The day after Mother’s Day . . .

Originally posted on :

dead roses eg pic

How will you celebrate the remarkable women in YOUR life this Mother’s Day?

Extraordinary Gifts: Remarkable Women of the Delaware Valley available at:

  • Rosemont Book Festival, Saturday, April 26th

  • Kennett Square Farmer’s Market, May 2nd

  • White Clay Creek Fest, May 3rd

View original

A Good Cop/Bad Cop Writing Prompt

RamonaGravitarLast week, I wrote about how an error or mishandling of a law in a manuscript can undermine the author’s credibility or give a wrong impression of a character. One of my sample scenes earned a bit of discussion, so I’m bringing it back this week as a writing prompt.

Writing prompts are short exercises meant to guide a writer with just enough information to get a bit of writing going. Prompts can be a single word, a narrative question, or a scenario with various options. The latter is what follows. The benefit of writing using a prompt is that it’s a good mental exercise on considering the various ways a single moment in a story can go.

Step 1 – The scenario

A young single father (Jimmy) moves into a small studio apartment. Soon after he settles in, there’s a rash of thefts in the complex. Jimmy has been no trouble to anyone, but he’s the new guy so the other residents are wary of him. The morning after the latest incident, a police officer goes around the complex seeking information. He knocks on Jimmy’s door. Jimmy’s baby is in her crib, asleep, so Jimmy steps into the hallway to talk. He closes the door behind him. The officer, Cpl. October, asks Jimmy where he was during last night’s burglary. Jimmy says he was working and gives his work info so that can be confirmed. Jimmy is a little defensive because he knows the other residents suspect him. He’s done nothing wrong but the visits by police are making him more and more nervous. Right now, he mostly wants this cop to go away without waking up his baby.

Step 2 – What the author needs

For the future events of the story (the disappearance of Jimmy’s baby), the author needs to get the cop into the apartment.

An additional requirement: Cpl. October needs to be close enough to the crib to see what appears to be a baby in it, but the baby can’t cry or move. Later, when he himself is questioned, Cp. October can’t be 100% sure he saw a healthy living baby in that crib.

Step 3: Writing prompt #1 – Good Cop

Cpl. October is a decent man and competent officer, and he’s not going to give a person a hard time for no good reason. But the author needs to get him inside that apartment to get a glimpse at the crib.

What is a valid scenario where that could happen and the officer doesn’t break any laws or come off as out of line?

Step 4: Writing prompt #2 – Bad Cop

Cpl. October has decided this Jimmy guy is bad news. No real reason, he can just tell. He’s not even sure he believes there’s a baby inside. Guys like this would lie about anything. Cpl. October wants inside that apartment to look around, and he’s going to get past this little twerp one way or the other, but he’s not going to lose his badge over it.

What is a valid scenario where Cpl. October would trick, coerce, or bully his way into the apartment without beating up Jimmy or overtly break any laws?

Give one, or both, a try?

Fudging Facts in Fiction

RamonaGravitarConsider, if you will, three scenarios:

  1. In a mystery novel, a retired police chief character is asked by a neighbor to check out her daughter’s new boyfriend. The daughter claims to have spent Saturday night at a friend’s house, but Mom suspects she was with the boyfriend, who works at a pizza joint. The retired chief knows how to get a quick answer to this mystery. He calls the pizza joint, identifies himself as “Chief Lawson of the township police department” and asks if the boyfriend worked last Saturday night.

  1. In another mystery, a young single father (Jimmy) moves into a new apartment. Soon after he moves, there’s a rash of thefts in the complex. Jimmy has been no trouble to anyone, but he’s the new guy. A police officer rings Jimmy’s doorbell. Because his baby is sleeping, Jimmy steps into the hallway to talk, and closes the door behind him. The officer asks Jimmy where he was during the last burglary. Jimmy says he was working and gives his work info so that can be confirmed. Then the officer says he needs to go into Jimmy’s apartment to “take a look around.” Jimmy is taken aback, and he doesn’t want his baby to be disturbed. He says, “I don’t know. Don’t you need a warrant to search my apartment?” The officer says, “No, I don’t. In the US, you have to open your door to police whenever we say so.” Jimmy reluctantly opens his apartment door. Nothing suspicious is found.

  1. In a thriller set in a medium-sized town, a woman’s ex-husband is shot while changing a flat tire on the side of the road, on his way home from a bar. Janet (the woman) was also at the bar and started to leave as soon as her ex showed up—but on her way out, they had a nasty exchange that everyone saw. Now the ex is dead and the cops appear at her house, asking questions. Janet lives alone, so all she can say about that night is the truth: after the argument, she came home and watched TV until her blood pressure returned to normal. The only witness to that is her dog. After the detective finishes his questions, he says, “We may need to talk to you again. Don’t leave town.”

Each of these scenarios (with some changes) come from a mystery manuscript I have edited. Each was written as described, and each has a problem.

In scenario #1, when the retired chief identified himself a “Chief Lawson of the township police department” he forgot the word “retired.” By doing so, he impersonated a police officer—and committed a felony.

In scenario #2, Jimmy is correct—the officer does need a warrant to search his apartment, unless Jimmy gives permission. He opened the door, but only after the officer told him a factual untruth about his rights as a citizen.

In scenario #3, the police may have good reason to want to speak to Janet again. That’s not the problem. Telling her she can’t leave town? That’s a problem. The police may request she make herself available for more questions, but she’s not arrested or charged, so her movements can’t be restricted.

These are all fiction samples, and fiction needs conflict. That means, the characters need to face problems. What is problematic is when an author bends the law, or misleads a reader about the law, for conveniences to the plot because “it’s only fiction.”

Readers (and writers and editors) have personal opinions about what is and is not okay to stretch when writing fiction. I am not much of a stretcher. I don’t want my police characters committing felonies. I don’t want a reader to come away thinking Jimmy, as an American citizen, could not say, “No. Unless you have a warrant to go inside, we’re talking in the hallway.” I don’t want anyone to believe “Don’t leave town” is anything other than a quip on a TV cop drama.

What difference does it make, if it is fiction? Isn’t this artistic license? Aren’t readers smart enough not to believe everything they read in a novel?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

When you read a book set in your town, would it bother you if the name of the river that ran through it was wrong? If you questioned the author about why she used a realistic setting but changed the river’s name, and her response was, “The real name was too hard to spell, so I made one up,” would that be okay? Or, if her response was, “I didn’t look up the name of the river. Who cares? It’s fiction.”

Who cares? I care.

In writing, there’s this thing called the author-reader contract. It’s not a contract on paper, but more as an understood act of good faith. The contract promises, among other things, that the author will provide a story that makes sense. Because the contract is nebulous, the terms of it are nebulous as well. I believe the contract means the author will do everything in his or her power to be factually correct, whether it’s place names or police acting accurately.

After all, in real life, do you want people to impersonate police officers to get information? Do you want your rights as a citizen to be ignored?

What if one of your readers comes away from reading one of your stories believing something wrong? Believing, because you wrote it, that she can pretend to be an officer, or she can’t say no to an illegal search? It may not be your fault if she misinterprets or misapplies what you wrote, but why take the chance? Why knowingly write something that is wrong in the first place? Can’t you be a better writer than that?

Remember Blackstone’s principle: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer

Isn’t is easier, better, and more fair to be accurate?

I’ll present a fourth scenario:

~In a mystery novel, a woman (Deanne) has four children, a dead-end job, a philandering husband, and a pile of bills. On Saturday night, she manages to convince the husband to take the three older children to the movies. Finally, she may have a little peace to herself, after she gets the baby to bed. But the baby won’t stop crying. Exhausted, Deanne decides to slip a little something into the baby’s bottle, to help it along to sleep-land. What does she add to the baby’s bottle? A little dash of cyanide. She does this, and the baby falls asleep, and the next morning, baby gets up rested and in perfect health.


Remember, this is fiction. In this story, cyanide doesn’t kill anybody.

What’s the problem? After all, it’s not like there is any chance a reader might read this and later, on a Saturday night when her baby won’t stop howling, she thinks it’s okay to slip cyanide into her baby’s bottle. She read it in a book, and she trusts the author, so it must be all right to do in real life. Right?

When To Leave A Writers Group

RamonaGravitarSix years ago, a casual email from a writing friend changed my life. “Hey, I heard through the grapevine a critique group near you is looking for a new member. Are you interested?”

I was interested. I inquired and found out this group was heavy on rules and expectations: 20 pages a month from each member; written as well as face-to-face critiques; a try out period; a set meeting at a set date with a set period of time between submitting and the meeting.

That was a bit daunting, but the group had been in existence for decades, so the regulations must work. Plus, all the members were published and active in the writing community. One had been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. Another was doing great stuff with memoir. The rules seemed stringent and tough, and expectations were high, but I decided to try out. I’d been floundering on my own for too long. Maybe it was time for stringent and tough, and high expectations.

After a writing sample and a test meeting, I was in. Hurrah! The welcome was great, and so was the ambiance. I’d found the perfect group. Month after month, I turned in my 20 pages like clockwork. I critiqued the other members’ work—80 pages a month—and did my written and verbal critiques per the guidelines.

After joining, I wrote regularly and more. I did not dare miss a month of submitting because I didn’t want to disappoint or not meet expectations. I learned about some of my writing habits and weaknesses. I was praised for what I did well. I noticed what the other members did well, and how they achieved that. Because they had divergent writing backgrounds, I tried out new genres and got feedback laced with knowledge. When another member and I both won state arts council fellowships, we gave a joint public reading. We had bonded and, once a month, sat in a room together and ripped apart, and then built up, one another’s writing.

It was, without a doubt, the best and most educational six years of my writing life. I can hardly describe my gratitude for the challenge and for the group’s generosity.

For that reason, gratitude, I did what I had to do a few months ago, for the benefit of the writers who’d spent so much time helping me to grow as a writer.

I quit.

I quit, amicably, when my editing business took off. I quit when I couldn’t spend the solid couple of hours I needed to devote to critiquing their writing. I quit when I had to beg off of submitting my 20 pages now and then because I was drowning in client work. I quit when I had to ask for meetings to be juggled to meet my conference schedule. I quit when I wasn’t giving the 100% the group deserved.

I was sad, and it was a hard decision. The decision was met with regret and respect, and an invitation to come back whenever I thought I could manage the time again.

I may do that. But a few months out and in retrospect, I quit for other reasons too. After six years, I realized I knew my fellow members’ writing so well, I could predict how they would end their stories. I knew what they’d compliment in my work and who would criticize what. I knew their strengths and weaknesses, what they enjoyed and what they found tiresome. I knew all of that about them, and they knew all of that about me.

We knew one another so well…was it too well?

I left the group for the external reason of not having enough time. Now, I wonder if somewhere inside, I knew it was time to move on, at least for a little while. If I stayed another year, or five years, would this familiarity lead to stagnation? Would I start to predict their critiques to the point that I’d ignore them?

I don’t know. I had to quit because of time, but maybe I also quit just in time?

Now I write on my own, no specific number of pages required to submit for any specific time. I do my own reviews and revisions. And it’s funny, but I find I try to write 20 new pages for the first Sunday of the month, just like the writing group days. And when I’m reviewing my work, I sometimes wonder what each of my former group members would have to say about it.

I left the group, but it remains with me. So maybe I haven’t really left, completely? Or, in some ways, at all?

Have you ever left a writers group you loved? Is there such a thing as outgrowing a group, or getting too comfortable? Is a break from a group the same as letting a manuscript sit in a drawer for a while?

This last question is the one I ponder. Have I quit, or am I taking a break for a while?

Before You Hit Send – A Checklist

RamonaGravitarThe wrong place, the wrong name, the wrong page count….

Much of what influences a submission’s acceptance or rejection is subjective. You can’t control the market or a particular editor’s taste, but you can make sure your manuscript gets to the right person at the right address in the right format. Double check the following before you lick the stamp or hit the Send button.

1. Names: Misspelling your own name on your own submission would be embarrassing. Misspelling the agent or editor’s name hints that you are careless. Showing your name on a blind submission can get you disqualified. Review names for spelling, but also be certain a journal or contest wants to see your name on the submission at all. Check the guidelines.

2. Formatting: Pulling out a chunk of pages for a partial submission may monkey with spacing, headers, footers, indent, and margins. Don’t assume your settings will transfer to a new document or to a submission box. Also, remember to remove the extra space Word likes to add between paragraphs, and beware of those off again, on again Widows & Orphans.

3. Contact info: Yours, that is. Do you have multiple email addresses? Does your Submittable account remember what you typed into it last year? Treat every submission as new information, or carefully check what has been stored. Don’t assume what is remembered is remembered correctly or is up to date.

4. Records: Unless it is a revision or resubmission, sending a formerly rejected piece to the same editor, agent, or publication is a faux pas. Who needs duplicate rejections? Submittable keeps tracks of each submission and its status. For other submissions, you can use a spreadsheet or a notebook or a white board and marker—the format doesn’t matter. What matters is to record where, when, and to whom your work has been sent. Don’t trust your memory. Put the piece, the date, the place, and the person in writing, and double check for repetition before you send. Every time.

5. Deadline: Meet it. That means, send off the submission before the deadline. If it’s an online submission, that means the Send button must be whacked one minute before midnight, the day of deadline, at the very latest, and only if you like to live dangerously. (Give yourself 5 minutes or a half hour. Your blood pressure will thank you if you hit a glitch.) If you are sending snail mail, a deadline may mean a postmark or a received by date. Check the guidelines. NOTE: A deadline is equal to a “firm” price at an antique shop. No wiggle room or bargaining. An extra day (hour, month) does indeed matter

6. Payment: If you are entering a contest or there is a reading fee, you do need to pay it. A paper submission will need a check (signed, made out to the right entity and in the correct amount) and attached to the submission. An online submission usually means PayPal. Most of the time, an online submission requiring a fee won’t go through until you pony up with the cash.

7. SASE: In the olden days, writers had stacks of stamped, self-addressed envelopes at the ready for the weekly/monthly/occasional trip to the post office. You may no longer descend upon the P.O. bearing multiple manuscripts, but some venues still work with paper. Check the guidelines. If an SASE is requested, send one. If you don’t, you may never hear back.

8. Cover letter: Who are you, what are you sending, why are you sending it—these three questions get answered in a cover letter. If you’ve met the contact recently, mention it. If you have a personal recommendation from a client, name drop it. If your story has been workshopped by Alice Munro or Stephen King, go for broke. Just make sure you include the genre, title, word count, and other pertinent facts so the recipient can know immediately what is being pitched.

9. TMI: Too much information in submitting means you cc (electronically carbon copy) multiple contacts, and you allow all contacts to see all other contacts. This is TMI because what agent or editor wants to be included in a mass mailing? None. If you are doing a multiple mailing, have the courtesy (and the smarts) to keep that to yourself. Use bcc (blind carbon copy) or, better, send individual emails to individual editors or agents.  Treat people in the industry with courtesy, and as individuals.

10. Guidelines: You’ve probably noticed that guidelines are important. Despite this, every time I attend a conference or a workshop and hear a discussion about submissions, someone (or many someones) beg writers to check the guidelines. Sending the wrong piece to the wrong person is a waste of everyone’s time. Don’t waste everyone’s time. CHECK THE GUIDELINES.

You may note that none of the suggestions above address the actual content or quality of the manuscript. Sending clean copy is another blog post. This one is to make sure it gets to where you want it to go, free of errors,oversights, or shots to your foot.

How To Annoy A Literary Agent

RamonaGravitarThis past weekend, at a writer’s conference, I attended an agents panel. The moderator asked a laundry list of questions, including one about pet peeves. I won’t name names because I think these comments are fairly universal. The agents were a little reluctant, at first, to share what bugs them when writers send queries, but eventually they warmed up to the topic. The comments were made in the spirit of helping writers appear professional and save everyone time, so read them in that spirit of useful advice.

Are you guilty of any of these unprofessional, uncouth, or unwise acts?

1. The mass mailing. Do you send your pages to multiple agents at a time, and show this by cc’ing 30 other names in your query? A cattle call query won’t make an agent think you’ve carefully researched the marketplace. If you have researched the marketplace, or met the agent, or have a connection, mention that. The agent is interested in your story, but also in why your query landed in his or her inbox. Make it personal.

2. The impersonal salutation. Do you open your query with “Dear Agent” or, worse, “Dear Lady Agent”? Agents are people too. Use a name. As with the above, the agent wants to know you contacted him/her for a reason, and that reason is: You think he/she is the right person to champion your manuscript. This means you researched what the agent represents and is seeking. If you did that, you’d know his/her name, right?

3. Not following guidelines. Some agents want attachments. Some don’t. Some want the plot summary in the query letter. Some want a separate two page query. Some want a 10 page sample. Some will delete all unsolicited queries that include attachments. Read each agent’s guidelines and follow them.

4. Responding to rejections. If you receive a form rejection, it’s not necessary to respond. If you receive a rejection with helpful comments, a thank you note is nice. If you receive a rejection and it frustrates, angers, or depresses you, tell your spouse or critique group. Don’t send a note to the agent informing him/her that she’s make a terrible mistake or he is an idiot. Publishing is a large industry, but it’s a small world. Agents know other another. They have lunch with one another. They will warn one another about rude writers who sling ugly insults. Don’t be the topic of an agent lunch because of your unprofessional behavior.

5. Not telling enough about your manuscript. A query should include a brief plot description. “Here’s my book!” is not a brief plot description. Aim for a paragraph or two.

6. Telling too much about your manuscript. A two-page plot summary is too long for a query letter. That’s a synopsis, which an agent may or may not request. (Which you will know if you read their guidelines.) A brief summary paragraph is an important marketing tool for your manuscript, so learn to write one.

7. Unrealistic promises. Don’t claim to be the next Tolkien. Don’t say the industry has never seen a book like yours ever before and never will again. Don’t say the reader will be unable to sleep for a week after reading it. Don’t promise the agent you will make her name in the business or your book will make so much money, you’ll both be able to retire to the Bahamas. As lovely as these promises may sound to you, they sound unprofessional (and perhaps unhinged) to the person reading it.

8. Demands. “Read these pages and get back to me.” A query is a request. You are making a case for your story to the agent, trying to capture his/her interest, but ultimately, the query asks. So ask if he/she has interest in reading your manuscript. Demanding they do will get you a quick encounter with the delete button.

9. Letters in character. Don’t write a query from the voice of your character, particularly if your character is a child, or a deranged serial killer. Think about this for a moment. This is your first impression to the agent. Be yourself.

10. Fantasies. Don’t mention who you’ll cast in the movie. You’re writing a book, not a screenplay, and even if you are writing a screenplay, you’re not the casting director. Focus on the book. Everyone will be happy if your manuscript gets optioned for a film, but one step at a time.

11. Irrelevant information. It’s great if your grandmother, or grandchild, loved your story but unless your grandmother or grandchild is an agent, it’s irrelevant in the query process. If you workshopped the manuscript with a well-known writer, that’s relevant. If this manuscript in progress won a grant or fellowship, that’s relevant. Grandma? Sorry, you’re not relevant.

12. Multiple projects. Pitch one project at a time. A letter that includes descriptions of 2 or 3 manuscripts and ends with “Which one would you like to see?” will probably get the response of “None.” This goes back to the first (and second, and third) point above: research the agent. Which one project would make a good fit for which one agent? That’s for you to decide. If you are waffling, why are you writing to that person?

There they are, twelve ways you can annoy an agent and make sure your manuscript will make a fast and easy exit into the delete pile. You’ve been warned!



Someone Wicked – free download

206_SomeoneWicked_Amy_1Free Download for Kindle – March 21-24

Enjoy stories from humanity’s underside in this collection from Smart Rhino publishers. SOMEONE WICKED is explored in 21 stories by authors who stretch and pull the theme into startling directions in this anthology, available as a free Kindle download for four days, ending Monday, March 24, 2014.

In my own contribution called “The Chances,” a woman (Margot) driving home alone at night believes she sees a body on the side of the road. Should she stop to help? Is this a trap? What happens is not what she imagines, and what she does imagine is not what she expects to happen. Or, is it?

Writing Margot’s story was a fun departure for me.  I promise, you’ll never look at a pair of Mary Jane shoes the same way again. Check it out, for free this weekend!

How to Revise in Three Steps: Part 3

Definition of POLISH  from Merriam-Webster online


1. : to make (something) smooth and shiny by rubbing it

2. : to improve (something) : to make (something) better than it was before

Step 3 – Polish

The third and final step in revising a manuscript in three steps (Revise-Edit-Polish) may not include rubbing, exactly, but the goal of Step 3 – Polish is to produce clean copy. In the publishing industry, “clean copy” means an error free manuscript. Continue reading

How to Revise a Manuscript in Three Steps, Part 2

Definition of EDIT from Merriam-Webster  online

Transitive verb

 1.  to prepare (something written) to be published or used : to make changes, correct mistakes, etc., in (something written)

 2.  to prepare (a film, recording, photo, etc.) to be seen or heard : to change, move, or remove parts of (a film, recording, photo, etc.)

 3. to be in charge of the publication of (something)


Step 2 – Edit

Once you go through Step 1 – Revise and feel confident your manuscript’s story elements (plot, conflict, characters, etc.) are in place, the next step is to make a pass focusing on technique and style. The Internal Editor you tied to a chair in Step 1 gets to have his day.

 If Step 1 – Revise focused on the big picture of the story, the middle step of Revise-Edit-Polish will examine how the story is delivered to the reader: the writing.  By “the writing” I refer to elements that run from artistic choices to basic mechanics:

Style and Voice–the author’s distinct use of words and her selected manner of expression for this story;

Diction and Syntax–the choice of words and how they are arranged in phrases and sentences;

Grammar and Punctuation – the set of rules that explain how words are used in language and the marks used to regulate text;

Errors and Other Considerations – typos, missing words, padding, and other boo-boos.

Editing goes beyond catching typos. A manuscript may contain a series of grammatically correct sentences, but if the sentence structure is the same every time, the MS will be repetitive; if the word choices are unimaginative, the MS will be dull; if the voice is indistinct, the MS will unremarkable; if the words contain no action, the MS will be aimless; if the style is affected, the MS will sound false; if scenes are told instead of shown, the MS will be distant.

 You may think of this step as examining the sound of your story—what your words say and how they will sound to a reader.

Separating Style and Technique

 Editing the manuscript at this level means you will examine it paragraph by paragraph and then sentence by sentence, for style (the author’s artistic choices) and technique (the mechanics of grammar).

Style asks, Is this sentence pleasing to the literary ear? Does it work best in this spot? Are word choices strong?

Technique asks, Is this sentence grammatically correct? Is it efficient? Is it necessary or redundant?

Every sentence in your manuscript should serve a purpose: to advance the plot, reveal vital information about a character, describe the setting, inform about an important past event, ask a narrative question, introduce a thematic concept. Every single sentence needs to have a function. If a sentence does not do a particular job—meaning, if the scene will fall apart or be less effective without it—that sentence should be cut.

How those sentences are arranged and delivered will create the sound of your story. You want a manuscript that will be pleasing to the literary ear, and entertaining, and technically sound. You can do this by writing a series of strong sentences that perform a particular function to advance the plot.

Editorial Considerations

 Many writing guides have been devoted to self-editing, so distilling a guide into a blog post means hitting the basics. Not all writers are strong grammarians. Not every writer is gifted with a unique literary voice. For an overview such as this one, some self-examination is necessary. Do you recognize good grammar? Can you be brutal and cut out what is not necessary in the narrative?

The first step in good editing is to distance yourself from your writer’s ego. In Step 1 – Revise, you had to fight off the Internal Editor. Here, in Step 2- Edit, you have to push away your Writer’s Pride, pull back, and examine your words with as little bias as possible. Editing is as much mental as it is task-oriented.

Editorial Tasks

 I’m going to focus on what I often see as common editorial problems in manuscripts. These may not be your particular issues, but these are the repeat offenders for me. Check your manuscript for the following:

 ~ Cutting: Some writers write long, some writers write short, and a few lucky ones write just right. If you write long, you’ll need to trim the bloated parts; if you write short, you’ll need to take care you don’t pad to hit your targeted word count. As written in bold above, if a sentence doesn’t do a job, it should be cut. Bigger than that, however, is when a section or a scene doesn’t perform a vital job in the story. Vital means that the story (plot advancement, character development, background) will fall apart without it. Cutting out the extraneous should have been handled in Revision, but Editing should reaffirm that every sentence in the story is there for a reason. A good reason.

~ Repetition, Overwriting, Over-explaining: Do your pages contain sections like this:

 “She entered the basement. It was pitch dark. The dank room was as black as night. She couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. She felt along the clammy wall for the light switch.”

 ^^Here, the writer tells us three times that the room is dark. By the time I get to the hand, I’m ready to yell “I get it!” at the author.

 “The door was locked. She needed the key to open it. She scrabbled in the drawer for the key and used it to open the door.”

 ^^Readers know how a key works. “The door was locked. She scrabbled in the drawer for the key” does the job.

 “Mickey cursed and charged at Evan. Evan, half a head shorter, realized his best chance was to call in his old wrestling skills.  He crouched and head-butted Mickey in the stomach. Mickey oofed and stepped back. Knowing his upper hand was temporary, Evan crouched again and took Mickey down at the knees, and then used his left arm to bend back Mickey’s right arm….”

 ^^Is this the most boring takedown ever? In a fight, there is no time to explain (realized, knew, used his arm). In an action scene, stick to the action.

 Writers repeat, overwrite, and over-explain for two reasons: They don’t trust themselves, or they don’t trust the reader.  If you have written a good strong sentence with a clear purpose, relax. The reader will get it.

 ~ Weak Word Choice: Run, look, hurry, walk, turned….these are useful verbs, but for each, a stronger choice can paint a clearer picture for the reader. If you change walk to amble, the impression changes. If you change amble to strode, it changes again. A look is not the same as a glance which is not the same as a stare which is not the same as a stare. Don’t play it safe and stick to the same-old, same-old in word choices, but take care when playing around with the thesaurus.

 ~ Distinct Dialogue: A person’s speech reveals a great deal about their economic, social, and educational background—plus their self-image. What do your characters spoken lines show about them? Do your characters sound the same, or do they show their distinctions in speech?

 ~ Balance: Exposition, action, dialogue—these are three types of writing to be balanced in the manuscript. Some things need to be explained. Action scenes need to move the plot. Dialogue is necessary for intimacy. However–too much exposition may make the narrative ponderous. Too much action may leave the reader gasping for subtext. An overload of dialogue can make the setting disappear. Read for balance and give the reader a break by shifting from one type to another. If you find page after page of long paragraphs, add dialogue, and vice versa. A reader will appreciate variety.

 ~ POV Slips: No matter the editorial choice of 1st Person, 3rd Person, close or omniscient, a manuscript works best when delivered via one Point of View at a time. A character can only report what he sees, feels, and knows. He can interpret or guess at what other characters see, feel, and know, but a slip occurs when he reports from someone else’s head. In Editing, put yourself in the character’s head. If you can’t see it, feel it, or think it, the character can’t report it. Check your narrator’s words to be sure she is only thinking what she is thinking, feeling what she is feeling, seeing what she can see.

 ~ Show, Not Tell: Are your scenes live—action that is happening in the now of a story? Telling is appropriate in circumstances of the story, but if you choose to tell, make it a choice. Telling about a location or past event, or any type of background pauses the forward motion of the plot and makes it stay into neutral for a while. That may need to happen, but know that you are pulling the reader out of the now of the story. Don’t linger so long in telling that the story stalls.


The following are a mixed bag to consider while you read through your manuscript sentence by sentence:

 Is this sentence grammatically correct?

If not, is that a style choice?

Does the construction of this sentence match the author’s style?

Are sentences constructed in various ways?

Is the voice of the sentence active or passive?

Am I using dialogue tags effectively?

If I’m using a semi-colon, is each side an independent clause?

Am I using an ellipsis to show a line fading out, and a dash for an interruption?

Is it clear what I am trying to say?

Is this sentence giving unique information, and not redundant?

If I open a scene with dialogue, do I immediately thereafter ground the setting?

Do my scenes open in a variety of ways?

Do my scenes close time after time with the same punchy type of line?

Are my verbs sharp and distinct?

Do I hold back from using too many adverbs?

Do I show emotion through action (clenched fists) rather than clichés (her heart pounded in rage)?

Do I avoid clichés in general?

Do I use similes sparingly?

Do I disrupt character’s dialogue with non-productive actions?

Do I stick with said in dialogue tags?

Do my characters take deep breaths, roll their eyes, and ears perk up, while their hearts beat faster, their pulses race, and their eyes water?

Do my characters speak or make speeches?


Overwhelmed? If so, let me simplify the Step 2 –Edit step.

 Read through your manuscript, sentence by sentence and ask:

  1. Is this sentence grammatically correct?

  2. Does this sentence perform a specific function, in this spot, for the story?

  3. Does it advance the plot?

  4. If read aloud, is it pleasing to the ear?


If yes, move on to the next sentence. And the next. And the next. That’s what editing is, evaluating sentence by sentence.

Tomorrow, Step 3 – Polish.

How to Revise a Manuscript in Three Steps

Definition of REVISE from Merriam-Webster online:

Transitive verb

 1.  a :  to look over again in order to correct or improve <revise a manuscript>

     b British :  to study again : review

2. a :  to make a new, amended, improved, or up-to-date version of <revise a dictionary>

RamonaGravitarThere are as many approaches to revision as there are writers with manuscripts to revise, but the goal is universal: to review a draft with the goal of making it stronger, tighter, and clean. The approach below is a task oriented system of reviewing a manuscript to achieve that goal. It requires three steps: Revise, Edit, Polish.

 Why three steps? Can’t you revise in one intense, comprehensive manuscript review?

Of course you can, if that works for you and if you are able to juggle multiple mental tasks at the same time. There is no one correct way to revise.

 However, measuring a manuscript’s story power, language use, and effectiveness while simultaneously checking for grammar and correcting typos can be overtaxing. And overwhelming. If you are trying to evaluate too many things at once, it’s easy to become frustrated and to miss problems. You can get mired in the same spot of your manuscript.  By the time you move on to the next section, you’ve forgotten the details of what you’ve read before.

What’s the quote about doing one thing well, or a lot of things halfway?

Doing multiple intense passes on your manuscript will require time and focus. This is not a quick-fix approach. You will need to draw upon patience and dedication, but your manuscript is worth it, right?

Revise, Edit, Polish

The following approach employs three steps: Revise, Edit, Polish. If you like acronyms, you can call it the REP system.  Ideally, you have a completed draft that needs to be reviewed. To get it into shape for submission or publication, you will read and rework it three times, from beginning to end.

Today’s post will discuss Step #1: REVISE

The first pass is to examine the manuscript as a story. Some writers call this a global review. Others call it reading like a reader. The point of this first pass is, foremost, to make sure the story works. You will read with the goal of finding weaknesses and/or omissions, and make notes on how to repair them.

For the Revision pass, you’ll need to view it as your Internal Storyteller and read without stopping to edit. Turning off your Internal Editor may be difficult, but  it is temporary. You can indulge the itch to delete, fix, correct, in Step 2. Your Editor is waiting in the wings, but this is your Storyteller’s crack at the manuscript.

 How to do a Revision pass:

 A Revision pass will take on the big picture questions:

~ Does the MS have all the necessary parts to insure the plot makes sense?

~ Is there conflict-climax-resolution?

~ Do characters act consistently?

~ Is every scene grounded in a specific place?

~ Does the reader have all necessary background info on place, character, events?

~ Does the plot move forward in a logical way?

~ Do all subplots and secondary storylines support the primary plot?

~ Does every scene have a purpose pertinent to the plot?

~ Does the story make sense?

~ Is the story saying something?

Reviewing for the big picture items means you ignore smaller issues (typos) and mechanics (grammar and style.) Every time you stop to correct a typo or rewrite a sentence, you pull yourself out of the story. Your focus moves out of the world you have created back into the real world. So, ignore the writing. Those typos won’t dissolve on their own. Those sentences will still be poorly constructed or dull tomorrow. That’s the next task. You may have to grit your teeth and sit on your hands at first but, with practice, turning off the Internal Editor is a useful skill.

To Revise, stay in the world of your story. Pretend you are hearing the story and can’t see the errors. Be a Storyteller.

For the Revision pass,  first I recommend you read through without making any changes to the manuscript. You can do this on a screen or paper. Keep a notebook or document and record concerns as you go along; use Track Changes to record your questions/concerns in comment bubbles; color highlight parts that clearly need to be reworked.

Read through from beginning to end, noting what you need to note as you go along. Don’t stop to make changes. Read it as a story.

Some questions will be small scale: Do I clear up why she asks about the motel receipt (page 4)? Do I explain how he got this fear of heights (chapter 11)?

Some will be bigger: Is what happened to her when she was 7 traumatic enough to affect her adult decisions? Does his abruptness to his sister make him look like a jerk? Do I need to explain the history of the mill? Does my killer have a valid revenge motivation? Is this detective incompetent because I’ve developed him as hostile and close-minded, or is he bumbling around foolishly because I need to give my amateur sleuth time to sneak around? Are clues glaringly obvious?

Some will be about structure: Is the inciting incident big enough to set up the climax? Is there a constant increase of tension? Does my plot flat line in Act 2? Is the plot too linear? Does this need some umph or humor or a second focus? Do all events happen in a sensible order, or are my scenes bouncing around in time?

After a read-only pass with notes and highlights, go back and make the necessary changes. That question about the motel receipt on page 6? Maybe you resolved it after all on page 229. Your character’s surprising ability to use a welding torch reads like a Hail Mary skill because, oops, you forgot to show earlier that he worked repairing hulls when he was in the Navy.

This making changes part is hefty work. Your Revision read-through may take a couple of days. Your Revision work may take weeks. Nobody said it was fast or easy.

As an independent editor, I read dozens of manuscripts a year. I depend on that first story-only read to let me see what the author is trying to achieve, and how well he/she achieves it. As an editor, I read once for story, viewing it from the Storyteller’s perspective. I focus on the story and only the story. I make notes as I describe above. After that, i go into the manuscript and make revision notes. With my own writing, I use this same process.

To reiterate, Step 1 – Revise is the Storyteller’s turn at the story. Immersing yourself in the story and the story world – without the distraction of technique or technical errors – will help you to see the full landscape of the tale you’ve written. Was it enjoyable to read? Did you get bored? Did it meander? Did it end too quickly? Did it end twice? Did the beginning and the end mirror, contradict, or have nothing to do with one another?

After you’ve read through, made notes, and gone back in to revise, your manuscript is ready for review on the next level: Editing. The Editing pass reviews the manuscript for language—how it is written. That means grammar, style, syntax, and finally, typos. Your Internal Editor will get to come out and do his/her happy dance.

 Tune in tomorrow for Step #2  – Editing.