Working with an Editor … by Mathiya Adams

Mathiya AdamsI am very fortunate to have an editor with whom I have a great working relationship. I had first approached my editor when I was trying to publish a sword and sorcery fantasy book under another pen name. I had been following this editor's blog (Tara Maya's Tales on for some time and thought she would be sympathetic to my desires to get published. She read over my story, told me she liked it, agreed to publish it, but warned me that she did not expect it to sell very well. I asked her what was wrong with the book, and she said "Nothing. The problem is, it's only one book. Readers of this genre like to have a series of books."

I tried another series of books, under a different pen name. She reviewed them, politely told me they were nice stories, but had major structural defects. I thought that was kind of cruel, so I fought back, as any good writer would. "What kind of defects?" She started to list them. First, my stories did not fit any clearly defined genre. What difference did that make? A lot, she explained. Having a clearly defined genre, even a mixed or a new one, makes it possible to market the book. She asked me to search Amazon and find books similar to mine. I tried, and failed. Unfortunately, she was right, and the series has never gotten very far.

The Avid Angler by Mathiya AdamsFinally, about a year and a half ago, I sent her the first of a new series of stories, this time about an ex-cop who becomes a hot dog vendor, and then ends up solving crimes. Tara Maya said she was not familiar with the cozy mystery genre, or even the mystery genre, but she would do some research and get back to me.

Research for an editor like Tara Maya consists of reading a hundred books in the genre, making extensive notes about their structure, characters, themes, conflicts—everything that makes the genre distinctive. She finally got back to me and said my book had possibilities. Did I have more than one written?

Yes, I did, and I began to send them to her.

That's when I found out what working with an editor really means.

Over the next six months, as we went over book after book, my editor helped me refine my plot structure, introduced me to new tools to help organize my story, manage the flow of events so that the story built up to a climax and ended with a satisfactory resolution. She forced me to confront my characters, understand their motivations a lot more clearly, and make them behave in a more consistent manner. She challenged scenes I had ("Do you know how deep the South Platte River is there? Is it deep enough to break someone's fall? Most readers won't know, but what about the one or two who live within a thousand feet of that location? When you combine fiction with reality, the reality better be believable!") That meant I now had to go on auto excursions around Denver to check out the scenes in my book. "Your readers don't believe in Magic, Mattie. They believe in police procedures, wits, and courage. When you write, always think of your reader. Will they believe your story?"

There were a lot of times when I resented her criticisms. It's easy to point out problems, I thought, it's a lot more work to fix them. But that's all part of the writing process.

So, here is a summary of what I've learned about working with an editor:

1.  Communicate regularly with your editor. She is your ally, not your adversary.
2.  Listen to what she says. You may be the writer, but she often knows what's selling and what's not selling. If you want to sell books, she can help.
3.  She is not always right. If you feel what you've done is the best thing for your story, explain your logic, give her an understanding of where your story is going. If you can convince her, fine. Otherwise, review point 2.
4.  Keep your commitments. Yours is not the only book she is handling, in all probability. Editors are more likely to respond to the authors who meet their deadlines, follow-through on a timely basis, and help them get the book ready for publishing.
5.  No matter how much you think you can go it alone, don’t do it. Get an editor. An editor, plus your talent, just might make you a successful author.


Mathiya Adams grew up on the East Coast (Massachusetts and New York), moving to California in her early teens. She's always been interested in writing, first trying her hand at science fiction, then dabbling into mysteries and adventure stories. Mathiya tried to study writing in college, but became discouraged when her application to a writer's course at UCLA was turned down because "you don't show any real talent." A stint in Peace Corps over in India whetted her appetite for the strange and exotic, and once again she took up writing. This time she tried her hand at sword and sorcery, and while she had lots of ideas for subsequent books, real life—work, children, family—always seemed to provide ample excuses not to persevere.

After Mathiya's retirement, she dived into the writing life head first, coming up with dozens of story ideas she wanted to pursue. Some of them were actually good ideas and she thinks they might actually see the light of day. But one series in particular caught her interest. It was a story about a hot dog vendor, one of those people you sort of ignore except to buy a hot dog from them. What kind of life could they possibly lead? When Mathiya asked that question, the answer hit her. The hot dog vendor secretly was a phenomenal detective who only solved crimes that the police couldn't handle. That was the birth of the Hot Dog Detective series.

Now her days are filled with exploring Denver, checking out the locales frequented by Mark MacFarland and his associates; recounting the exploits of MacFarland; and occasionally attempting to write a blog to help other aspiring authors.

You can learn more about Mathiya's novel at her website. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

That Fleeting Magic

By Colleen Oakes


It happened last night, in the middle of a long day of writing, editing and brain-storming.  My writing buddy  and I had hunkered down for a five hour session of hammering out the problems in our respective novels. Seriously, it's such a perfect working relationship that it's a little scary.  This is how we do it: first, the good - then, the bad, which takes about five times longer than the good.  Peter's voice needs work. Damien needs feelings.  Comments range from "I LITERALLY hate your mountain range" to "I don't like or respect sexy aliens" Back and forth and back and forth it went.

At the end of our session, I was struggling with the ending of my current novel. It's a very complicated climax, with a lot of specific plot devices that have to happen just at the right time, in the right order and getting that order just right is terribly tripping me up at the moment.  I'm nowhere near the end, but I need to have my ducks in a row to proceed from this point on. I've arrived at a place in the story where I need to know origin stories - and the endgame.

So, we were at Udi's eating delicious pizza and humus when it happened.  At that point we had spent about 5 hours dissecting and editing and I was running over the plot for my novel out loud, in my head, and chasing down every thread that occurred.  To me sometimes, the best way to figure out where a story is going is just to push it down every possible dark alleyway and see what comes out. I was missing something from the climax.  I knew that something KEY was missing.  So we were running over scenarios, one by one and then I had it. A sliver of an idea.  A tiny sliver, a slip of a thing, a whisper of something big.

We discussed it.  Then, our voices rose, and started overlapping. We followed the string into the dark alley and kept following it. We started getting excited and then, we were yelling and high fiving and I'm pretty sure the table behind us thought we were totally drunk seeing how we were talking magic and pirates and musical instruments.

It was a moment, just a moment of pure creation.

Afterwards, even on the drive home as I recapped it minute by minute to my VERY lucky husband, I was still buzzing, my skin feeling like it was on fire, my brain alive and awake and flooded with adrenaline.  When you write with that kind of inspirational heat that is as rare as an eclipse, the story flows out of you like water, the best kind of drowning.

Sometimes people ask me why I write.  Most of the time, it's because I like sipping on a hot beverage and simultaneously trying not to bang my head against a keyboard. But when it's magic like this, it's a job that is so much more than a job. It's creating a living and breathing thing that can surprise, delight and frustrate you.  Honestly, it's a lot like parenting.

And when that inspirational lightning strikes, and your story falls into place like an elaborate puzzle, it's one of the best moments that a writer can have.

It might only happen once or twice a book, but when it does, it's pure, unfiltered ecstasy.



By Kevin Paul Tracy

As you grow up you become more aware of a developing ability to hold multiple emotions at a time on any given subject, sometimes quite contradictory. For example, anyone who is married can attest to how it is possible to both loathe and love that same person at the same time. I'm a big James Carville fan even though I detest almost everything he stands for. I think Tom Cruise is a giant flake, but I'll go see any movie he's in because he's a very engaging actor.

So when I say, "I hate my book!" other writers understand this is a transient state - I don't in fact hate my book, but during the rewrite and editing process, I do! I loved it when I was writing it, and even during the first read-through and edit, I'm thinking, "Damn, this is pert'near genius!" But after the fourth and fifth read-through and edit, you wish you weren't the author if only so you could take the author by the throat and throttle him for putting out such drek!

Cap'n Crunch Cereal

It happens the same way with Cap'n Crunch cereal, to which I am, sadly, addicted. So I buy the big economy-sized box. Then, next Saturday morning I get up excited, pull up the last episode of Person of Interest on the DVR, pour myself a giant bowl of Crunch Berries, and sit down to a meal fit for a king.

Sidebar: Does anyone remember Cap'n Crunch's arch-nemesis, the pirate Cap'n LaFoote? He had a cereal of his own as well, a cinnamon something or other. No? Not surprising, it wasn't very good.

About two-thirds into my precious bowl of cereal the orange pieces are getting soggy and the berries are sticking to my teeth and I'm wishing I hadn't poured myself such a big bowl. I'm sick of Cap'n Crunch with Crunch Berries and don't care if I never see another bowl again. And yet, three or four weeks later, there I am, buying another box and getting all excited for the next Saturday morning!

You don't, in fact, hate your book as you enter the fifth read-through. You're just burned out on it. Compounded by the fact that with each read-through you keep finding more that needs fixing, and it's getting a little redundant and monotonous, especially if many edits are the same mistake repeated over and over again. You're frustrated and you're a little down on your own skill as a writer.

Well, let me clue you in on something I recently learned myself. There's nothing wrong with taking a break. I know, you want to get it done and over with and off to the printers. But when you're burned out like this, you make mistakes and miss things, which is why it seems like you keep finding the same errors over and again. Taking a break gives you a chance to recharge the batteries. Catch up on your own reading, attend a few critique group meetings, remind yourself what it was that inspired you to write to begin with.

Most critical, though, however long your break, get back to it. You'll find yourself much less stressed and frustrated, you'll find yourself making much fewer errors, and you might even fall in love with your book all over again!

Check out Kevin’s latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, “Rogue Agenda,” a startling and engrossing gothic thriller “Bloodflow,” and don’t miss Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow.

Follow Kevin at:
Kevin's Amazon Kevin's Blog

How to Grow a Novel

By Barbara Graham

Graham_MurderBySunlightProbably because I’m in the midst of trying to get my garden to produce something other than really healthy weeds, and my next book is in the formative stage, the comparison between gardening and writing a novel seemed ideal.

After all, they both start with high hopes and big plans. Each beginning I think—this will be the garden/book that won’t have “issues” like weeds, blight or repetitive phrases. The characters will be fascinating and the tomatoes won’t have blossom end rot.

Before beginning such a fabulous project, there is some studying involved. I peruse the seed catalogs and gather ideas for the best vegetables for the sunny end of the garden. Can they grow in our short season? For the book, what will the story line be and because I write mysteries, who should I kill this time? The first book in my mystery series, Murder by Serpents: The Mystery Quilt was inspired by a headline in the newspaper. It simply read, “man found dead in car.” No snakes, no other tie to the storyline. I began playing with the scenario. Why would a man be dead in his car? Any number reasons. You pick one of your own and write that book.

So, we plant a seed and soon there is a sprout. The seedlings go into the garden on the recommended date but I like to cover the tender sprouts. I often use plastic milk bottles without lids and the bottoms cut out. They form individual greenhouses. Also too tender for early exposure, ideas and characters being developed now should avoid the early critique situations. Let them get some roots and a good strong stem before hearing from the critics. Something fabulous could wither and die from early exposure to the world.

Pull the weeds and throw on some fertilizer. Add more words, maybe create a world with murderous garden gnomes. This is the waiting game. Slog through the pages adding on. Fix the dialogue. Protect it from outside intruders like deer stomping the tender leaves with their sharp hooves, making a mess, it is your world to save.

The garden is planted, out of human control, except for watering and constant weeding. Heavens, some weeds are taller than the desired plants. Every first draft of the next book, I find myself wondering “who wrote this mess?” Is that a weed or something worth keeping? Sometimes in the early stages, they look the same. There is much work to be done. Peering at the vegetation, you see emerging baby carrot tops. They look like fine parsley but sharing the same spot is some nasty broadleaf weed. The weed must be carefully extricated without killing the carrot. It is the garden equivalent of excising the wrong word in a sentence, a writers’ weed destroying the intended meaning.

Is anything worth keeping? Yes. Throw some more fertilizer in there, use better words. Plants and story are both improving at last. The plot has only a couple of small holes now, easily mended, and your hero is worthy of the name. There are small, dark green tomatoes on a plant. Green peppers on another. The potatoes plants are tall and covered with small purple flowers. There are jewels in the dirt.

One more rewrite. A walk through the garden again. The ripening tomatoes are even more gorgeous than expected. Maybe you should enter them in the county fair. Let the judges see what a real tomato smells like. As for the novel, a few more rewrites, queries and maybe a contract, all yours for the picking.


Barbara Graham began making up stories in the third grade instead of learning to multiply and divide. A native Texan, she later lived in Denver, New Orleans and East Tennessee. Inspiration for Silersville (home of her imaginary friends) comes from her Tennessee period. An unrepentant quilting addict, she lives in Wyoming with her long suffering husband and the spoiled dog. Her motto is “Every book needs a dead body and every bed needs a quilt.”

Her most recent book, Murder by Sunlight: The Charity Quilt is book five in her Quilted Mystery series featuring Tennessee Sheriff Tony Abernathy and his quiltmaker wife, Theo. Visit Barbara at her website.

Barbara is giving away one copy of Murder by Sunlight: The Charity Quilt to a lucky U.S. or Canada reader who leaves a comment on this post by midnight Mountain Time Friday, September 12. The winner will be selected using and the name posted here on Saturday.

Crush the Crutches

By Mark Stevens

Do you have “crutch” words?

Words you inject into your prose without thinking?

I mean, they are such great freaking words that you when you ask a reader to plow through your latest incredible best-selling novel, she comes back and says:

“Well, not bad. But did you know you used the word ethereal 187 times?”

Or (fill in the blank for your go-to word)?


Guilty as charged. I’ve got a few. They change from one piece of writing to the next.

They are words my inner brain fell in love with, most likely, decades ago.

I pull them out of the dust-covered brain cells that are my word filing system and I drop into the prose without really thinking.

(Question: Why can’t my ability-to-edit brain see the heavy repetition of my crutch words? When I read manuscripts by other writers, their crutch words jump out at me like something from Sharknado. “Did you mean to use the color ‘salmon’ on page four and page 196?”)

Which brings me to Visual Thesaurus. (

Stevens_Visual ThesaurusIf you are looking, occasionally, for that little spark to kick a sentence or a paragraph in the butt—a way to give your writing voice a little inspiration—check it out.

It’s a word lover’s daily jolt of caffeine.

First, take your crutch word and enter it in the search engine. VT will give you a visual rendering of the universe in which your word lives—all its relatives, close and distant.

If you want to tweak your favorite plum word in one direction, you click on that word within the sphere (Do mean “hot” as blistering or “hot” as spicy?) Suddenly, you are charging down another path looking for the right word.

Plus, VT has daily columns about word derivations and interesting takes on word usage. A recent column looked at “anxious” versus “eager.” Knowing the difference is the kind of distinction that might give your prose more accuracy.

If you subscribe ($25 per year), you get a daily ‘word of the day’ in your email and lots of nifty/nerdy info to go with it.

As I write this, today’s word is ‘theurgy.’ (“Magic performed with the help of one—or more.”) Recent words were cheroot, caliphate and hypernym. As Visual Thesaurus says: Dog, for example, is a hypernym for dachshund, Chihuahua, and poodle. Some folks call 'em generic terms or superordinates.

In fact, Visual Thesaurus will help you avoid hypernyms (and your damn crutches) and be as precise and fresh as possible.

Every day.


Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

How to Make Your Editor Happy

By Katriena Knights

Nobody wants one, but everybody needs one. Maybe it sounds like a riddle Bilbo Baggins should have tossed Gollum’s way, but it’s really just a fact of the publishing business. Everybody needs an editor. Even the editors.

I’ve worked as an editor for almost ten years, in addition to writing my own books. There’s a certain satisfaction in figuring out what an author is trying to say, that maybe they didn’t even know they were saying, and helping them tease that out of their manuscript. There’s a bit less satisfaction in finding all the typos and grammatical errors an author may have committed, but it’s part of the job, too.

But this post isn’t about working as an editor. It’s about how to interact with your editor in a way that’ll keep your relationship positive and productive. The more positive your relationship is, the more likely you’ll be able to work together to produce a piece of work you’re both happy with. And if you and your editor are happy with it, your readers are that much more likely to be happy with it, too.

So, with that in mind, here are some guidelines for communicating with your editor.

  1. Your editor is always right. Well, okay, maybe not always dead right on every issue, but if your editor flags something because it made her cringe or roll her eyes or just get confused or made her go back to read a sentence more than once, it’s worth your time to take a look at the suggestions. And it would probably behoove you to make a change, even if it’s different from what the editor suggests. After all, your editor is your first reader, and if something doesn’t make sense to her, it’s probably not going to make sense to somebody else.
  2. Don’t tell the editor flat-out no. As an editor, I don’t have a problem with an author not wanting to make a change. But I do like to at least hear why they don’t want to make that change. Sometimes, by explaining what they meant to say or get across, the author can give me insight into how a phrase or a plot point isn’t doing what the author intended. When this happens, we rework it together until the author’s intent is crystal clear. At other times, it becomes clear that we’re not on the same page, and that’s fine. The author should win in these cases, unless it involves a conflict with a publisher’s guidelines. And even then, if you’ve explained something to me and I understand you feel strongly about it, I’ll go to bat for you with the bosspeople and do what I can to keep your vision intact.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Fighting about punctuation is a waste of time, unless somebody’s moved a comma and completely changed the meaning of a sentence. In most cases, minor grammatical tweaks like this are a matter of house style, and even if the editor changes them, a line editor will change them back. If it’s really important to the story, then yes, talk to the editor about arranging exceptions. But if it’s just a style issue, it’s better to let it go. (This is an advantage of self-publishing, by the way—you get to make your own style guide. My personal style guide REQUIRES the Oxford comma…)
  4. Save your energy for the big stuff. If it’s worth throwing down over, throw down. There are occasions when an editor or publisher’s demands for your story are so counter to what you wanted to get across with that work that you just have to draw that line in the sand. And there are things worth throwing down over. You’ll know what they are, because the thought of changing them makes you nauseated. Focus on those things. Hopefully, you’ll never run across an editor who works at this kind of cross-purposes with you.
  5. Send chocolate. Chocolate is always a good idea.

MOMENT OF BLATANT SELF-PROMOTION: My new book, Blood on the Ice, arrives tomorrow at Samhain publishing. I hope you'll take a gander!


Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

Beware of the False Hook

By Tiffany Lawson Inman

What do most writing craft books say about openings?

A lot of don’ts and dos.

Am I right?

  • Don’t use a lot of description.
  • Don’t open with back story.
  • Do try and start with action.
  • Do introduce the story theme and problem.
  • Do establish character and setting.
  • Do excite your reader.
  • Do show the promise of your novel in the first sentence, in the first paragraph.
  • Oh yeah…and DO hook your reader.

Hook your reader.

Hook your reader, HOOK YOUR READER!

All are true. All are dangerous. Why? Because everything rests on the HOOK!

E V E R Y T H I N G. Writers work their butts off on the beginning of their novels!

Or they should.

What happens after the first hook line? There should be a hooking paragraph. A hooking chapter. But that is not always the case.

How many of you have read a false hook? Loved the first line or paragraph, and then the book goes downhill. Such a disappointment. We don’t want a bunch of marketing tactics drawing your reader in for one bite, when the rest of the meal tastes less than good. It sullies our reputation as storytellers.

Writers should be hooking their readers through the entire novel. Raising questions. Little and big. Keep them turning the pages.

How to avoid the false hook? Look at more than what you are saying. Also look at how you are saying it. The tone.

You need to show the promise of your novel with what is going to happen and how the story will be told. They go hand in hand. The how is your needle, the what is your thread. Can’t have one without the other. Readers don’t want a great story that is written poorly. Nor do readers want a crappy story that was written beautifully.

Let’s look at how NY Times Bestselling author, Harlan Coben uses his needle and thread. Below are his first two of paragraphs of Tell No One in either the right order, or the wrong order.

Which one is the first paragraph? Does one have more or less promise than the other? **********You better not cheat. Don’t run and get your copy, or look on your Kindle.

Look at his writing.



What else?

The third piece to a solid hook: Reader questions. There are questions on top of questions on top of questions. Egging the reader to turn the first page and melt into this man’s world.

Paragraph A :

There should have been a dark whisper in the wind. Or maybe a deep chill in the bone. Something. An ethereal song only Elizabeth or I could hear. A tightness in the air. Some textbook premonition. There are misfortunes we almost expect in life—what happened to my parents, for example—and then there are other dark moments, moments of sudden violence, that alter everything. There was my life before the tragedy. There is my life now. The two have painfully little in common.

Paragraph B :

Elizabeth was quiet for our anniversary drive, but that was hardly unusual. Even as a young girl, she’d possessed this unpredictable melancholy streak. She’d go quiet and drift into either deep contemplation of a deep funk, I never knew which. Part of the mystery, I guess, but for the first time, I could feel a chasm between us. Our relationship had survived so much. I wondered if it could survive the truth. Or for that matter, the unspoken lies.

OOOOh I got the chills!

Are you turning the page for more? Yes you are.

He has given us over 20 questions in 163 words. And his tone? The intensity of his tone is one wave after another moving us further into his story.

It is always taught in speech writing classes: you tell the audience the same information three times in the course of an informational speech. It takes three times for your reading audience to really get what you are saying. Well. Harlan does it 20 times in the first two paragraphs. He wants us to listen and keep listening.

What is the difference between Harlan Coben’s novels and an unknown suspense thriller that has just been passed over in the submission pile? He uses the what, and the how, very well. And the tone he uses is a question in itself.

But, the biggest difference: Harlan keeps his answers close to his heart. He lets go of information in a deliciously suspenseful way.

A crumb here, a morsel there.

And he does not let go of those nuggets until after the reader has met the wondering threshold.

It is true.Timing is everything.

Harlan has excelled at the art of threading his hook through every moment of his Bestselling novels.

Look at your WIP.

  • How far does your hook get you?
  • How can you work in the concept of needle and thread?
  • When do you start giving up those precious answers?
  • Open to a page in Chapter 18, is the reader still asking questions?

Thank you so much for reading today!  Next month I will give you a bit more meat in the world of writing-craft-know-how, today was just a sample.

Do you have a favorite author that has a knack for threading a hook?   Let's chat about it in the comments! I will be teaching online this summer and I will be giving a class away to one of the brave writers in the comments section. So don't be shy, say "Hi!"


Tiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit.

She teaches Action and Fighting, Choreography, Active Setting, Emotional Impact, Scene Writing, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy online, presents hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars in  late 2014.

As a freelance editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs around the internet, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Check out her previous blogs on WITS.

Word Nerds – Will Work for Proper Punctuation … by Trai Cartwright

I always suspected I was a little weird about words (strange, odd, peculiar, uncanny—yes, I prefer uncanny). Recently, I taught a seminar for Delve Online which proved I was absolutely correct.

As a kid I was a voracious reader, but I was also a ruthless one. If I caught a typo in a book, it was like a betrayal. How could these professional writers make such a blatant mistake??

To which the sane response would be: egads, go outside and play with some others kids, would you?? My response: pull out a piece of paper and write a letter to the writer to let him know the error of his ways.

Like I said, I’m uncanny. Or maybe just weird. It took many years and an infinite number of typo sightings for me to realize that two things were happening: one, humans were at work and humans make mistakes (lord knows with all the typos I’ve released into the world, even typo fascists aren’t perfect). And two, I had a unique eye.

They just jump out at me, and every time, I have to think about what the correct grammar or punctuation or spelling would be. Have to. So OCD.

At this Delve discussion of editing last weekend, I joined Tiffany Yates Martin, another self-proclaimed Word Nerd and professional editor for a raucous good time discussing typos. Okay, our attendees began slipping out the door one at a time, no doubt in fear of their safety, but Tiffany and I had a blast. You can’t put two Word Nerds together without us gleefully and loudly sharing favorite examples of our obsession.

Hers: “His brothers John and Jim went into town.” Harmless enough, right? But without commas, she doesn’t know if it’s “his brothers, John, and Jim,” ergo a whole gang of folks, like, at least four, or was it just two people? Ergo, John and Jim are the brothers.

My example was the use of the onomatopoeia “klunng” in a fight sequence. When I first read it I stopped cold and thought – why two n’s? The answer seemed obvious: three n’s would make the reading humorous (klunnng), and this was a serious scene. Meanwhile, one n doesn’t provide that ominous resonance to which the writer aspired.

Yes, this was the content of our delightful session. Don’t judge.

I say thank goodness for people like Tiffany and me and Conan the Grammarian.

We obsess so you don’t have to.

Like many with this crazy fixation, I’ve turned it into a service I provide for other writers. Part of my Story Consultant business includes copy editing. This goes beyond just fixing commas; I have the idea that if writers can understand their own grammar tics, they can overcome them and thus improve their writing on a line-by-line basis.

For example, writers have a tendency to start every sentence the same way. Or suddenly we’ll go on a thirty page jag of ellipses…or em-dashes—

Or, we’ll use the same phrase, one that’s cliché, one that’s sure to turn off the readers (they smiled at each other; he gazed at her; he turned away—ugh!).

I love that stuff. Not just because they just sort of leap out at me (again, in other people’s writing; I hire an editor for my own), or that it soothes my OCD. I love it because once a writer starts tuning herself in to those grammar tics, she’s plugging into the heart of writing. No, the story won’t be better for having excised every double space between sentences, but it will be better told for it.

And you won’t risk having some pesky twelve-year-old writing to let you know that on page 28, you mixed tenses, and on page 74, “letters” was plural when it should have been singular…


Trai-Cartwright-HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.

The Importance of a Good Beta Reader

by Katriena Knights

If you’ve seriously pursued writing for any amount of time, you know you can’t be trusted to judge your own work. Scenes that seem wonderfully constructed in our heads are completely incomprehensible to other people. Glorious flights of poetic prose are actually pools of verbal quicksand from which no reader will ever safely return. It’s a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.

This is why we need Beta readers.

A good Beta reader will help you find those holes in your manuscript where your brain fills in the details but a reader gets confused or completely lost. She’ll find continuity errors, wobbles in character development, and help you figure out where you’ve indulged yourself too much and could really stand to cut things down a bit.

A really good Beta reader will call you on the phone and say, “Hey, mostly I liked the story, but there’s this one thing I HATE with the BURNING PASSION of a THOUSAND MILLION SUNS. Change it.”

True story.

Yes, we’re still speaking.

My Beta reader iBloodontheIce-ART-Smallers also my best friend. She doesn’t just read my manuscripts, she also feeds me story ideas. For example, my upcoming novel from Samhain, Blood on the Ice, is entirely and completely her fault. And yes, she betaed it for me. A couple of times.

Early in the writing process, she read through some chapters and said, “Wait. Your game schedule is a complete mess.” And then she sent me a link and said, “Use this.”

The link was the entire Chicago Blackhawks schedule from the 1955-1956 season, when the NHL only had six teams. “Just plug your six vampire teams into this schedule. That way it’ll make more sense.”

I think I banged my head against a wall for fifteen minutes. It worked, though. Using the actual schedule—even though I did tweak it a little—added a background continuity that made the Vampire Hockey League more realistic. And if there’s anything that needs added realism, it’s a hockey league populated entirely by vampires.

When my final draft was ready, she told me we could get together over Instant Message on Memorial Day and go through the manuscript. I figured we’d chat for a little while, I’d make a few notes, and then I’d be off to finish my submission-ready draft.

Eight hours later (you read that right—EIGHT. HOURS. LATER.), I had about 25 pages of notes copied and pasted out of IM into a document. I was also really freaking hungry. Over the next few days, I reordered several scenes, added some exposition, and took out an entire character. (You know how they say to kill your babies? This was an ACTUAL BABY. Her whole subplot got removed. Poor thing. Maybe she’ll fit into the next book.)

That right there is what every writer needs in a good Beta reader.

I’m always grateful that my BFF happens to have a ridiculously good story sense and isn’t afraid to tell me when stuff just plain sucks. It’s the kind of objective eye every writer needs. I can’t tell you how to find your own—all I know is you can’t have mine.


Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

No Need to Bleed: Painless Ways to Breach the Blank Page

By Lori DeBoer

“It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway likely wasn’t recommending that one literally open a vein. I think.  Besides being dark and witty, this quote keeps coming back in different forms, attributed to disparate authors, because for most of us wordsmiths, it speaks a truth.

I’d rarely had to search for that vein in my 20 years as a journalist, because the fear my editors inspired made me able to compose leads in my head during the drive home from an interview or an event.  By the time I hit my computer, I already had a few full paragraphs ready to tumble to the page.

That was until I sat down to write my first piece of fiction. I pulled up a blank page and blanked. It was sheer, imposing and seemed to offer no toeholds.

I breached that blank page, with a bit of determination and a fair amount of bloodshed. Since blood, metaphorical or not, makes me faint, I’ve developed some easier ways to get into story, ones that don’t require stocking up on iron supplements.

Here goes:

Write nonsense--Type any old thing until your brain stops its bitching and gets engaged in the story.  You may have to write nonsense for a few pages, but keep going.  If you fail to gain some traction midway through your allotted daily word count or writing time, then shift to revising, research or sending stuff out.

Write a shitty first draft--I wish this were my advice, but it’s Anne Lamott’s.  If you aspire to write, you must read her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She talks openly about her own fits and starts and has this to say:  “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

Give it your worst shot--I teach for a living and found that my students not only loved examples of crappy writing, but they learned from trying to improve them. Since I am a do-it-yourself kinda gal, I rose to the challenge of writing some of the crappiest crap around for my advanced writing classes. There wasn’t a cliché I didn’t borrow, a run-on sentence I didn’t elongate to a ridiculous end. Writing crap turned out to be fun and liberating.  Often, crap turns into keepers. For inspiration (and a spot for your own terrible writing), please visit the website for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, organized by the English Department at San Jose State University, which invites entrants  to write the worst opening sentence to the worst possible novels.  (

Pen a gossipy letter--This strategy confuses your internal critic because it doesn’t know whether to bark, bite or wag its tale. That’s because writing a letter--dripping with juicy details that only someone in the know would know—is rather a quaint endeavor, don’t you think?  In that letter, which you may or may not send, indulge in the latest scandal about your characters.  What is up with your main character’s latest choice in lovers?  What is your antagonist hiding, anyway?  You love to dish.  Indulge.

Borrow a line--Your English teacher would call this plagiarizing, but I prefer to think of it as priming your pump.  Just remember to delete this line from your story at some point during the revision process.   For bonus points, don’t pick a line you love; pick one at random. For extra bonus points, jump genres.  Caveat:  don’t spend all day picking out a line, please. If procrastinating’s your game, go scrub your tub.

Cut to the exciting part--Instead of walking in circles, trying to figure out where you are supposed to start story, try fast  forwarding to the exciting part.  Chances are, that’s your real beginning, anyway.

Prompt yourself--If you find yourself staring down a blank page, having someone tell you what to do can help.  Lucky for you, there are a kazillion tried-and-true writing prompts.

Throw in some mystery--If the main point of view character encounters some sort of mystery to puzzle over or an intriguing problem to solve, chances are your fuzzy little writing brain will start puzzling over it, too.  You’ll find yourself several pages in just because you want to figure out what’s going on

Come out swinging--You don’t need to have your characters taking physical punches at each other like mad monkey ninjas, unless that sort of scene suits your genre. Simply starting a story with two characters at odds with each other will send a thrill up your storyline and have you coming back for more.

Picture it--Break up a blank page by slapping some pictures on that sucker and you’ll be closer to starting your story.  Many writers take this to extreme, creating whole Pinterest boards with photos of their story’s characters, settings, costumes and the ilk.  If you do this, I not only approve, but am a teensy bit jealous.

Start with the ending--I like writing the ending of a story before I start the beginning because I can trick myself into feeling like the heavy lifting is done.  Plus, I have a better chance of starting a story if I know where it’s going to end up, just like I have a better chance of having a successful road trip if I know if I am driving to Santa Fe or San Francisco

Well, that’s a sampling from my bag of tools for breeching the blank page.  What are some of yours?


Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times, Pithead Chapel, Arizona Highways, Gloom Cupboard and more. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.