Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Great Story, Bad Book

All writers need editing. I've said that before, but every year, it seems, I read more and more books that are poorly edited, if edited at all. I just finished one—a really good story, so I saw it through to the end, but the lack of copyediting and of things like mixed-up character names drove me nuts. On top of that, the galleys had apparently never been proofed because I saw formatting errors like hard returns in the middle of paragraphs. That publishing house so obviously didn't care about the quality of their product that I may never buy another of their books.

Editing can make or break you as a writer. Yet editors are traditionally so invisible that, in these days of self-publishing-made-easy, we forget editors exist for good reasons. Readers and most unpublished writers (and some published ones) have no idea what a good editor does or should do for a book. Here's what I've learned from the good editors I've had the pleasure to know:

1. Good editors don't let you settle. They point out your manuscript's weaknesses, coincidences, lame plot devices, loopholes, bad structure, and questionable research. They can zero in on those parts of the novel you slapped together (at the last minute, on too little sleep, to make your deadline) like flies zero in on garbage.

2. A good editor will ask you to change anything that makes you sound as if you don't have a command of your native language and a decent vocabulary. They'll say things like, "You used the word 'though' 187 times. Change a few of them." They won't let you use 200,000 words when 70,000 will do.

3. Good editors will tell you when your characters are out of character or wooden or just plain stupid. Editors should have a sixth sense that knows the page at which your average intelligent reader will get fed up with the hero and hurl the book across the room.

And here's what I've learned about good editing from bad editors:

1. A good editor will never, ever make changes in a manuscript without the writer's permission. I had one editor take colloquialisms out, until I was left with no narrative voice. I only found this out when I was sent the first proofs. I just heard of another writer who had this sort of thing happen at another house.

2. A good editor knows punctuation, spelling and standard text formatting. You'd think I wouldn't have to say that, but it's truer now than ever.

3. A good editor makes the writer fix his or her own wording, plot problems, etc. Mild suggestions are acceptable, but the editor has no business doing the writing. Too many editors seem to want to mark their territory this way. And too many novice writers would rather leave the rewrites to someone else. What you get is a book by committee.

This is why, when I decided to do an original series on Kindle, I sought out a good independent editor for the books. And I use several proofreaders for every story and novel I write, even before an editor picks it up.

Too many writers simply want to be published. A good piece of writing should be published well, with some level of integrity. Authors ought to care about that integrity more than anyone else. After all, check out whose name goes on the cover.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The New and Unexpected

Back when I was in high school, I remember half-waking up in the middle of the night, thinking I heard the window make noise. I blinked at the room for maybe a second, then fell back to sleep. Next morning I heard we had an earthquake. I live on the East Coast. Once in a lifetime experience. I was bummed that I'd missed it.

Yesterday at 1:50 pm, I was in my 2nd floor office, sitting at my PC, writing, totally in the zone. The rest of the world didn't exist.

Some independent part of left brain heard what sounded exactly like someone running up my stairs. The house is old--running up the stairs shakes the floorboards. Didn't faze me until I realized I ought to be alone in the house. Noise stopped, but the vibration increased until it felt like someone wiggling my desk chair from behind. That brought me out of the zone. Heavy truck going by? Explosion across town? The desk moved under my hands.

The vibration stopped abruptly. I was turning in my chair when it began again and this time, the room swayed. The Venetian blind rods moved, my bobble-head moose nodded, my PC monitor was wiggling like it was made of Jello. Now I knew an earthquake was passing through. But I sat frozen. And geek that I am, my first thought was "How cool!"

All this lasted maybe 4 seconds. I went outside, not because I felt unsafe--I only wanted to ask the neighbors what they felt. I was fascinated.

Of course, by now I was so out of the zone, I gave up on writing for the day. But it got me thinking about how often we mystery writers put our characters in new and unexpected situations.

In BY BLOOD POSSESSED, someone shoots at my protagonist. She's not expecting it, she's never been shot at before. Like me in the earthquake, it takes her a moment to realize what's happening, then she freezes. I think I got her reaction right in that instance. After yesterday, though, I'm not so sure of other scenes where she experiences something new.

Reactions, of course, must be personality-driven, but no one should react to a new experience with perfect reflexes, even characters with emergency training of some sort. Yet, I've read too many novels where the protagonist reacts instantly, somehow instinctively doing the right thing. To me, that's the fastest way to dehumanize a character.

Last night quite a few of the people I heard from said they never wanted to feel an earthquake again. Me? If no one gets hurt and no property is damaged, I wouldn't mind another chance to observe the experience.

Like I said, I'm a geek...and a writer.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Apple Butter and Water

 I don't have sisters, but I've been lucky enough for most of my life to have a few close friends who've been like sisters to me. Most of them are Pennsylvania Dutch.

When I decided to create a new mystery series with twin sister protagonists (first novel TWO-FACED), I knew I wanted them to be different than my Possessed series protagonist, Pat Montella.  Pat's a lot like me. All Italian, a refugee from corporate America, and the same age I was when I began writing her series—late thirties.  She's a better cook than I could ever be, but I've learned from her in that respect.

Gen and Sara Ziegler are lousy cooks. They're also products of the academic world and ten years younger than Pat. But probably the biggest difference is their background.  They're half Pennsylvania Dutch, raised in the Schwenkfelder church. If you're asking what a Schwenkfelder is, you're not alone.  Only a few of their churches survive, all in southeastern Pennsylvania, most at the northern end of my county. I learned about them through my best friend, Linda, and her sisters, who were raised in that tradition.

Casper Schwenckfeld isn't as well-known as other founders of the German Reformation, possibly because his philosophy was easy-going. He preached that ministers shouldn't tell their flocks what to believe, that everyone had to discover what to believe in their own hearts. His followers were therefore fairly tolerant of other sects. When they came to America in the early 1700s, they didn't settle in a segregated block like so many before them, but fit in and around other settlements, wherever there was room.

The main group of Schwenkfelders landed here on September 22, 1734, and two days later held a service of Thanksgiving. Since then, Schwenkfelders have observed this Day of Remembrance by sharing a simple meal of  bread, butter, apple butter and water.  (Side note:  Schwenkfelders make the best apple butter in the universe. No lie.)

So, making Gen and Sara Schwenkfelders meant creating a fictional hometown for them. I set Mount Ebal, PA up amid the rolling hills of my county, where there's still (for now anyway) more farms than development. The setting gives me an excuse to go to the Central Schwenkfelder Country Fair each year, where I can load up on apple butter, jams, and other Penn Dutch goodies, and call it research.

The other half of Gen and Sara's genetics? I couldn't resist giving them a mysterious Sicilian side. They are, after all, my kids.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Forgotten Man at the Bottom

Even if you only catch national news on the fly while switching channels between ESPN and Disney, you probably noticed that this week everyone's talking about the economy and whether or not we're headed for another Great Depression.

The historical part of my novel FEAR ITSELF is set in the first week of March, 1933. The main reason I chose that week was the infamous "bank holiday" that officially began on March 5th and shut down all U.S. banks. In my mind, I pictured that as a really scary thing--no credit cards, no ATMs, no way to access your money. No knowing how long that would be the case.

Then I asked my parents about it. "We didn't even notice," Mom said. "We didn't have enough money to put in the bank."

A difficult concept to wrap my brain around: No savings, except maybe a few bucks squirreled away behind a picture frame now and then. More likely only the coins in your pocket to get you through each day.

That's not to say that poor people weren't affected by the Depression.  This is where the theory of trickle down economics has any validity at all--not in times of prosperity, but in times of loss. When speculation bubbles burst, the loss gets passed down the ladder to the poor. They're the first to lose their jobs, their means of transportation, and their homes. And because they have so little, the percentage of what they do lose is huge. Less workers, less mortgages, less loan payments all mean less profit, so eventually the wealthy also lose money and the situation, at last, can be called a Depression. Someone finally takes a look at the economic structure and finds the weak links.

In 1933, banks were some of these links. No computers then. At best, this meant human errors often went undetected. At worse, lack of consistent record keeping made corruption and fraud easy. FDR called a "bank holiday" so Federal inspectors could audit bank records. Once a bank passed audit, they could reopen. Since Saturday March 4th was the president's inauguration, many banks were persuaded to close early on Friday the 3rd, giving the inspectors a long weekend to get started.

As some of you know, I start my historical chapters with period quotes. Here are a few of my favorites from FEAR ITSELF:

"All the really important millionaires are planning to continue prosperity."
 Arthur Brisbane, Nov. 26, 1929

"These really are good times but only a few know it."
Henry Ford, 1930

"There is not an unemployed man in the country that hasn't contributed to the wealth of every millionaire in America."
Will Rogers, Nov. 1931

"These unhappy times call for the building of plans...that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid."
FDR, campaign speech, April 1932

So, are we headed for another Depression now? Don't ask the bankers or Wall Street. Ask the forgotten people at the bottom of the pyramid. Many of them will tell you we're already there.



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