Category Archives: Writing Resources

A Q&A with Ghostwriting Aficionado Claudia Suzanne

If you ask ghostwriting guru Claudia Suzanne, 8 in 10 people in America alone dream of one day writing a book.

But, a fraction of that number will have the fortitude and resources to make it a reality, and even fewer possess the writing skills to translate their vision into a compelling and commercially viable book. Suzanne has spent her career helping make those dreams come true.

“That has been my personal mission for decades now – to raise the literacy bar of the industry one author at a time,” says Suzanne.

Suzanne has poured all she has learned over three decades as a successful ghostwriter into the first professional ghostwriting designation program offered in the world. The 10-month program—taught virtually through California State University, Long Beach’s College of Continuing and Professional Education—has attracted students from around the world.

She also birthed a new venture, Wambtac Ghostwriters, with some of her best graduates to give authors risk-free ghostwriting services. Her innovative model allows an author client to have two ghostwriters and a team of experts for the price of one. The ghostwriter receives support from Suzanne and other mentors, allowing them to grow their skills throughout the project and ensure a successful outcome and a delighted client.

This January Suzanne will release the 5th edition of her signature book, This Business of Books: A Complete Overview of the Industry from Concept through Sales, which has been used in colleges, translated into Chinese, and carried in major libraries worldwide.

Suzanne, who tackles the craft of deconstructing books in the same way her father approached engineering problems, shares her unique perspective on the craft of ghostwriting, the book industry, and what writers thinking about moving into this field need to know.

Q. How is ghostwriting different than other writing disciplines?

Suzanne: It’s very different. When you are writing under your own name and you’re writing your own material, even if you are writing for a client, it’s very personal and very ego-involved. It’s all about you doing your best job to get the job done in your vision. You are conforming to the perimeters, but it’s still your vision.

When you ghostwrite, that goes out the window. Ghostwriting is all about the author’s vision—and you are not the author. You’re merely the person who makes the author’s vision work.

In order to write someone else’s vision, you first have to deconstruct what they created because oftentimes, what a person expresses verbally is generic and general. So step one is to figure out the gold of their material so you, the ghost, can craft something the author will be proud of.

Deconstruction requires an entirely different set of skills than most writers learn in school, or even over the course of their careers. It’s not the same thing as going to an English class and saying, “Let’s figure out what the author is trying to say.”

The next step is to uncover the problems that might keep the book from being successful and remedy those issues without overtly changing what the author’s vision. And, of course, we have to do it all in the author’s voice, tone, and flavor.

When we’re done, we get paid, and the author is very, it’s a win-win all around.

Q. How well understood is ghostwriting as a specialized writing craft?

Suzanne: A lot of people hanging out their “ghostwriter” shingles ghostwriter really don’t understand the depth of the process. They figure if they know how to write and have been successful in their own writing career, that’s all it really takes. They rely on their writer’s methodology because they don’t know the difference between it and the ghostwriter’s methodology.

I’ve dealt with authors who say the final book of their book doesn’t sound like them, or that the writer changed their vision/voice/style. They feel they’ve been cheated somehow, and are confused because they know the person they hired it a good writer—possibly even a bestselling author themselves!

Part of our mission is to educate not only the public, but the writing community-at-large about the differences between writing and ghostwriting. What we old-timers used to do instinctively doesn’t necessarily play anymore. Too many aspiring authors need help.

Q. Obviously, not every writer is cut out for this. What qualities does it take to be a successful ghostwriter?

Suzanne: Oh, I have a whole long list about that, and it starts with having a strong enough ego to not have to put your name on someone else’s book. You need to be a good writer and editor, of course, but even more, you need to be open to working with writing that may not be up to your personal standards.

It’s important that you feeling a calling to write, but it’s equally important that you not be a prolific author. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But writers who have a lot to say and know exactly how they want to say it often have trouble putting someone else’s vision above their own.

Q. What common mistakes do new ghostwriters make?

Suzanne: They don’t know how to price themselves; they don’t know how to close the deal; they don’t know how to make the client happy; they don’t know how to maintain the author’s vision, perspective and intent. They only know how to write in the client’s voice, so they make the book over in their own image.

In fact, one of my students was a New York Times’ bestselling novelist who had won many literary awards. People kept asking her to write books for them and she was writing them and getting them published, but the people were never happy. The referrals just dried up. We got into deconstruction, where we figure figuring out what the author’s intent is and how to make the manuscript work without impacting its fundamental weave, and she called me. She said, “I know what I’m doing wrong! I keep writing my clients’ books as if they were my own!”

That, in a nutshell, is the most common mistake writers make.

Q. I’ve read that you often describe ghostwriting as ‘recession proof.’ What do you mean by that?

Suzanne: We have about 300 million people in the United States, according to the latest Census data. According to a publisher in the Midwest, about 81% of the American public wants to write a book or feels they have a book in them. That’s approximately 200 million Americans. Let’s say 10% of those 200 million are really serious about it and looking for help. And then let’s say 10% of them can actually afford legitimate ghostwriting fees, which start around $35,000. That’s 10% of 20 million, or two million. So, two million people every single year in America alone not only want to write a book, but also are serious about writing a book and have the wherewithal to hire a ghostwriter.

Let’s also say, for the sake of argument, that there are maybe 200 legitimate, competent ghostwriters out there, and that each one can do three projects a year. That means the ghostwriter is making at least $100,000 per year from 600 people who are being helped. That leaves 2,999,400 people who aren’t getting helped every year.

It’s a huge market. And, that’s just in America—and it’s not counting the people outside the United States or those who want to be coached through writing the book themselves. There is a lot of work out there. It’s all the same methodology.

Q. Your professional designation program at California State Long Beach has evolved quite a bit. Can you describe how you have grown and evolved the program?

Suzanne: It started as a 7 week class, and my students left with their eyes rolling in the back of their heads. I expanded it into 15-week course of study, which grew to two-semesters once we went into CSULB. Now we have a solid 10-month professional designation program. Some students say it’s more intense than what they had to do to earn their master’s degree.

But that’s because people think, “Hey, I’ve got an MFA, or an English degree, or a PhD in English Lit and have been writing for years. I I can take this and expand my knowledge a little bit.” It doesn’t work that way. There isn’t much in this course that building on what we all learned in high school and college. In fact, people have to unlearn some stuff so they can absorb all these new techniques nobody else ever introduced them to. So, like all new life skills, first it’s a challenge, then it becomes practiced, and finally it turns into second nature.

We use at least two teaching assistants at all times because the class is so dense and demanding, and we all make ourselves available to our students constantly. There are no set office hours. You can email or call at any time, and we will help you figure it out. Our sole purpose in doing this program is to launch new careers.

Q. You also launched a new company to serve the ghostwriting market.

Suzanne: Yes, Wambtac Ghostwriters, which is staffed exclusively with certified ghostwriters. It’s a win-win: the client gets a team of ghostwriters and support people for the price of one, and the certified ghost gets support and an ear to bounce off of throughout the project. We have analysts to help make sure everything is on course, and we have in-house editors and proofreaders. We also are affiliated with a self-publishing service that will walk the client through the publishing process one step at a time.

We have no agenda as far as publishing is concerned. If the author wants to go to a self-publishing outfit, fine. If they want to go to a traditional publisher, we will help them put together those submission materials and find an agent to get there. Everything is a project-by-project situation because every book and every author is different.

Q. You have a new edition of This Business of Books coming out in January. What kind of new content will people find?

Suzanne: It’s a complete overview of today’s book industry from concept to sales. The opening chapter discusses how the book industry is a risk-management business, and how to mitigate that risk is woven throughout the rest of the text.

This is the fifth edition of the title, and the first time I’ve gone so deeply into the ins-and-outs of the industry. It covers close to everything—I’m sure I left something out!—including literary scouts; what authors need to be aware as they try to market their book; the real differences between a first and second draft; and the difference between market and audience. It delves into that a great deal. It also explains how to figure out what a book’s market is and how to extrapolate the audience from that. And it talks about the book-industry supply chain in much bigger depth than previous editions.

Q. Can you share your top ghostwriting best practices?

Suzanne: Here are my five rules of ghostwriting –

  • Rule #1: Make the client happy.
  • Rule #2: Get paid. Ghostwriters don’t work on spec. This is a profession.
  • Rule #3: It’s not my book. That’s very, very important. If a ghostwriter can’t immerse themselves in that concept, they probably won’t make the client happy.
  • Rule #4: Never quote before your read. Look at the manuscript first, or explore the unwritten concept as deeply as possible. Analyze. Extrapolate. Project.
  • Rule #5: Always analyze for the positive – look for the really great stuff in the manuscript first, because it needs to be sacrosanct. Anybody can find the problems. Ghostwriters know how to deconstruct to find the gold.

___________________

About Claudia Suzanne

Claudia Suzanne, a former rock ‘n roll drummer, sold her first book, For Musicians Only, to Watson-Guptil (Billboard Books) in 1988 and promptly embarked on a career as a ghostwriter. Today, she has ghosted over 154  titles including tracked bestsellers, hi-volume-sales titles, peer-reviewed works, award-winning novels, and memoirs optioned for film. Spearheading the movement to elevate and advance ghostwriting, she penned the “seminal textbook” on the subject, teaches the only ghostwriter-training program in the world, and founded Wambtac Ghostwriters, a collaborative ghostwriting service. Wambtac also offers a referral program – anyone who introduces a potential author client and it results in a ghostwriting book contract earns 2% of the manuscript contract.

To learn more about Suzanne and her company, visit http://wambtac.com/. Read more about the Ghostwriting Professional Designation Program at California State University – Long Beach.

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A Day of Renewal, New Friendships & Writing Connections

 

HeronHouseMainImage

Heron House in Mountain Park.

Counting my blessings today.  My book, Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide, went to press today and I should have plenty of copies for my Feb. 21 book launch party.

Writing Group

I also met with a great group of women as we kicked off a new Writer’s Group. Heron House, a nearby venue, in Mountain Park, is  a 501-c3 non-profit center for sacred studies nestled in a wildlife refuge on the dam between Lake Cheerful and Lake Garrett in the City of Mountain Park. Upon walking into the space it immediately feels restful and spiritual, and definitely lives up to its name as a “Sacred Earth Sanctuary.” 

This is just the setting I’ve been hoping for to return to writing and editing my debut historical novel, Torrential.  I’ve missed immersing myself in my characters, including Kieran, a traumatized Irish sailor who must confront his past when a massive flood threatens his life and those he cares about.

My group includes old friends Mari Ann and Carolyn, who I’ve known from our writing group days HeronHouseDoorEngravingwith Jedwin Smith, and three new friends:  Kathleen, June and Marla.  Our group’s philosophy and approach honor writing mentor Rosemary Daniell and her Zona Rosa (meaning the “Pink Zone,” or the “Women’s Zone” in Spanish) workshops. In fact, Rosemary plans to offer a one-day writer’s workshop this spring in the Atlanta area (I will provide more details on my blog once the workshop date is firm).

A writer and a teacher of writing, Rosemary is known for her provocative poems and personal memoirs. Rosemary’s book, The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself: Writing and Living the Zona Rosa Way, grew from her teaching

Rosemary Daniell

Rosemary Daniell

and writing experiences. “Support, stimulation and standards of excellence are the three attitudes that make Zona Rosa work,” Rosemary writes. “Make sure that you receive all three in any writing group in which you participate and in any discussion of your work. Insist that your strengths be supported, your weaknesses, while you are still conquering them, be treated with respect. Remember that what is commonly called criticism can be positive, and experienced as support.”

Each member of our writing group brings  different life experiences and is at a different phase in our writing journey. We all, however, share a common hope — to HeronHouse1connect and grow in our craft while making a genuine connection. The quality of the readings today bode well for our group. I’m going to learn a lot and am thankful to once again have a supportive circle to share my writing with, especially as I tackle the hardest part of my manuscript revisions around voice and pacing.

As we finished our first session, I asked each person to share one word that most describes how she felt about being here. Here’s what each woman said:

  • Marla – Courage
  • Anne – Sacred
  • Carolyn – Inspired
  • Mari Ann – Peaceful
  • Kathleen – Flying
  • June – Leaping

These are powerful sentiments and are indicative of feelings of friendship, acceptance, growth and excitement that can lead to transformative writing! As Kathleen notes, referencing a Walt Whitman quote from the movie, “The Dead Poet’s Society”:  “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.’ What will your verse be?”

I can’t wait to see where we go from here  and the stories we will share.

 

The Intersection of Slavery & Freedom: One Man’s Journey Finding his Family Story

Got Proof Book Cover 5-1-13Today, Michael N. Henderson has reason to celebrate. On this day 234 years ago, his fourth-generation great-grandmother gained her freedom.

Below is a fascinating story of Michael’s 30-year journey uncovering his French and Creole family roots that played out during the American Revolution. The creative culmination of his work is Got Proof! My Genealogical Journey Through the Use of Documentation, released in May 2013.

Michael’s research into his own ancestors, as well as other people of color in Louisiana, has gained national attention. In 2010, he was featured in a segment of the nationally televised program “History Detectives” titled “The Galvez Papers,” and in that same year made history as the first African American in Georgia inducted into the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution.

GotProof_authorThis past October, Michael’s book earned the coveted James Dent Walker Award by the Afro-American Historical and Genealogy Society (AAHGS). The Society bestows its highest honor on someone who has exhibited “distinguished accomplishments through a significant and measurable contribution to the research, documentation, and/or preservation of African American history.”

My colleague and friend Anita Paul, known as “The Author’s Midwife,” assisted Michael in getting his book published and promoted. She tells me, “A big part of what has helped make Michael’s storytelling journey successful is his willingness to share what he knows. He is an example and an inspiration to other genealogists who desire to become the scribe and the storyteller of their own research journey. He demonstrates that you have to have a healthy dose of confidence in yourself, assurance in your research methods, and connection to your ancestral story. After all, who better to tell the stories of ancestors than their descendants?”

The Writing Well is honored to share Michael’s insights below.

Q. There is a huge interest in people discovering their genealogical roots. What was unique about your journey?
Michael:  My genealogical journey was unique in that I found the intersection of slavery and GotProof_Nellie2freedom in the lives my ancestors in Louisiana during the American Revolution. My 4th generation great-grandmother, an enslaved woman named Agnes, gained her freedom on December 16, 1779. Her French consort, Mathieu Devaux dit (alias) Platilla, served in the Louisiana militia during the Revolutionary War. So, while Agnes was fighting for freedom from slavery, Mathieu was helping the American colonists fight for freedom from Great Britain. Agnes and Mathieu had a 31-year relationship and produced seven children, all of whom were born free prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
In my book, Got Proof: My Genealogical Journey Through the Use of Documentation, I explore Louisiana’s participation in the American Revolution, something I’ve found many people are not aware of, particularly because Louisiana was not one of the 13 colonies. The book takes readers along my journey of uncovering the relationship between Agnes and Mathieu, and how the family they created became the roots of my Louisiana Creole ancestry.
Having located evidence of Mathieu Devaux dit Platilla’s participation in the American Revolution, I later joined and became the first African American in Georgia inducted into the National Society Sons of the American Revolution (SAR).
Q. What do you hope people glean from your book, Got Proof!?
Michael: I hope that readers are inspired to accomplish the same or similar achievements as I have. I believe every genealogist goes through three phases when researching their family history. The first phase is becoming curious about your family and its connection to the past. The second phase is becoming the historian; learning about the people, places, and events that helped shape the lives of your ancestors. The third phase is becoming the storyteller; sharing your discoveries so others can appreciate them.
In Got Proof, I share how I evolved as a genealogist through each of these phases in discovering my ancestry in colonial Louisiana. If readers glean just a smidgen of how I, as a genealogist, journeyed through history using documents, then turned those facts into a story, the book will have accomplished what I intended.
Q. What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
Michael:  Narrowing down nearly 30 years of genealogy research was, by far, the most challenging aspect of writing Got Proof. I wanted to be careful not to overload the reader by regurgitating facts found in documents, but rather to tell the story of my journey and discovery of Agnes and Mathieu. Once I decided on the theme, I developed an outline, and the story unfolded from there.
Q. Can you share 3-4 best practices around research into genealogy that other family biographers could learn from?
Michael:  Anyone interested in researching their genealogy should first start with themselves and work backwards in time. Gather documents that paint a picture of your life: birth certificate, school records, marriage certificate, employment and military records, etc. Then, develop a pedigree chart showing your direct descent from ancestors. Also, create a family group sheet showing the relationships between generations (parents, grandparents, children). As you research, determine 1) what you know; and 2) what you want to discover.
Remember that genealogy research takes time, patience, and diligence.

The pleasure for me is in the hunt for information. I love solving mysteries and finding documents to support theories. Finally, writing the story based on documented evidence will help you craft the narrative of your family for future generations to appreciate.

 Q. A big part of writing books is marketing them, which you’ve done very well with your writing partner Anita Paul. Any advice on how to get the most out of your outreach if you are writing about genealogy?

Michael:  Anita is an amazing author’s coach. One of the primary things she instilled in me very

Anita Paul

Anita Paul

early was to develop a clear platform that could expand into a brand for myself.

I realize that success for me is bigger than the book. My platform is based on the foundation of my genealogy research and my being the first African American in Georgia inducted into the SAR. In addition, I was featured in a segment of the PBS program “History Detectives” called “The Galvez Papers,” which tells the story of Agnes and Mathieu. These events happened before the book was produced, and added significantly to the visibility of my story once the book was released in May 2013.

Another critical element in marketing Got Proof was my early development of an online presence. Through my blog and Facebook page, I have shared many of my genealogy discoveries and successes, and have grown quite a loyal following.

Finally, being visible to my target market is critical for me. I speak to historical, genealogical, and lineage/heritage societies nationwide. Giving presentations about my research success further inspires audiences, allows them to connect with me, and encourages them to purchase Got Proof.

 

 

 

‘Query Ninja’ Offers 5 Tips to Craft a Kick-butt Query Letter

“Don’t be afraid of King Query.” Art by: A.M. Pierre

At this spring’s Atlanta Writers Conference, I met a fellow aspiring novelist, A.M. Pierre, who is a whiz when it comes to crafting query letters.

I coined a nickname for A.M. that day — “query-writing ninja”  — after she sat down with a group of us novices and shared tips gleaned from fearlessly having her own letters critiqued through a number of online query-writing sites.

When I invited her to share some of what she told us that Friday, the Literature grad agreed, but insisted, “I’m certainly not an expert – just a fellow writer in the query trenches – but I love being able to pass on some of the accumulated tidbits I’ve acquired through my own (painful) query-writing process.”

Her hard-won insights are below. She also shares a newly refined query letter that attracted interest from three literary agents during the conference!

Do you have your own query-writing tips to share?  We’d love to read them. Leave a comment below.

Q. What are 5 tips for writing a kick-butt query letter?

Here’s the easiest format for a query: start with a hook, follow with a brief summary, and end with the character’s choice and the stakes.

The suggestions below should help you polish it:
1. Write with Clarity and Brevity.

  • Limit adverbs or adjectives
  • Show how your story is unique but keep it easy to follow
  • No “name soup” – limit the proper names you mention.
  • Write it in the novel’s voice (i.e., if it’s funny, make it funny) but don’t try to impress with ornate or fancy writing
  • Paragraphs are your friends. Break up walls of text.
  • NEVER let your query letter go over a page, no matter what

2. Follow Your Main Character.

  • Make your query about your main character’s journey and keep it in their POV (rare cases involve two MC’s, but it’s more challenging)
  • Make your character likeable and pro-active
  • Give your character a clear choice and explain the stakes of that choice

3. Know Your Agent.

  • Find out everything you can about an agent’s likes/dislikes before you query and tailor your letter to their preferences

4. Don’t Veer Too Far From the Standard Formula (there are exceptions to all of these, but keep in mind they’re called exceptions for a reason).

  • Don’t start with a quote from your book
  • Don’t write it in first person
  • Do include your word count and genre (pick one and only one – no “YA sci-fi fantasy paranormal romance”)
  • DON’T use the term “fiction novel” (no exceptions on this one!)

5. Be Professional

  • It’s a business letter, so don’t be overly familiar or informal
  • Only include credentials if they are amazing and/or relevant. “My poem was voted best in my class in third grade” is not.
  • A simple ending is best. I prefer “Thank you for your time and consideration. Sincerely, [Name and all contact information]”

Remember, a query is NEVER perfect, but eventually it will be good enough ;-). The problem is determining when you’ve reached that point.

Q. What are some great website resources for writers to use to improve their query writing skills?

  • Agent Query Connect – http://agentqueryconnect.com/ – Their Query Critiques board is very helpful, but be sure to explore the rest that this great forum has to offer – pretty much any question you have about the writing process can be answered somewhere.
  • Query Shark – http://queryshark.blogspot.com/ – While your odds of being chosen as shark bait are incredibly low, the archives are a vast wealth of query information. You’ll be surprised at how many mistakes you’ll find in your own query by reading them.
  • Evil Editor – http://evileditor.blogspot.com/ – There’s generally a pretty short queue here, so you can get quick feedback on your query, synopsis, or opening page.
  • Flogging the Quill – http://www.floggingthequill.com/flogging_the_quill/ – Not for query letters, but the (also vital) first page.
  • Write on Con – http://writeoncon.com/ is a free online convention attended by industry professionals and full of contests, seminars, and helpful tips. This year it’s August 13-14.

Q. What should you remember before engaging in this public form of learning?

The biggest thing to remember before setting foot in these public waters: Your work will be eviscerated. That’s normal. It’s not personal, and listening to outside criticism will improve your work. This doesn’t mean every comment will be correct. If one person says, “I don’t like this phrase,” you might be able to disregard it. However, if five people have the same critique, they’re right. Seriously, even if you think they’re wrong – they’re not.

Do not respond to criticisms defensively.  Even if you feel someone is being “cruel” do not respond in kind. Even if you think they are totally off-base and being big bad meanies, simply say “thank you” and move on. “Whatever, you just don’t get my work” is NEVER a valid argument.

Q. Can you share one of your queries that netted you an agent’s interest?

I was unbelievably fortunate to receive three requests for pages from the three agents I spoke to at the conference, but I’ve actually made some more tweaks since then (it’s the whole “it’s never perfect” thing – I’ll probably tweak some more before I’m through).  I’ve incorporated suggestions the agents made to make the stakes clearer, and I’ve vetted this newer version on some of the sites listed above:

Seventeen-year-old Christopher Smith never had much of a life, so when he gets kidnapped by a beautiful time-traveler with rainbow-colored eyes, he thinks that’s as crazy as it gets. Not even close.

His kidnapper, a warrior named Isabeau, brings Christopher to a future where high technology meets history in medieval-inspired city-states, with towering walls protected by impermeable energy barriers and knights who ride AI-enhanced hover bikes.

Then Christopher meets the king, Alexander, who looks just like him. King Alexander says it’s coincidence, and Christopher’s too distracted by this amazing world (and Isabeau) to delve too deep. Besides, it seems simple enough – the king protects the citizens from the bandits outside, and Christopher protects the king from the rebels inside by being an occasional body double.

But when a public event goes violently wrong, Christopher lands in the rebel camp, and they show him proof that the world outside is alive and well. The king isn’t locking it out – he’s locking them in. Finally, there’s the biggest bombshell of all: Christopher’s actually an android. Hidden in the past to avoid detection, Christopher was to be the king’s new, undying body when the time was right.

Christopher, however, has other plans, like helping a city forge its own destiny and forging his own with an amazing rainbow-eyed girl. To do all that – and to avoid being body-snatched – he’ll have to seize the role he was made for…by replacing the king.

Complete at 83,000 words, WHAT FUTURE LIES is a YA Sci-Fi re-imagining of The Man in the Iron Mask. Where the original novel followed the rebellious conspirators, keeping the titular character as a mere pawn in his own story, WHAT FUTURE LIES moves him front and center, telling the tale from his point of view.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely, …
________________________

About A.M. Pierre
Atlanta-based YA writer A.M. Pierre has a degree in Literature. She has always loved telling stories in whatever form, but only recently — at the urging of family and friends — has she pursued a writing career. A.M. has completed two books – SHARD, a YA Sci-Fi that could be described as Mission: Impossible meets the X-Men, and WHAT FUTURE LIES, the YA Sci-Fi book from the query above. She is in final revisions with her latest book, and expects to be out in the trenches of the submission process before the month is out. Connect with her on Twitter @A_M_Pierre or A.m. Pierre on Facebook.

Better Together – The Power of Writing Groups

 

Working on a novel, memoir or other major writing project takes much more than a story line you believe in and core writing skills – it also takes a belief in yourself, literary creativity and a dogged determination to see your work through to completion. 
Obstacles emerge from all directions and often when you least expect it – from competing demands on your time to periods of self doubt and loss of inspiration.
Author and writing coach Jedwin Smith.

A great resource to combat these hurdles is allying oneself with other writers, who can inspire and support one another.  I’ve been blessed with being part of such a community in the last year. I’ve participated in two eight-week writing groups led by veteran author Jedwin Smith, whom I featured on The Writing Well last April. In an expanded interview at the end of the post, I asked Jedwin what motivated him to start writing groups over three years ago.

“I’m a big believer in the writer’s community…We do our best when in the company of other writers,” he told me. “As a body, we know how sharp is the spear of rejection, how painful is the ax wielded by critics. Yet, we can learn by the failures of others—and, admittedly, there isn’t a writer who hasn’t tasted failure.”
He said he wanted to form a small circle of writers, to whom he could pass on his skills honed as a Marine, where “impossible was never a part of our vocabulary.”
“I figured I might be able to accomplish the same results in a small, diverse writing community by passing on the skills I’ve learned, being honest about all the mistakes I’d made, and pump up the individual’s enthusiasm with a positive, complimentary approach to the craft.”
Well, Jedwin’s Tuesday night group did create that kind of healthy give and take he envisioned…so much so, that a group of us wanted to continue to meet during the two-month break over December and January.
Jane enjoys a latte Sunday evening.

Sunday was the last informal gathering of this small enclave of our group as we look to begin another eight-week session with Jedwin starting Tuesday.  For me, the weekly accountability to write and share has helped me continue to keep the momentum going for my historical fiction novel, Torrential, where I recently crossed the 33,000-word mark. Not bad for a mother of two with a demanding consulting business!

To my writing confidantes — Mari Ann, Susie, Jane and Carolyn, a big thank you for your insights, generosity, writing wisdom and, above all, friendship. I couldn’t have gotten as far with my book without you! Below they share how our group has helped further their craft.
On what’s been the most helpful aspect of participating in our writing group:
“The suggestion from Mari Ann to totally change my format and write my book in letter form, Epistolary style, like the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Color Purple, has really accelerated my writing. She was spot-on with her suggestion! Sharing with people who know what I am writing allows them to know if what I wrote actually works! Sometimes I think I’ve gone off the track too far. They reel me in if I have, applaud when it is good, and make suggestions if needed. Our group is very supportive of each other’s passion for their writing. There is cohesiveness that is priceless. We want each other to succeed!”– Susan (Susie) Jimison
“Seems to me that writing a book – a piece of literary art – ‘takes a village.’ Feeling the support of those who want me to succeed energizes me, uplifts my spirits, when I need a special something to motivate me to get down to the business of writing. And maybe most of all, I feel cared about. My writing is my passion. When others are eager to support me, even after my heart has opened and emptied words of darkness onto a page, could anything be better than that?” – Carolyn Graham 
“One of the best aspects is that over the past few months, we’ve all become good friends, understanding one another on a level that other friends or family members may not. That friendship gives us the confidence and buoyancy we need to search deep within ourselves to bring our best writing to the surface.” – Mari Ann Stefanelli Perusek
On advice to other writers considering joining or forming a writer’s group:
“Know thyself as a writer — your goals, your voice, your story.  Share these to learn more about them and also how they work with an audience.  If you have the right group, you will be amazed at your own growth.” – Jane Shirley

“It’s not a good idea to get married without going on at least a few dates––so get to know each other before committing to the critique relationship!   Our group met over the course of a terrific eight-week writers’ workshop.  By the time the workshop concluded, we knew we could––and should––keep that momentum going.–Mari Ann

“Keep going until you find the right mix for you. Be flexible. As one grows as a writer, a different mix might be called for.  Be careful about the numbers. Staying on task, five of us take three hours to read and critique each other’s work.  Find people who are willing to offer honest support as suggestions, honoring your right to make the final decision about your work. Listen when someone critiques another’s work. Seek out those who do a good job at that. They’ll give the best feedback —the kind that will take your writing from good to great.” – Carolyn
A good critique group should work like a good therapy session, leaving you inspired, encouraged and open to new ideas. If you feel angry, hurt or discouraged —run, don’t walk —and find a new group.  Trust is another important consideration. Make sure your group understands that your writing and your conversations are confidential, unless otherwise agreed upon.” –Mari Ann
“Finding a time that works for everyone is hard but worth it. It is so important for other eyes to see your work before submission, whether it is for submission to a class, a contest, or a publisher. Someone else will see things you don’t!” – Susie

Book Editor Loves to ‘Make Good Books Better’

As writers, we spend months and even years getting that perfect story down on paper. But, as many established authors know, that’s only the beginning of getting a book published. A critical phase that ensures your work shines involves the role of an editor.

Today, The Writing Well delves into the often hidden world of book editing.  Jamie Chavez, a developmental editor and writer who has worked nearly 20 years in the publishing industry, shares her process of enhancing manuscripts from the moment that they first land on her desk.

Q. I saw on your bio that you were a writer long before you became an editor. When did you know you wanted to be an editor?
I didn’t consciously have a thought like I want to grow up to be an editor. But I’ve always been bookish. I read a lot. I’ve always read a lot of literary criticism and admired the famous editors. (Always reading the acknowledgments!)  When I landed a job at a publishing house I had a wonderful editorial mentor who encouraged me. I started reading books proposals, though, and that’s when I knew for sure.
Q. I’ve often heard that the real creation of a novel isn’t in the writing phase but in the editing phase. How does editing contribute to a finished work?
An editor is essential, without doubt. And it’s dismaying to correspond with new writers who think (first) what an editor does is fix grammar and punctuation, and (second) that’s all they need. These writers don’t even have a concept of substantive editing (it’s also called developmental editing, macro editing, content editing …) and yet no traditionally published book goes to press without it.

Having said that, though, an editor can’t edit what’s not on the page; the writing, the voice, the story—those are the most important elements. The editor gets to waltz in after the author’s done all the heavy lifting. 🙂

Q. What is your “process”?

The basic plot (ha) is the same, in that I read the manuscript once to react emotionally to it (making some notes in the margin); a second time to take notes (timeline, characters, story arc outline, and on and on) and also make more margin notes; then I write up my editorial notes. During that process I’ll end up reading most of the manuscript again. I like to use examples from the MS to make my points. Then I send the MS and my editorial notes back to the author, who reads and absorbs and questions and tweaks, and sends it back to me. We might go back and forth two or three or ten more times, depending on the publisher’s precise assignment (sometimes a copyedit is requested as part of the package, for example). The process is different, of course, in that every manuscript presents its own unique set of things to work on.

Q. What is the most challenging aspect of editing for you personally?

 

Writing the editorial letter. Every manuscript is different; it’s not like I can use a template. So I have all these notes, and I have to organize them in a way that will be coherent.

More importantly, though, is the way I communicate my critique to the author. I mean, let’s face it: an editorial letter is criticism. I was/am the bossy older sister, so this role (ahem) comes naturally to me. But communicating in writing can be touchy. I want to be businesslike—after all, my job is to work with the author to improve the manuscript, and we both know that—but I also want the author to feel I’m on his or her side. Because I am. It often takes me a week just to write the ed notes.

Q. What are the most common mistakes first-time or even veteran writers make when writing their novel?
They make different ones, actually. Less experienced writers have trouble with the basics, like writing good, believable dialogue or abusing show-don’t-tell. Name-calling is another one. (This is where the characters repeatedly call each other by name during the course of a conversation—something we don’t actually do much in real life.)
More experienced authors tend to have more complicated things to work on, like, say, characterization/motivation issues, either because actions seem out of character or there’s nothing really at stake for the protagonist. These are the fun things to wrestle with, of course. 🙂
Q. When should an author work with an editor? After the first draft? Before seeking an agent or publisher? After he or she is under contract?
Let’s clear one thing up right away: never after the first draft. Seriously, I don’t ever want to see your first draft. Editing’s not an inexpensive process, and an author would want to send his or her very best work to an editor to get the most bang for the buck.

There are two schools of thought regarding working with a professional editor before seeking an agent or publisher. (I’m working on this blog post too! Stay tuned.) One says it’s expected an author will do what she can to improve her skills and present the most polished manuscript possible … and publishers prefer getting a MS that’s in great shape. The other says a manuscript that’s been heavily edited by a professional isn’t, perhaps, a true representation of an author’s skills. That said, I’ve had several clients go on to get agency representation after we worked on their manuscripts, so clearly it wasn’t a detriment in those cases. If you don’t want to say you’ve been edited, you could choose to have a critique instead; it’s less thorough but should tell you where your MS needs work.

After you’ve already gotten a contract, the editorial work will be paid for by the publisher. If there’s an editor you’d like to work with, though, tell your agent, tell the publisher.

Q. What questions should authors ask before selecting an editor?
First, you should ask yourself if the manuscript is ready for an editor (see comments above about first drafts). If you’re getting “good rejections” (“it’s good but not quite ready”), I would say you’re ready for an editor.
Once the decision’s been made to hire a professional, I think it’s fair to ask what books that editor’s worked on (I post all of this on my website), and how long he or she’s been doing this type of work. You should clarify just exactly what is included in the edit. And ask for recommendations. (I have testimonials on my website but can put prospective clients in touch with past clients too.) You should probably ask how long before the editor can begin work on your project; my lead time is three to six months.

It is not fair to ask for anything else—like a work sample—without offering to pay for it. Also, you should expect the editor will ask for word count and a sample of the manuscript (a couple chapters and a short synopsis, say); I use this to quote a price and to decide if the project is something I want to take on.

Q. Can writers themselves become better editors? What tips can you offer for writers to improve their self-editing skills?
First, I’d say if you’ve hired a professional editor at any point in the past, you should go over the copyediting-type changes with a fine-toothed comb, because there’s a lot to be learned there. I’ll tell an author, “Did you see how many THATs I took out?” 🙂 I try to explain in margin notes why I think something should change, so there’s a lot of coaching to be had there too.

There are a lot of blogs that offer good advice on this subject, with actual checklists of things to look for. It’s very useful to read through multiple times, looking for one particular issue each time. For example, just look at dialogue tags in one round. Just look at chapter ending and beginnings in the next. Look for head-hopping and POV issues in one read. And so on …

Finally, there are books you might read. Self-Editingfor Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King is a good one, but I know there are many others.

Q. Is it a good practice to have your novel “peer edited” by other writers? What is your opinion of critique groups?
I think a critique group can be invaluable, and not just for editorial advice: it can be a support group too. Most of “my” authors are in critique groups of one sort or another. It’s important that everyone pull his or her own weight, though; some authors I know just have a critique partner. It should be noted that a critique group is not a substitution, really, for an edit.

Q. Any final insights for my readers?

 

Read. And buy books.  🙂

About Jamie Chavez

Raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Jamie Chavez was educated in both California and Tennessee. She counts many national publishing houses as clients, many authors as friends, and spends her days making good books better. Learn more about her editing services at

www.jamiechavez.com. Read her thoughts about words and language, books and authors, writing and editing, and the publishing industry at www.readplayedit.com.

New Writer’s Group Session Begins with Bawdy Tales of Life, Aging, Humor

Straps and Strings.com

Last night my writer’s group began a new eight-week session after a two-month absence. We all missed our Tuesday evening gatherings with group leader Jedwin Smith, and the camaraderie of sharing our journeys with prose.

The readings this first night were eclectic, surprising, funny, even shocking. The tone set by the women writers working on memoirs was eye opening to say the least!

Jane, who frequently writes on the edge to the delight of her fellow writer’s group members, didn’t disappoint with the latest installment of her adventures as a marketing executive for a company with aspirations to market porn, and Jane finds herself – in a strange twist — interviewing and
getting to know well known figures in that genre.

My chapter readings, normally so endearing about bedtime stories with my kids, took on a decidedly different tone as I tackled my kids’ fascination with toilet humor personified with the Captain Underpants comic book series.

Courtesy of Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

I recalled a recent museum visit to Fernbank where we learned “the Scoop on Poop.”

I also recalled my family’s pranks growing up, including a memorable incident at a Pink Floyd laser show and my brother’s “outing” of his liberal sisters on a conservative talk radio show.

Carolyn, a soft-spoken and soulful self-help writer, took us on a journey into growing “olde,” including sharing what happens to women’s wrinkled bodies as we age, (I will never think about a push-up bra the same way again!), contrasting that with the days of her youth and her eye-opening
experiences in a nudist colony. In the end, she inspired us to view life with childlike eyes.

The best part for me was seeing the men in our group squirm, shake their heads and laugh uncomfortably at the stories coming out of our mouths.

Priceless.

All in all, a fun evening spent with friends. I can’t wait for next week’s readings.

Wordle Wednesday

 
 

Today I am excited to showcase Wordle —  an app that creates “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. Jonathan Feinberg, a Medford, Massachusetts, developer, created Wordle in the summer of 2008.

If you spend a lot of time writing, Wordles can be a fun and creative way to play with words. It’s also a great visualization tool for data. The power users for Wordle, I believe, are educators, who consider it an invaluable tool. Terry Freedman, in his 2009 blog post, “Five reasons to use Wordle in the classroom,” points out that teachers can leverage Wordles in the classroom to help students summarize the content of their essay. It also provides a means for self-reflection and even assessment. Finally, it gives students a way to present their work with a picture.

More recently, educators are using Wordle in conjunction with an iPad and VoiceThread to enable kids to record their voices as they comprise sentences from their Wordle.

For bloggers, Wordle can demonstrate the dominant words you use for your site. Wordle includes a very cool function that allows you to enter the URL of any website, it then creates a word cloud using the most prominent words on the site, automatically!

If you’ve never tried to create one, visit Feinberg’s easy-to-use site and try it out! You may become a Wordle addict like me.

For general help and advice on using Wordle, there’s the Wordle Users Google group, which can be used either over email or via a web interface.

Guest Post: First-time Novelist Shares 4 Lessons

Every Friday during May I am inviting a member of my writer’s group to be a guest blogger. Today I’m excited to introduce new SciFi storyteller Shane Etter, a Mississippi native, who has a knack for bringing the creepy to life in settings ranging from north Georgia to New York City’s underground subway tunnels. I hope you enjoy his insights today on four lessons he’s learned as a first-time author.  I will feature more about Shane and his debut novel in this Sunday’s Relaxing Reads’ book post. Reach Shane on his Bottom Dwellers’ Facebook page.



My first novel, Bottom Dwellers, was published in April of 2011 by Black Rose Writing, a Texas-based small pressBottom Dwellers is a supernatural thriller about green mutant people with gills living on the bottom of one of the largest manmade lakes in the U.S., in north Georgia.  It’s the first of what I anticipate being a series of books to follow with the Dwellers theme of a worldwide mutant community.  
 
 I’d like to tell you about the things I did right, and more importantly, the things I did wrong. By sharing my experiences, both good and bad, hopefully it will help you along your literary journey.
The main thing I did right was write.   What I mean was, even though I had no training in writing, no degree in English or no MFA, I started writing.  If you have a good idea, start writing.  That is the first and most important thing.  In fact, besides having no training in writing, I was the least creative man you could imagine until I had a stroke, and when my brain started rewiring itself I became creative virtually overnight.
 
Next thing to mention, is the first mistake I made.  I had heard you should write every day, and I did write most days, but during my  second eight-week writing class under two-time Pulitzer nominee, Jedwin Smith, Jedwin said to write a page every day, and in a year you would have a novel.  So, quantifying the amount of writing for me was better than just saying write every day and it has helped me finish my second novel, Radiation Dwellers, much quicker and get well into my third novel, Island Dwellers, much faster.
 
Jedwin’s class brings me to the second thing I didn’t do until after my first novel was published:  Find a writing class, at your local Indie bookstore, at a community college near you, or one sponsored by a writing club.  Most authors are very generous with their time and knowledge and many of them teach classes on writing, on the side.  Even though I am a voracious reader, a writing class helped me learn why authors use certain techniques and to apply those techniques.
 
The third thing I didn’t do and you should is find, or start, a critique group with other like-minded writers — people in a genre similar to yours who you can read to, and bounce ideas off of, for helpful, constructive criticism.  Fortunately I have since found an established critique group with authors who, though fairly new to writing, had achieved a measure success and could help me avoid making some of the same mistakes they did. 
 
That brings me to the fourth lesson: reach out to other writers in your community.  Offer to buy them a cup of coffee, or lunch.  I do that now and my creativity climbs exponentially by meeting and talking with these creative people.
 
Shane with John Connolly, who he considers the greatest living author.
Last, read, read, read everything you can find in your favorite genre and other genres as well, and try to copy their techniques.  This thing alone will help you improve your writing as much as anything.  Among my favorite authors are John Connolly and F. Paul Wilson, both of whom write “creepy” novels. Reading and absorbing all of their works gives me better ideas and helps me to get the creative juices flowing.
 
Finally, never give up!!  Believe me, if I can get published, you can, too.

 

My Top 3 Book Research Tips

Non-fiction writers already know this: interviewing primary sources is an important component to book research. Even fiction writers do their homework by talking to people to help them establish a realistic setting or understand how characters thought or spoke according to time period. Also, research plays a crucial role to getting the dialogue right based on the character’s profession, whether he is a sea captain, doctor, scientist, or detective. I always hear from authors to “write what you know.”  I might add to that advice: “do your homework.”

Here are my Top 3 book research tips. They’re relevant regardless of your chosen genre, or whether your project is fiction non-fiction:

 

#1 Read as many books in your given genre as possible before you tackle your book. If you are focused on a period piece, read letters, official records and books of that period. Reading also will help you capture the language of your characters more realistically. I’m in the middle of researching the turn-of-the century in Dayton, Ohio, on the brink of a great flood. I just finished the definitive book on that tragedy and I also spent time at a corporate archive where I scoured newspaper accounts of the tragedy and letters from eye witnesses caught up in the flood.

 

#2  Interview sources. I love this part of research probably because I interview people for a living. I always enjoy talking to individuals from all walks of life and learning something new. My first book, a memoir that told the stories of 19 mothers and daughters separated too soon from smoking-related illnesses, involved me interviewing the surviving daughters and one mother. I took a documentary, first-person storytelling approach setting the stage for each chapter with the circumstances of each daughter (or mother’s) life. My book wouldn’t have been possible without primary interviews. But even with my historical fiction project I am relying on interviews because the story details actual events and includes public figures who played integral roles in the flood response.  I interviewed a long-time Dayton Daily News columnist, whose grandparents were caught up in the flood and who has written about the flood for three decades. I also consulted with the chief engineer at the Miami Conservancy District, legislatively established in the aftermath of the Great Flood as part of the city’s permanent flood control response.

 
 
#3 Establish place. Visit the location of your book — if it’s your own backyard in the north Georgia Mountains or a family lake house, good. You don’t have to travel far! But, don’t take shortcuts and think you’ve captured the unique flavor of your book’s locale if you haven’t experienced it. If your setting is an old boarding house, stay at one (find a B and B with the original mason work and creaking floors).

Author and writing coach  Jedwin Smith advised me on my trip back to an old house in Dayton’s historical district to look at the direction in which the sun rises and sets, to study the texture of the walls and the wood, and to memorize the views from each window, especially those on the upper level. If your setting is a period house, go room to room and close your eyes and try to imagine what the room felt like back during the time of your book — what kind of furniture was there? What the lawn was like—figurines, shrubs, flowers, the car that would have been parked outside?

My great grandparents’ home in downtown Dayton during the turn of the century.
“Whenever visiting historical sites, I always allowed myself to step back in time; imagining what I would have done, how I would have felt. This helped greatly, for no matter how much time has elapsed between the event and today, emotional reactions are pretty much the same. So in that regard, trust your heart and your instincts,” Jedwin says.
 
If your book is set in another realm, establishing place is very much an exercise of your imagination but still you need to draw on inspiration from reality.
 
 
 
“The real world is a perfect place to find inspiration,” writes David B. Silva, webmaster for The Successful Writer, in his 2007 blog post, “Tips for Writing Your Fantasy Novel: Do Your Research.”  “With all the pain and strife that surrounds the military conflict in the Middle East, there is a wealth of material out there dealing with various forms of heroism. What could you take away from these real life situations to build a story in your novel?”
 
 
Novelist, feature writer and critic Russell Celyn Jones, director of the MA Programme at Birkbeck College (University of London), gives expert video advice on topics ranging from “Do I need to research my novel?’ to “What kind of research should I do?” and “Is it possible to over research your novel?”