Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Worthy" of Publication?

Another question from a pre-published writer:

How do you know if you have a story worthy of bringing to a publisher? What steps should be taken prior to contacting publishers?

The first is a question rarely asked by writers. I mean, isn't everything we write brilliant? Why bother going to the trouble of writing it down if it's unworthy? And hey, in our own minds, at least, it's better than half of what's on the market, right?

Any story that really is a story--that has a beginning, middle, and end, where the characters are changed and developed by what happens--any story is worthy of being shared with others, regardless of whether you bring it to a publisher or spam your friends' email with it. What makes it unworthy isn't the story itself, but the way it's presented.

1. BORING IS BAD - I've said before, good storytelling is vital. Create a great narrative voice, don't be trite, don't be lackluster, don't use drab words.

2. SLOPPY IS BAD - Check your spelling and grammar and punctuation. Format your manuscript so that it follows industry standards and is easy to read (see my June 8, 2010 blog on formatting). If you have to hand in a printed manuscript, make sure it's CLEAN--no printer splotches, no coffee stains, no crinkled pages.

And, under the last heading, let's also consider research. With the Internet and a little common sense (like not believing everything you read on Wikipedia), there's no reason anymore for sloppy research. The last thing you want your readers or a potential agent or editor to realize is that you don't know what you're talking about.

3. INCONSISTENCY IS BAD - This goes with sloppiness, but covers everything else. Spell your character and place names the same on every page. Don't put three steps up onto the porch in one scene and four in another. Don't start your narrator with a Southern accent only to have it morph into a British accent. Make sure the headings of each chapter look the same--that is, don't capitalize some and not others, and make them the same number of blank spaces from where the text begins each time.

What steps should you take prior to querying a publisher? Proofread your manuscript for all of the above over and over again. Have at least two other proofreaders do the same, people who'll be 100% honest with you--not just love ones who don't want to hurt your feelings. If anyone comes back with the comment, "Your story," recognize that this is NOT a

Only when your story is spotless and tight and engaging should you even think about a publisher. Then you need to research which publishers are right for your work, and which editors at each publisher handle your genre. Find out if they only look at agented manuscripts. If so, you have to research which agents represent your type of work. Fortunately, you can find directories of publishers and agents at almost any local library and on the Internet.

Next you need to write a query letter to the agent or editor to pitch your story and tell who you are and what experience you have. The query letter also can't be boring or sloppy or inconsistent. In fact, the query needs to be even more exciting than your story. Your letter is often one out of maybe hundreds that an editor will read in a week. You have to stand out.

This sounds like too muck work. Why do we writers keep torturing ourselves this way?

Peace (and good luck),

Saturday, August 21, 2010

RETREAT? Or Charge Ahead?

I wrote this yesterday morning. I did take a walk this morning. We'll see how long that lasts.

I’m sitting here, on my last morning of summer camp.

One of the authors I know has a small house down near Delaware Bay, surrounded by preserved farmland and tiny villages that haven’t changed in over two hundred years. You can’t get a cell signal here, or connect to the Internet, or even tune in the Phillies games on the radio. The sound of a car on the road is rare. The chorus crickets and locusts, with an occasional by songbird or bullfrog solo, are often the only sounds for miles.

This friend invited me and another writer down to her place this past week for a sort of writers’ retreat. Most mornings, I got up with the sun and took a quiet walk down the road (nice and flat, with no tiring hills like my neighborhood). We all spent mornings and afternoons writing, getting our own breakfasts and lunches, then we’d cook supper together (no slackers we— for example, chicken with peppers and apricots one night, fresh ratatouille and lean grilled burgers another, and no dearth of yummy Jersey tomatoes and ice cream). Evenings usually meant another walk, or a chat out on the screened in porch, then more writing before bed.

I got loads of work done, easily ten times my usual output over 5 days. But now I’m about to go home.

I saw a item on the news a week or two ago about a drug rehab clinic in one of the worst neighborhoods of a city. The guy who ran the place said he noticed that when people from his neighborhood were sent away for rehab, most did fine until they came home again. Then they’d get in with the same crowd and revert to all their old bad habits. So he opened his clinic right in the middle of the neighborhood, to help his patients deal with every day life.

I was thinking this morning that this can apply to all sorts of other activities besides drug rehab. People used to go to spas to diet and improve their health, only to come home and get stressed all over again, and rip into Sara Lee cheesecakes for breakfast.

Me? Well, I’ll bring home a slew of good intentions to walk each morning and write for hours, but once the distractions start—phone, email, Internet, bills to pay, plumbing mishaps, family issues, etc.—how will I not revert to my old habits of reacting to life as it hits me rather than being at least somewhat in control of it?

So maybe a writers’ retreat right in my own home wouldn’t be a bad idea. Though don’t ask me how it would work.

Still, it was a lovely, lovely week.

Read Robin Hathaway's books. She deserves it, if only for playing host to me. (Although they ARE good books.)

Thanks, Robin.


Friday, August 13, 2010


I'm posting this a few days early. Next week I'm unplugging myself from the world to concentrate on writing. With any luck, I'll get some work done. Or I'll figure out new ways to play with my pen. I'll let you know.

Meantime, here's the question of the week:

What do you believe are the basics, or necessities, for a good story?

First and absolutely most important, you need a good storyteller. Whether you write in first or third person, your narrator is your connection to your reader. No, more than that--the narrator should take the reader by the hand and lead him or her into and through the story. That means your narrator has to be completely engaging and trustworthy. Readers will not suffer fools much past page 50.

The narrator must be a skilled actor, the kind who could act out a fairy tale you've heard hundreds of times, yet keep you enthralled right up to the inevitable happy-ever-after. Unlike an actor, though, your narrator can't use gestures or facial expressions. Everything relies on language: words and the way they're used. The narrator's voice needs to be unique and command attention. In other words--and I've said this before on this blog--the narrator should NEVER be the author. Even if you're writing in third-person omniscient, that mysterious, godlike, all-seeing narrator ought to be a character with its own perspective and opinions. And hey, a sense of humor never hurts.

Of course, a great storyteller could read a shopping list and keep the audience interested, but will they come back for more?

So, second, you need a story with a beginning, middle and end. You need to say who your characters are, then what happens to them, then how they're changed by what happened.

Say two people meet for dinner and have a conversation. That isn't a story in itself. It shouldn't even be a chapter. BUT, what if the conversation becomes more like a roller coaster ride, with ups and downs, witty banter one moment, argument the next? If this conversation changes each character significantly--in the way they feel about each other, or about their worlds, or in what their next actions will be--THEN you have a story. If the story makes the reader think a little, so much the better.

Now, sure, add great characters and a nifty setting and a completely surprising twists throughout and you've got a great mystery novel. But the necessities are storyteller and story.


Monday, August 9, 2010


I received a chain email this morning. Unless they're incredibly funny, I never pass them on, regardless of topic. I think chain letters are the poorest form of communication. Not only do we use another's (usually a stranger's) words to speak for ourselves, the letters often prey on everyone's superstitions, fears, hopes, weaknesses, and that all too human temptation to play whisper-down-the-lane.

This one, however, stuck with me like a flu bug, so I decided I had to respond. At first I thought I'd just hit reply-all, but what I want to say ought to be said openly, so, although I rarely use my blog as a blatant soapbox, this was important to me.

The chain letter began:
"Great grandfathers watched as their friends died in the Civil War.
"My father watched as his friends died in WW II.
"And I watched as my friends died in Vietnam."

I can't reproduce the entire letter--it's too long--but here are some other statements:

"I'm standing up because the hundreds of thousands who died fighting in wars for this country, and for the American flag."
"Let me make this clear! THIS IS MY COUNTRY!"
"This statement DOES NOT mean I'm against immigration!"

First of all, I have to admit, none of my great-grandfathers watched their friends die in the American Civil War. (At the same time, none were slave-traders, nor did they slaughter Indians and run them off their lands.)

However, here's the story of my great-grandpop, Carmen Ronca. In the 1880s, he worked in the marble quarries of Italy, which was dangerous and back-breaking. He could read. So he wanted to come to America, then bring over his wife and children. He didn't except streets paved with gold; he just wanted a better life and more opportunities for his family. He was poor, so when a chance to work his way over to America in the boiler room of a Portugese steamer came up, he jumped at it. What he didn't realize was that the steamer's crew took advantage of his enthusiasm and ignorance of their language. The steamer landed, not in North America, but in South America.

Carmen was able to work his way north as far as Mexico and tried to use his papers at the Texas border. The officials told him no, he had to go to Ellis Island. He didn't have the money. Meantime, the U.S. railroads were hiring Mexicans (because, gee, they worked cheaper and would do work Americans were unwilling to do in conditions Americans wouldn't touch), so Carmen was hired as a Mexican to build and repair America's railroads. Technically, he was an illegal immigrant. After a year or so of this, when he was in Pittsburgh, he was told they were sending him back to Mexico. He showed his immigration papers, and some sane official processed him through Brownsville, PA. He got a job in coal mine, in even more horrendous working conditions, but was finally able to bring his wife and family over to America. After a few years, he move to eastern PA to be near other relatives. He worked in the limestone quarries. Limestone, Carmen said, was at least easier to cut than marble, and he was out in the fresh air.

Carmen never became a citizen, but he flew both the American and Italian flags over his house every day of the rest of his life. His sons fought in World War I, and his grandsons in World War II. Somewhere in the U.S. Army archives is a photo of Richard Ronca holding the Nazi flag after his unit liberated the town of Colmar, France. Major Robert Ronca served in Korea, then led the first air mission over North Vietnam. A few weeks later he was killed in action when his plane was shot down.

One other story: my grandfather, Giuseppe Ciccocioppo, came to America in 1912. Even before becoming a citizen, he served in the U.S. Army in World War I. He kept his Army nickname, Joe Chicco, because Americans treated him better. During World War II, Joe would walk down to the train station each day to see off or welcome home troops. His son Francis served in the Army in Europe. His other son, Joe B. Chicco, served in the Navy aboard the USS Mobile in every major naval engagement from August 1943 to the end of the war. You can read this son's WW2 diary at As a result of his service, Joe B. also suffered from severe chronic PTSD until the day he died.

I get a little tired of folks like the person who wrote that email, who seem to think immigrants have nothing to do with America's war sacrifices. Take a look through the database at -- of those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, most don't have your basic Sons of the American Revolution names. A big percentage are Hispanic, and a huge percentage of those are Mexican.

Whoever wrote that email had an ancestor who was an immigrant--doesn't matter how far back in time you go. Yet, in saying he's not against immigration, he shows that he sets himself apart from, and obviously in his own mind, superior to, immigrants.

He says this is HIS country. Well, no sir, it isn't. America is a democracy, which means none of us can lay singular claim to it. We share ownership, and stewardship. And all of us are descendants of immigrants.

Please don't let people like this spread hate and division. The world doesn't need any more of either.


Zee Nom De Plume

What are some of the pros & cons of using a Pen Name?
Would you recommend the use of a Pen Name?

1. Say you write more than one type of book for more than one type of reader, maybe a children's mystery series and adult sci-fi. Using a pen name for one series will keep your readers from getting confused and buying the wrong books. And it will help distributor sales reps, bookstore owners, and librarians put the books on correct shelves.

2. Use a pen name if you have any reason not to have your writer's life overlap your real one. A kindergarten teacher who writes steamy romances? A minister who writes vampire stories? A prominent scientist who writes poetry?

3. Lots of women writers use a masculine pen name or, at least, initials instead of a first name. If the genre has a good percentage of male readers (thrillers, westerns, sci-fi, action/adventure), it can be more difficult to sell books by an obviously female author. Usually, the reverse isn't true--romance by a man can sell as well, or better, than women authors.

4. If you have a real name so much like another recognizable name--say, Michael Jackson--that using it might give you negative publicity or, at least, attract the wrong readers, consider changing it.

5. If you have a really hard to pronounce or remember name, you might consider a pen name. My brother, Bob Santangelo, who pens non-fiction articles and books, writes under the name Bob Brooke. Why didn't I change mine if "Santangelo" is a potential problem? I kept telling myself Lisa Scottoline is doing okay with a long Italian name. At least my books are shelved near hers. And frankly, I'm proud of my family name.

1. If you change your first name, realize people will actually call you by that name. You have to sign books with your pen name. That's not an easy thing to adjust to, especially when friends and family still call you Bessie or whatever. You have to learn how to be two or more people without batting an eye and without therapy.

2. I was at a mystery convention once in a city where President Clinton was speaking at a dinner. He stopped at the hotel for a few hours to freshen up and put on his tux. The rooms of his floor were searched by the Secret Service and a friend of mine had to explain why she was registered under one name, yet her major forms of ID were another name, and a credit card under still another. Can be a big hassle, especially when flying.

3. Taxes, bank accounts, and other business matters are a bit more confusing. Filling in an IRS Schedule C is bad enough with just one name. You need to add your pen names to your bank account because someone is bound to write a check to your fake name no matter how careful you are telling them not to. Plus there are copyright and trademark issues. I don't know all the legal ramifications since I don't use a pen name (yet), but try Googling "pen name legality" to find out more.

Elena (yes, really)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Learning to be Creative

I've had more questions sent my way, which makes writing this blog easier, so keep 'em coming.

What is the best way to avoid currently public story lines from integrating into your work?

I'm going to assume that by "public story line" you mean something detailed and recognizable like "Boy finds out he's a wizard, goes to wizarding school and battles evil archenemy." Because something like "Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy" has been done over and over. Every modern romance is based on that plot line. Nobody's going to hang you for using it. Even recognizable stories like Romeo & Juliet and Pygmalion have been redone as West Side Story and My Fair Lady (and Pretty Woman).

My theory is that human beings instinctively learn storytelling, character development, narrative description, et cetera, through stealing.

As we grow up, we hear stories, read books, watch TV and movies, and go to plays. We latch onto, say, certain authors or TV shows that fire our imaginations more than others. Most children cook up stories involving their dolls and stuffed animals. If a youngster goes on to dream up tales starring their favorite book characters, or imagines friends or fictional characters in an existing TV story, chances are that youngster's going to be a novelist or playwright someday. I used to write parodies of fairy tales with my friends in the main roles, and I still write parodies of songs.

My point here is that this kind of stealing is how we learn to trust our imaginations. Creating every aspect of a novel from scratch is too overwhelming for most beginners. If you start with an established framework--a story or characters that you already know will work--you can let yourself play what-if with the other aspects of the tale, until you work out all the kinks in the writing process. This is a great way to learn the craft.

If you're going to steal plots for works you intend to sell someday, though, stick with the tried-and-true. Read the classics, both in literature and mystery fiction--Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, et al. Not only are these stories public domain, they've stood the test of time.

Interesting that you can bake a cake using a mix or someone else's recipe, sell it at a bake sale, or even in a bakery, and no one will bring you to court over it.

But you can't do the writing equivalent. So just steal enough to learn each aspect of writing--characters, plots, settings, dialogue--then start trusting your own imagination. Start baking completely from scratch.



Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors