain things on our install sheets, like a UL logo and this line: “Read all instructions before installation.” (Even though probably 75% of contractors use installation instructions as nothing more than a placemat for the coffee and donuts you bought them.) Similarly, consider your publisher’s standards or website requirements before you submit. Or else you could end up doing the literary equivalent of disassembling a hundred-pound light fixture on the floor and possibly losing a few widgets down the heating vents.

Have you picked up tips in any unexpected places for the work you do?

(Note: This post appeared on a different blog in a slightly different form in December, 2010.)

When You Have Editorial Differences

This post on Behler Blog today is so spot-on that I wanted to share it with you. Although the example is based on releasing your manuscript to a publisher and working with the publisher’s editor(s), this applies to self-published authors as well. Trust and communication is vital for both author and editor. You both have a common goal: make the best possible product for potential readers. Yes, readers. This is one big reason why we make books, yes? Anyway. I’m interested in your thoughts.

When You Have Editorial Differences.

So Long, 2012, and Thanks for All the Fish…

happy-new-yearLoss, love, joy, grief, rebirth, pain, triumph: it’s been a rich and melancholic salad of a year for me. That canard of ancient wisdom, “Be careful what you wish for,” is definitely not one to toy with. For a while there, every shiny penny on the sidewalk, it seemed, came with a foot waiting to stomp on my hand as I reached for it.

My professional goals (Thank you, Jim Devitt, for reminding me of the importance of goal-setting) for this year were to publish two novels and continue building up my editing business. I’ve accomplished both. I’m very happy about that. Drawing Breath and Don’t Tell Anyone are both out. I’m helping some wonderful writers get their manuscripts ready for publication. Took me almost fifty years, but I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to do when I grow up. Being up to my elbows in words—my words and those of other’s—is definitely my happy place.

But this year, two additional books came out with my name attached to them as contributing author: Indies Unlimited’s Author’s Snarkopaedia Volume 1 and Indies Unlimited: Tutorials and Tools for Prospering in a Digital World. This would not be possible without the passion and dedication of Stephen Hise and K.S. Brooks, the evil geniuses behind Indies Unlimited. I sit in a little pink room filled with toys in a house in the woods, typing on a keyboard, a recluse by nature, and at times this gets isolating and a bit sad. Being a part of IU and having a virtual extended family of kindred spirits across the Interwebs gives me great joy and at times so much laughter I spit tea across the keyboard. I have actually pulled muscles from laughing. It’s much more entertaining to go to the chiropractor with a good story of how I hurt myself, rather than the usual snow-shoveling or long-car-ride excuse. I do like to be considerate of my healthcare professionals whenever possible. They want funny stories to tell people at parties, too.

So thank you to you all for supporting my writing, for sharing it with your friends, and for trusting me with your work and your words.

However 2012 has treated you, whether you’re gazing fondly in the rearview mirror or bidding it off with glee while saying, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out,” I hope 2013 is bursting with health, peace, love, happiness, and prosperity, in whatever form that means to you.

Onward!

So You Want To E-Pub Your Novel?

You’ve finished writing your novel, your baby, your joy, your passion, and you’re considering self-publishing as an e-book. Why not, with nearly everyone you know toting around a Kindle or Nook or planning to get one? It’s awfully tempting to tap into that market, get your book out faster to your eager readers, and maintain more creative and financial control than with traditional publishing. But before you send that document to the digital arena, here are a few things to consider:

1. Editing. You are a professional, right? If you were to submit your manuscript to a literary agent or a publisher, you would present the best possible version, yes? Why approach this concept any differently because you’re self-publishing? You can edit your own work, to some extent, although a second opinion may do a better job. Can’t afford a professional? Find another aspiring writer and offer to swap. You’d be surprised what an objective eye can find. Until I employed a professional for the first novel I tried to sell, I had no idea that I’d started my story in the wrong place, had left a few plot threads untied, and had a character or two who could have been easily cut.

2. Proofreading. Ditto points from #1. For your own credibility, try not to do this yourself. After three or four read-throughs, even the best of us start missing little and big mistakes. If you don’t have the budget for a professional proofreader (often NOT the same person who did the editing), find a fellow writer with an eye for detail and propose a swap, or offer to barter for other skills. Just because you can pull down your e-book, revise, and republish rather handily, don’t let that ease make you lazy. Unedited, typo-strewn copies could already be out there, damaging your reputation.

3. Formatting. This can be a HUGE pitfall for the aspiring e-novelist. If you opt for the traditional publishing route, even if that publisher puts your novel out as an e-book, they are responsible for formatting. That means, for instance, new chapters start on a new page, paragraphs are properly indented, time/space breaks are properly spaced, symbols and punctuation are represented accurately, and your table of contents (if you have one) gets linked up correctly. You may be accustomed to checking for typos and grammatical errors, but how many writers think about formatting? (Well, me, but a background in graphic design will do that to a person.) Over several hundred pages of manuscript, formatting can get complicated. And worse, different platforms have different rules. Mess this up, and your e-book can become an irritating read. Fortunately, most of the major platforms know this. Amazon has a decent tutorial. Smashwords will even let you download a free e-book on how to format your manuscript to be compatible with their word-cruncher-uploader-doohickie that spits out proper file formats for different devices. Again, you can go through the learning curve if you feel inspired, or if you’d rather focus your energy elsewhere, outsource it.

4. Cover design. A cover alone may not sell a book, but a good one definitely helps. A dull design can get you passed over, and an inappropriate design might make a reader feel deceived. Again, here’s a place where you’ll want a professional. You definitely get what you pay for in this department.

5. Title. Consider your working title. Because you know your traditional publisher will. Does it suit the work? Is it too commonly used? Ask your writing and reading friends what they think of your intended title. Also, try Googling it. You can’t copyright a title, but you can make sure it’s not already in use for a book in your genre.

6. Read the fine print. Know what you’re getting into before you publish. Some platforms reserve the right to yank your content if they don’t think it’s “fit” for public consumption. Some reserve the right to re-price it at their discretion, or even offer it for free during certain promotions.

Finally, be prepared to market your ass off. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Are you planning to e-book it? Already a pro? Let’s talk…

(Photo courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti)

Why You Should NEVER Trust Your Spell-Checker

It’s all Maria Mariana’s fault. She was one in a group of six linguists from Georgetown University who, back in the 70s, first developed an automated way to check spelling and grammar on word processing programs for IBM. Perhaps, though, she meant well. Thought it would be a good thing to create this seductive monster that can batch-attack the often time-consuming and ponderous human task of checking one’s work for errors.

Backfire, Maria. Semi-total epic FAIL! Spell-check has made us lazy. It has lulled us into a false sense of security with its offers to change your grammar or correct that questionable word. We all have stories of spell-checking failure, some with embarrassing and humorous results. Here are a few more reasons you should never trust that pathetic plug-in with your important work.

1. Spell-checkers are notoriously obtuse. Consider the following passage:

My physical therapist worked out a weight-bearing routine for me that stimulates my osteoblasts, which are the cells that build new bone.

The spelling and grammar checker in my version of Microsoft Word wants to replace “stimulate” for “stimulates.” It believes that the subject that is being stimulated is plural…actually, I have no plucking idea what it believes. It’s just wrong.

2. Spell-checkers can’t parse your intentions. Like this one:

“Pete’s working again.”

Spell-check suggestions for this alleged error in “subject-verb agreement” include “Pete’s is working” or “Pete’s was working.” The writer’s intention was to state that Pete is once again gainfully employed. But good old SC doesn’t know this, and assumes that something of Pete’s is now or formerly was functional.

3. Spell-checkers can’t find missing words. “Ted raced the sink” has a rather different meaning than “Ted raced to the sink.” In a long document, particularly one you’ve been poring over draft after draft, your brain will supply the missing word. So, you may miss it in the proofreading and lead your readers to believe Ted has been imbibing and sincerely believes he and the sink are in competition.

4. Spell-checkers can auto-correct you into situations in which you do not want to be auto-corrected. A former colleague, who normally relied upon his assistant to correct and send out his correspondence, decided to give her a break and take care of some of his own. In an e-mail that went out to the entire sales staff, he intended to ask for their opinions on a new sales program. He ended with, “I look forward to seeing your evaluation.” Only, because of his less-than-stellar keyboarding skills, his spell-check program decided he meant to type “ejaculation.” Yeah. It went out that way.

5. Spell-checkers won’t tell you if your formatting is inconsistent. This is one reason why you should never abandon something as format-dependent as your resume solely to the eye-chips of your computer program. It won’t tell you that you’ve ended some bullet-text items with periods and left them off others. It won’t tell you a heading is in the wrong font or tabbed in too far. These sorts of things are CRUCIAL to swing by your own eyeballs, especially if the job you desire has anything to do with attention to detail.

6. Spell-checkers don’t measure up to humans…at least not yet. Flawed as we are, we’re still better than machines at certain tasks, like knowing what we meant to say. Don’t have time to proofread or can’t tell if your participles are dangling? Hire a human.

Have any good spell-checking horror stories?

How to Love Editing Your Novel, Part Two

So, you’ve let your first draft compost for however long your brain needs to gain some emotional distance from it. Now the hard stuff begins. Many writers, myself included, get so caught up in the creative phase of writing that when we need to put our editor hats on, it feels like a poor fit.

But I had to teach myself to love revising. Fortunately, I love puzzles and challenges, so I transferred that skill set over to my editing. What I also find important is to draw the distinction between creating and editing. Albert Einstein once said that you can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it. The writer mind is interested in creation and doesn’t want to revise, not one lovely adjective of it. The editor mind slashes things up with a red pen. To make it easier to get to that place, you may want to try some of these techniques.

Note: Everyone’s got a different style of working, and your actual mileage may vary. So I can’t presume that this series of suggestions is anything more than that. But it works for me. If you’re having trouble getting started editing a manuscript, maybe this is something you’ll want to try.

1. Read a printed copy of your manuscript all the way through. Some people are very handy with tracking comments in their Word documents, but I need to have paper in front of me so I can scribble all over it and see everything all at once. Incorporate any notes you might have gotten from writing group members or critique partners. Jot down anything that comes to mind as you read-research needed, facts to be checked, or inconsistencies. This is the working manual of your manuscript. Keeping everything in one place goes a long way toward preventing squirrel brain. This is also the playground of anyone who loves scrapbooking, colored markers and those little bitty fluorescent sticky notes. Go to town. Don’t stress about catching every single dangling modifier or misplaced comma. That’s why we do subsequent drafts.

2. Either on a series of index cards or on a computer document, summarize the content of each scene or chapter. This has several purposes. It will help you put everything in the order that’s correct for the book. It will help you cut unnecessary scenes. And it will help you write the dreaded synopsis that agents and publishers want to see when you start shopping your manuscript around.

3. Look for the missing threads. Perhaps you’ve dropped a subplot line or have a character just hanging around with no particular purpose. Using a chart like this one can help you find major problems in the plot.

4. Modify your plot summary (index cards or otherwise) based on the information you gathered from #3. Make note of any new scenes you’ll need to write, secondary characters that either need development or need to be shown the door.

5. Fact-check and research items that came up from the reading.

6. Write the next draft. Writers have differing opinions (imagine that!) about how this should be done. But I took a tip from another novelist and found that it works for me. In the early drafts, I retype the entire shebang. Yeah, I know. That’s a lot of keystrokes. But an interesting thing happened while I was doing that, besides developing a wicked case of carpal tunnel syndrome-just kidding, it was tendonitis. I was able to divorce myself from what I had already written and could more easily make the drastic changes that were necessary. There’s something about a computer document that seems so “finished” that we don’t want to tear it up, if that’s what’s needed.

7. Set aside to compost until you’re ready to work on the next draft.

8.  Repeat steps 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7 (updating your plot summary and character chart is necessary) until done.

But how do you know when you’re done? Ah, my friends, that’s a question for another blog.

So how do you and editing get along? Are you eager and ready with a red pen? Or does the whole process make you want to start writing another book instead?

How to Love Editing Your Novel, Step One

Over ten years ago, a close friend died from cystic fibrosis. The courage with which he conducted his life, doing all the things he loved, touched me deeply. I wanted to honor his memory by writing him into my next novel. After I completed two drafts of this story (my writing group offering encouragement along the way), I showed it to my husband. Some writers would rather subject themselves to Charlie Sheen’s bayonet arms or eat a Madagascar hissing cockroach than share an early draft of their novel with their spouse. But I trust Hub’s instincts and he’s given me some very good feedback.

On this project, however, what he said stopped me cold. “You’re too close to the subject,” he said. He elaborated that because I had elevated our friend to hero status, I didn’t allow for the character to have any flaws, which made the story less realistic.

I haven’t touched it since.

I know someday I will get back to it. It’s a good story with fascinating characters. But as a younger writer, comments like this made me wish I’d gone to nursing school like my mother always wanted.

As the days following his critique stretched forward, and that manuscript composted in my closet, I kept wondering when I would attain enough emotional distance, not just to make this character multidimensional, but to start the revision process in general. A week? A month? A year?

The answer is, as with so many other things in life, it depends. Some people are ready to go into the next draft right after typing “the end” on the last one. Some people take longer. For me, it depends how excited I am about the story. The Joke’s on Me, which is coming out this summer, was one of those stories. I could hardly wait to start revising each time I neared the completion of a draft. But some stories have plodded on, and I put them aside to work on more exciting things.

You might find, though, setting your first draft aside for a short time (at least a couple of weeks to a month) to be helpful in gaining perspective. If you jump back into it right away, you run the risk of what I call “story saturation.” You will read this manuscript so many times during its lifespan that you may stop seeing the words. Even if you’ve gone through six, seven, eight drafts before you pronounce it ready to shop around, you will go through even more with your agent, your publisher and their editors. I lost track of how many times I’ve read The Joke’s on Me during its various iterations. Multiple readings without a break increases your risk of typos, grammatical errors, missing words, dangling plot lines, unnatural dialogue, and all of the other demons we massage out of our manuscripts.

So what’s your style? Plow ahead or let it compost?

Keeping A Reader’s Trust: It’s All In The Details

I am a detail person. Others define this as a “picky pain in the ass.” But I see it as a positive attribute. It’s important to have a detail person on your side, someone who will find your errors before your readers do. For every Captain Picard there must be a Wesley Crusher, saying why the First Officer’s suggested fix for the wonky warp drive will lead to disaster. For every emperor strutting about in his invisible finery, there must be someone to say he’s got no clothes. And every writer should have another set of eyes on his or her work, particularly a sharp set of eyes belonging to someone who isn’t your spouse or your brother, unless that person can give you the dead-nuts truth. A sharp set of eyes may prevent the following small, but significant errors like:

1.  The dreaded anachronism. This is devilishly hard for people who write historical fiction. Especially those who write stories set in recent decades that many readers might have lived through. I once read a manuscript set in the early 70s (yes, sadly, in our age of immediate gratification this is considered historical fiction) in which a character was drinking a Diet Coke. No. No, no, no, no, no. I am a recovering diet soda addict. I know my products. Diet Coke did not come on the market until 1982. This character would be drinking Tab. Yes, it’s a small, picky pain in the ass thing, but if a reader catches it, this can compromise not only his or her experience but your credibility, too. Do your research. Even for the small things.

2. The location flub. That old bit of writing advice, “write what you know,” is sometimes correct. I don’t put total faith in it, otherwise, where would science fiction and fantasy come from? But if a scene in your book takes place somewhere you’ve never been, particularly if this is a well-known location in that area, learn all you can about it. In the best of all possible worlds, you would go there and take a walk around, absorbing all the details from the sights and smells to the sound and the fury. Then you would know, for example, that the Poughkeepsie train station (see photo), is on the National Register of Historic Places, has been maintained in its original, 1918 style, with wooden benches, and gives off a particular smell that’s somewhere between wet wood and old urine. It would not contain rows of blue plastic seating, as one novelist has described. Since I live near Poughkeepsie and have been to that station many, many times, hearing that novelist’s description made her a much less reliable narrator in my eyes.

3. Why is that character wearing a down coat in the middle of summer? This happens to me at times, especially after multiple drafts of a novel. Playing switcheroo with scenes can often mean little details get ignored. Watch for consistency. If you moved the pivotal argument scene between the protagonist and antagonist from an outdoor skating rink in winter to the protagonist’s cabin in Ecuador, she’s going to be awfully warm in that coat.

Have you come across anything in a novel that’s left you scratching your head? If you write, what do you do to make sure some picky pain in the ass won’t write you a letter about your protagonist’s choice of beverage?