What Makes a Book a Keeper? Part 1

booksSome books are meant to pass time on my shelves before getting swept into the donation box for the local library or the thrift shop. Others have the distinction of permanent residency on what might be dubbed my “shelf of honor.” Those books are the ones that have somehow made a difference in my life. Maybe they were books that left a profound impression on me through their content and the author’s craft. Or they might be personally and professionally important–those that I had the honor of editing and designing for publication (or even writing), for example, or one that marked a life-passage for me.

Among the books in the latter category is The Turquoise, by Anya Seton, which was published in 1946 for the People’s Book Club by Houghton Mifflin. My mother’s book club membership was one of her few extravagances; books came in the mail regularly and, for as long as I remember, she never gave or threw one away.  The Turquoise was the first grown-up book I read after graduating from Nancy Drew and Candy Kane. Besides being a darn good story, it introduced me to my beloved Southwest and to the genre of historical fiction.

Books that fall into the category of those that made a profound impression on me through their content and the author’s craft deserve recognition. For that reason, I have begun this series of posts spotlighting these important books.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

Because I am both a reader and a writer, I’m always on the lookout for books that will both entertain and inform me. I don’t mean to distinguish between reading for enjoyment and reading to learn—they are two sides of the same coin. When I read fiction, I am looking to be entertained and informed. I want the author to tell a compelling story that keeps me engaged, but I also want to learn from the author’s craft. I want her to school me in her particular art of fiction. By the same token, when I read non-fiction, I want the author to keep me engaged while I’m learning, and if he can be entertaining along the way, all the better. Continue reading “What Makes a Book a Keeper? Part 1”

A Writer’s Relationship with the Reader

Many years ago, a colleague, Rus VanWestervelt, shared with me a graphic that illustrated his idea of the relationship between a writer and his reader. He described this relationship as a continuum wherein the writer never leaves the piece, but the audience doesn’t enter until a piece of writing has been officially established as a “draft,” that is, a piece of writing that has a future for the writer and a future for a reader who happens upon the piece. For this reason, he asserted, as long as the writer keeps the intended audience in mind during the drafting, revising, and editing stages of the manuscript, success is almost certain.

The Writer-Audience Continuum


As a creative non-fiction writer, Rus describes the initial stage in his writing process as an exercise in free writing. Most writers engage in various pre-writing strategies, at which time we may or may not know who our audience is and what they expect from our text. In either case, during this earliest stage, when the ideas may be unformed and unfocused, we concentrate on getting the writing started or locating the information we need; that leaves the field of ideas wide open.

When the writer envisions an audience, and he begins to define that audience more specifically, his field narrows in service of that audience’s needs. The role of the audience in his writing widens, gaining more and more importance as he works toward and through revision and finally to editing. At the end of the process, when the text is ready to publish, the audience and the text have achieved a balance, so to speak. Rus contends that the balance must be there, otherwise the writing will not speak to its audience in the way we intend.

The concept illustrated in this continuum is one of equality between the writer and the reader. Neither the writer nor the reader is marginalized; they both remain in the writing. Through this sense of equality and balance, the writer’s voice is heard.

The Writer-Audience Continuum and Fiction

In re-examining this continuum, I wondered about the degree to which it applies to writers of fiction as well as non-fiction. It seems to me that non-fiction, creative and otherwise, is more obviously purpose-driven than fiction, that the writer has a compelling reason to inform his audience regarding the topic at hand. With fiction, our purposes may be more subtly defined. So the question becomes: How does our concept of audience change, for example, if we are writing a historical novel set in the southwestern desert in the twelfth century. To what degree does this novel inform? Is it aimed at readers who are interested in learning about the prehistory of Southern Arizona? Not likely.

Purposes for Writing-Reading Fiction

Abhinav Goel, a native speaker of Hindi, replied to a question posed on Quora, “What is the purpose of writing fiction if it is fabricated?” For me, his answers illustrate how fiction fits into this continuum. With the exception of his last purpose, an outside audience is either clearly included or implied (emphasis mine).

  1. Pleasure: We derive pleasure from reading stories however false and unreal. Fiction takes us to a world where we dream to be but cannot.
  2. Inspiration: Stories about fictitious people can inspire real people to improve their lives, improve the lives of others or do good in general.
  3. Delight: Some people delight in others’ happiness and some in others’ sorrow. In the latter case, it is better for that other to be fictitious than real.
  4. Arousal: Fantasy of any kind leads to an arousal that may not be achieved by anything real.
  5. Wisdom: Learning from a fake story is better than falling into the pit yourself. Traditional tales of folklore were mechanisms of passing wisdom down generations.
  6. Creative release (for the writer): Fiction lets writers explore the depths of their imagination. Without imagination, their [sic] would be no dreams and without dreams, there would be no progress. We’d be a dull society.

Because Goel’s sixth reason identifies the writer as the audience, I think the continuum still applies. How does our concept of audience change when we are writing fiction? I would suggest it does not change all that much. Regardless of what kind of writing we are doing or who our audience is, there is a point at which our potential readers join us in our writing process and travel with us on our journey from idea to publication, reminding us of our purpose and keeping us on task.

Note: The graphic and selected text in this post were included in my book, Doing Academic Writing in Education: Connecting the Personal and the Professional, co-written with Dr. Janet C. Richards, published by Erlbaum, 2005.

Two Indispensable Tools for Writers and Editors

As a writer, I know how hard it is to self-edit and proofread my own writing. It’s important to have my manuscript as close to perfect as I can make it before I send it to my editor. (Yes, writers who are also editors hire other editors to edit their work.)

As an editor, I know how easy it is to get caught up in a client’s narrative and miss both small and large problems that must be addressed. That’s one reason I always sub-contract proofreading to someone else. But I also make sure I’ve done my own due diligence before I pass a manuscript–mine or someone else’s–to a proofreader.

iAnnotate or Similar PDF/Document Mark-Up App

iAnnotate PDF is an Apple product (the lower case i in its name is a dead giveaway), but a slimmed-down version (with fewer bells and whistles) is available for Android devices, . That’s the one I use. I got it a few years ago free from Google Play Store, but it no longer appears in the offerings. It is, however, available from some third-party download sites.* The Apple version (a product of http://www.branchfire.com) is $9.99 at iTunes.

The fact is, however, any app that allows you to mark up a PDF will do for this type of editing. This just happens to be the one I use.

@Voice Aloud Reader

@Voice Aloud Reader (a product of http://www.hyperionics.com) is a free, flexible read-aloud program that is available in an astonishing number of languages.

Using These Apps Together

I save my client’s or my own manuscript as a PDF and open it in both iAnnotate and @Voice Aloud Reader on my tablet. While @Voice Aloud Reader reads the manuscript, I listen using earbuds and follow along, marking up the PDF as necessary. (It’s often my bedtime reading when I’m facing a deadline.) Continue reading “Two Indispensable Tools for Writers and Editors”

The Clay Endures Coming Soon


the clay endures 3D

Finally, I have a firm release date for Book 2 in The Clay Series, The Clay Endures. Well, sorta.

I anticipate offering pre-sales somettime around mid-July, with the full release coming at the end of July. I will be at the Clay Festival in Silver City, New Mexico, on July 30 and will have the book, hot off the presses, for sale there.

This book goes back in time from the first book, The Clay Remembers. Readers will remember that Anna, an archaeologist, uncovers a broken Hohokam pot which connects her to the lives and experiences of two women from years before: Esperanza, a nineteenth-century homesteader’s wife, and Ha-Wani, the Hohokam woman who made the pot in the twelfth century. A little scrap of land in the shadows of the Santa Catalina Mountains, north of Tucson, Arizona, is the setting.

The Clay Endures is Esperanza’s story. She comes to this place to help her husband realize his dream of building a cattle ranch there. His fascination with La Cresta, a spectacular and massive ridge of granite towers and pinnacles (known today as Pusch Ridge), draws him to this wilderness where the Apaches endanger their lives and steal his cattle.

Esperanza struggles to hold onto their dream in spite of isolation and unrelenting loneliness. When she finds the ancient pot, the spirit of the woman who made it, offers her companionship and understanding. But will it be enough when she delivers her stillborn child all alone, when outlaws attack her, and when the mysterious Apache, who watches her from the shadows, finally makes his move?

You can read an online preview here.

More Self-Editing Tips: Part 2

The response to “Self-Editing Tips: Part 1″ was gratifying, bringing us to More Self-Editing Tips: Part 2. Most readers agreed that professional editing is a necessity for self-published writers, and I want to emphasize that these tips are in no way meant to relieve you of your responsibility to hire a professional editor if you want to publish a high-quality book. Several readers suggested the strategy of reading aloud, which I will cover in a little more detail in this post. Another reader suggested adding tools for determining the reading level of your manuscript, something I had not given much thought to, so I will be adding it here.

Self-editing common errors:

This list continues where I left off in the previous post. These self-editing tips relate to errors or problems you may not be aware of.

  • Autonomous body parts
    • Interesting phrase, isn’t it? This is where a character may have body parts acting independently of the character.
    • Sometimes this construction creates an image that is hard tounsee once you’ve imagined it.
      • Andrew’s fist pounded on the door. (I wonder if Andrew wanted his fist to do that.)
      • He was deep in thought when the girl caught his eye. (Did she use a baseball glove?)
    • I had a client once whose characters seemed to be victims of their own body parts acting without permission on nearly every page. (His arm wrapped around her shoulders. Her head leaned against his chest.) I sent the manuscript back to her with a request that she do some self-editing before I took up the manuscript. I could have gone ahead and charged her my hourly rate to do it myself, but I didn’t think that would have been fair. I gave her a quick tutorial on autonomous body parts and some online resources to use to learn more about it. She did fine and her revised manuscript was much better for her efforts.
    • Here’s an extended example from Joel Stickley at his blog, How to Write Badly Well:
    •      He reached out a sympathetic hand. Helen looked up with hopeful eyes, then swung an eager arm towards him and allowed her optimistic fingers to grasp his.
           “Yes,” she said, her voice strong enough to shock her own ears. He grinned, his confident mouth lighting up his forthright face. Her heart, delighted, seemed to laugh within her chest–the chest which was usually so reserved and timid. She looked into his eyes and saw them grinning at her.
           But was there something else there? A hint of trepidation, perhaps? Behind their apparent delight, what were his eyes really feeling? It was impossible to know what was going on in those eyes’ head. Was their heart truly in it?
    • I suspect the example speaks for itself (pun intended)

Continue reading “More Self-Editing Tips: Part 2”

Self-Editing Tips: Part 1

Much has been said about the stigma of self-publishing, and probably the most oft-repeated criticism is that self-published books are frequently poorly edited or not edited at all. As an editor, I wouldn’t dream of publishing a book without hiring an outside editor to go through it with a fine-tooth comb. Of course,  good editors don’t come cheap, but it’s an expense that will pay off down the road when your published work is recognized for its high quality. It’s almost impossible for us to fully edit our own writing. We are too close to it; our eyes (and our brain) don’t always register errors–we unconsciously supply what we meant to write. That makes self-editing quite a challenge.

Joanna Penn Editing, Self-editing
From Joanna Penn via Flickr Commons: She describes it as an almost final draft of “How to Enjoy Your Job” edited by a professional editor.

Look closely at author and blogger Joanna Penn‘s image on the right.  It might not surprise you that her editor marked up her manuscript so thoroughly, but she says she paid for this edit after several other edits and proof-readers. [emphasis mine] Professional authors hire professional editors. Even if you don’t yet consider yourself a professional author, I urge you to begin acting like one or you may never achieve that goal.

There are a number of self-editing strategies you can use to make sure the manuscript is as good as it can be before sending it to the editor who will make it even better. If the editor charges by the hour, you’ll save a little money if you’ve done your homework and ferreted out all of those pesky errors and problems ahead of time.

That said, it is possible for you to do some serious self-editing. After all, the less work you give your editor, the faster she will get the job done. Here are some things you can do before the editor takes over your manuscript:

Continue reading “Self-Editing Tips: Part 1”