Writers sit at our computers, thinking, planning, plotting, writing and revising until we have exhausted our abilities to improve our story. Maybe there is a little nagging voice in our heads telling us that it needs something, but we aren’t sure what. Or maybe the voice is silent, leaving satisfaction that it is well ready to submit for publication or at least share with our friends or fellow writers. It is such a lonely business, and we seek out and need encouragement from fellow writers or readers. I can still remember the first time I attended a writers’ club after I had felt isolated and rudderless for the first three years. Two other wannabees and I were invited to this exclusive club after meeting at a workshop.

Nervous to be among such accomplished folk, I left sweaty fingerprints on my sample manuscript as I clutched it tightly. The routine was for a volunteer to read aloud to the group. One of the fellow newbies volunteered, something I learned never to do in school even when I knew the answer.

I was acquainted with fellow novices’ co-written manuscript from the workshop. It was a picture book, well written and funny. At least a full minute of dead silence followed the reading before the first member spoke up. It was like opening the dam. One after the other challenged the anthropomorphic fantasy, and by the time they had all questioned its validity, they had destroyed the story and the writers. They never returned, and I heard that they took up needlepoint to relieve the need to create.

I crumpled my manuscript into my purse. My years as a news reporter toughened my resistance to adversity, and I stuck it out long enough to learn that among the 15 or so members, only one had sold anything for publication, and that was not in the unique genre of picture books. Nor had they read a picture book since Little Red Riding Hood.

There is a moral to this cautionary tale. Group critiques have the potential to become a genteel equivalent of a mob with torches and pitchforks, even if the participants honestly believe that they are helping. Just as “too many cooks spoil the soup,” too many opinions can ruin your hard work. There are ways to get around the traumatizing tradition of group readings. The simplest one is to tell the group before you read exactly what your concern is. When you limit the comment to a specific problem, i.e., does the dialogue sound natural, or did the character’s reluctance to go along with the adversary come across?

One of the best tests is to ask someone else to read aloud your story. When it is our story, we tend to read dramatically where someone unfamiliar with it will stumble through the passage. As a listener, you will hear the difference.

Another drawback to group reading is that you are among such close friends that they will tell you that it is wonderful when it is not.

Also, if you are limited to reading a chapter per meeting, the group will judge each chapter as its presentation. They will miss the flow or lack of flow between chapters and fail to recognize whether or not you carried every thread of the plot to its conclusion.

We need feedback that we trust. There are always professional critiques. But there are also others out there in the same situation. Consider trading critiques with someone in the same genre and in or above your stage in writing. For groups, consider silent reading instead of reading aloud. An editor will read your manuscript silently.

We eventually changed the group routine. We printed out three copies of passages. That way, only three commented. The reader wrote comments on a blank page at the end with no knowledge of the others’ comments. They couldn’t build momentum, and if all or a majority made the same comment, you could be sure that you needed to revise that portion. It was private so that no writer felt as if they were the honored guest at a public hanging.

However you share your manuscripts, remember that when it is published it will have only your name on it. You are the final word. If you believe enough, hang in there. Write on!


WHO SAID THAT? When Characters Speak, They Should Have Something to Say


Dialogue gives life to our stories. It speeds up the story and adds spice and action. We learn a lot about the characters from how they speak to others. How the characters speak is as important as what they say. A whispered phrase might be sinister or a confidence shared. We have more than our outside or inside voices. Some of us speak differently to children and older people. We speak to the boss that can hire or fire us differently from how and where we talk to our peers. We may sound one way when we are meeting someone for the first time as we cautiously decide how we feel about that stranger.

We would much rather read one character’s fiery accusations and the recipient’s red hot retort than learning in exposition that Sue and Jeff argued. Readers like being eye witnesses.

Putting words into someone else’s mouth might seem daunting for writers, but it is essential to making the characters come alive for our readers. To achieve that, we must give them voices that are uniquely theirs.  A five-year-old doesn’t sound like a college professor unless we are portraying a precocious child. I once worked for a professor who greeted us in the small office as if he were at the podium of an amphitheater. I often wondered how he spoke over his morning coffee with his wife. Since she called him “Doc” instead of his given name, I imagine it was no different. I filed him away in my writer’s notebook alongside the boisterous airport waitress who called everyone honey. I used her in my novel, Singin’ Somebody Else’s Song. I’m still looking for a story the pompous prof will fit.

One way to make your character’s dialogue unique is to consider his background and interests. A man who made his living on the sea, when pushed to do something he doesn’t want to do, might refuse by saying, “Thanks, but I sail my own ship.” An aviator in the same situation might say, “I’m never too proud to turn back. I’d rather be laughed at than cried for.” An artist sees life in colors, form, and composition. You’ll find plenty of help with those on the web by typing in an occupation or ethnicity and add “sayings.”

Imagine yourself chatting with your friend over a cup of coffee. If you wouldn’t use a word in that conversation, don’t put it into the mouths of your characters.

We strive to give the essence of natural dialogue without getting our readers’ tongues twisted, in the same way, we offer the essence of real life but without the disorganization. We pick up expressions and idioms common to the regions we live. It helps make our character identifiable and colorful. “He’s as common as pig tracks” might be foreign to a native of Queens, NY, but it is as natural as barbecue to a rural Texan. In a mystery, a linguist or astute detective might suspect that a character is lying if he swears he has lived in a region all of his life.

Only someone unfamiliar with the expression would use “y’all,” or worse yet, “yall,” for a singular reference.  It is plural, with the apostrophe subbing for “ou” the same as it subs for the “no” in cannot.  And although some Texans omit the t or g sound in pronouncing some words, and some Bostonians might say Linder instead of Linda, readers get annoyed when we must struggle through a lot of phonetically-written dialogue.

It might be better to try it once and then revert to the correct spelling. No matter what the differences are in our pronunciations, we spell words the same. It also applies to depicting characters for whom English is a second language.  You might check the online dictionaries and perhaps adapt the native speech pattern briefly using it before reverting to easily readable dialogue.  Throw in a foreign word familiar to the speaker as if he were struggling to recall the Anglicized word, and we get the message. For example, “I go now to the supermarché.” Or “Telephone me, s’il vous plaît.” It doesn’t take much to put the idea across.

Tags for some reason are troublesome to new writers. Tags help readers know who is speaking and more importantly, how they say it. Words are spoken, articulated, nattered, expressed, told, stated, voiced, declared, and communicated. They are preached, lectured, chatted, yelled, whispered, etc. Some of these verbs depict a calm exchange of ideas. Others indicate an attitude. That doesn’t mean that we have to use all of them.  Too much variety becomes comical and distracting.

There is nothing wrong with the word, said, in ordinary dialogue. For the most part, it is unobtrusive [as long as you don’t reverse it to “said she”]. After a few lines, it fades away from the reader’s consciousness, and they treat dialogue almost like a play script.

That is a good indicator that we can forego tags in many circumstances. When only two people are conversing, and you establish that they respond to each other, you can omit the tag.

Another way to do it is to initiate an action. For example:

Angela slammed her book down on the table. “You are breaking up with me?”

Benson crossed his arms and returned her glare. “It should come as no surprise.”

Punctuation in dialogue is inside the quotation marks.  I see that violated in many manuscripts that I critique. Another common error is an abuse of the exclamation point. More than one can’t make the dialogue any more emphatic. While I’m at it, we never use exclamation points in exposition. And we rarely use them in dialogue. Exclamation points are the equivalent of yelling. Nor do we write the dialogue in capital letters to indicate loud voices. The exclamation point loses its credibility when overused. Let the words carry the emphasis.

We use dialogue to move the story forward while revealing something about our characters.  If you contrast what your character says to what she thinks, it doubles the impact. For example:

                Sarah stared at her feet. “Yes, ma’am. I understand.” I understand you better than you think, you old bat. “It won’t happen again, Miss Summers.”

Above all, keep dialogue natural and to the point. A lengthy conversation about how windmills generate power is far from subtle. It is better to use a brief sentence of exposition.

And this final thought: Sentence structure can convey the mood. Full sentences are leisurely and in calm times. Fragments are okay when the character under duress. For example:

Jacob grabbed the phone and dialed.

The voice on the other end was calm. “911. What is your emergency?”

“Help! My dad! He’s not breathing!”

“The address according to Caller I.D. is 819 South. Is that correct?”

“Wha- uh, yeah.”

“I am dispatching an EMT to that address. Do you know CPR?”


“I can talk you through it. Put the phone on speaker.”

The contrast between the frantic boy and the calm operator adds tension and emphasizes Jacob’s fear.

When your characters speak to one another, we hear them too. If the conversation is mundane, we tune them out and lose interest. Sometimes it not what they say but what they don’t say. Readers look for the body language, and subtleties as the characters talk—that steely stare, that tick at the corner of his mouth, or the side glance over her shoulder, tell us more than their words. They are like subtitles to the conversation.  There is a bit of magic in dialogue. What can you pull from your top hat? That’s how I approach dialogue. I welcome your comments and helpful hints about how you deal with dialogue.



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I read an online article last week in which the author said that agents or perhaps it was editors, read manuscripts hoping to find flaws because they just couldn’t wait to toss it in the trash and be done with it. I don’t recall who wrote that. His name was not familiar, and I could barely see it anyway for seeing red. It struck me as utter nonsense. If I had believed that they considered themselves guardians against submissions, I would never have submitted my first manuscript decades ago.

There was a time when traditional publishing was easier. In the 1960’s the government had a program that funded textbooks and library books. I believe it was called Title II. It brought on an onslaught of books, many of them pretty poorly written. I entered the field just as the program ended, and the consensus was that the heyday was over for picture books. I sold six the following year. So much for that prediction. One of them required shortening by half. Another one needed the first person viewpoint changed to third person viewpoint. So both were flawed, but the editors saw something in the manuscripts that made them willing to take the time to help me make them publishable.

Editors and agents would be out of work if they had no manuscripts to edit or sell. New editors are anxious to acquire their stable of reliable, producing writers. One editor described it this way:

The slush pile [unsolicited manuscripts] sits at the edge of the desk. Every spare moment, including the commute between office and home, he opens a file to read. He takes a bunch home to browse on the weekend. He described how he reads the first page. If it had merit, he places it face down on his ample stomach and reads the second. Faster and faster he flips the pages and realizes that he is smiling. This one goes in the pile to consider. Most go in the pile of thanks but no thanks. Another goes into the third stack, to suggest revisions. That doesn’t sound like someone anxious to toss, does it?

Another editor told me that she read the title in the cover letter and wanted the story to stand up to it so that she could buy it. But that was then when editors took the time to tell you why they were rejecting or making suggestions for changes and resubmission.

It’s my opinion only, and you may disagree, but I think that impatience and misused technology is the reason so many publishers have closed their doors to all but agent submissions. When I first began, it was either manual or electric typewriter. The unwritten rule was that you should have a completely clean first page and no more than three typos corrected in pencil or white-out on the remaining pages. It meant a lot of retyping, and each retyping brought about revisions and a better manuscript.

Along came computers. How grand that we could correct and rewrite to our heart’s content before committing another tree’s worth of paper. But now we could make as many copies as we wanted with no effort at all. Enter the multiple submissions. Writers flooded publishers with submissions. The first readers could not handle the volume. Poor manuscripts multiplied like algae. Good manuscripts took valuable time while the editor explored potential illustrators, priced paper, glue, ink, print, binding, etc. to see what she could offer a newbie as an advance. At least one author I know of snapped up the first offer. The second, more attractive offer from a more prestigious publisher, arrived later. That publisher had invested a good bit in preparation and wasn’t likely to do that again.

So now we deal with closed houses. Those that do read unsolicited manuscripts tell us to wait, and if we don’t hear in six months, they aren’t interested. They probably tossed it months ago. My southern heart is incensed by the rudeness as I recall the days of adding a stamped address postcard to my manuscript where the reader could simply put it in the out box so that I knew it arrived. A SASE meant your manuscript would be returned for revision or sent elsewhere.

I still send a manuscript to one publisher at a time and tell them that it is exclusively theirs for consideration for three months, after which I will feel free to send it elsewhere. My method isn’t for everyone. But I want them to know that I chose them because I believe we are a good fit. I pay little attention to mail addressed to Occupant. I wonder if editors give much thought about multiple submissions.

NAMING CHARACTERS: Rose May Not Smell So Sweet


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“A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That may be so in Shakespeare’s world, but not so much in our writing. Imagine reading the classic novel, Gone with the Wind, if the heroine was not Scarlett, but Pansy. I read that was her original name until a wise editor suggested to change it. As strong as the story is, I can’t imagine it affecting us the way it does if Pansy had been the heroine, can you? How would To Kill a Mockingbird affect you if Scout were Agnes, or if Bo was called Clark or Rhett? In this age when celebrities name their offspring Apple, Blanket, and every other imaginable inanimate object, it might be tempting to come up with unique and presumably unforgettable character names. In most cases, that might not be the best decision.

Personally, I am no more impulsive in naming my characters than I was in naming our offspring. They were going to carry the name through life, and the females would have the option of adding their spouse’s name should they marry. My first newspaper job was writing the nuptial news, and I came across some pretty ludicrous combinations. Unless we writers want to make the name a point of contention in our story, we need to consider our options carefully. I start out with a general idea of my characters, but it isn’t until I’ve done a lot of agonizing soul-searching to find the perfect name that they grow flesh and bone. Some names are common to a region, socioeconomic status, or even faith. Others sound different in Brooklyn, Los Angeles or Providence. Consider how they might be shortened or turned into a nickname.

It is often tempting to name characters after our friends or relatives. I know of one writer that lets someone pay to have their name in her stories and then donates the fee. I can’t see myself doing that. We writers must give our characters flaws and challenges. When it is someone we know, we might be cautious not to offend and wind up creating a character that is too blah to be interesting.

Given names sometimes blend or clash with the character’s personality and appearance. If we want a touch of humor, we might name a klutz Grace or an underachiever Les. But mostly we look for names that fit so well that we cannot imagine any other choice, a name that doesn’t outshine the personality. In some ways, it defines the character.

I needed a strong name for the teen boy in Singin’ Somebody Else’s Song. He was ranch-born, sturdy of spirit and body, morally incorruptible, so I browsed the dictionary of Bible names for a week, saying the names aloud until Gideon clicked and an image of him formed. I needed something rural for a surname and rummaged through my vision of ranch life until Bullock seemed a perfect fit. Gideon Bullock came to life.

We have some great resources online and in specialized books to help us come to the important decision. If you are writing a contemporary story, a quick check on the web will reveal the most popular names in descending order in any given year. Other sites give you names common in other countries and other eras. You can find surnames and their meanings and origins. If you are writing science fiction or myth, the dictionary of new age names is helpful. I won’t list addresses here. They are multitudinous and often change in the web search.

As we expand our cast of characters, we might keep in mind that too similar names become confusing to our readers. I got completely lost recently in a story with two Ed’s and a Rick, Nick, and Dick. I had to keep flipping back to when each was introduced to keep them straight. If readers have to start jotting notes, we’re in trouble. It’s a good idea to make an alphabetized list of your entire cast, including those walk-in’s that say their piece and disappear from the story. Look for and consider changing rhyming names [Harry and Larry, etc.], and names that start with the same letter or sound. Can you see your way clear to rename one of them? Make sure that not everyone has one-syllable names [Sam, Bill, Tim]. Consider an alternative to names that are difficult to pronounce or spell.

For those who write for children, it is especially important not to get too cutesy with names, especially when it comes to anthropomorphic stories. Editors find Barry Bear and Perry Parakeet and the like a big turn-off. I once made an exception to that in my Penrod and Griswold early reader series. There was no better name for the little porcupine, the grumpy old bear’s nemesis. I could get away with it because once I gave their full names only once. After that, their ID is established and not only unnecessary but annoying and wordy.

Sign up to be notified about new articles. If you joined after August 2013, see my archives for articles that you may have missed. I’m interested in your feedback. Here are a few sites by fellow authors, where you’ll find additional inspiration and discussions on subjects vital to writers:
Vijaya Bodach:
Kristi Holl:
Christine Kohler:




With most publishers closed to authors without agents, and agents almost as elusive, self-marketing your manuscript seems like a daunting job. The market has changed drastically over the years, and certainly not for the better.

Only a limited number of publishers maintain open doors. The slush pile seems headed for the same fate as the Dodo bird. Among publishers that continue to read unsolicited manuscripts, the trend is not to respond unless they are interested. They would have you twiddle your thumbs for six months when they may or may not have rejected your manuscript the moment it came through the door. Impatience and frustration continue to drive many to self-publishing. That’s fine if you are into writing more for fun than profit. But those of us who prefer traditional publishing, we have two options: For one, we can hand over the business of selling to a third party. Agents are supposed to be experts at that. They know the secret knock on those closed doors, right? The Let them catch those annoying rejections and call us when they have an offer. I’ll save the pros and cons of that are for another day.

The alternative is to be your own advocate. I don’t know if it makes you feel better at the idea, but of the more than a hundred sold titles I sold over the last decades, only was by an agent. To the contrary, I nearly lost the sale I had already made when a different agent offended my editor with too many [unreasonable?] demands. The long drought put my confidence at an all-time low until we parted ways. It took a few years, but I sold five more books on my own. The moral of the anecdote is that selling without an agent happens.

My mantra is Writing is a Pleasure; Selling is a Business. We would rather be writing. Ideas stack up like planes during the holiday season. Life makes demands, and studying the market is time-consuming. However, it could be well worth your time. You budget your time to write, so why not set aside a portion of that time to market? It could be a day out of your week or an hour out of your day. By making it a routine time, you are more likely not to blow it off.

You might already own the annual market books that list publishers, addresses, submission requirements, and the percentage of un-agented manuscripts they publish. They list the genre and for children’s publishers, the ages for whom they publish. There is a drawback. By the time the book is available, some information is obsolete. Editors move. requirements change, and houses are absorbed by bigger companies or vanish. You need to update the information.

The industry magazines, The Writer and The Writer’s Digest, help. However, the information might be at least a month old. Your best source for requirements is the publishers’ websites. Publisher’s Weekly gives the best industry news about changing personnel. I made my first book sale when I saw an interview with a new editor. In the photo, she was holding a cat. Although I had submitted the manuscript to that house a year before, a new editor meant a different taste. Since the main character of the story was a cat, I figured that she’d be more receptive and popped it into the mail the same day. I got the call four days later. She bought it. Publisher’s Weekly is expensive, but libraries usually subscribe.

It is tempting to submit to the publishers who buy the most unsolicited manuscripts since the odds seem better. That’s not necessarily so. Your manuscript might be the perfect fit for the publisher releasing only one or two titles a year. That’s where smart research comes in. The market blurb is not the whole story. Show Don’t Tell works as well with marketing as with writing.

Years ago, I sent for the catalogs from every publisher that I could. Now you can find them online. Your local library may have the hard copies. You’ll have to ask and maybe trade your first born for a peek, but it’s cheaper. The Spring and Fall catalogs with their backlists tell you a complete story about the publisher. Let’s say you have written an anthropomorphic picture book. Perhaps the publisher’s market blurb says they publish ten picture books a season and the second publisher publishes only two a year. A look at the catalogs shows that the ten picture books and those in the backlist are all realistic, and the smaller publisher lists both stories with animals living as people. Which one will be more receptive?
My earliest sales were picture books and a novella. In my catalog perusals, I fell in love with the choices of illustrations. I could visualize my story with that artist. The next step was to take a trip to the library and read some of their books. I saw that their books were the minimalist style that I used and that my story would be a good fit. The editor bought the manuscript and asked for more. He eventually bought four before I moved on to a different style and genre more suitable for other houses.

Look at the catalog index. Most publishers list titles by genre. There you can see categories they didn’t mention in their short market blurbs. Pay special attention to the books that they say are by first-time authors. It takes a real commitment of resources to invest in an unknown and unproven author. They are counting on that beginner to write many more for them. Read that book. Analyze what it is that made them take a chance. Is your manuscript ready to compete with that?
Read titles by that publisher. Do you feel that in a line-up, your story will stand out? It should be a good fit because it just might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Good luck!



An aspiring writer, when asked what her goals were, replied, “I want to write a bestseller so that I can live on the beach and donate millions to the less privileged.” Ambitious and benevolent—you have to admire that combination. She was about three planets away from the real world, though. About two weeks into the class, she presented me with three typewritten pages and said that she had finished her novel. Stunned when I asked where the rest of it was, she said that was the entirety. I told her that she was about 375 pages short. She tossed the pages in the trash can on her way out of the class, and I never saw her again. As with a few aspiring writers, her goals were beyond her willingness to put in the time and work.

Most novices have a more grounded notion about what it takes to be a seller, let alone a “best” seller. None of us start out saying, “I want to write a mediocre manuscript that no one will read.” We want to feel successful. Defining success is more elusive. To one it may be to salvage three strong pages from the ten produced that day. To those who wish more than they work, you are impressive if you received a complimentary rejection.

A sure way to sabotage your idea of success is to compare yourself to someone else without realizing that there were many rungs on the ladder to get there. Only imaginary superheroes can leap to the top in one mighty bound. It helped me to set small goals, plateaus of minor successes, little rungs on the ladder to feel the least bit successful:

  • To study the best writing examples and learn from professionals
  • To stop apologizing for being an unpublished writer
  • To write the best manuscript possible
  • To research the best potential publishers still open to submissions
  • To list at least five potential publishers and to submit to the firsts on the list
  • To get a favorable comment, even buried in a rejection, by an editor
  • To revise a manuscript according to an editor’s suggestion
  • To sell a manuscript
  • To have my title featured on the catalog cover
  • To be reviewed by a major magazine or newspaper
  • To be invited to speak locally
  • To be invited to speak elsewhere
  • To sign books at a national conference
  • To receive fan letter [that is not a class assignment]
  • To be reprinted in paperback and foreign language or short film
  • To achieve name recognition

My list of baby steps follows one title. Think of it as a round-robin song. The best plan is to continue to write the best manuscripts possible and to follow all of the steps with each one. The moment you send out one manuscript, you begin another.

You’ll notice that there is no mention of winning awards, bestsellers, or dictating that next novel beneath the shade of a cabana on the beach. They came, but I was surprised at how short-lived the feeling of success was. My thoughts were always on the current manuscript. “Success” is addictive. One taste and it becomes the white whale in your life.

Ask any writer that you consider the epitome of success, and you will find that they have traits in common:

  • They strive daily to improve
  • They are not easily discouraged but see failures as a learning experience
  • They find their own voice instead of following what’s currently “hot”
  • They accept constructive criticism as a tool to better their writing
  • Although they have long-term goals, they have mini-interim goals

There might be a few success stories that make you want to skip some steps. I doubt seriously that more than a handful of authors were ever an “overnight success.” Rowling had 13 rejections before she sold her first Harry Potter. But if you make that first goal to write the best you are capable, good things can happen. Good luck!


ONCE MORE WITH FEELING: Check Points Before You Send Your Manuscript


Before you submit your manuscript, here are some points you can check for yourself:

Title: Is the title provocative? Aside from your cover letter, the title is the first thing about your manuscript that the editor will see. A dull, unprovocative title doesn’t bode well for your style. The editor that bought my non-fiction book, Hats Are for Watering Horses, told me that she fell in love with the title immediately. “Only a poor manuscript would have prevented me from my instant decision to buy it based on the title alone.”
Put as much thought into your title as you do in your plot. List the possibilities, and wait until you are satisfied with your manuscript before you make your final selection. It should give us the essence without telescoping the story, i.e. “Suzie Goes Shopping.” Perhaps something like “A Bag of Surprises” would tempt the reader better.

Introduction: Is the opening sentence a strong one? Do the first few sentences or paragraphs let the reader know who, what, when, where, and why of the story? Does the story begin too far back? Start with the moment the situation changes. We don’t need to get up, bathe, brush teeth, dress, eat breakfast, pack, etc. to go to Grandma’s. Start with the arrival, or better yet, start with the first time the protagonist stomps off angrily.

Character: Is your main character [protagonist] the most important one in the story? Is he/she interesting, likable and well-rounded [believable]? Is he/she the correct age for your readers? Can your readers visualize the protagonist through his/her actions, description and dialogue? Would the story be the same even if he/she were not in it? You need to rethink your cast of characters.]
Does the protagonist have a real problem that is appropriate for his/her age? Is it one the readers can recognize? Can he/she solve the problem without help? Have you kept to a single viewpoint? Review the manuscript to be sure that ONLY your protagonist’s thoughts and senses are overt. Show all other characters objectively, i.e., what you observe within your main character’s sight and earshot. Verbs like “thought, heard, saw, etc.” are for your main character only.

Style: Have you used strong action verbs? People don’t just walk. They amble, pace, totter, or stomp, according to their mood. Are the tone, style, and general feeling, portrayed in keeping with the time and setting? Does it move quickly toward the climax? Is the ending satisfactory with no loose ends, pat endings or coincidence? Did you omit obvious and extraneous explanations? Do the last several sentences wrap up logically? Does it leave you with a feeling that “justice” or that there is at least hope, if not a happy ending? Is it clear in unhappy endings that it was the character’s choice?
Is your dialogue natural? Does it move the plot forward? Does the story flow smoothly between scenes? [A simple “Back home,” or “Later” moves the protagonist from school to home. We don’t need the bus ride.] Have you kept the moral from hanging out there in plain sight? [SHOW the change in your character; don’t just tell us.]
Did you find weak spots that need to be deleted or strengthening? Are there gaps that need transitions or explanations? Is there variety in sentence structure? Do you have passive sentences [“started to,” “began to,” “was walking.” Did you eliminate verbatim greetings: “Hello. How are you? I am fine,” etc.]

Length: Editors reject beautifully written stories because they are longer than the magazines stated length allowance. Even books have limits for financial reasons. Check out the magazine markets for limits. No story truly suffers from cutting, and I’ve yet to see one bleed. Go through your story. Are there whole scenes that can be cut and the story still make sense? Is it still too long? Check for whole paragraphs, and then for sentences within the saved paragraphs. Look for unnecessary words within the saved sentences [So, well, really, very, just, even, at all, certainly, definitely, exactly, anyway, some, all of a sudden, there is, it is, forms of to be.]

There is a time to let go. When you have done the best you can at that moment, follow the publisher’s guidelines for submissions. Not many publishers have the courtesy of saying “no thanks” anymore. Mark your calendar for when you should move on to the next. Put it out of your mind and start a new story. If the recipient publisher lacks the foresight to purchase your baby, take the opportunity to reread your manuscript with a fresh eye. Chances are, you’ll find a few things you want to change before sending it to the next. That’s a good indication that you are growing as a writer. Celebrate!



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It’s probably time for a disclaimer here. I don’t have the key every editor’s heart. If I did, I doubt that I’d have a chance to write this, because I have many more ideas than willing publishers. What I can tell you is how I presented what became become series.
Series take a commitment from everyone involved: editor, illustrator/cover designer, advertising department, sales representatives, and you the writer. The only one you have any control over is you. To convince the publisher that you have what it takes to sustain a series is your first job. That calls for consistent style, content, and fresh ideas.

For that, you will probably need one completed manuscript, and at least a detailed chapter outline for the second book plus a brief summary of the third idea. I have found that summarizing as many situations as you can think of gives the editor some choices for what she believes are the stronger ideas. More than that, you need to create a series concept or legend. It is not only a selling point but also functions as a guide for consistency throughout the series life. You’d be surprised how many details slip from memory from book to book.

A series concept includes:
• A statement about the series intent, the theme, the intended audience, estimated length and background. You need a short, snappy sales pitch. Think about those paragraph teases on the back cover to peak a reader’s interest in the story. It is a general roundup with the main character, problem, and climax. Notice that I did not say denouement. I made that mistake only once. When I sent the full manuscript, the editor told me the ending was no surprise so that it didn’t work for her. After that, I use a question: Will Makenna win the race against the clock and find the killer before he finds her?

• State whether you see this as a limited series or open-ended. Perhaps you want to cover only the rookie year of a cop, follow an entire career to retirement, or keep going as long as the fans are faithful. Will you start with retirement and look back on a long and productive career or will you present the stories chronologically?• What is the recurring theme?
• Will it be a single viewpoint or will it alternate between characters, and will you use first person or third person?

A legend includes:
• A backstory for your main character with details about how he/she came to be who he/she is: the turning point and major personality-forming events. They aren’t born on page one. You may only vaguely refer to that in the story but knowing this will help you to know how your main character will react in situations. We may moderate our behavior to be acceptable, but people do not change all that much. Series main characters change little, although most readers prefer the essence of a real person with real everyday problems to a super hero that
cannot be challenged emotionally as well as physically. Readers don’t want a character which is shy and cautious in one book and sticking her head in a lion’s mouth in the next. Know your character well before you begin and stick with him or her.
• A directory of recurring characters with their physical descriptions, including tics, chronic gestures, and posture; personality traits; weaknesses, strengths, education background, family, hobbies, skills, and anything that will make your character unique. Once you have your permanent characters, add the other characters that are unique to the first book. You may want to bring them on later for a reason you have yet to consider. As you write subsequent stories, add new ones to the directory and the book in which they appear. You’ll thank me later when you need that chatty waitress from book two to tell your hero entered the diner at closing time in book five
• Location, location, location. It is common for writers to set their stories in real cities. Check out Edie Clare’s Pittsburg in her Leigh Kostow Mysteries or Lisa Scottolini’s ethnic neighborhoods in Philadelphia in her Rosato & DiNunzio mysteries. I most often use imaginary towns since I don’t want to have a murder in a real establishment. I draw a rudimentary map. Characters do not operate in limbo. They have dwellings, cities or villages, places of work, or in the case of children’s stories, schools, playgrounds, and sports fields. You don’t have to be an architect to draw a layout of the neighborhood or town or a floor plan of the house or apartment. When the sun comes up will it shine through his bedroom window? As she walks out the door to go to work or catch the school bus, does she face the sun? What sort of flora and fauna are there? Does fall come early? Do trees shed leaves or are there evergreens? Is it hurricane-prone or drought-prone? Establish these details need to be in your legend. Look around the main character’s home. Is it furnished in contemporary, traditional, garage sale cast-offs? Is it newly built (think fresh paint smells and hollow echoes) or an old fixer upper (creaky floors and settling foundations and tons of old paint to scrape?

Keep in mind that your readers might not read your first story first. Even series books should be stand-alone stories that make sense when you read them out of order. Your characters may be familiar to you, but the third or fourth book may be the first time your readers have met them. Introduce them as if this is their first appearance. You always wrap up the current mystery, and it is a good idea not to refer to other books in the series in the text. The publisher will take care of other titles on a separate page. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a secondary story that runs through the series. Sebastian’s human John [in the Sebastian (Super Sleuth) series] started out with no girlfriend and worked his way through awkward dates to being engaged by the time the circumstances cancel the series. Poor guy never got to tie the knot before the series ended. Few of us get a warning that our gravy train is pulling into the station for the final time so that we can tie up loose ends in the last. Lin Hill in the Thumbprint series started as a single mother, met the dreamy hunk coroner in the second book, and became engaged in the third one. Alas, no wedding bells for Lin, although I bounce around an idea of a sleuth couple series on occasion.

Another suggestion is to keep the books about the same length. It is a good idea to go back and read your previously published book in the series. That helps you to stay grounded with your sustaining characters. Your personal style changes as you grow as a writer, but you don’t want the shock to be too drastic for your fans.
Most of all, love your character. You’ll hopefully be with him or her a long time. No matter how many other books you want to write, you can’t abandon the deadlines. Nor can you pass off an inferior story because you are bored. Starting a series is like a marriage. Be sure that you are ready to produce a manuscript every year, six months or even two months in some cases.

Get busy with those ideas. To present them, summarize in 100 words or less. Make them snappy. Choose your words wisely as if you are paying a fortune per word. Rewrite until they are the best you can make them, because selling the idea may depend on them. Titles can make or break the chances of being read, so spend some time, think of every alternative you can. A few ideas I have sold based on the title alone: The Purloined Sirloin and The Mysterious Case Case, for instance. Browse the book lists on-line and in-store, and you will see that many are a play on puns.

Part III: Not all series are self-generated, but we’ll leave house-generated series to another time because they have their challenges as well as perks.

Series by Mary Blount Christian


THUMBPRINT SERIES [Contemporary/McGraw-Hill]








Writing your series seems like real security to many writers. And it is if only for the limited time it is profitable for the publisher. It is like steady employment with a more or less reliable income that is a rarity in this extremely iffy chicken or feathers world. No better examples of the (rare) extreme high end of that than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and James Patterson’s steady stream of books as himself and as little Jimmy Patterson. On the (extremely) modest end, my own Sebastian (Super Sleuth) series during its fourteen-book run for children financed college, cars and home renovations that my family would otherwise not have.
 Series are popular with writers because their sales are predictable. You grow a built-in base of loyal fans that are as attached to your characters as you are. As their creator, you view the characters as old friends. You know just how they’d react in any situation. Instead of starting from scratch creating the characters and setting, you have only the adventure and “guest” characters to figure out.
If we create characters that are unique yet universal and understandable yet complicated enough to appeal to readers we often are not ready to let go of them just because they had one experience. We imagine them in various other situations and start thinking series. If we are lucky, our readers feel that way too. Some even write asking what they are doing now as if they are real people. I just completed reading a series of twelve generational books on three families and how they interact, and I feel like asking, “What? Is that it?”
You’ll find series in non-fiction or fiction for children, teens, and adults in nearly all genres. Some are house-generated and have many different authors. But for this article, we’ll stick to self-created series fiction. The market books I’ve looked at do not have specific listings for publishers who take series ideas. We must assume that they do consider them unless they state that they do not. That is why we use queries! Browse on-line booksellers and your area libraries, and you’ll find a plethora of romance, mystery and suspense, and science fiction series among others. Mysteries—cozies, romantic thrillers and cold-blooded—flood the market, but if they weren’t popular with readers, there wouldn’t be so many coming out weekly.
Romance and combination mystery/romance series are equally abundant. They vary from waiting for the first kiss on the last page through subtle suggestion in Sarah Graves’ Jacobia Tiptree mysteries to the overt and frequent scenes in the Arcane Society books written by Jayne Anne Krentz using her pseudonyms Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle depending on the era.
Coming up with a unique character and situation may seem like a daunting assignment, but you are limited only by your imagination. Domestic crafts are popular backdrops for women’s mysteries, especially the cozies, where any romance is a la ‘50’s or altogether absent. There is certainly more than one female character baking cupcakes or working in a flower shop and sleuthing on the side.
You’ll find needlecraft and kitchen skills are popular and oft-used occupations. There are so many it’s a wonder they don’t bump into each other and join forces to fight crime. What is your special interest? Just because Tolle painting or macramé is old hat to you doesn’t mean it won’t be interesting to the rest of us. These help round out a character and offer breaks between snooping. Could making little houses from Popsicle sticks or creating celebrity portraits from dryer lint be the next craze? If you discover that you have selected the main character with an oft-used occupation you can always create something unique about him or her, perhaps she is wheelchair-bound or hang-glider or can read lips—you decide.
Teasing a publisher into committing to multiple contracts may be a hard sell before the first book proves that it is a success. It is especially difficult if you don’t already have some trade credits establishing you as a steady producer. My editor told me that it may take three books before they know for sure that a series could be a successful series. They must see that the second and third books sell better each time and also cause the new fans to purchase back copies. You will need to have a complete first manuscript and a detailed chapter outline for the second book plus at least a third summary for your third. Having at least short summaries of other ideas will demonstrate that you are thinking ahead, and one of those may appeal more to your editor who is familiar with the tastes of those who frequent their books. Every publisher has an individual identity, or as they are fond of saying these days, a platform.
You may need to convince the publisher that yours is similar enough to be a good fit for their list but different enough to stand out. And fair or not, being “as good as” won’t be enough to break in. Yours must be better. Furthermore, once you have the first one out you will be competing not only with other authors but with yourself.
You may get a first book contract with an option clause to buy future books featuring the same character. It’s a buyer’s market. Like any gamble, the odds are always in the house’s favor. Your original editor may leave, and her replacement is less than enthusiastic about continuing, or the house has new owners who decide to go in a different direction. It has happened to me. It has happened to others. Don’t despair. Soft drink cans aren’t the only thing recyclable.
With a few adjustments J. J. Leggett for first readers became Deke in the “Determined Detectives” for skilled readers early readers, and then became a slightly older Fenton P. Smith in “Undercover Detectives” for middle readers with different houses. The Goosehill Gang after a fourteen book run recycled into the Sherlock Street Detectives with the same editor at a different house and no one was the wiser. As for ideas I simply consulted my original list of ideas and decided how a slightly different personality would handle them. Who knows? Someday Sebastian might morph into a cat that can solve all those unused ideas when Simon & Schuster swallowed Macmillan. But first, we have to convince a publisher that 1) the series is right for them, and 2) you are capable of generating at least two a year.
Series characters of yesteryears were less dimensional than other main characters. Even now you’ll find a few throwbacks where the woman solves mysteries just because she enjoys it—no training, no responsibility, just curiosity. She gets in the way of the official police investigation and risks her life to assuage her curiosity. But you’re a better writer than that. Figure out a reason, a vested interest in finding the solution—love of someone wrongly accused, the need to prove one’s worth, something that makes it understandable to keep snooping when logic says to dial 911.
With so many amateur sleuths prowling the bookshelves, especially with similar occupations and lifestyles, it’s a good idea to add some reality to create a unique character that will stand out from the hundreds of series already published. Everyone has personal problems, whether it is a child with dyslexia or an ex-spouse who is behind on child support or can’t accept that it’s over. Real people have bad hair days and hangnails. Their vehicles break down, and their cell phones die. The need to read about characters that remind us of ourselves holds true even in our unsinkable series heroes and heroines, too.
                              NEXT: Part 2/Build-a-Kit to [Maybe] Convince a Publisher