October 29, 2012

The most fun I’ve had with a novel in a long time

AmberlyAmberly by Mary E.  Hall

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amberly is a light fantasy of the type Caprice Hokstad calls "Sword Opera." It's set in a storyworld modeled after 18th-century Europe. The greater conflict between Royalists and Anti-Monarchists is mirrored in the relationship between Marsten, a Royalist, and Eleanor, whose father leads the Anti-Monarchists. But both factions are united when their nation is invaded by enemy forces.

Hall has created a rich storyworld full of engaging characters. Each person is a well-rounded yet multifaceted individual. Her dialogue and narrative are beautifully written, with snappy banter and vivid sensory detail.

After a rousing opening sequence in which Marsten heroically rescues Eleanor from a band of invaders, the beginning slows down a bit as they travel cross-country to get her home. Romance blooms, and sparks fly when they reach her hometown of Amberly and her Royalist sweetheart meets the Anti-Monarchist family.

I enjoy the monarcy/democracy debate, an element rarely seen in fantasy fiction, which is usually staunchly monarchist. Hall accepts no easy answers, mainly because there are none and partly because, well, there’s Book 2…which I eagerly anticipate.

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October 23, 2012

Publishing Q&A: Do you need a professional editor?

© JJAVA - Fotolia.com
This question came up several times during the recent Florida Writers Association conference.  Sometimes it was "Do you need a professional editor to work on your manuscript before you self-publish?" and other times it was "Do you need a professional editor to work on your manuscript before you submit for traditional publication?" Answers varied. Some said yes, unequivocally, and others said a good writer can produce a quality manuscript without help.

My answer falls somewhere between.

If you're preparing a manuscript for submission to agents or publishing houses, you may not need a paid editor. A good critique group and beta readers should help you get your manuscript polished enough for submission.

The difference? Critique partners usually read your manuscript a scene or a chapter at a time. They are good for copyediting-type feedback like grammar and spelling. Beta readers read the whole book in one go, just like a buying reader would. They are good for developmental-type feedback like character motivation and plot consistency. You need both.

If you are self-publishing, you must, at the very least, get a copyeditor. A copyeditor will check grammar, spelling, punctuation, and stylistic consistency. Ideally, your self-published book will go through every level of editing, though if you are an experienced writer, you may be able to get away without a developmental edit.

Do not skimp on proofreading. Get at least one proofreader who has not seen the manuscript before. Three is better. And you are still likely to go to press with errors in your book, because human beings are imperfect. But the more fresh eyes you have on your manuscript, the more likely you are to catch the mistakes.

But the real question is, do you need to pay for these services?

At the risk of putting myself out of work, I will say--maybe not. If you can find other writers who are at your skill level or above, you can often trade edits. But ideally, you want at least one editor who's above your skill level to evaluate your manuscript and tell you whether it's ready for submission or publication. Sometimes you can get this kind of critique through a workshop or writers' conference.

But then I have to ask, what is your timeframe? If you are in a hurry to publish, it may be faster to hire a professional who will give your project full attention than to rely on critique partners who will be editing in their spare time. And of course, you get what you pay for. The reason professionals are able to charge for these services is because we are highly trained and experienced.

Of one thing I am completely certain. No writer can edit herself. I have never denied this, but just to make the point, I'll share this story. I got pages back from a critique partner who pointed out an entirely unnecessary clause in my manuscript. See if you can spot it:
"Yes, sir." The barber draped a cloth around Dorrel's neck. With the sound of the barber's scissors clicking in his ears, Dorrel tried to figure out how to get into the palace.
If he posed as a groom, he could say he had taken a horse out for exercise. But the guards would know the palace grooms.
My clever critique partner pointed out that since the very next paragraph shows Dorrel's thought process, the phrase "Dorrel tried to figure out how to get into the palace" isn't needed, because it just tells us what he's going to do right before he does it. That was a major "D'oh!" moment for me. But it demonstrates that no one can edit herself. Not even an editor.

October 16, 2012

You can make a living writing

Neil Gaiman's inspirational university commencement address popped up on my YouTube page after I watched a Sally Hogshead video. I'm not sure why YouTube's algorithm classified these two speakers as comparable, but I'm glad it did, because Gaiman's talk fortified me like few others.

One of the first things he says is that he never expected to give such a speech, because he never graduated from college. Never even started.

This is one of the most reassuring things I've ever heard. Suddenly made me feel less ashamed of having dropped out of college. I mean, hey, at least I started. I have more college education than Neil Gaiman. Which adds rather a lot of weight to the argument that a college education may not be necessary.

Gaiman says he saw being an author as a mountain he had to hike to, and then climb. And he made decisions based on whether they would get him closer to the mountain. He started in journalism.

Why didn't I think of that?

More to the point, why didn't my English teachers or guidance counselors think of that? When I was in school and said "I want to be a writer,' people said "That's a nice hobby, but you can't make a living at it."

People working in an office
Monkey Business Images * iStockphoto
It wasn't until 20 years later, when I was sitting in a newsroom full of people making their living by writing, that I got irritated. Had I been told "try journalism," and ignored that advice because I thought journalism would be boring? I don't think so. I could be remembering wrong, but I just don't remember being offered options like copywriting or technical writing when I was in school.

Lacking both a clear goal and single-minded focus, I sort of blundered my way along, until I fell into journalism almost by accident.

It is difficult to make a living as a novelist. But, as Rachel Hauck once told me, "You can make money at it." It requires a lot of hard work, persistence, and Gaiman-like single-minded focus on the goal. And it is possible to earn a living from other kinds of writing in the meantime. Or at the same time.

When I compare life stories with other writers at conferences, I find that many of them heard the same thing when they were in school. "You can't make a living as a writer."

Yes, you can. You just have to broaden your definition of what "writer" means. And you have to keep moving toward the goal.

October 8, 2012

A charming heroine on a great epic quest

Curse Bearer by Rebecca P Minor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had the pleasure of reading a portion of this manuscript while it was still in development. The character of Danae Baledric has intrigued me ever since, and I’m delighted to see her story published so others can enjoy it as much as I have.

Minor creates well-rounded characters who are engaging and sympathetic. Her villains are perhaps too vile, with no reedeming characteristics whatsoever. But they are also chilling.

Some reviewers have described the beginning as slow. I disagree. The beginning is just what it needs to be. There’s action and suspense moving the story forward, and the pace increases as you get further into the plotline. This is well-done pacing.

Minor’s storyworld, which also appears in her Windrider Saga, is more richly imagined here, with more detailed descriptions and varied locales.

My one complaint -- and it’s hardly worth knocking a whole star off for it -- is that Minor reaches for a lofty tone that doesn’t quite ring true. I felt this in the Windrider Saga also—as if she’s trying to be the next J.R.R. Tolkein instead of being the first Rebecca P. Minor. In the passages where Minor has found her own voice, the writing sings. But every once in a while, there’s an off note. I have the same problem when I try to sing soprano.

That said, Minor does a great job of getting her heroine into more and deeper trouble as the story progresses. And since not all of those troubles are resolved, a sequel is in the offing. I’m looking forward to it.

Disclaimer: I was given an advance copy of this book for review purposes.

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October 1, 2012

I finally figured out what Pinterest is for

Pinterest screenshot. Need to describe a gothic church? There you go.
Every time a new social media network comes along, I resist. I do not need one more thing to occupy my time. For a long time, I felt that way about Pinterest, despite some excellent articles about how authors can use Pinterest.

For example, Heather A. Titus, one of my writing buddies from New Authors Fellowship, has a great collection of Pinterest boards related to her writing and other stuff.

I finally took the plunge when I came home from the ACFW conference with a conference program book full of ads for books. I’ve designed a couple of book covers for myself, and a couple for clients. But since my graphic design training is all from the newspaper business, which is totally different, I know I still have a lot to learn. So I wanted to start collecting book covers.
As I flipped through the program book, I thought about clipping the covers I liked and then scanning them, but that seemed like a hassle. And then I thought -- Pinterest.

So there you have it. I now have Pinterest boards for different genres that I can use for design inspiration.

I haven’t started amassing “inspiration” boards for my writing, as Heather has, but I did find another benefit to Pinterest. Just by typing in a single keyword from a novel I’m editing, I was able to get a lot of visual references to help my client develop her settings. I didn’t repin those search results to a new board. I figure I’ll just re-do the search if I need to, because I expect to get a whole new set of results.

This service is useful, but addictive. I can see I’m going to need to monitor my time on it carefully. But it’s worth it.