The Free Storytime App and Reading to Kids

story_timeThere’s a lot of information available about how important reading aloud to young children is for not only encouraging children’s literacy but cognitive development in general. It’s also just plain fun for parents and kids.

Storytime for Kids began as an initiative from Denny & Lies Velthuizen, two parents in the Netherlands who wanted to encourage parents to read more to their kids. They created an app for smart phones (Android and iOS) that would make it possible for parents to always have a story at hand to read to their children. The Dutch version was a rousing success, and inspired the Velthuizens to create and English version of the app, and an accompanying website.

The English verison of the Storytime app is free.

Download the iOS app: https://itunes.apple.com/en/app/id1100125739

Download the Android app: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=storytime.storytimeliteen

You can search or filter stories based on a variety of criteria, including subject (dragons, or princesses, etc.) and time it takes to read it. The Dutch version is available now for iOS and Android.

You can submit your own stories to be included in the app; while you do not receive pay, neither are the Velthuizens, and you are supporting literacy and inculcating the joy of reading. You can also request your stories be removed at any time. For more information, see Storytime for Kids Questions and Answers, and you can find more information on Facebook as well.

NaNoWriMo Pre Planning

So you’re an old hand at National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as November. You’ve already got your route lined up, and you’re all set to write a novel (50,000 words) starting November 1, and finishing by 11:59 PM November 30.

But maybe you’re new to NaNoWriMo. Here are some suggestions. (You might start by checking out Eldon Hugh’s great post on NaNoWriMo & the Power of Positive Peer Pressure).

It’s perfectly legitimate to mull over ideas, maybe do some free writing or brainstorming or outlining or basic plot crafting ahead of time; that’s not cheating. There are lots of ways writers “plan” their story crafting; whatever works is right for that particular writer and story, and it varies from writer to writer (and sometimes, even from story to story). Here are some possible tools and techniques:

Pen and Paper

For hundreds of years, writers have been using notebooks or paper of one sort or another to jot down ideas, snatches of dialog or scenes to flesh out later, to brainstorm or mind map and to free write. One virtue of a notebook (or index cards) is that they’re portable; you can use them anywhere.

Some people like to use notecards or post-it notes instead of a notebook, possibly color coding based on character or plot line, because cards and post-its can easily be moved around to reflect the bit you’re working on, or to consider a different arrangement of scenes.

Mindmapping Software

Some writers use special mind-mapping software. There are lots of software options, free Web-based apps like Coggle and Mindmup, free for personal use Web-based MindMeister, and paid, online Web-based, or apps for every conceivable kind of computer, smart phone or tablet, like MindNode for OX X and iOS, or the Java-based Freemind for Windows/OS X/Linux. Freemind is completely free; here’s how one writer uses Freemind.

Outlining

Outlines, which can be standard “classical” outline with headings and subheadings, or simply a list of plot points, or details plot summaries are helpful as planning tools for many writers. You can use a WordProcessor (checkout Microsoft Word’s Outline View) or any text editor like Note Pad, of course, or a dedicated app just for outlining, but there are inexpensive and free alternatives.

Oak is a free in-browser plain text outliner that’s useful for quick, short outlines (there’s no built-in way to save; it relies on your browser’s cache or copy-and-paste).

Workflowy is an interesting, free for basic personal use (250 items per month), web-based list-making tool that is surprisingly easy to use, and flexible. A fair number of books began in Workflowy. There are apps for Workflowy (iOS, Android and Chromebook) as well as the Web version.

The Outliner for Giants is free for basic accounts (5 outline/1,000 nodes per outline) but a paid account is just $10.00/year and allows backup via DropBox or email. You can login with a Google or Facebook account. You can use The Outliner Of Giants in many browsers and devices/OSs (there’s a Chrome browser extension), and there are a number of templates to get you started. It’s really easy to export your online outline into your word processor or even a Google Doc.

Fargo is a free outliner/list-maker that relies on DropBox to store data.

Note Taking and Research

Many people use a more specialized note-taking tool or digital notebook app. Note taking apps typically handle text, outlines, images, and allow you to organize your notes in lots of different ways. They let you incorporate data from the Web, for instance, if you’re setting your story in a particular location, you might want to stash photos of the area, or a map, in your notes.

Basic note-taking apps include Microsoft’s free multi-platform OneNote (which works well for outlines or free-form notes), or the Notes app included with iOS 9 and Mac OS X El Capitan.

Evernote is perhaps the ultimate research notebook. First, you create am account (basic accounts are free) on their site. Then, you can clip notes from the Web, including pictures, as well as write notes in Evernote. You can use Evernote via your web browser or using an Evernote app for OS X, iOS, Android, or Windows. Many writers use Evernote to store information about locations, for instance, or to write character notes and rough plot summaries, because it’s easy to write a quick note on one device, and have it saved and available everywhere. A basic account is free.

To kickstart NaNo novels, Evernote has created some free Evernote templates to use in novel planning. Templates include a three act story plotting template, a character profile template, a world building basics template, and others.

Calendars and Timelines

A calendar is a useful tool for planning a story, in terms of things like timing, or the sequence of events in a particular timeline. Sometimes it’s useful to track each character’s personal timeline via a dedicated character calendar. You can easily generate a calendar from a spreadsheet, or make a dedicated calendar in Google Calendar or iCal or Outlook, though if you’re writing before the Gregorian calendar became the standard European calendar, or you’re using a setting that requires a Jewish, Chinese, Hindu, or other calendar system, you may need to be a little creative. Consider using a project management tool or spreadsheet instead of a standard calendar if you need to know where various characters are and what their doing a particular time.

There are Google spreadsheet templates and project planning templates, Excel calendar templates (more here) and calendar templates for Apple’s Numbers. These are not terribly difficult to modify for other dates.

Timeline software might be helpful in terms of plot-planning. Tiki-Toki has a free limited account option (1 timeline with 200 events) for creating a timeline on the Web.

MyHistro combines timeline with Google Maps.

Location and Scene Images

Consider using an album in Flicker or Photobucket or Pinterest to store inspirational images or images that help stage a scene or a location. You can store location or building or room images, or maps, or all sorts of images

The Scrivener Toolbox

Scrivener from Literature and Latte for OS X and Windows is a much loved toolbox for writers, and a long-term sponsor of NaNoWriMo (since 2005). It’s an enormously powerful and flexible app, with a bit of a learning curve, but it’s designed so you can use just the parts that you find useful, and ignore the rest. There’s a basic word processor that’s built in and that exports easily and let’s you track word counts for a doc a session or a day. There’s a corkboard for working with and organizing ideas. It allows you to keep all your notes and research and your ms. in one place, and searchable. It supports backup via DropBox. It’s particularly useful for drafting now and organizing and revising later, or for people who write scenes out of order. There’s a generous free trial, one that won’t expire until December 7, 2015, and that is by far the way to start; people either love or hate Scrivener. And there’s a special offer for NaNoWriMo, including a special version of Scrivener and a discount of 20% for NaNoWriMo participants, and 50% for those who finish.

Do take advantage of all the support for Scrivener, including video tutorials.

Prompt Contest Winner!

So remember the writing prompt contest we had in May? We’re ready to announce the winner:

cover of Scott Hawkins The Library At Mount Char
Scott Hawkins. The Library at Mount Char

With a full 50% of all the votes cast, the winner is Colin Sinclair, with the prompt, “Never try to hang a magician.”

Colin, if you’ll just drop me a note via our contact form, with instructions on how to get your copy of The Library at Mount Char to you, we’ll be happy to send it along!

Interview with Scott Hawkins author of The Library at Mount Char

Scott Hawkins is forty-five and works as a computer programmer.  He’s been a member of AbsoluteWrite since 2006.  He lives in the Atlanta suburbs with his wife and seven dogs. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel. Scott has also been instrumental in keeping Absolute Write’s server running for close to ten years now.

What was different about writing and publishing a novel versus writing and publishing a technical book?

Just about everything was different. For me, writing the technical books was very much like writing a couple dozen research papers back-to-back. That can be satisfying in its own way, but it’s not really the sort of thing I’d do for fun.

cover of Scott Hawkins The Library At Mount Char
Scott Hawkins. The Library at Mount Char

When fiction writing is going well I think it’s the best thing ever. I wrote the bulk of The Library at Mount Char over a period of maybe three months, in the summer of 2012. It was all I could think about. I was burning vacation days. On weekends I’d get up at two or three in the morning and write until six at night. In that period it was like the floor dropped out from under me—I was totally immersed, and I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up.

That said, there was a pretty long preparation period leading up to those three months. That part had a lot in common with technical writing. It was very much a “drink coffee and stare at the screen until drops of blood form on your forehead” process.

What’s your writing environment like ? (Where do you write? What tools ?)

I just moved into a new place with a semi-finished room in the basement. That’s where my office is.  I work on a Windows 7 PC. I can’t really type on a tablet or laptop—my hands are too big.

Scott Hawkins' writing space

Mount Char was done with MS-Word, a spreadsheet, and a bunch of Miquel Rius spiral bound notebooks. Miquel Rius makes great stuff—the only place I know to get them is Amazon, but they have plastic covers and color coded graph paper. I use Uniden micro-fine rollerball pens (black ink) and/or Pentel 0.5 mm mechanical pencils with HB lead for handwriting notes.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with Scrivener. It’s got some neat features, but I’m not completely sold on it yet. Probably this is just inertia because I’ve been using MS-Word for so long.

What’s your writing process like? Are you an outliner, a pantser, do you keep notes on characters . . .

I generally start by trying to make up random scenes without worrying too much about how it all fits together. I don’t work in order. With Mount Char, the first couple scenes I came up with were a guy going out for a jog, and a neighborhood picnic that went bad. Those ended up pretty much dead center and near the end, respectively. I also do little character sketches, or notes on setting, stuff like that. When I’ve got around forty thousand words of scenes that feel like they have a pulse, I lay them out and try to arrange them into some sort of narrative.

Then it’s a question of adding connective tissue to hold the scenes together, and polishing.  Does each character want at least two things, preferably conflicting things?  Do they sound distinct from each other?  I try to make sure that no one likes anyone else—remember how in Empire Strikes Back every time two characters came on screen they’d hug, or whatever?  I hated that. I thought the first Star Wars where they all hated each other was a much stronger script.

I also try to be absolutely ruthless about cutting stuff that doesn’t work. The slush pile does not give a crap how much time you spent trying. The only thing that matters is whether it works. I have literally 70,000 words of different versions of the first chapter of Mount Char.  That’s not an exaggeration. I worked on nothing else but that one chapter for something like six months.

The last thing I did before submitting Mount Char was cut.  The completed draft came in at something like 155,000 words. I read somewhere that the upper limit for a first novel is 110,000 words.  That turns out to be misinformation, but the exercise of cutting helped the book a lot. I eventually got it down to 125,000ish, and it was much, much stronger. Going forward, I’m going to make a point of cutting every first draft by twenty percent.

Does it feel different to you to write code versus writing story?

Oh yeah, totally different.  They’re complementary skill sets, I think—I can get done with a long day of programming and be totally rested and ready for some fiction work. The reverse is true as well—I’ve been a full-time writer for the last few months, and I’ve noticed an itch to do Javascript on the weekends.

What do you wish you had known before you wrote The Library at Mount Char that you know now?

I’m surprised by how strongly the advance readers have reacted to the violent scenes. That was a blind spot on my part. Violent scenes just don’t bother me at all, not in movies and certainly not in fiction. To me they’re sort of like Christmas decorations—they help set the stage, but they’re pretty much emotionally neutral. The evidence indicates that that is not in line with majority opinion.

My agent had me tone down a couple of scenes before we submitted it to editors, and my editor had me tone down a couple of others. I figured that if they both agreed the violence was a problem I should probably listen, but I was privately a little worried that the end product would be hurt by being too watered down. That was a miscalculation on my part.

I think the ability to write viscerally horrifying stuff is a useful tool to have in the chest.  I’d argue that violent scenes tend to focus the reader’s attention in a way that few other things can. But going forward I’m going to make an effort to be more aware of the likely effect a scene is having in an average reader. Stuff that I think of as a 5 or 6 out of 10 might seem more like an 8 or 9.

That said, even knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have toned the violence in Mount Char down much more. Not all books need to be PG-13. There’s plenty of PG-13 entertainment available, and I may well write some of it myself in the future. But this was a violent story. If I hadn’t alienated a few people in the telling, I think I’d be doing it wrong.

What kind of background reading or research did you do for The Library at Mount Char?

Well, in the early stages I watched a lot of femme fatale movies—Malice, The Last Seduction, Body Heat. You can kind of see that influence in the first couple of chapters, but it didn’t really play out the way I was initially expecting. It never does, honestly. For me research mostly just confirms that the brilliant idea I thought I had was in fact kind of dumb

But it is fun.

Is there a soundtrack or playlist for The Library at Mount Char?

As a matter of fact, yes.  You’re the first person to ask that.  I’m really not a very music-oriented guy, but I have seven dogs, all of them big.  A lot of times when I’m writing I like to put on something to drown out the ongoing squirrel alerts.

I have exactly one song per chapter, and I listen to it on continuous repeat—usually for several hours at a time. I like it loud. My wife has asked that I do this with headphones on.

The chapter where you meet the librarians was Tusk, by Fleetwood Mac. The chapter where the burglar gets introduced was Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman. The big fight between the protagonist and the antagonist was Dead Man’s Party, which I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more times than Danny Elfman at this point. Crazy on You by Heart—the live version—got a whole lot of play. Towards the end I made an MP3 that had just the first 45 seconds or so, and listened to that on repeat.

And just because I really want to know, is Petey OK?

As it happens, I’m working on a short story for my Website that answers that very question.  SPOILER ALERT.

Petey’s fine.  He ended up with a lady in Detroit who’s taking good care of him.

Any particular books about writing that you’ve found helpful?

Dozens. I’ll buy any on-writing book that I see.  Some are better than others, but I always learn at least a little something.

Far and away the very best one I’ve found is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. If you want to write commercial fiction I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Maass is himself a successful literary agent, and he puts out a lot of writing books.  They’re all good.

A couple of my other favorites are the Art of Fiction by John Gardner, and Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress.

I also think it’s important to learn about the business side of things—that’s what brought me to Absolute Write in the first place. Janet Reid’s blog and QueryShark are both excellent for getting a feel about how the business works.

What have you read in the last year or so that you were impressed by?

For fun I read a lot of nonfiction, business books and biographies. There’s one about the collapse of Enron called The Smartest Guys in the Room that I really liked. Michael Lewis’ latest, Flash Boys, was interesting. Regardless of whether you’re a Mike Tyson fan, I think everyone will agree he had an interesting ride. His biography Undisputed Truth was a good read.

As far as fiction, The Girl With All the Gifts had an interesting take on zombie stories. There was a novella written by Stephen King and Joe Hill together called “In the Tall Grass” that was as good as anything I’ve seen from either of them—they were not screwing around with that one. That is a horror story.

Last year I picked up one called The Orphan Master’s Son at the airport, of all places. It’s kind of a fable about modern life in North Korea. It won the Pulitzer Prize. My God that book is amazing—it’s like getting hit by a sledgehammer every twenty minutes. It’s absolutely pitch black dark, but everyone who aspires to put words in a row for a living should read it. That is how it is done.

What do you wish someone would ask you that they haven’t?

“So, Scott, can you tell us a bit more about your wife’s role in the process?”

Thanks for asking! My wife Heather truly is a key player in this, and I rarely get a chance to give her props. She’s not a writer herself, but she reads a ton, probably more than I do, and she can point out the exact paragraph where something stops working. That by itself is ridiculously valuable, but it’s also true that she isn’t one to mince words. I’m one of those people who if you say something like “this is good, but” I often don’t hear anything after the ‘but.’ So having someone with a good eye who’s prepared to be, ahem, candid, is a gift from the angels.

When she and I first started dating I had a first-draft-ish version of my third novel. I kind of weaseled her into reading it. She made it maybe twenty pages in, then it set it down. Eventually I asked her what the problem was and she said “well, the first bit was okay, but right about here—” points to a particular page “—it started to suck.”  That’s more or less a direct quote.

I said “hmm.”

Then she said “fix it and I’ll take another look.” We went back and forth for a while about what, exactly, was sucking, then I took another pass. Eventually it got to a point where that book got a bit of love from agents—not quite enough to take me on as a client, but I did have a couple of “send me what you come up with next” golden tickets.

I gave her the draft of Mount Char on Labor Day a couple of years ago.  When she said it was good, I knew she meant it.  And when she said the third act sucked, and I needed to fix it, I knew she meant that too.

What’s your favorite charity?

My guest dogs come from We Are Rescue. We Are Rescue is a no-kill animal rescue organization

You can read more about The Library at Mount Char at Boing Boing, and Kirkus Reviews. And here’s Scott Hawkins at Whatever.

Absolute Write Forums Upgrade and Brief Outage

We’re going to have a short break in Absolute Write service from 9 am Saturday, May 9 2015, to 9 pm, Sunday, May 10 2015, Pacific Time.

We’re upgrading the software for the forums. It will be a little different, but mostly the same (only better!).

What you can do to help is, just in case, save a copy of your avatar. We expect the have them all lined up properly, but just in case, save your avatar.

While you wait for the forums to be back up, we suggest you write.

If you want to track our progress as we introduce new hamsters to our established server hamsters, you can hang out with us

  • on Twitter:

  • on the Absolute Write Facebook page

  • And of course, AW Chat will still be running. We do Word Wars, weekly writing challenges, occasional sentence workshopping, and the hungrier you are the more likely we are to be talking about food.

Note our special Contest during the server upgrade!

While You Wait: A Writing Prompt Contest!

While you wait for AW’s forums to return after their spiffy upgrade, here’s a contest you can participate in right here.

Come up with a writing prompt that your fellow AWers can work on while they wait for the Forums/AW Water Cooler to be back after the upgrade.

Keep in mind that we have all kinds of writers at AW, our members write fiction of every conceivable sort, screen plays, poetry, and non fiction, ranging from how-tos, to biography, history, memoir . . . you name it, we have writers who write it, so keep that in mind when you’re creating your prompts.

We will select the best writing prompt entered as a comment to this post, and judged by the Absolute Write mods.

The winner of the best prompt will receive a hardcover or ebook (winner’s choice) The Library at Mount Char, a novel from Penguin Random’s Crown coming out June 15, 2015 by our very own AW Technical Guru and all around amazing guy, Scott Hawkins.

The Library at Mount Char is Scott Hawkins’ first novel. Kirkus Reviews called it “A spellbinding story of world-altering power and revenge from debut novelist Hawkins.”

You can read more about The Library At Mount Char here.

Start entering your best writing prompts (no more than 3 entries per person please) in a Comment below. We’ll be moderating comments, but will do that as quickly as possible, so those of you following along can actually start writing in response to any prompt that appeals.

We will close entries on Monday, May 11, 2015 at 9 AM Seattle time.

We’ll have a special thread on AW for prompt-inspired writing.

Why Connie Willis Won’t Be Presenting at the Hugo Awards

Those of you who know me well, know that Connie Willis wrote a novel that’s very much shaped and cemented my love for the genre — a novel I reread every year. Her entire body of work is nothing short of awe-inspiring. She’s a great American writer, not “just” a great SF writer.

For an overview of what this is all about: Freeping the Hugo Awards

Reposted in its entirety, with permission from the Connie Willis site: http://azsf.net/cwblog/?p=116

WHY I WON’T BE A PRESENTER AT THE HUGO AWARDS THIS YEAR

WHY I WON’T BE A PRESENTER AT THE HUGO AWARDS THIS YEAR

by Connie Willis

I’ve been asked by David Gerrold, this year’s Worldcon Guest of Honor and one of the  Hugo Awards emcees, to present the Campbell Award at this year’s ceremonies. Ordinarily, I’d be very flattered and would jump at the chance, but this time I’m afraid I’m going to have to tell him no.

I don’t want to. I love the Hugos. I can still remember how thrilled I was the first time I was nominated for one. It was the fulfillment of a dream I’d had ever since I was thirteen and had opened up Heinlein’s HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL and fallen into the magical world of science fiction. I was nominated for a short story called “Daisy, in the Sun,” and I didn’t win–I lost to George R.R. Martin–but just being nominated and being there at the awards ceremony was more than enough, and then on top of that, I got to talk to Robert Silverberg and watch Damon Knight emcee and meet all these famous authors who were my heroes. It was one of the happiest nights of mThe Best Novel Hugo for Blackout/All Cleary life.

Since that first time, I’ve won Hugos, emceed the awards ceremony twice, and presented countless awards. I’ve handed Hugo Awards for all kinds of fiction to all kinds of authors, told them congratulations, beamed at them as they made their acceptance speeches, hugged them, and helped them down the dark stairs backstage afterwards. I’ve loved doing it. And I’ve loved everything else about the Hugos–the anticipation and the nervousness when you’re a nominee, the fun of bantering with George R.R. Martin and Mike Resnick and doing comedy routines with Robert Silverberg, the excitement of watching authors and artists you love be awarded for the work they do, and the joy of being in a room with thousands of other people who love science fiction as much as I do. I’ve adored every minute of it. Till now.

You may or may not have heard of the Hugo crisis currently facing the science-fiction community. (If you haven’t, I recommend Susan Grigsby’s excellent article on Daily Kos entitled, “Freeping the Hugo Awards.”) Basically, what’s happened is that a small group of people led by Vox Day/Theodore Beale and Brad Torgerson took advantage of the fact that only a small percentage of Hugo voters nominate works to hijack the ballot. They got members of their group to buy supporting memberships and all vote for a slate of people they decided should be on it. Since everybody else just nominates what they like, and those choices vary quite a bit, nobody else stood a chance, and the ballot consists almost entirely of their slate.

When I heard about this, I was sick at the thought of what they’d done and at all the damage they’d caused–to the nominees who should have made it on the ballot and didn’t; to those who’d made it on and would now have to decide whether to stay on the ballot or refuse the nomination; of the innocent nominees who got put on Vox Day’s slate without their knowledge and were now unfairly tarred by their association with it; and to the Hugo Awards themselves and their reputation.

But I didn’t want to speak out and refuse to be a presenter if there was still a chance to salvage the Hugo Awards ceremony. I wanted to do it if I could for the sake of the nominees who were on the ballot honestly and for the sake of the people putting on the Worldcon. And for the poor emcees who had the terrible luck to be chosen to host the awards this year and have watched what should have been one of the highlights of their careers turn into a nightmare. David Gerrold is an old and dear friend. The last thing I wanted to do was let him down. Plus, I’ve generally found that wading in to controversies with your two cents’ worth (even if you’re personally involved and were onstage when they happened) only tends to make things worse, not better.

But then Vox Day and his followers made it impossible for me to remain silent , keep calm, and carry on. Not content with just using dirty tricks to get on the ballot, they’re now demanding they win, too, or they’ll destroy the Hugos altogether. When a commenter on File 770 suggested people fight back by voting for “No Award,” Vox Day wrote: “If No Award takes a fiction category, you will likely never see another award given in that category again. The sword cuts both ways, Lois. We are prepared for all eventualities.”

I assume that means they intend to use the same bloc-voting technique to block anyone but their nominees from winning in future years. Or, in other words, “If you ever want to see your precious award again, do exactly as I say.” It’s a threat, pure and simple. Everyone who votes has been ordered (under the threat of violence being done to something we love) to let their stories–stories which got on the ballot dishonestly–win.

In my own particular case, I feel I’ve also been ordered to go along with them and act as if this were an ordinary Hugo Awards ceremony. I’ve essentially been told to engage in some light-hearted banter with the nominees, give one of them the award, and by my presence–and my silence–lend cover and credibility to winners who got the award through bullying and extortion.

Well, I won’t do it. I can’t do it. If I did, I’d be collaborating with them in their scheme.

So to David, I have to say, with genuine regret, “I am really sorry I have to turn down your kind invitation.” And to the people running Worldcon, “I’m sorry I can’t present at the Hugo Awards ceremony, but I’ll definitely be attending the convention, and I’m supporting you all the way.”

To everybody else caught up in this mess, I want to say, “I totally respect whatever you’ve decided you have to do–to remove yourself from the ballot or stay on, to vote for ‘No Award’ or not, to participate in the ceremony or not, to boycott the Hugos or Worldcon or attend them. I know how hard it was for me to make my own decision, and I have no intention of second-guessing anyone else’s.”

And finally, to Vox Day, Brad Torgeson, and their followers, I have this to say:

“You may have been able to cheat your way onto the ballot. (And don’t talk to me about how this isn’t against the rules–doing anything except nominating the works you personally liked best is cheating in my book.) You may even be able to bully and intimidate people into voting for you. But you can’t make me hand you the Hugo and say “Congratulations,” just as if you’d actually won it. And you can’t make me appear onstage and tell jokes and act like this year’s Hugo ceremony is business as usual and what you’ve done is okay. I’m not going to help you get away with this. I love the Hugo Awards too much.”

Connie Willis

April 14, 2015

 

Interview with P. N. Elrod

Cover of P. N. Elrod's The Hanged Man. Tor Books. May 19, 2015.Accomplished writer and editor P.N. “Pat” Elrod is the author of 24 commercially-published novels, more than 20 short stories, and the editor and co-editor of several collections. In her copious spare time, she freelance edits and critiques.

What is that editors do and don’t do?

That depends on the editor and the kind of editing involved. I have worked as an acquisitions editor—reading the slush pile—as well as what I call regular editing—working on a manuscript—and in developmental editing: throwing ideas at writers to see if they can think  how to fix a problem.

Acquisitions is a rough job. They don’t call it slush without good reason. I have to pace myself and not read too much or I get depressed. I don’t like rejecting stuff, knowing all too well what that feels like, but it’s binary: the story is publishable or it is not. It’s the kind of stuff we publish or it is not.

I’m thrilled when I find something I can pass upstream. It might not get past the next editor, but it makes my job worth it. Editors WANT to find something they love and can share with others.

For me, regular editing requires concentration on details. I am relentless on my own writing; I take pride turning in a clean manuscript to the publisher. When it’s as clean as you can make it, then the real errors are easier to spot.

Developmental editing is essentially feedback that leads to rewrites if the writer is inclined to accept suggestions.

You don’t find as much of that going on now, only for certain books. I see it mentioned in Publishers Weekly, but never had it happen to any of my books. Gone are the days when a writer turned in multiple drafts and a supportive editor offered feedback and suggestions over the course of several months or even years to bring it up to speed. The books need to take off and fly from page one, especially in genre fiction.

Editors want a book that’s strong enough as-is to sell to the Suits upstairs. A nascent work needing rewrites won’t impress that bunch. They want a book that will make money for the company. A book that uses up an editor’s time in repeated rewrites is not cost effective.

This is general stuff and may not hold true for a small presses. They don’t publish as many books and may have more time to groom a work, but don’t count on it. Always strive to send your best stuff. It’s not enough to be the best in your writing group, you have to be as good or better than your favorite writers who have books in the stores.

Back when paper submissions were the norm a writer might get a scribbled note with “Almost there, keep writing” and vague as that is, would fall down sobbing in gratitude. With e-submissions you don’t get that. The publisher whose slush I read said to not send feedback. Too many writers shoot back an email anxiously asking for more comment, more detail, but the editor above me said, “We don’t have time to open a dialog.”

She’s right. I’m on their clock and have to get through dozens of submissions. In the time it takes me to review six stories another twelve have appeared in the IN box. On one especially busy night it was fifty new stories.

How do you know when your book is ready for an editor?

You probably don’t.

Many writers think that the harder they’ve worked on a book the more ready it must be, but publishers don’t give extra credit for effort. They look only at what’s sent. They don’t care if you opened a vein over the keyboard, the bottom line is, “Can these words make us money?”

The best course for any writer is get as much feedback as possible from as many people as possible before sending anything out or shopping for a freelance editor.

It’s preferable to get feedback from writers. Friends and family (who may not be writers) love you and don’t want to hurt your feelings, but another writer will tell you the truth.

“Don’t tell me how much you like it, tell me what’s wrong with the damn thing so I can FIX it!” I said a dozen times over on my first novel. Thankfully a few very brave friends offered things I could use. I didn’t like what I heard, but it turned out they were right. I fixed things. The book sold.

Even now, I’m tetchy about feedback, but it’s a necessary evil. You put on your game face and take it. Writing ain’t for wimps.

What can writers do to make the editing process smoother?

Turn in a clean, proofed manuscript. This is Writing 101 and part of the job. You turn on the spell checker and leave it on, those little zigzag lines under a word are your friends.

You learn correct grammar and punctuation. It’s not rocket science. Get and read The Elements of Style. I got a used Chicago Manual of Style some years back, and I use Google. But you need to learn this stuff or you won’t know when you’ve made an error.

The less work you give an editor the better. You want her focused on your story and characters, not your sloppy spelling and worse grammar.

The editor is not your enemy. She has the same goal as you: making a good book better. You’re two strangers working together, and most of the time you’re on the same page.

A good editor/writer team is one where both are able to listen to each other. I’ve been very fortunate. I find the best professionals on both sides are those who listen and don’t arbitrarily discount an idea. A not so good idea can lead to something brilliant, so long as it’s not instantly shot down.

Don’t be a writing diva, but don’t be a pushover. Many times I had editorial suggestions that were wholly wrong, but I learned to make a note and find my own way to fix a problem.

If the writer reaches an impasse with an editor, then it’s time to call your agent. It’s good to have someone in your corner who has your back.

The rules are different when dealing with a freelance editor hired for a job, the writer is running the show, not the publisher. However, if the editor spots a problem, then it’s wise to hear them out. That problem could be the tree the writer missed because of the surrounding forest.

What are good questions to ask a potential editor?

One thing not to ask is if the editor likes your book. That’s right up there with, “Do these pants make me look fat?”

Don’t put your editor on the spot. If they like your book you’ll pick up on it. If they don’t, allow that you’re not the only star in their sky and don’t take it personally. Stick to the job. If they spontaneously gush, be happy, and don’t let it go to your head.

A writer with a commercial house is assigned an editor who may or may not be the one who bought the book. Let them know how you prefer to work, ask when is a good day for phone calls, and confirm their correct email address. Ask them if there are things that drive them crazy and take notes. Make sure you are clear on deadlines. Ask their procedures. The usual thing is turn in a final draft, it’s copy-edited and sent back for approval, and you put in any changes. The next time you see the MS it’s in galley form.

I had a bad time with one house, assumed I’d get one more look on a book after the copy-edit, same as at other houses, but the next time I saw it was in galley form. I freaked, since there was little chance to do a rewrite on trouble spots. But that was a work-for-hire situation and may not reflect the rest of the industry.

At another place I never saw galleys. It was a small press and the MS went straight to formatting. The next time I saw that story was in the finished book and they had the wrong title on it. Stuff happens.

When I’m dealing with a new editor at a commercial house I warn her on what a pain in the butt I am as a writer and how to “handle” me. (I know my shortcomings!) I ask them to point out a problem and trust me to fix it, don’t rewrite it themselves. If they spot a really bad problem and have a solution, make me think it’s my own idea. Seriously, I fall for that one every time!

I do the same thing as an editor when I’m meeting writers over the phone. I tell the writer I’ll just point out a problem and leave it to them to fix it. Most are hugely relieved. So am I. It’s less work for me!

A writer seeking to hire a freelance editor has to get as much information as possible.

If the editor familiar with the genre? What books has she edited? Contact the writers of books she’s edited and ask them about their experience. Is she a member of recognized editing organizations? Is she willing to do a couple sample pages?

Just because someone has a degree in English doesn’t mean they know squat about editing.

I see plenty of sites where that degree is the only thing on their resume. Maybe that person can do a decisive analysis of Jane Austen, but not how to build a scene, end a chapter, or spot word reps.

Having a solid background in publishing is a necessity and it better not be from working in the mail room. You should be able to call a publisher and ask if that person was in their employ as an editor and what they did there. The freelancer is on a job interview. Don’t trust what’s on the website—verify. There are a lot of sharks in the pool. A true professional won’t mind your curiosity and will encourage it.

Check the websites. Spelling and grammar errors are a red flag. Check them on Absolute Write, Writer Beware, and Predators and Editors.

It works both ways, a freelance editor should have questions for the writer. I want to know if they’ve sold anything and where, if this is to be indie-published or if they’re planning to submit it to a commercial house. If the latter, I tell them to learn to self-edit and get feedback, they don’t need me.

I’m not an editor who can suck it up, work on a badly written book, and collect payment. If a piece of writing isn’t ready, I turn down the job. It’s terrible for my bank account, but I can sleep at night.

I look at the MS and at anything the writer has previously published. If the stuff isn’t ready, it’s a given that the writer is not going to get my best effort. I will say no.

In one case, and only one, I didn’t check things as carefully as as I should have, accepted the job, and it ended badly. I was 10K words into the edit and realized I could not finish it in good conscience. The book was too seriously flawed. The writer just wasn’t ready to publish, and yet he’d done so several times over with his indie books. This was one of a series, so the flaws were all through it like an infection.

I gave him five pages of comments on the flaws—hey, he could always take those books down and rewrite—charged him only for the work done and sent the file back. He paid for the work, but I’m sure he was pissed about it.

Since then I’ve been more careful. I recently edited a pretty good, though flawed book for an indie writer. She had some plot holes and a few bad habits, and I pointed them out in a summation feedback when she got the edited MS. It was a mini-lesson in writing. I didn’t have to do that, but I thought it might help for future books.

She had the option to tell me to go to Halifax and instead thanked me. Seems she didn’t know about those problems and was happy to sort them out. I hope she comes back. I’d like to see how she’s improved.


Do you have a favorite book about writing?

I have several, starting with Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. I was in a bad dry patch, unable to write, and this was the only book that got me out of it.

I also like Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder. It’s about script writing, but good for novelists, asking the same questions any writer needs to answer: What’s the book about? What’s the hook?

It comes with software which I found useful for plotting a steampunk Tor is releasing this summer. I have the devil’s own time plotting, so I like a road map of the story before starting it. I don’t always stick to the map, but it gives a starting point.

But the best books on writing are often those of other writers. When I hit a dry patch it’s time to dive into the library and feed words into my starved brain. I’ll pick old favorites and enjoy those again. They’re usually the books that inspired me from the start. Most retain that magic or have gotten better with age.

NaNoWriMo & the Power of Positive Peer Pressure

Guest Post by Eldon Hughes

P to the 4th power? P-Diddlying? Whatever.

It’s what doing NaNoWriMo successfully is all about, taking advantage of the power of positive peer pressure.

Every year since 1999 a growing horde of strangers and friends get together in groups, online and face to face, all over the world. At the end of the month, many of them will claim the prize — the title of Author of a book more than 50,000 words long.

NaNo crestYears ago I was the first Municipal Liaison for the (Southern) Illinois – Elsewhere group. Yeah, “Elsewhere.” That was my second NaNo. I ML’d a couple more years and then passed it on to others who lived closer to the neighborhood. I’ve won every year I’ve attempted NaNo (7-8? times.) If you’re interested, you can read one of my NaNo Novels, Willie & Frank, here. Even better, you can get Dust to Dust, Book Two of the Poison and Wine Series, here.  It was written over a NaNo. Some would suggest that that’s cheating, since it was written by two people.  I would point out that the first draft, written during NaNo, topped 100K.

Sometimes NaNoing involved being cheered on by and cheering on others. Sometimes it was challenging myself against people online. Sometimes it was sitting, face to face, in a room full of people just as enchanted by the magic of words as I am. People who share our particular brand of crazy.   I can tell you that about half of Willie & Frank came from dares or challenges that year’s local NaNo group gave me.

Rounding the numbers, last year 690,000 people announced their own start in the novel attempt. 310,000 of them reported crossing the 50,000 word mark. Less than half is about normal. My guess is, some of those who didn’t make it started the month more in love with the idea of being a writer than they were with words. (We’ve all met folks that.) My bet? Most of the rest, who didn’t finish, didn’t take advantage of the power of positive peer pressure.

You can find the nearest NaNo Groups to you, on the NaNo website. Not every group is right for every writer. If there are several, find the one that works for you. Some of them are more motivated by the word wars than the words themselves. Some are more interested in chatting and talking about the writing they are doing when they aren’t together than actually writing at the gatherings. Some are a smile, a wave and a “how many words have you got?” Then they are heads down over keyboards or paper and pen, back at the writing. — A quiet acknowledgement of the shared madness, if you will.

None of those are wrong, per se. But which one is right for you? Maybe you aren’t a face to face kind of person. I hope you will at least try it and find out first, but maybe your group is on Facebook? Or Twitter? Or the NaNo site?

If there’s not a group anywhere near you? Start your own.  NaNo prefers that their Municipal Liaisons be past NaNo Winners. They also prefer that they apply for this unpaid, volunteer position by July.  But they love to hear from motivated writers who want to volunteer.

For that matter, go rogue. Go wild.  If you’re writing in the middle of nowhere, like I am these days, slap up some “contact me” cards at any area coffee shop, library, craft shops or anywhere used books are sold. Basically, the kinds of places you like. You’re a writer, makes sense other writers like those places, too, yeah? Make a few like minded contacts and shazam, you’re in a group of writers.  Just remember, even if we all share the “writer crazy”– we still aren’t all the same.  What works for me, may not work for you, and vice versa.  Remember, NaNoWriMo is about writing, not editing. So, no critics allowed. Just muses and writers.  Find the group that motivates your writing. The group you feel good about encouraging.

Then go write.

One bit of repeat here — NO EDITING. Save editing until next year. Literally, next year. November is for writing. Write with abandon. Write hard. Write.

And, when you cross the 50K mark? Come back here, to the comments, and crow about it! Shout it from a rooftop. Tell strangers. A lovely writer friend of mine put the period to the sentence where she crossed 50K and then stood on her chair, waved her arms like wings and sang like an angel. The whole room cheered and applauded. We were in a Barnes & Noble at the time. It was hysterical, it was beautiful, it was glorious. She deserved glorious.  So will you. Because you will have earned it, and no one can ever take it away from you. Go. Write. I’ll meet you back here in November.

Eldon Hughes
“Williebee” (NaNo & AW)
@Williebee
www.ifoundaknife.com