Tag Archives: fiction

The Marks of an Editor

By Kay Springsteen

With the rise in the rates of e-published books by independent companies and self-published authors, calls are going out for editors. As a senior editor at Astraea Press, I’ve been looking at editors’ tests with the goal of assisting in decisions about whether or not to hire applicants. And it’s because I’m seeing the same mistakes over and over that I decided to share what good editors must know to be successful at helping an author produce the best polished manuscript.

Thorough and demonstrable understanding of the mechanics of writing. This includes grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Knowledge of the elements of story construction. This includes such things as point of view and how to recognize inappropriate shifts from one head to another in the scene (point of view breaks), recognition of telling where the author should be showing, the proper use of dialogue tags, and the ability to identify plots and subplots with an eye to ensuring these all move the story forward to some degree, that they are all wrapped up, and that no holes exist.

Communication skills. This would include the ability to communicate ideas and needs with senior editing staff and publisher as well as to accept direction or request clarification in the event such direction is not well understood. In addition, of utmost importance is the ability to clearly correspond with each individual author. The editor must explain why a specific change is needed, and should, in most cases, never make the change him/herself but instead explain to the author what is needed and ask the author to use his/her own words and author voice to make the correction. It’s okay, encouraged even, for an editor to make suggestions in order to show the author more clearly what is being sought. However, the editor must resist the urge to rewrite the story out from under the author. Just because you feel your own personal word choice or a plot/subplot direction is better does not make the author’s choices incorrect. Above all else, the story must remain the author’s story.

People skills. These days, little direct contact is made between editor and author. Most of the communication is done through email and through the notes in the margins. It is important that an editor explain why changes are requested in a manuscript, and in many cases illustrative suggestions should be offered—but not in such a way as the editor rewrites the book. Edits should be accomplished with the utmost respect regardless of what an editor thinks of the story or the author. And they should be made showing kindness and courtesy, not autocratically. Basically, it goes back to attracting more flies with honey than with vinegar. Unless you run across a colony of masochistic flies, honey is definitely the bait of choice. A little sugar goes a long way toward the working dynamic between two creative personalities. Thus, it is not enough to request editorial changes, even with an explanation. The editor needs to recognize an author’s bits of brilliance, and it’s important to show the author what he or she has done well along the way. That’s where compliments from the editor help. By providing positive feedback, the author is encouraged to continue doing what he/she has done right. Make all those red marks count!

With these tips in mind, I wish anyone who is of a mind to apply for an editing position the best of luck, and maybe one day soon I’ll be working with you. Anyone interested in applying to Astraea Press for an editing position, please submit your resume and qualifications with a letter of interest to Stephanie Taylor at stephanietaylor@astraeapress.com – good luck!


Notes From the Editor

By Kay Springsteen

The publishing industry has been through so many changes – with many more still to come – it would be impossible for the old masters, the authors of the typeset era, to recognize some of the requirements for manuscript submission today. When you add in that each publisher has its own specific preferences regarding file format, font type and size, line spacing, and margins, you might see your manuscript go through many variations depending on the number of publishers you submit to.

For submitting, it is best to locate the guidelines for the publisher to whom you are sending your work and follow these to the letter. This is often the author’s first test. If you can’t be bothered to format your document the way their guidelines call for, why should they want to look at your work? Even if you are completely word processor ignorant – that is, you know how to turn on the computer, open the program and begin typing, and you do all that with a sequence of sticky-note instructions – you will still have to learn how to format your document for your chosen publishing target. And, should your story be accepted, you will have to learn to work in the editing phase using track changes and comments. So take a class in Word Processing, my recommendation would be for this class to be in MS Word, since it is the program most called for by publishers.

But there are other things you should be aware of…things that will make your editor particularly pleased (and a happy editor means a happy edit, which makes for a happy author). For instance, be aware of the tools on your word processor. And turn most of them off. I’m editing a manuscript right now which the author wrote with something called smart tags turned on. These are tags that label street names and what Word perceives might be street names and give the writer the option of looking up the street on a map and acquiring directions. There is absolutely no need for this in fiction and it is best left off since it has the potential for creating problems when the manuscript goes for final formatting. Likewise, unless the publisher states otherwise, turn off curly or smart quotes. And since most publishers use first line indent, turn this on, and set it for 0.5 inch from the left. Then ignore your tab key for the rest of the manuscript.

You also want to be careful about using features and fonts that can potentially slow down the reading flow. Emphasize too may words with italics or apologetic (aka “scare”) quotes, and the read will feel choppy and jarring. Put in too many parenthetical statements (with parentheses or with the em/en dash) and your story will appear to have attention deficit disorder. Too many ellipses and you have a slow thoughtful story that hints at long (insert yawn here) pauses. If you want to determine the smoothness of your manuscript, read sections with these formats aloud – even record yourself reading it – and you will get a sense of the pauses and emphases you’ve perhaps unknowingly written in.

These are just a few of the formatting and mechanical issues editors find themselves presented with on a daily basis. But if you work on even one of these things, your editor will require less chocolate to work on your book.

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The Thumper Rule

Mark Twain

by Kay Springsteen

Three rules in life get me by. The first is The Thumper Rule (“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” The second is The Mark Twain Rule (also known as the anti-moron rule: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”). And the third is the Common Sense Rule: If you don’t like it, don’t look.

The above was part of a response I gave on the blog of a family member, and about an entirely different subject than I’m about to discuss. However, as I was preparing my article, it was my memory of these words that kept surfacing.

Have you ever made an impulse purchase of a stranger’s book? Maybe it was on sale and you picked it up on a whim. You may have paid 99 cents or $1.99, and you took a chance, not knowing anything about the author, never having read anything by him or her…but the blurb intrigued you enough to make the purchase.

And from the first page, you hated the book, maybe even didn’t finish it. If you had plucked the book off the reduced rack at Barnes & Noble or the endcap of the book aisle at Walmart, would you have found a way to review the book? To tell others far and wide to stay away from this book because you felt it was shoddily written and the author shouldn’t quit his/her day job?

Most people probably wouldn’t go out of their way to post a review of a physical book. At most, we might say to a friend, “Man, I read a terrible book I just picked up at the store.” Out of all my friends and family, I can honestly say, no one has ever said to me, “I just bought a horrible book.” I have, on the other hand occasionally heard these same people say things like, “I just read a fantastic book—you should get it.”

For some reason, I’m noticing the opposite is true regarding reviews of books purchased on line. Actually, more than just books, but since I’m a writer and this is a blog about books, I’ll stick to that. Sales sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others encourage book ratings and reviews. And some of the reviews I’ve read on these sites range from glowing to downright mean—sometimes about the same book. You can chalk a lot of the glowing ones up to possibly being from friends and family trying to help the author out—even thought that is NOT necessarily the case.

But what’s with the mean reviews? Do readers really feel the need to warn fellow readers away from a book because it’s “that bad”? When I read reviews that stress “not worth the money,” or “don’t waste your time,” I admit to feeling a bit surprised. Obviously the book made SOME impression on the reader if he/she took the time to go to Amazon and write even a short review. But truly, what is the motivation behind a bad review that is not only bad but delivered in an unkind manner with no explanation of why the reviewer didn’t like the book? I’ve taken to clicking on “see all my reviews” on some of the more cruel reviews and have been outright shocked to find that quite often the reviewer in question ONLY writes 1-star reviews with a mean-spirited feel to their words. I’m going to leave you all to draw your own conclusions about that because I don’t understand it myself—there could be any number of motivating factors for such behavior but I can’t condone any of the reasons I can think up for being mean about a review.

The key words in any review are often not even written – “in my opinion.” And yet that’s all reviews are—the opinions of our readers. As authors we’re advised to enjoy the good reviews and let the bad ones roll off our backs. It’s not always easy, since sometimes there seems to be no rationale behind the low scores. But you know what?

As a READER who also writes and sometimes reviews, I try to recognize that what I like or don’t like may not be what someone else likes or

Thumper, what does your father say?

doesn’t. So if I found a story lacking to the point where I can only give it 1-2 stars out of 5, I apply the Thumper Rule (see above).  I do this as a courtesy to a fellow writer—rather than throw them over the cliff and dash them on the rocks below, I simply don’t comment. I do this whether I know the person or not because I believe just because a particular book is not MY PERSONAL cup of tea, someone else may not feel like that.

And while some reviewers may rationalize that they are compelled to give 1-2 star reviews so others will not waste time and money, I invite them to show some compassion and explain their reasons with their opinions for two reasons: (1) So the author can get some quality feedback, and (2) so other readers can decide for themselves whether what you found to be an impediment to your enjoyment will be a problem for them.

How about you? Do you review books? Do you have a personal review policy?

Kay is an author of edgy-sweet romance, a Sr. Editor at Astraea Press and part of the editorial staff at Secret Cravings Publishing. Find her on Facebook.

Is Your Story Filled with BS?

by Kay Springsteen

I find it ironic that back story can be abbreviated BS. Because most of the time, when I read a lot of back story information dumped into a book, the other word for BS pops into my mind. To be sure, back story is something we need to know and most of the time show…but as a reader and an editor, I can’t read even a paragraph of expository back story without thinking “wasn’t there SOME better way of conveying this information?

And the answer, of course, is yes. There most definitely is. In developing my characters I do find I need to know who they are and how they got to their age in life. I need to know their back story in order to understand how they will react to the plot elements my story throws at them. My readers, on the other hand, don’t need to know everything about the character to start their story. In fact, the whole point of writing a story is so the reader will meet and get to know your characters over the course of the story – in romance, usually right alongside the other character.

So when my heroine in Elusive Echoes got a letter from her brother, I gave a hint that this was not a welcome occurrence in her reaction to the letter. What I did not do was go into exactly how it could mean trouble, or why, or what exactly their relationship had been growing up and so on. All of this was given to the reader at the appropriate time – through snippets of the letters she read, from her sitting down and telling some of her story to the love of her life, or to the sheriff, or to her love’s father, etc. Some was through thinking, and the final piece fell into place when her brother actually showed up.

Hopefully, by the time the pieces started coming together, the reader would think, “Ah, so that’s why she feels the need to be independent…” or “So that’s why she knew how to deliver a baby.”

Basically, fiction is ALL back story being told inside of present story. The woman running from an abusive ex, for example, has a story to tell, but the story needs to unfold so the reader receives just the right amount of information at the right time. This attention to pacing helps avoid information dumping and giving the reader more than they need to the point where – well, there is no point in finishing the story.After all, you already know it.

One thing I’ve noticed while editing, is a tendency to rush the relationship. Often, on speaking with the authors, I find out that when they read, they find themselves unable to wait until the hero and heroine overcome the obstacles and end up together. Many times, they translate their angst (which is actually the original author’s goal for the reader to have) into a tendency to rush it during their own stories for the sense of gratification. Only thing is, it frequently falls short because it’s all tied up and there is nothing left for the characters to discover about one another and overcome. Seeing a page of back story, especially in the form of the characters sharing their long sad stories with each other, so there are no more secrets is a warning sign that the relationship is being rushed.

So if you find your stories filled with BS, you have a specific course of action to follow: (1) Determine how much is necessary for the readers to know (and how much is not relevant to the story), (2) Determine when the readers need to be given this information, and (3) Find creative ways to present the back story in little sprinkles instead of one long dump.

Happy writing!


By Any Other Name

by Kay Springsteen

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

~Juliet/Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)

When do you choose the title for your fiction? Does it come first and then you build the story around the words on the cover? Does it come to you partway through what you’re writing? Do you sometimes find yourself worrying that title to death? According to Juliet, a rose is a rose no matter what it’s called. But when it comes to the title of your book, you have a handful of words to capture someone’s interest. Frankly, if someone had named a rose “crap,” I’m not sure I’d be as inclined to press my nose into those pretty petals and inhale deeply.

The title of the book has to be engaging, informative, and, ah…original? But…there are only so many “pretty” words out there! I’m lucky to have a writing partner who is a title genius. So even on the things we do NOT co-author, I can go to her and hit the button for automatic title generator and soon out pops the perfect title. For my October 2011 release, Heartsent, which is about a surprise miracle, I wanted a title that would fit in with my Heart Stories – which is a series I’m constructing that may or may not have related characters but always there will be love and some sort of miraculous type occurrence. Heartsight is about a blind man who “saw” a young mother and her mentally challenged child a little differently. I wanted a title that would tell in one word what the book was about – something that the readers would “get” once they got into the story. I originally had Heartcries – thinking heart, sadness, baby. And that would have been just as descriptive. But something didn’t feel quite ritht. Bbecause the baby comes to this girl in a particularly special way and at a special time, my writing partner, Kim Bowman, said “It’s like the baby was sent…Heartsight…Heartsent.” As soon as she said this, I knew that was the title.

Other titles have come to us in different ways. Now, finding the perfect title that’s original and not cliche has become a challenge for many since we can’t all write Pride and Prejudice or the next Old Man and the Sea. Once a title is taken, is it fair to write your own story and use the same title? Do you really want to? So how do YOU choose the titles for your books?

Reading and Writing and Editing Goals

by Kay Springsteen

This is only the second day of the year and already I’ve fallen behind on my most important resolution for the New Year. Goal setting. I promised myself I would actually outline my personal goals for writing and editing and instead I kind of lazed yesterday away.

Well! This is kind of a good news/bad news situation. Since it’s Leap Year, I still have the entire 365 days ahead of me to figure out. So this can be my second New Year’s Day. Of course, that means Leap Day just becomes February 28 and the year rights itself by March 1. What a great solution to falling behind.

Oh, the bad news? Yeah…I still have to set my goals and get them down somewhere so I can periodically check my progress.

I have a day job – medical transcription. And aside from needing the very steady income, the work is at times very personally rewarding. So that’s among my “other career” goals.

But for fiction, I need to divide the goals into three categories.

EDITING: I edit for a couple of different publishing houses and plan to keep doing so. Why more than one? For one thing it spreads the work, but mostly because the editing is different types of fiction and each house has different heat levels. I plan to continue my editing at my current levels.

READING: You would think between editing the work of others and writing my own stories, I wouldn’t need to read for pleasure. But I find reading without the need to polish allows me to sit back and enjoy the ride, to get caught up in the story. Someone else’s story, not my own. I put pleasure reading right up there among the must-do in my fiction goal-setting. And I’d actually like to increase my reading. Problem is, I need to find a cool place to read where I won’t see my computer or I’ll feel the draw to edit or work on something of my own. I truly enjoy the work of others so reading is important. Maybe I’ll look into a place in my garden where I can kick back this summer.

WRITING: I write sweet stories under my real name. But maybe you don’t know that I have a secret alter ego under which I write erotic shorts. I enjoy writing the shorts rather than the full out erotic stories. I also enjoy writing the full length sweets. And I have several of these planned for my up-and-running series books this year. I think I’d like to try writing some middle-ground, a bit sweet, a bit sensual stories. I’m also diving into some historical romance this year. And I plan to write in the paranormal field, the latter of which will have a slightly more sensual feel as well. For the historical and paranormal books I have planned, I am collaborating with my writing and editing partner, Kim Bowman. Lots of exciting things planned, and getting started has been a hoot, since I am a die-hard plotter and Kim claims to be a pantser. So, in the words of another writer friend, we have become a hybrid of the two: plotantsters.

I’ll keep you posted on the joys and pitfalls of collaborative authoring as we go. Now, what about you? Got your goals mapped out yet?

The Mozart Effect on Writing Fiction

By Kay Springsteen

More surgeons are performing surgery with Mozart playing in the background. For patient relaxation while they’re under the knife? Nope. Because some studies have suggested surgeons who operate under the influence of Mozart do a better job. This report reminded me of the plethora of Mozart-oriented toys and videos for children because, yes, children are prime subjects for studies that show a trend toward easier learning, higher test scores, and earlier progression through the developmental milestones.

Some studies claim:

  • Improved test scores
  • Faster learning time
  • Produces calming effect
  • Reduces errors during tasks
  • Improvements in creativity
  • Faster physical healing

So I asked some fellow authors to participate in an experiment. For those who regularly wrote to music, I asked them to give Mozart a try. For those who didn’t write to music, I asked them to give Mozart a try as well. I asked them to pay particular attention to such things as overall word count, how it felt to write to the music, what they thought of their writing in terms of clarity, sentence construction, word usage, errors, etc. Those writers who participated had the following to say:

J.F. Jenkins: Alright, so I didn’t notice any difference in amount of productivity in terms of individual sprints. I did notice my word usage was different though, and that I was much more inspired than usual. Instead of dragging all day like I have the other few days since Nano started, my brain has been able to come up with plotlines and scene ideas faster so the down time between writing is less. My words also got bigger and it was easier to stay focused. I tried listening to simply movie scores, and those were nice too, but I found myself drifting a lot to actually listen to the music instead of just writing. I’m not sure why that is exactly.

Lisa Gay Greer:  1000 good words in 30 minutes listening to Mozart. I noticed my thoughts went in a new direction, a plot line I hadn’t thought of and that is far from mundane, and I can see middle and end to some extent. so, yes, I think it worked well to open my mind up to creativity. I’ll definitely be doing this again!

Chynna Laird:  The verdict: It was calming; I was more relaxed and completed the assignment I was working on. Yes, it may have had something to do with the fact that I LOVED what I was editing but I’d like to think that the music affected my mood and that affected my concentration and attitude.

J. Gunnar Grey:  Tried this last night, but paid too much attention to the music to write well. Let’s try it again tonight with the same music and see if the initial charm has worn off.

 J. Gunnar Grey, Part 2:  Over a thousand words written while listening, 1 CD=48 minutes x 2. Considering how slowly I usually write, that’s an amazing word count. Oh, and the first chapter is finally finished to my satisfaction.

 Brea Essex: Okay, my results: I wrote for 30 minutes to Mozart, and got 930 words. I wrote for 30 minutes to my regular playlist (all songs with words) and got 988. I’m not noticing much of a difference in sentence construction or language. I have to say, though, that this is the most productive I’ve been all week!

 Jennifer Comeaux:  I listen to my local classical station while I work and they announced Mozart next, so I took out my notebook. 270 words during a 30 minute piece. It was mostly dialogue, but there is one sentence of narrative I’m rather fond of 🙂

Kay Springsteen: I found myself more focused on the story, less distractible. I have a tendency to layer in details afterward and while I wrote to Mozart, I discovered that I did not have as many to layer in after I had completed scenes—the details seemed to flow into the scene naturally without me having to go back and clean up or add to what I’d written.

I’m very interested in other people who perform tasks to music—could be writing, editing, studying, reading, a completely unrelated task (like surgery or cooking dinner). Have you ever tried Mozart in the background?

And feel free to stop by my blog this week for the Save a Turkey: Gobble a Book Blog Hop. Anyone who comments on my blog wins a PDF copy of their choice – 20 different books to choose from. Then follow the link at the end of the blog  to more blogs and prizes.


Does Your Story Need CPR?

By Kay Springsteen

As a healthcare professional, it’s part of my job to know CPR. They used to teach the ABCs of CPR – airway, breaths, compressions – as in check the airway, give two breaths, start compressions. It has now been determined that the more appropriate acronym is CAB. That is, compressions should be performed first as they are more important than the breaths. With all this in mind, I began to wonder if I couldn’t make a quick rule for fiction writing based on CPR techniques. With the help of my writing and editing partner, Kim Bowman, I came up with the following:

C: CONTENT.  Check your content. Is everything you included critical to the story? Does it all fit with the story? Does it drive your story forward? If you removed it, how would your story change? Is it appropriate to the heat and graphic level of your intended target publisher? Do your time lines make sense? Have you done your research so any facts you state are true? Does your historical contain time-appropriate language, dress, mannerisms?

A: AVOID common mistakes such as filler words (too many adjectives), filter words (putting distance between the reader and the character through the use of telling words (heard, felt, smelled, saw, etc.).

B: BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS? Are your characters people you might expect to react in the way you’ve written them as reacting to the events in your story? Are they people you could meet and greet on the street? Or are they unintentionally over the top? Too perfect? Too flawed? On the other hand, are they so believable they’re mundane and a bit boring?

What methods do you use to tighten your writing?

What to Do When Your Story Goes Crooked

By Kay Springsteen

Do you see anything wrong with this picture? On the surface, it’s an idyllic scene of the harbor in Annapolis, Maryland. But if you look more closely, notice the way the picture is just a bit off kilter. Things that should be pointing straight up, such as the masts on the sailboats, are at an angle. The horizon is a bit crooked, lending the illusion that the water is about to run out of the harbor at any moment.

Sometimes, as you’re writing a story, you will find yourself in the situation where things just aren’t right. What originally seemed like a good idea . . . now makes the entire story seem absurd. Or perhaps you’ve written yourself into the proverbial corner. You tweak it, twist it, rework it. And sometimes you make the overall picture even worse. Maybe now, in addition to being crooked, it’s also a bit out of focus. Your original vision has been compromised.

In the case of the picture above, the act of backing up, or zooming out, can help right the horizon. With writing, it’s the same principle. If you find yourself cornered or at the mercy of what turned out to be a wonky idea, you must take a step or two back. Yes, this means your work over the past several pages may never see light (or at least not in the current story – I typically save my scrap files for a while to reexamine whether they can be used somewhere else). But if something isn’t working in your story, the best thing you can do might be to ditch it. Go back to where the story began to run afoul and begin again. Trust me, in many cases it’s far easier to do that than drive yourself insane trying to touch up the overall picture.

Good writing is knowing when it’s time to step back and do a complete rewrite rather than performing endless tweaking to make that square peg fit into a hole it’s not meant for.

How do you handle your wring foul-ups?

Ah, the Magical Power of Three

By Kay Springsteen

We’ve watched its magic in Charmed. We learn about the number three in church (the trinity). Celtic lore places great store in the number three as well – with the maid, the mother, and the crone. Three has been a number of power in many cultures throughout the ages. And it translates itself to art. When I was learning flower arranging, the basic rule was to work with threes – three main flowers, three complementing flowers. In the art of Bonsai, trees are encouraged to grow into rough triangle shapes. In drawing, painting, and photography, we have “the rule of three” and “the golden triangle.”

So, aside from the above mentioned TV show, how does any of this relate to fiction? Well, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser or whether you fall somewhere in between, you still have to follow one of the rules of story structure. If you just start writing and finish when you think you’ve written enough, it’s likely you apply the structure after the writing, but you still have to have a beginning, middle, and end to your story, no matter how many subplots you develop along the way.

As a photographer, I learned the rule of three/golden triangle as a way to set up my photographs in such a manner as to bring the viewer into the picture. In art, this is done by means of lines and shadows that make up lines. Sometimes, in a picture, the line is obvious, as in a road, and sometimes it’s not as obvious, perhaps being in the movement (yes, even still photos have motion) of the picture. Motion in a photograph is brought about by the way the eye sees it. You might think that people look at a photo, see the subject, and that’s the end of it, but in truth, in photographs, as in any picture (from oils painted by the masters to your child’s refrigerator art), the eye tracks the lines. The stronger the line, the easier to track, and the more understood the picture.

In the rule of thirds, the idea is for the main subject to take up roughly a third of the picture, either centered or off to the side. The strongest line in the picture should draw the viewer in and end up at the subject. Take the first picture below. This is a train on the D.C. Metro line. Can you see the obvious line leading to the subject? From the lower left corner to the back of the train, it’s the track. The next picture, petunias growing in the crack between the sidewalk and a many-centuries old building in Annapolis, Maryland, has a couple of lines leading to the subject. From either side, or an obvious sidewalk crack leading right from the front edge of the picture to the flowers. But what about lines that aren’t as obvious? The single droplet of water on the onyx stalactite in a Virginia cave? The edges of the rock formation itself – the very thing the water is dripping from. Now, note the picture with the long shadows, taken at Market Square in Annapolis. Of course, it’s the shadows leading from the front of the picture to the mid-point.

But what about the imagined lines? The golden spiral is another form of the golden triangle, and is also part of the rule of three. In this case, best illustrated by pictures of flowers (and if you’re interested enough to go looking, in hurricanes). Take this water lily. If you start at the lower left edge and follow the line of the petals, you will be following a spiraling pattern to the yellow center of the flower, even though that center is not the exact center of the picture.

We can follow these rules for lines as we lead our readers through our stories. The writer is basically taking readers on a journey. We want the reader to start at one place and end at another and experience all of the carefully crafted detail of the tale along the way. But how those readers get there is important so they do get the full experience. We want our lines to draw the reader completely into the story the same way a photo should draw a viewer in. We may direct them along a path or road, maybe make them take a detour or two, push them through some shadows and doubt, or even take them on a roundabout (spiral) path. But the strongest line – the main plot – should lead the readers from outside the story to being completely embroiled in the story and invested in the outcomes for the characters.

However we lead the readers, though, it’s important that we have some idea as we write and/or edit of basic story structure and the rule of three. Take the example of a three-act play, and adapt it for your novel (no matter how long or short this may be).

Act One:  The setup. Characters are introduced to the readers and sometimes to each other. The very beginning details of events (sometimes no more than a hint) are set in motion; the readers will see the inciting incident, even if they don’t recognize it as such until later in the story. This does not have to be a full third of the story; it can and often is much less than a third—I try to keep it to about a fourth, but it should definitely not take longer than one-third of your overall story or you will lose the reader to the boredom of the setup because this typically shows very little action.

Act Two:  This is the center point of your story, where the confrontation between characters and plot occurs, and in most cases is filled with fairly intense action, with any subplots shooting off from here, as well as introduction of red herrings in mysteries. The story must escalate through this act, in terms of action and what characters have at stake. My stories are typically two-fourths Act Two (half the story). Again, as with the photo lines, the readers have been led here either directly, as along a path or road, or indirectly with shadows and imaginary lines, and the line leading them in may be straight or curvy, so long as everything included here can be tied up at the end of the story. The point of no return occurs just about at the end of Act Two. The point where no matter what the possible outcome, the characters cannot turn back from their chosen course of action.

Act Three: After passing the point of no return, the final act (roughly a quarter of the story) begins to rush toward the end. This is the part you want to write so tightly that when readers get here, they will be driven to finish the story rather than put the book down for later. The final act, the one that includes the climactic action cannot lag. If you look in the spiral photo of the lily, you see the flower seems to wind tighter and tighter, the petals growing closer together. In Act Three, your characters definitely do not do mundane chores, or throw a casual dinner party just for the heck of it, nor do they take naps. Everything in Act Three revolves around the tension of the approaching climax. And, perhaps most important, this is not the time to introduce new characters. As a writer, you must be fair to your readers and the villain, whether she or he is recognized as such or not, must be introduced along with everyone else in Act One (or in very rare cases at the beginning of Act Two). You can’t just pull a convenient villain out of your hat. Nor, in the cases of a story without a specific villain, or where a circumstance is the villain rather than a person, not have some sort of foreshadowing that something (the particular circumstance) could possibly happen. For example, if the circumstance that’s going to be at the heart of the climax is an airplane crash, give a foreshadowing of it – depending on the genre, if paranormal, a character can dream it; if mainstream, a pilot or passenger can hear a noise or feel some turbulence, and so forth). Most of all, Act Three must resolve any detours you took with your characters, and with the climax must come resolution and a solid ending. Even if you are writing a series with a cliffhanger ending for each book, it is imperative that you end each portion of the story on a satisfying note for the reader. Finish off a subplot even if the main plot remains unresolved.

Remember the rule of thirds – beginning (introduction/inciting incident), middle (confrontation and subplots), and end (climax and resolution). If you follow the rule of thirds, how you get your readers from Point Start to Point Finish can be as simple or as complicated as you desire to make it – as long as the lines are there as your readers’ road map.

Authors and Editors: Partners for a Better Manuscript

By Kay Springsteen

I am a published author, with my fourth full-length novel scheduled for release in October 2011. I’m also an editor for a popular fiction press. At the publishing house where I edit, I work with a manuscript through the entire process from acquisition (if it meets standards) through publication. As an editor, it’s my job to help the author put the final polish on his or her work.

I love working with my authors and they have expressed the same about working with me. When I mark something with which the writer disagrees, we communicate about it. I ask the author to explain the original vision and if I misunderstood something, we work out whether the average reader might miss the same thing. I’m good at the little details such as even the smallest point of view breaks, and I somehow find plot holes others miss. It’s my job to do these things, but I also love to do it. I enjoy working with such creative people, helping them bring their vision to life and perfecting them to the best we can so their fans will experience an enjoyable read.

Sometimes I’ve been on social media and found myself participating in discussions in which a writer feels the editor is ruining his/her work. Instead of working together, it seems like maybe the communication process has broken down. The author has become mortally offended at something the editor has stated, and perhaps the editor has reacted poorly to the author’s offense. It always amazes me, the number of writers who feel an editor is hurting them, that the editor doesn’t know his/her job, or that it’s the desire of the editor to somehow ruin a manuscript. As an editor, this attitude baffles me, because we build our reputations in the industry by being good at what we do. When the books we edit do well, we do well. But many writers still admit that they fear and dread the editing process.

With some of these conversations fresh in my mind, I decided to share what is the most helpful to me as an editor during the editing process.

  1. Follow any pre-edit guidelines set forth by the publisher, such as margins, indents versus tabs, punctuation, line spacing, special characters, page breaks, chapter breaks.
  2. If possible, ask someone you trust to read through to help you check for missing punctuation and other errors. While line editing is designed to find these things, it’s still up to the author to provide the cleanest copy possible.
  3. Before you even submit, check your work for word echoes, tense shifts, PoV breaks, misspellings, plot holes. Also, make certain you have conducted appropriate research so that any facts you have included are accurate. You should make certain to keep in your private story folders any references you may have used in the event that your editor asks you for verification of details.
  4. Keep an open mind regarding the things your editor asks of you. If you don’t agree, keep the doors of communication open and work with your editor to resolve any issues. Don’t make assumptions regarding who is right or wrong. Instead put your head together with your editor. Be open about what you envisioned and what you would like to see, and listen to your editor if he/she feels this is an issue.

Remember, the cleaner your original submission, the more likely an editor will take notice in the first place. If editors have to wade through a couple of misspellings or a bit of missed punctuation, we can still tell whether we like the heart of the story. But if formatting is too much of an issue, we might not be able to look past that distraction to actually get a feel for the marketability of the story. And once your story is accepted, when the author follows all the pre-edit guidelines, the editor will find less that needs to be changed. By presenting the cleanest manuscript possible, authors are actually taking more control into their own hands. Above all, recognize that your editor was hired by your publisher. As such, he or she has proven experience, which you should be have faith in; experience that you can and should utilize to perfect your work.

Your editor is trying to attain the same goal as you. That is, to create the best work possible so your fans will keep coming back for more.


by Kay Springsteen

I just signed a contract on my fifth work with my publishing house, Astraea Press. This will be my fourth full-length novel there. What’s truly ironic about this particular novel is that it started out as a summertime weekly free read based on different weekly writing prompts a few author friends and I put together. Around the third prompt, the scenes I had written for the prompt took on a flavor, a style and a purpose. A story began to gel, and 80,000 words later, when I announced I’d completed it, my publisher asked to see the draft. WOW! The first, very rough draft went to her as requested and today she sent me a contract.

Now, I joined the writing prompt team for fun. I love the challenge of molding words and crafting scenes based on a prompt. We use one-object nouns as the prompt, and the word chosen must be used in some form in the scene we write. From the opening scene using the prompt “ice cream,” a good friend of mine, Kim Bowman (Wayward Soul, Astraea Press) kept telling me, “You have a winner here. Your characters are great. You need to stop using these scenes as summer free reads and just write the story.”

Of course, I scoffed. I hmmed and hawed. I didn’t see anything special at first. But then the characters developed more fully. I began to see a direction for them and a plotline began to develop. By the time we reached the fifth prompt, which was “cheese,” I was more than halfway into writing this book. Half pantsed (because of the prompts), half plotted, this was a new adventure for me, a devoted loose plotter. But the story moved very quickly. I felt almost driven to write it. My family and friends complained that I was quiet. They wondered if I was ill or if something had happened. In reality, this story was consuming me, demanding I write it.

It was an amazing feeling, knowing I was writing what would become a full-length novel, and it had all started with just the prompt of “ice cream.” I never know where my next inspiration will come from but never in a million years would I have believed a prompt about ice cream would be the start of Heartsent.

Readers: Does it ever interest you to know where the authors you read get their inspiration?

Writers: What’s the weirdest inspiration you’ve ever received and where did that particular inspiration ultimately take you?

Tag, You’re It

by Kay Springsteen

How do you convey emotion without telling what that emotion is?

If you were a TV or movie director, or producer, would you make a movie that was nothing but a blank screen and a bunch of people talking? Maybe every once in a while a light would come on and show who was speaking so people wouldn’t lose track. Would that help?

How about a book? Would you write a book that was nothing but dialogue with an occasional “said John” or “Jane said,” tossed in?

Your characters have a lot to say. And it’s up to you to sort through it all and help them say it. Now, as the storyteller, the writer has a fair idea of how things are unfolding. The writer hears it as the character is saying it, sees it happening as the character does it. The writer knows what the characters feel, what they think, what plans they may be making. The reader has only the knowledge the writer imparts. So a writer may have a firm grasp of the scene, but the reader starts out with absolutely no clue.And that’s where the writer’s job come in. The writer advances the story through action, thinking, dialogue, and narrative, all wound up into a presentable package that the readers shouldn’t want to put down until they get to the last page.

To set up mood in a scene, there is nothing better than action. Clenching fists, punching a wall, stalking away — great demonstrations of anger. Biting fingernails, lip chewing, fidgeting in the seat, shuffling from one foot to the other — great depictions of nervousness. The author can use dialogue here as well. “Where do you think you’re going?” or “I’m not sure I want to.”

In the past, extensive use of dialogue tags and adjectives conveyed the tone to the reader. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded angrily. The most recent trend has been to eliminate all but the most common dialogue tags and to limit the use of adjectives, especially those ending in -ly. In the light of this trend, how can the writer make certain the emotions are communicated? With the tag and the adjective eliminated, we have the simple statement: “Where do you think you’re going?” The words themselves show a possible degree of firmness. If two people are in an argument and this statement is used, there is little doubt the words are said with at least a somewhat angry tone. But to emphasize it, the writer has the option of inserting an action. Actions, when used in passages with dialogue are the punctuation that explains the emotion. “Where do you think you’re going?” He grabbed her arm and jerked her back against him. “Where do you think you’re going?” He slapped his palm on the door and slammed it shut before she got it all the way open.

But what if the tone is not meant to be angry? “Where do you think your’e going?” he asked playfully. Take off the tag and the adjective and add an action and the picture becomes crystal clear. “Where do you think you’re going?” With a chuckle, he hooked an arm around her waist and pulled her back into his embrace, tickling her until she burst into helpless laughter.

The actions in your story give the readers a visual to go with the audio they are reading. Combining action in dialogue passages not only keeps the reader immersed in the story but also keeps the story from becoming stagnant and motionless.

As a reader, how do you like to read about the emotions in a scene? As a writer, how do you convey the emotions in a scene?

Support Your Local Dialoge

By Kay Springsteen

In today’s writing, the use of elaborate dialogue tags is discouraged, relegated to the Word Grave Yard along with adjectives and words ending in –ing. As an editor, I’m often asked why. What some writers are asking is: Why can’t an author use “she admonished,” or “he chided” or other words synonymous with “said”?

While these words were acceptable, even encouraged, not so long ago, the advent of engaging readers more fully in the story has changed things. Tools to engage readers include taking them into deep point of view for each character you show PoV, and painting scenes in such a way as to show them in the reader’s mind.

So, what do words such as chided and admonished have to do with this new movement to engage readers? Nothing, which is the point. They have nothing to do with the movement because they do not assist and advance the movement. All dialogue tags are, in effect, telling as opposed to showing. Even “said” and “asked” are telling, but simple and typical dialogue tags are apparently psychologically invisible to readers, and therefore do not get in the way of the story. However, even said should be used sparingly, as a way to orient the reader through initial patches of dialogue or long stretches.

“Blah blah,” he said.

“Blah blah,” she said.

“Blah blah blah.”

“Blah blah.”

“Blah blah blah,” he said.

Another way to show a scene and keep the reader oriented at the same time is to add action beats in place of dialogue tags. Action beats support the dialogue so readers are not presented with what I have come to think of as “talking heads.” In a Hollywood movie or TV show, when two characters are having a discussion, they are not motionless. They use hand gestures, facial expressions, movements such as pacing, leaning against a wall, peeking out a window, etc. To show such actions in a work of written fiction is to keep the scene in motion and show what is going on. It also demonstrates emotions.

Consider the passage:  “Don’t say that,” she pleaded.

We can glean from the word pleaded that she is asking for something and that it is important to her. But what are they doing while she’s asking it? It’s highly unlikely they’re staying still.

Now change it to this:  She pressed two fingers against his lips. “Please, don’t say that.”

Now the scene has motion. It’s not stagnant. Which passage paints the picture? Which one tells a part of the story? Which one shows what is going on? Which one brings the reader to a front row center seat for the performance? Which would you rather read?

Writers must be careful not to employ action beats to support dialogue too frequently or with trite and unimaginative sentences and phrases. He grinned. She smiled. She giggled. These action dialogue tags are tired and while it’s okay to use them very infrequently, I will caution you to be very careful when you do to ensure nothing else will fit in that particular place in your story.

Readers: Do you notice unusual dialogue tags as you’re reading?

Writers: How do you support your dialogue?

Freedom to _____ (Fill in Your Own Blank)

By Kay Springsteen

 Happy Independence Day, for the Americans among us! Today is the day we celebrate the freedom of our country.

Let’s take a moment to consider what the hard-won freedom we enjoy means to us as writers and readers of romance. We have the freedom of speech. Simply put, this is the freedom to speak freely—to say anything, without censorship—without fear of legal repercussion.  Freedom of expression is usually synonymous with the term freedom of speech, and includes not only verbal speech but any act of imparting ideas or information, regardless of the process used, including the written word. Of course, even this basic freedom is limited by the threat of lawsuits if we speak or write libelously. However, in terms of writing fiction, we are free to put pen to paper, or tap onto our keyboard, and say anything we want. We can tell our stories our way. To some, this may mean writing a hot and steamy sex scene. To others, it may mean writing a sweet story without any sex. Some people may find meaning in the fact that they are able to write an interracial romance, or a gay romance. Whatever freedom of speech means to you and what you write or read, take a moment to thank our Founding Fathers for recognizing, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As you celebrate your freedom on this July 4 holiday, please also take a moment to consider those who have, over the intervening time from the signing of the Declaration of Independence until now, given up their own rights, sometimes even their lives, that we might enjoy the freedoms afforded to us.  The members of our military:  Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. If not for the sacrifices of our military and their families, we would not have freedom of anything. Freedom isn’t free. The next time you tap out a scene of any kind in your current story, or crack a book of your choice, remember we could easily live in a country where such things are not allowed.

Have a safe and free and happy Independence Day! Happy (and free) writing!