Writers Chatting: Chapter 11

Welcome to the final chapter for 2017.

Let’s start with some additional information from Andrew Durkin, see his original guest post here.  This part of his guest post answers many questions from the last chat. From Andrew:

The most surprising thing I’ve learned since becoming a professional editor is that not all authors believe in the benefit of professional editing. On the surface, that’s understandable, especially in self-publishing—why pay for something when you can get a friend to do it for free? Economic resistance is often compounded by a very human fear of criticism, as well as horror stories about bad editors who have corrupted an author’s artistic or intellectual vision.

But I’m going to start from the premise that professional editing is the sine qua non for anyone serious about being an author—regardless of genre, and regardless of the type of publishing (traditional or self). The real question is how do you get the most out of the process? In my experience, there are three rules of thumb, and they follow below. (Some of these will seem like common sense . . . but you’d be surprised!)

First, make sure your manuscript is actually ready for editing.

When is a manuscript “ready for editing”? When you’ve made it as good as you can, of course! Again, this seems like common sense. Yet I’ve learned that many authors have a voice in their head that says, “It just needs to be ‘good enough’—the publishing process will take care of the rest.” (It’s the literary equivalent of saying “we’ll fix it in post.”)

That “good enough” voice usually kicks in when you are almost finished with your manuscript. Writing a book is exhausting at best (soul sucking at worst), and you may be tempted to move on when fatigue sets in. But while there is always a point of diminishing returns, there are usually ways to strengthen your work even when you are in that grueling almost-there phase.

Maybe you try doing focused reads, for example (e.g., concentrating on just the scenes featuring a single character . . . or just the scenes occurring in real time . . . or just the turning-point scenes). Maybe you try reading your manuscript out loud. Maybe you compile a list of your technical weaknesses and do a find/replace to deal with them (in my own manuscript, I am currently trying to tamp down on an overuse of the word “gasp”). Whatever it is, take some extra time to look for the things you’re still blind to. This can require a level of honesty about your own writing that is downright painful. But although you won’t catch every issue, you can usually come a lot closer than you think.

Then, once you have hit the point of diminishing returns, share the manuscript with a beta-reader or two. I can’t tell you how many times I have edited a book only to realize I was its first outside reader! (Or at least its first objective outside reader.) It always shows. Hopefully you have been soliciting feedback all along, workshopping pieces of your manuscript in a critique group or partnership. But beta-readers are your test audience for the entire work, and they can be invaluable.

What makes a good beta-reader? Look for someone who is more than a well-read friend, a college English professor, or a supportive family member. Beta-readers can be those things—but they should also “get” the genre you’re working in. And it helps to know how they read. If your beta-reader favors labyrinthine, dense fantasy, she might not be able to give you useful feedback on your sparely written detective novel—even if she enjoys it. (On the other hand, she may be able to bring unusually fresh eyes to your manuscript.) Basically, you want to know where a beta-reader is coming from when she offers her evaluation, so you have the tools to determine what is relevant for you.

Yes, these suggestions for making your manuscript “ready for editing” may seem obsessive. But in the long run, the benefit will be enormous. Editors are not wizards—we have finite attention, time, and energy. Ideally, you want that spent on making a good manuscript excellent—not on making a weak manuscript good.

Read the other two steps here.

Now let’s start the chat. Where are you at in your process?  Who is stuck and/or procrastinating and what advice does everyone have for them? Mnemosyne requested some advice on the craft of writing book suggestions. I’m on the mailing list from Jane Friedman (here) and finding it very informative. And I have a question – recommendations for cover artists and any advice on choosing.

Ok, there you go. Remember be kind and supportive…

90 replies
  1. 1
    germy says:

    Beta-readers can be those things—but they should also “get” the genre you’re working in.

    A few weeks ago I read an interview with Laurie Anderson that brought back a flood of memories for me. (Memories that had nothing to do with Laurie Anderson)

    She was asked in the interview if she’d seen Hamilton. She said she attended, but walked out after about ten or fifteen minutes. She hated it. She said she hates Broadway musicals. I suppose they are too conventional for her. And she called Hamilton a conventional Broadway musical; the sort of thing she hates.

    I found myself imagining a young, hopeful, pre-fame Lin-Manuel Miranda writing her a fan letter and perhaps enclosing some fragments of the musical he was working on. And her replying that she thought it was crap.

    Many years ago when I was just out of my teens, I was searching for a mentor. A columnist for my local newspaper was doing exactly what I hoped to do, so I sent him a letter, asking for advice on how to build a career like his. I also included a small writing sample. He was nice enough to write back, and told me the career steps I’d need to take in order to have a job like his. He also said my sample wasn’t very good. He discouraged the hell out of me, and I put it away for ten years.

    But here’s the thing. I didn’t particularly like his work. He had a column in the paper, but no one ever quoted it, or read it, or even liked it. It was never syndicated or collected in a book. He lasted another decade or so at the paper and then was laid off. He moved to a major newspaper, where he settled into obscurity writing headlines. He and several of his co-workers devoted the rest of their careers amusing each other, rather than actually creating anything of any value.

    About ten years after his letter, I took out my essay and sent it to the major newspaper (his employer). It was published, I got a check, and I was astounded when two readers tracked me down and called me to say how much they enjoyed it (these were pre-internet days, so I assume they used a phone book).

    The point is this: All you young folks. Choose a mentor whose work you admire. It isn’t enough that they just “have the job you wish you had.” He clearly didn’t get my work (although ten years later his boss did) and I wasn’t particularly impressed with his work.

    Looking back, the mistake I made seems pretty obvious. But at the time, in the early 1980s, I was just looking for feedback.

  2. 2

    I’ve accumulated quite a few craft books over the years. For me, these are the ones I go back to.

    Robert McKee, STORY

  3. 3
    maurinsky says:

    I am at a sticking point, and I think I need to re-read the whole thing again to figure out what I’m going to do next. I’m very close to denouement, but my superhero has both a super and a non-super villain to defeat – she just doesn’t know about the non-super villain yet.

    This administration has really slowed me down! My activism work has been keeping me busier this year than I ever thought I could be!

  4. 4

    @germy: For a few lines, I thought you were talking about Laurie Halse Anderson, who’s an outstanding MG/YA writer. She’s not avante garde though, so I googled and found the person you’re talking about.

    A mentor would be fabulous. Mostly I’ve been lucky to find writer friends who’ll give me feeback and comfort. Not that they replace professional editing, as Andrew says, but they sure help.

  5. 5

    @maurinsky: Endings are hard when you have more than one thread to unravel. OTOH, it sounds like you can build in some nasty surprises for your character. That’s always nice.

  6. 6
    germy says:

    How does an author work when he has been put in a strait-jacket by relatives? This question is answered by Germer C. Arsh, author of “Brimmer Grows a Goatee and Other Sonnets,” to be published in the Fall by the Aesophagus Press. “I just lie there and think very hard,” he says, “and pretty soon the book is written by my sister.”


  7. 7

    As to where I am in writing, I am on pause, a common place to be in writing/publishing. Inspired Quill, the publisher for the book due out in Sept, was scheduled to send me edits by Dec 15 and has not sent them yet. That’s ok. I have holiday stuff to prep. A short story was supposed to be out in an anthology from Fantasia Divinity Publishing in November. It has not yet appeared. I finished a revision of the draft of my current book and haven’t decided whether to look for another beta read or send it to Inspired Quill and see whether they want it as is.

    So I’m waiting. Writers spend a lot of time waiting. Publishing is a buyers market and they take their time.

    Writing is therapeutic for me, so I’m faintly depressed that I’m not doing it.

  8. 8
    Cowgirl in the Sandi says:

    Sort of OT, but maybe not – I love that picture of Jo (I assume), scribbling away in her attic.

  9. 9
    oatler. says:

    @germy: Didn’t Aesophagus Press also give us “Through the Alimentary Canal With Gun and Camera”?

  10. 10
    germy says:

    @oatler.: Yes! Rather obscure reference from his college days. Well done.

  11. 11
    trollhattan says:

    Devastating interview with Tamara Holder this morning, going public about her sexual harassment settlement with Fox following Murdoch’s recent statements. Seems like the wheels may be coming off at Fox News.

    She’s great, BTW.

  12. 12
    germy says:

    @trollhattan: I watched her interview. She looked like she was going to break down sobbing a few times, but she bravely continued.

    I’m guessing some of the Fox guys are perspiring freely right now.

  13. 13
    frosty says:

    Any advice for non-fiction? I wrote a history of the Washington Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railroad back in the 80s and as I was getting ready to figure out how to get it published the acknowledged expert (who rode the interurban back in the 1930s) published a history with better photographs than I’d been able to find.

    I shelved it, figuring there was no market for two books, but I still have it nagging me and I’d like to do something so all that work doesn’t go to waste. Editing, publishing, what have you. Any thoughts?

  14. 14
    Mnemosyne says:


    It sounds like Anderson didn’t stick around for “Satisfied,” which is the song that (literally) turns the entire musical inside out. Oh well — too bad for her.

  15. 15
    Marina says:

    I’m on hold, metaphorically speaking: I wrote a novel and now it’s sitting there like a malignant blob on my computer. I have no idea whether what I’ve written is a mannered mess or a raw, provocative breakthrough blah blah blah. How does one get a critique group? Suggestions are most welcome. I don’t want to show it to anybody I know because it’s so damn personal.The local writers’ group in my (relatively) small town focuses on fantasy. Isolation = not good.

    Dear Ms. Winsor–Please don’t take this personally; I was holding Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Wintergirls” yesterday, trying to decide whether to sell it or burn it. (I went with option a, and had an interesting conversation with the bookstore buyer about the growing Teen Tumult genre, with its sub-genres of self-harm and eating disorders.) My daughter was anorexic; she memorized this book at the height of her illness which, per an interview with Anderson, is based on material from pro-ana sites. (These sites provide inspiration and encouragement to anorexics, making their illness more entrenched.) The buyer felt, as do I, that Wintergirls effectively (albeit unwittingly, of course) romanticizes brain disorders and minimizes the emotional and financial difficulties of recovery.

  16. 16
    Mnemosyne says:

    Also, too, I think I probably have the same craft books as everyone else, but I’m wondering if we want to pick one and all talk about it for a future thread. (I keep meaning to email Tamara about this and forgetting.)

    The super popular one right now is Story Genius by Lisa Cron. There’s a big push right now to re-focus stories on characters rather than structure, and Cron’s book is a big part of that.

  17. 17
    germy says:


    It sounds like Anderson didn’t stick around for “Satisfied,” which is the song that (literally) turns the entire musical inside out.

    Can you imagine how discouraging it would have been if Miranda had sought her out as a possible mentor early on? If he’d made the mistake I made, he would have thought “well, she makes music and has been on stage, maybe I should seek her advice.”

  18. 18
    Brachiator says:


    The point is this: All you young folks. Choose a mentor whose work you admire. It isn’t enough that they just “have the job you wish you had.” He clearly didn’t get my work (although ten years later his boss did) and I wasn’t particularly impressed with his work.

    Great story. I will pass it along to a friend who may need some encouragement.

    Also, I loved that you later submitted the essay and it got published. I took from this that mentors are not gatekeepers and the writer must decide what he or she thinks is worth getting published.

  19. 19
    Steeplejack says:

    I see that one book I really liked, A Story Is a Promise, by Bill Johnson, is back in print. The Kindle edition is only $2.99. Well worth it. (I have not read The Spirit of Storytelling, the other book in the volume.)

    Another book that helped me a lot was Jack M. Bickham’s Scene and Structure. Kindle edition is $9.73.

    Neither book is a panacea, but they both do specific things very well. A Story Is a Promise does a fantastic job of deconstructing why some books seem to grab you from the first page and others never catch fire. But it’s not a “here’s this one secret trick” kind of book. He writes a lot about narrative momentum, how to structure it and how to keep it going. Among other things.

    Scene and Structure offers a good way of looking at the small building blocks of your story—the “scenes.” He doesn’t use the term exactly like a film scene, though, and, even if you have a background in screenwriting, you’ll get a lot of ideas about how to structure and sequence your own work.

    And that’s what I liked about both these books: they’re not really “how to” manuals. They do address the “how to” steps, but they do it in a sort of meta way that gets you thinking not just about the concrete steps but how to think about the steps—and about how you already think about the steps, which may reveal some areas where you are hindering yourself.

    Looking at this comment, it seems a little too “glowing.” As I said, neither book is a panacea, but they are very good in specific areas, and they stand out in my memory from years of reading about writing.

  20. 20
    Mnemosyne says:

    Also, too, a writing article by Film Crit Hulk from 2013 that I stumbled across while reading his take on The Last Jedi:

    The Myth of 3 Act Structure

  21. 21
    Brachiator says:


    I shelved it, figuring there was no market for two books, but I still have it nagging me and I’d like to do something so all that work doesn’t go to waste. Editing, publishing, what have you. Any thoughts?

    I don’t know. Are there any magazines, Smithsonian, various history magazines, that might publish some version of your work?

  22. 22
    Steeplejack says:


    (Separated from previous message because I don’t know how many links FYWP currently gives me.)

    Finally, on a lighter note (but I am serious about this!), Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp, or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel is one of the best and funniest books I have ever read about the dolorous lot of the writer. All your bad feels are in this book! “He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel.”

    The nice little hardback edition is $13.68. But it is included in the Amphigorey anthology along with 14 other great Gorey works for only $17.60

    (These are “terse” Amazon links. Use Cole’s button to give him a little vig on any purchases.)

  23. 23
    germy says:


    mentors are not gatekeepers and the writer must decide what he or she thinks is worth getting published.

    True. I sometimes find myself wishing I could travel back in time to correct a few of the many mistakes I made. Not exactly productive thinking…

  24. 24

    @Marina: One of the things that fascinates me about Anderson is that she writes such a wide variety of stuff. The first book of hers I ever read was CHAINS, a middle-grade book about an African-American girl who was a slave in NYC during the Revolution. So it was a serious, historical book about an ironic situation of an enslaved child in the middle of the fight for “freedom.” But another of her books is PROM, which is about kids planning a prom, which sounds trivial but which she manages to make engaging.

    A lot of her books are so-called “problem” books, which is a troublesome genre, as you point out. We have to be able to talk about problems, but do it in a way that doesn’t make them worse.

    @Mnemosyne: I have one of Cron’s books on my shelf too. Let me see what it is. Oh. WIRED FOR STORY. I heard Cron speak at a SCWBI conference last year. She’s very engaging.

  25. 25
    Mnemosyne says:


    He was wiser than you — he sought out Stephen Sondheim. And Sondheim is well-regarded as a mentor, because he still has the fondest memories of the mentor he sought out — Oscar Hammerstein III (yes, of Rodgers and Hammerstein).

    So, yes, your point is good — seek out a mentor you admire who is writing the same kind of material you want to write.

    Along those lines, frosty may want to get in touch with the writer of the railroad book he admires and maybe ask if there were any aspect of that history that the author wasn’t able to cover or wasn’t as interested in. That might help him identify a niche for his book.

  26. 26
    Steeplejack says:


    Okay, I LOL’d. Sounds like a ripping yarn!

  27. 27

    @Marina: I forgot to say I’ve found writers groups in three ways.

    1. I hung around and posted on Absolute Write, a writers site. I eventually got to know some of the people the same you we do here and when one of them formed a locked writers group, she invited me to join. Before that, I exchanged manuscripts with people just by asking them. This group is still going.

    2. I took a writer’s workshop at a conference in Madison. The leader of that workshop turned out to live about an hour from me and invited me to join her group. This group eventually blew up and is no more.

    3. A local art center ran an 8 week workshop and I took it a couple of times. It’s not running any more but I’m still friends with one of the people I met there and we exchange work.

    So my group doesn’t meet face to face, which sounds like it might be what you want. Consider Absolute Write.

  28. 28
    frosty says:

    @Brachiator: Magazines etc. are an idea. I could try that out, but probably not til I retire from my day job in a couple of years. I mean, the manuscript has been sitting around for 30 years, a couple more won’t hurt.

  29. 29
  30. 30
    frosty says:


    frosty may want to get in touch with the writer of the railroad book he admires

    I did get in touch with him when I was working on it and had a nice chat, which was when I found out he’d purchased most of the photos I’d seen in the Baltimore Sun from the photographer. He has long since passed away, but yes, there are some niches that could be worked on — the ones pertaining to the economics of interurbans and the business; he covered the personal side of it pretty well.

  31. 31

    @frosty: Just to scout out possibilities, you could check out Query Tracker. You need to join to be able to search very usefully, but it’s free. I’d link but BJ is being a pain in the butt.

  32. 32
    Steeplejack says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    I didn’t doubt it. It’s just a hilarious title. I pictured it illustrated by Glen Baxter and with the film adaptation starring (a young) Michael Palin.

  33. 33
  34. 34
  35. 35
    Brachiator says:


    True. I sometimes find myself wishing I could travel back in time to correct a few of the many mistakes I made. Not exactly productive thinking…

    On the other hand, your remarks are great bits of insight helpful for current and future writers.

  36. 36
    germy says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    It is a real book.

    I didn’t know about that book. I see it was published in 1930.

    When Robert Benchley was in college (class of 1912) he sometimes gave impromptu, humorous lectures to his classmates. That was the title of one of his lectures.

  37. 37
    germy says:


    helpful for current and future writers.

    There are so many pitfalls for the aspiring writer. It was tougher back in the pre-internet days, when the scam artists operated with less fear of exposure.

    It’s great to hear the stories of everyone here.

  38. 38
    Brachiator says:


    Also, too, a writing article by Film Crit Hulk from 2013 that I stumbled across while reading his take on The Last Jedi

    Oh man, another article I have to take a look at. I’m currently going through the Jedi article.

    In Shakespeare, the Acts and scenes are laid out in the First Folio of 1623, but does not exist in the Quarto versions published during Shakespeare’s lifetime. I don’t think acts are laid out in the works of any other dramatist of the era.

  39. 39
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @germy: I looked up George S. Chappell to see if he might have been at Harvard at that time, but he was Yale (1899).

  40. 40
    frosty says:

    @Dorothy A. Winsor (formerly Iowa Old Lady): @Steeplejack: Thanks for that. I had no idea something like QueryTracker existed.

  41. 41
    Mike J says:

    Was it Ruemara who was writing cartoon spec scripts? This made me think of her.

  42. 42
    germy says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: I checked Amazon, and I see Benchley wrote the introduction to his book.

    They must have crossed paths at Vanity Fair.

  43. 43
    Another Scott says:

    @Mnemosyne: That’s painful for these eyes to read, what with the ALL CAPS TIMES FONT AND ALL. :-/

    I need to learn CSS one of these days, to fix such things as that. (sigh)


  44. 44
    Ken says:

    Film Crit Hulk actually wrote a book, Screenwriting 101, that was on Amazon.

    It seems to be gone from their store now, though it’s still on my Kindle.

    It is still available on iBooks for $4.99 (Authors listed as Film Crit Hulk and Meredith Borders). Didn’t see it on the B&N site (but didn’t look too hard).

    It’s nominally about writing screenplays, but the vast majority of it is directly applicable to writing books or short stories. I strongly recommend it, though I suggest you go to his website and nose around a bit there to get a feeling for his style. It is a bit… different.

  45. 45
    Amir Khalid says:

    I am in awe of you fiction writers. I’m okay at writing prose, I think; but I’ve only ever been a journalist, and have never really attempted the mysterious (to me) art of planning out a story. It’s why I’ve never seriously tried to write even a short story, let alone a novel.

  46. 46
    Mike J says:

    I’m not actively writing myself, but I’ll link to something about writing.

  47. 47
    Brachiator says:


    Devastating interview with Tamara Holder this morning, going public about her sexual harassment settlement with Fox following Murdoch’s recent statements.

    This is sad and powerful. But I also appreciate how she wisely noted that Murdoch, by his own stupid remarks, let her talk about what happened to her.

    I would love it if Fox on air talent started resigning. The money is probably too good.

  48. 48

    @Amir Khalid: I admire the way journalists just settle in and do t heir job. They don’t whine around about writers block or needing their muse.

  49. 49
    Mnemosyne says:


    There were apparently two versions: the all-caps Film Crit Hulk-style version and a normal version. I wonder if he now sells it via his website instead of Amazon.

  50. 50
    Amir Khalid says:

    @Dorothy A. Winsor (formerly Iowa Old Lady):
    It’s not like we have an option. Journalists’ editors are our bosses. They want the story in by deadline, no excuses, and are not sympathetic to complaints of writer’s block or an AWOL muse.

  51. 51
    Johannes says:

    This is probably overly simplistic, but both my professionally published non-fiction book and my self published novel, I wrote the book I wanted to read.

    My editors were tremendously important, both the editors at my publishers, and the professional who edited the novel text for me. As for mentoring–I didn’t really have a writing mentor, but I did have a tight-knit circle of friends who believed in my ability to get the job done, and who read the drafts at each stage, and gave frank feedback.

  52. 52
    debbie says:

    TaMara, the illustrations you’ve found for this series have all been wonderful.


    It seems everyone here writes fiction or fiction-related; I have a question about memoir-writing. I’ve been working on a life of my mother. Since she refused to share more than a few memories, it’s mostly a reconstruction through photos, genealogy, and lots of suppositions (mine mostly).

    There’s a 12- to 15-year period where I wasn’t living at home and it was just my mom and my school-age youngest brother. Based mostly on phone calls and brief visits with my mother, I really don’t have as many details as I do for the other years of her life and so the writing seems sketchier. My brother wouldn’t provide any information because he says it should all be from my point of view. I assured him I would frame it as coming from him, but that I thought it was information important to getting a full picture of my mother. No go. And now, his having voted for Trump, I may never get any information from him.

    I was about to start my third reedit, but in light of the fact it will never be complete, I’m wondering whether I should just pack it in and call it a day, just write about my brother’s assholery (in politer words, of course), or take all kinds of liberty, like James Frey, with that part of her life.

  53. 53
    Paula says:

    @Steeplejack: My library has the Gorey book and I just requested it. Thanks for the tip – looking forward to reading it!

  54. 54
    hitchhiker says:

    I had a cover piece published in the December issue of Sojourner’s (Jim Wallis’s progressive Christian magazine) about a local org that I admire. I also just this fall got TWO regular column gigs — one at the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation that’s online only, and the other for a disability community print magazine called New Mobility. Both of those are about neuroscience as it relates to repairing damaged spinal cords.

    And I have a novel that is 2/3 of the way done, which I love but which I allow myself to be distracted from on the daily. (I spend far too much time in a state of fury and hope over our national nightmare.)

    I have a critique group that I’ve been part of for 20 years, during which time members have died, moved away, given up writing, gotten head injuries that prevent them from looking at screens (!!) … there are 3 of us left, which makes it hard. If you can find just 4 or 5 writers who produce pages regularly and whose opinions matter to you, it can be enough. It was for me, because I KNOW I’d never have kept at it without their encouragement & presence.

    My favorite bit of writing advice comes from a couple of chapters in Stephen King’s book on writing — which is weird, because I don’t much care for his work. What he showed me about writing fiction, though, is that I’m the sort of novelist who doesn’t work well from an outline. Things started to come alive when I let myself just go with it; I started to see the project as like one giant, long improv in which all the characters kept silently saying, “Yes, and … ” to one another. When I did that, they suddenly got 3-dimensional. It felt like they’d been keeping secrets from one another and from me, which made the whole thing a LOT more entertaining to write.

    Thanks for this thread!

  55. 55
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    I don’t have a book to recommend, but an online forum called Dirty Discourse. It’s five bucks a month, but it’s proven fabulously useful to me. It has forums on multiple genres, including romance, erotica, LGBTQ, sci-fi, etc. I’ve gotten advice from a best selling writer there.

  56. 56

    Well, my short story to Liminal got turned down.

    I think it’s a good story. May need a better ending. Any beta readers out there?

  57. 57

    @PaulWartenberg: Sure. I’m between projects (unless my editor drops work on me). Send it to dawinsor at dawinsor dot com.

    ETA: Assuming you think I’m a good fit for the story.

  58. 58
    WRRistow says:

    I’ve picked up a couple of things, from the experience of occasionally being edited:
    . When you hand a beta reader a manuscript, hand themail a pen and a lined pad, as well, and ask them to make notes as they read. Their first reaction that a sentence is unclear, or jarring, or wrong, is frequently more accurate than the opinion they form on reflection, or a second reading.
    . A good reader’s or editor’s opinion that a passage needs to be changed is ALWAYS right. (Well, maybe 95%, but that’s the way to bet.) Their suggestion of how to fix it should be reviewed to see if the change matches your voice and what you were trying to say.
    . If a passage needs fixing but none of the changes you try are working, consider whether the problem is something you left unclear at a much earlier place in your text.

  59. 59
    Felanius Kootea says:

    So I mentioned a few months ago that one of my short stories got published in Ploughshares, after being rejected by ten other places. I had to withdraw it from 15 other litmags once it was accepted (I only submit to places that allow simultaneous submissions). I work full-time doing research and teaching graduate-level classes and only have time to write short stories. I took an evening novel writing class with Writers Workshop LA to keep myself going and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. Edan Lepucki was the instructor and the critiques were absolutely instrumental in transforming my stories. The only thing is no one else was working on short stories and everyone made it clear that it would be close to impossible to get a short story collection published. So I was ecstatic getting paid for my story in Ploughshares. Imagine my surprise when three different NY literary agents contacted me after reading that story. While one was interested in a novel, the other two are happy to work with short story collections and have repped writers with international backgrounds (my stories are set in Nigeria or the US). It’s taken 12 years to get to this point and I still have to revise 2 of the short stories but I can see there’s an end in sight (I’m the kind of person who still wants to revise a story after it’s published so letting go is a big deal for me).

  60. 60
    Mnemosyne says:


    Well, I wouldn’t go the James Frey route of pretending that what you write for that period is factually true, but I think you could definitely write about that period of estrangement from your POV, your feelings about it, and your suppositions about what was going on, as long as you make it clear that they are your suppositions.

    We all write the story of our parents in our heads, and it’s never going to 100 percent conform to reality, because they will always have a different perception of events from their own perspective. I think you should embrace that ambiguity and highlight it.

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    Another Scott says:

    @debbie: Presumably you want to tell her story based on what you know about her. There will always be parts of her story that are lost – you can’t do anything about that. A memoir is never everything about a person’s life.

    Tell the story that makes sense to you and seems true to you. If part of that story is incomplete, or told from your perspective when you had little contact, that seems fine to me. If it makes sense to the story to tell things that didn’t happen or you have no way to know how they happened, that seems fine to me too – as long as you make it clear to your readers what you’re doing.

    ( Clifford Irving probably would have made a mint selling his Autobiography of Howard Hughes as fiction, instead he went to prison for claiming it was real and authorized by HH. )

    J found a box of love letters to her father from another woman (from before he was married to her mother). We only looked at them briefly before putting them back in the box. People are complicated, and we don’t have to know all about them to know the important parts of their stories – the parts that affected others in important ways.

    My $0.02.

    Good luck!


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    @Felanius Kootea: Holy cow. That’s terrific.

    @debbie: There is a thing called creative nonfiction. You may not think of yourself as doing that, but you might find some of its premises suggestive for your own work.

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    Mnemosyne says:

    @Felanius Kootea:

    Congratulations — that’s great news! In general, it’s hard to sell short story collections, but it’s easier when they have a common thread or theme. If your stories are set in Nigeria or in the Nigerian diaspora, that gives publishers and agents a “hook” to sell them.

    It also helps that publishers are very aware of the need for more diversity (see the blog We Need Diverse Books) and that books by African-Americans (including immigrant Africans to America) have sold really well this year. You may finally be in the right place at the right time to break through.

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    stinger says:

    @Felanius Kootea: Wow- congratulations! Getting a story published and having agents reach out to you! Well done!

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    Johannes says:

    @Felanius Kootea: Many Congratulations!

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    Felanius Kootea says:

    @Dorothy A. Winsor (formerly Iowa Old Lady): @Mnemosyne: @stinger: @Johannes:
    Thank you all for the kind comments!
    Mnemosyne – I’m glad that there’s now more interest in stories set outside the US!

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    Mnemosyne says:

    Well, anyway, I aspire to finish putting together my 2018 Frankenplanner today, or at least make some more progress on it. I bought a discbound Happy Planner at 60 percent off, pulled out most of the weekly calendar stuff, and substituted in pages from The Novel Planner that I printed out onto good heavy paper (32 lb). It’s pretty monstrous in size, so we’ll see how well I do at using it. I’m hoping it will help keep me focused as I revise the rough draft of my first novel and start thinking about the next one in the series.

    ETA: Also, too, I’m reinforcing the edges of the discbound paper with washi tape (aka decorative masking tape from Asia, mostly Japan). I hate that discbound paper gets mashed with use fairly easily, so I’m going to try reinforcing it and see if that helps, even if it does make the notebook even bigger.

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    debbie says:

    @Dorothy A. Winsor (formerly Iowa Old Lady):

    That is very helpful, thanks. Thanks, also, to @Mnemosyne: and @Another Scott: .

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    Miss Bianca says:

    Sorry, I saw the title of this post and thought “Chapter 11” referred to bankruptcy.

    As in, “so what happens when you’re forced to declare creative bankruptcy?”

    Which is where I feel like I am right now. Got some nonfiction pieces worked on, a difficult letter to the editor (which will basically be a short article) to work on, and…I got nothing on the fiction end right now but a bunch of fragments.

    Ok, back to lurking on this very informative (but, for me, depressing) thread full of people who are actually producing right now. ; )

    @Felanius Kootea: Fantastic news, btw. Congratulations!

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    @Felanius Kootea:

    that’s great news! above all getting published. to me, that’s even better than getting agents calling.

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    @Dorothy A. Winsor (formerly Iowa Old Lady):

    hallo. thank you for the offer!

    it’s a maybe-ghost story about a man who meets a woman before the war. Ow stop hitting me, okay but it’s a ghost story of sorts. I’m sending the formatted version I sent to Liminal it’s in Doc format.

    My main concern is the ending. From the feedback I’ve gotten from the three places I’ve submitted, that seems to be the issue.

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    Steeplejack says:


    Two general thoughts:

    1. Maybe change up your “interview” (or information-gathering) approach.

    (Note: Not saying this is how you’re doing it!) Many people are reticent to talk about themselves or be the focus of naked attention. If you pull up a chair and tell them, “I’m going to write your biography, so tell me about your life,” they’ll clam up tight. Even seemingly reasonable (to you) approaches can misfire. (“So what were you doing in 1975?”) Sometimes you have to come at it from really odd angles, from tiny details or anecdotes that get them talking (but not about themselves!) and from which they will naturally progress with little prompting from you.

    The last few times I visited with my mother (a farm girl from Tennessee who became a nurse, married an Air Force doctor and traveled the world, now 87) I got a ton of information that I wasn’t even looking for. She lives in Las Vegas, and when she was here in NoVA in October she wanted to eat at Cracker Barrel, for some reason. So we did, and it was pretty good. She said their cornbread was almost as good as her mother’s, and I started asking her questions about that to try to improve my own cornbread recipe. After a little while I suddenly realized that we were deep in a conversation about how scarce food was on the farm during the Depression, how the type of food available changed during the year, etc. And she was talking about herself without realizing it.

    2. Write the story that is in front of you.

    Your mother “refused to share more than a few memories” and there was “a 12- to 15-year period where I wasn’t living at home and it was just my mom and my school-age youngest brother.” So there are gaps. Maybe that’s an opportunity for the narrator (you) to come to the fore, address the gaps head on and talk about the issues around not being able to fully know a parent, for whatever reasons. I’m thinking of parts of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis.

    (I have shortened this down, maybe too much. Apologies if it sounds too blunt or obvious.)

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    Steeplejack says:

    @Felanius Kootea:

    Congratulations! I hope the success continues.

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    @Dorothy A. Winsor (formerly Iowa Old Lady):

    I feel for you, but hopefully the stuff that’s due to be published actually comes out soon. HUGS.

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    RSA says:

    @debbie: I like the advice people have given already. I’m only a beginning writer, but for what it’s worth:

    It may be possible to structure your memoir thematically instead of chronologically with a consistent level of detail. (For example, you might start in the present and go back in extended flashbacks, but of course that’s not a necessity.) You’d be emphasizing parts of your mother’s story that were significant, and if there are gaps, it’s at least not as obvious that you’re skipping over a period of time, as long as everything else hangs together.

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    No One You Know says:

    In the better late than never category, crossed the 30,000 word benchmark after deadline but before my birthday, so I’ll claim it was a victory.

    I’m slowly working my way to the harsh parts of the story, and having a slow time of it filling out secondary characters into fully fledged people, some of whom will have to die in pretty short order. It hurts to be a god. Chiron is my only “mentor!”

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    debbie says:


    Thanks, I like your #2. I try to relate events from my perspective without making it it all about me, but I may need to change that, at least for that part.

    I tried a few times to draw her out, but my mother slapped me down every time. I learned to wait. I didn’t get anywhere near a complete story, but I got stories not even my youngest brother (her favorite) knew.


    Thanks. It’s kind of but not strictly chronological — more circular, maybe — which drove me crazy trying to make sure each time I described a specific conversation or event, I remained consistent.

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    hitchhiker says:

    @Felanius Kootea:

    Brilliant. Can I ask if you managed to publish any of your other stories before getting into Ploughshares?

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    Steeplejack says:

    @No One You Know:

    Hey, did you see my reply to you last week about the Austrian crime movie? I can probably dig it up if you didn’t.

    Just thinking about it because another episode was on last night. It’s a series of feature-length TV movies called Anatomy of Evil.

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    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:

    @Amir Khalid: You’re aware that one of the biggest money-makers in SF these days (and all-around cool guy), John Scalzi, started out as a journalist and still keeps his hand in with review columns and the like?

  82. 82
    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:

    @debbie: Are you familiar with Genealogy Gems? She regularly discusses doing books from your research and how to make something that non-genealogists will read.

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    @Felanius Kootea: Congratulations! That gives me hope there will be an audience for my memoir/family history.

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    debbie says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism:

    I am not, but thanks! It looks like it’ll be very helpful.

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    Mnemosyne says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism:

    Kind of random thought I had while watching The Last Jedi: I hope Adam Driver is mentally prepared for how many Star Wars fanfics he and his bare chest will be featured in for the next decade or so. ;-)

  86. 86
    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:

    @Mnemosyne: I would hope that by this point, no one would get involved with Star Wars without realizing what the fanbase is like. Haven’t seen the new one yet; the Great Baking is eating up all available time.

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    Mnemosyne says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism:

    I really liked it. See it, and then read Film Crit Hulk. I agree with his analysis.

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    Ken says:

    I just took another look at my Kindle copy.

    In the Kindle file, if you pick ‘Go To’ and go to the cover and then page advance the first page after the cover tells you to choose your experience.

    You can select ‘Full Hulk’, in all its Caps Locked glory, or ‘Bruce Banner’. which is like a traditional book printing.

    I would assume the iBooks is the same way, but I never bought that. I dunno if iBooks can be read on non Apple devices or not, I’ve never really tried.

  89. 89
    NMgal says:

    Thanks to all for the juicy tips and discussion. I’m about 41,000 words into the first book of what will be a series. Fantasy, though oddly I’m not a huge fan of the genre! The story just appeared in my mind and developed over time, and it’s basically an epic-scale historical romance set in an alternate universe. Not generally my thing, but I can’t help it.

    I have a general plot, notes, and whole scenes written for the rest of the series arc, probably a couple hundred pages worth. My estimate is about 10 books. Eek. And I have 65 pages of notes and plot for a second arc. Oy. So no shortage of story or worldbuilding — it remains to get it written and then go back and see if the structure works, what needs to be cut, what needs to be expanded on.

    I actually wrote a feature screenplay first, then converted that to a pilot plus the next few episodes (way different pacing between movies and serial TV). Those are basically written but not fitted yet to one-hour TV narrative structure. Earlier this year I decided that selling a series as a first-time screenwriter was pie-in-the-sky, so if I ever want to get the story told I better novelize that puppy.

    It’s been an interesting conversion; sometimes I get exasperated having to actually describe everything instead of leaving the details to future directors and set and wardrobe designers, but that’s just because I feel bogged down instead of zipping along with dialogue and the absolute minimum of description that I’ve learned in screenwriting mode. Books allow the writer as much control as you’re ever going to get outside your head; with plays and screenplays you have to accept the collaborative nature of getting those manifested.

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    Felanius Kootea says:

    @hitchhiker: Just seeing this – hope you see this though the thread is now dead. I had one short story that was a finalist for an international PEN short story competition and it was published in an anthology of finalists. I had another published in a now defunct online zine. That’s pretty much it for short story publications before Ploughshares.

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