Category Archives: Writing and Editing

Out of the Closet with Author Services

For the past decade, I’ve been an editor first and foremost. My ideal is to help authors make their storylines sing and their characters so three-dimensional, they practically leap off the page. I also aim to smooth out my clients’ dishevelled sentences and slim down their bloated prose. I nitpick to make sure the wrong words aren’t capitalized and the quotation marks are turned the right way around and are consistently curly (or straight, if you prefer). Like most editors I know, my editing work runs the gamut from the big-picture stuff to the finest details. But lately, I’ve been doing more than editing.

As the years have flown by, more and more authors have turned to me to help them promote their books, and I’ve found myself writing for them. I admit, I fell into this–it wasn’t something I actively pursued. Initially, I lacked confidence in my ability to help, but I’ve gained a lot of experience and received plenty of positive feedback from clients about what I’ve written for them.  As I’ve gained self-assurance, I’ve discovered that I love the challenge of this work. And it’s so gratifying to have another way, besides editing, of helping my clients realize their publishing dreams. Until now I’ve been quiet about my writing work, but I’m declaring myself out of the closet. Loudly and proudly, I’m officially adding Author Services to my bag of tricks!

For those of you wondering what writing services for authors I offer, here’s a brief rundown:

Back-cover Blurbs. You’re self-publishing and need a catchy blurb that will hook potential readers emotionally and convey your novel in a nutshell–without giving too much away, of course. Writing a good blurb always gives me a delicious thrill (I’m funny that way), and I love the opportunity to use my words to move people to read your book.

Note: “Blurb” in this case does not refer to critical reviews that may appear on your book’s cover.  It’s unethical to write these for an author when I have worked on their book.

Query Letters. You’re trying to pitch your short story to a magazine or your novel to an agent or publisher and don’t know to tackle the all-important query letter. I’ll craft a concise one that will cover everything it needs to and help get you noticed.

Chapter Summaries. You’ve been asked by a publisher to submit succinct chapter summaries, but you feel much too close to your work and can’t find the forest for the trees. Using vigorous, engaging writing, I’ll zero in on the essential plot threads in each chapter.

Synopses. Boiling a novel down to five or six hundred words is a task most writers dread, and with good reason–it’s tough work, especially when it’s your baby. Your synopsis can’t read like a dull, mechanical account of events; a good one tells your story but in a lively, colourful way. I can help.

Biographies. Whether it’s for the back cover of your book or for your website, tell me about yourself and I’ll help you, Mr. or Ms. Author, present yourself in the most flattering light.

Although I’m delighted to write any of the above, I will edit your versions if you’d prefer. Whether I’m starting from scratch or simply polishing your existing material, we’ll work together to create the best blurbs, query letters, summaries, synopses, and biographies we possibly can.

 

The Great Literary Blog Hop

I was recently approached by fellow editrix and  fantasy authoress Vanessa Ricci-Thode to participate in something called a blog hop. Vanessa published her novel The Dragon Whisperer last year and now has another book in the works. Honestly, I don’t know where she finds the time and energy to do all these literary things and raise a child too.  When she first mentioned the blog hop, I didn’t have a clue what it was, but I soon learned it would give me an opportunity to blab about my writing. What writer can say no to that? Thank you, Vanessa, for giving me the kick in the pants I needed to start blogging again.

As part of the blog hop, I’m required to answer four questions. At the end, I’ll provide links to the websites and books of some terrific writers who are taking up the challenge to continue this blog hop. So without further ado, let’s get started.

1.  What are you working on/writing?

As far as paid work goes, I’m currently editing the third book in a series of thrillers. The novel is action-packed, well-written, and suspenseful, so I’m really enjoying the process. Editing flows quite easily when the material you’re working on is so good. I consider myself very fortunate to be working with this particular author, who not only writes well but is very pleasant to deal with and shares my love of dogs.

There’s also my novel, Virginia’s Ghost. The book is a cozy mystery with a supernatural element. My protagonist, Virginia, is an auction house employee who encounters a rather demanding ghost named Constance from the 1920s. She realizes the ghost is trying to tell her something important, and precisely what is revealed as she reads Constance’s diary, written when she was a young woman. I include several diary entries, so I’m working with two first-person narrators. Simultaneously, mayhem and murder begin happening at the auction house, and the ghost is ultimately the key to making sense of all the chaos. Past and present are interwoven, and the book is really about the extraordinary connection these two women from separate eras forge and how they affect each other.

It does feel as if I’ve been writing Virginia’s Ghost forever, but after two rounds of edits by professional editor friends, I’m finally at the end of the writing process. Recently, I posted Chapter 1 on this site, and received eighty-eight Facebook likes, which astounded me! Because I’m a fanatical perfectionist, I’ve printed out the whole thing to read one more time and tweak as needed. About a month from now, we’ll be starting the cover and page design, which I’m very excited about.

Virginia'g Ghost book cover

2.  How does your work/writing differ from others in its genre?

I call my book a cozy mystery, but I doubt it is, strictly speaking–it’s just what it’s closest to being. One way in which it differs is that my protagonist isn’t really a sleuth as such and certainly doesn’t see herself as taking on that role. Instead, she has chaotic circumstances thrust upon her and copes as best as she can. Virginia’s Ghost does have a number of the characteristics of cosy mysteries, though: it’s set in a very closed community and features a victim who dare I say deserves to die. As well, there’s no graphic sex or violence, so it’s suitable for all ages. And although I intended to write a page-turner, I also like to think it’s more than a whodunit.

3.  Why do you write what you do?

I’ve been very influenced by my previous career. I worked at an auction house for about fourteen years and always thought it would be an excellent setting for either a mystery or a ghost story (I ended up combining both). There’s something both intriguing and slightly creepy about being surrounded by dusty old antiques that suggested both of those genres to me. I have a fascination with past eras, particularly the 1920s, so I wanted to bring a nostalgic storyline into the book–the story of Constance, the beautiful flapper ghost.  As well, there’s always a lot of adrenaline surging through the auction world–the pressure of crazy deadlines and the excitement of a live auction–that I thought would make for a dramatic book. And I met a lot of eccentric people, both clients and fellow employees, who I’ve drawn on in creating the characters for the book. The day I left that job, I thanked the staff for providing such wonderful inspiration for the novel I would one day write. Some of them looked a little worried when I said that. I guess they didn’t want to find themselves as a character in the book–particularly a villain or someone who gets murdered. But my characters are composites of various people I’ve met in my life.

4.  How does your writing process work?

What can I say? It’s slow and painstaking. This is because I’m an editor too. My sentences barely have a chance to squeak out before I’m polishing them to within an inch of their lives. I try to tell myself just to write, but it’s nearly impossible to quiet the professional editor in my head. But I’m also a better writer since I became an editor. I think I must have been pretty awful before.

I’m actually not too sure how many drafts of Virginia’s Ghost I’ve done–it’s either five or six, I think. It often tell my editing clients that it’s a good idea to start with an outline, but I didn’t do that myself. There–I’ve come out of the closet as a non-outliner! Actually, though, I did put together a synopsis of all my chapters after I’d written my third draft, and it did help me see what wasn’t really adding up in the narrative. And doing this helped me get unstuck and move forward.

***

I now pass the baton to my chosen blog hoppers, who are as follows:

Tiana Warner. Tiana is the author of The Infinite Knowledge of J.T. Badgley, an intensely dramatic science fiction novel that takes place on a planet called Zielaarde but illuminates much about life here on Earth.  As you’ll see from Tiana’s website, she’s also an accomplished poet. You can read my interview with Tiana here.

Pat Krapf. Pat has just published Brainwash, the first of a series of techno-thrillers featuring tough, no-nonsense private investigator Darcy McClain, formerly an FBI agent, and her sidekick Bullet, a giant schnauzer. Pat is currently following up Brainwash with two more Darcy McClain thrillers, Gadgets and Genocide.

Martin Turnbull. Martin has written the Garden of Allah series of novels, which are set in Hollywood’s golden age. If you love the thought of rubbing shoulders with screen legends like Greta Garbo and Errol Flynn, you’ll love Martin’s novels–The Garden on Sunset, The Trouble with Scarlett, and Citizen Hollywood.

Ali Lawati. Ali is a children’s author who has written The Jungle Adventure of Chimpoo, a whimsical tale of a monkey family.

 

Back-cover Blurbs: What I’ve Learned So Far

I’ve been crafting it off and on for weeks now, and sometimes I lie awake at night, mentally tweaking the wording until it’s just so. It consists of four little paragraphs, a mere two hundred words. But those paragraphs might be the hardest thing I’ve ever written, and every one of those words has to pull its weight. What, you might ask, is causing me such writerly agony? The back-cover blurb for my novel, Virginia’s Ghost.

Logic would dictate that this process shouldn’t be so excruciating. After all, I’ve written or edited blurbs for many clients before, so I know the drill. And no one knows my book better than I do, right? But maybe familiarity is precisely the problem. What’s making the blurb so challenging is knowing my book all too well; I’ve been living and breathing Virginia’s Ghost  in all its subtle nuances for quite some time. With so many tiny details about the plot, character, setting, and dialogue filling my brain, I’m finding it tricky to pick out the broad strokes.  Here’s my latest effort to whittle the book down to its essence and pull my audience in (and please feel free to criticize, as I still consider the blurb a work in progress).

Antiques specialist Virginia Blythe of Gable & Co. Auctioneers is working late one night when she hears mournful wailing. Following the sound to its source, she gasps in astonishment: a breathtakingly beautiful flapper who looks like a refugee from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is lingering in the shadows of the company’s basement. 

Later the disconsolate young woman returns to offer Virginia her diary, written in 1928. It reveals she’s the ghost of wealthy Toronto socialite Constance Pendleton. What is Constance trying to tell her? Intrigued, Virginia curls up with the diary and begins dipping her toes into the elegant opulence of Constance’s Jazz Age world.

But suddenly things go terribly awry at Gable & Co. Just as Virginia’s preparing for a blockbuster auction, some valuable porcelain mysteriously goes missing and her job is on the line. The worst, however, is yet to come. A shocking murder spins the eccentric world of the auction house into chaos. Struggling to make sense of it all, Virginia turns increasingly to the secrets of the diary.

Virginia’s Ghost is a tale of ghastly crime, euphoric love, and devastating betrayal in which two women transcend time to affect each other’s lives in startling ways.

Apart from discovering that writing your back-cover blurb is damn difficult to pull off, what else have I learned? Here’s my advice, based both on my experiences helping clients with their blurbs and writing my own.

First, get as much critical feedback throughout the blurb-writing process as you possibly can. People who have already read your book (e.g., your editor) are invaluable and can help you answer some key questions. For example, does the book actually deliver what you promise the reader in your blurb? If you’re describing thrills and chills aplenty on the back cover but your book’s more of a meditative literary piece, then you have a serious mismatch on your hands.  As well, does the tone of the blurb match your book’s tone? Obviously, it should, and only someone who’s read your book will know. But people who haven’t read it can also be enormously helpful in answering the big questions: Would you read this book? And if not, why not? Take every bit of feedback you receive to heart and keep revising your blurb until you’re hitting all the right notes.

Second, use language that will hook readers emotionally. What will grab them enough to make them want to read your book? If you’re not sure, think about who your readers are–their tastes, interests, and values. Chances are you’re like me and you’re writing for the very club you’re already a member of, which makes it much easier to know what your audience wants. I expect my readers to be largely 40+ women who are fans of the cosy mystery genre and period pieces. Because of this, I’ve tried to heighten the mood of mystery and intrigue and have emphasized the past by playing up the flapper ghost and the auction house setting. And I hope that the image of Virginia curling up to read the diary will strike a chord with my readers, who probably enjoy spending their Sunday afternoons with a cup of tea and a good book. Consider what’s important to your audience and use language and images that truly speak to them.

Finally, make every word count. Most blurbs aren’t much more than about 250 words, so you’ve got to be economical in your prose and focus on what’s really important–namely, some enticingly described story details that will leave your readers wanting to know more and eager to buy your book. Now’s not the time to blather on using wordy or vague language, pat yourself on the back for your brilliant book, or give too much of your plot away.  Remember that your blurb isn’t a synopsis but a teaser that functions as your primary marketing tool. You’ll be using it on the back of your book and elsewhere too–on your website, Facebook author page, and Amazon, for example. It’s worth your while to take your time and do it right.

Usage Misdemeanours: Peak, Peek, and Pique

Virtually every manuscript that’s crossed my desk for editing in the past year or so has contained errors in the use of the homophones peak, peek, and pique. Personally, I’ve never had any difficulty keeping these three little words straight, but given the number of errors I see it’s obvious they’re a source of confusion to writers everywhere. I’ve seen “peak my curiosity” and “a sneak peak” among other misuses. Here’s a quick peek (if you’ll pardon the expression) at the differences between these words and tips for keeping them straight.

Peak is a word dating back to the 1500s, and it has several meanings as a noun. It can be the pointed top of a mountain or any mountain with a pointed top. Mountains aside, a peak is something that protrudes and reaches a point.  When you whip egg whites vigorously, they end up having stiff peaks (and you’re then ready to make a meringue).  A peak is also a high point in a different sense; you can reach a peak of activity or achievement. For example, “Horace reached his peak as a magician.” As well, a peak is the point on a graph that reflects the highest point in terms of a physical quantity. The brim of a hat (particularly in Britain) or the narrow part of a ship’s hold are also definitions of the word peak.

As a verb, peak means to reach an apex, and often a certain time for this occurrence is specified. You could say that “Horace peaked as a magician at age thirty.” Peak is also an archaic verb from about 1600 meaning to become sickly. Derived from it are the adjectives peaked (always pronounced pea-ked) and peaky, which is more commonly used in Britain. Both words emerged in the early 1800s and not surprisingly mean pallid or gaunt from illness. Peak used as an adjective is fairly recent, dating to about 1900. Again, it’s related to attaining a maximum. “Horace reached his peak level as a magician.”

Peek as a verb means to glance quickly or slyly. For example, “Alice peeked through the window at her devastatingly handsome neighbour.” It can also mean to protrude very slightly so as to be barely visible, as in, “His fingertips peeked through the ends of his threadbare gloves.” As a verb, it’s very old, dating back to the 14th century. It wasn’t used as a noun (meaning a quick or furtive look) until the middle of the 19th century.

The important thing to remember about peek is that it’s always associated with looking, whereas peak is primarily associated with  high points. With this in mind, I created this illustration to help you distinguish the two. The two es  in peek resemble a pair of eyes, while the a in peak, when capitalized, resembles a mountain.

Peek vs. peak

Finally, there’s pique. The word derives from the French verb piquer, which means to prick or irritate. The noun form of the word emerged first around 1600 and means irritation or resentment at suffering a slight or blow to your pride. A person typically has “a fit of pique,” which isn’t much fun for those witnessing it. But pique is most commonly used as a verb meaning to arouse interest or curiosity, and it’s been used as such since the late 17th century. For example, “You piqued my curiosity when you started whispering.” To be piqued means you’re feeling irritable. To pique yourself means that you pride yourself, but this is an archaic usage that’s unfamiliar to most of us. Pique is also used a both a noun and a verb with reference to piquet, a card game for two, but most of the confusion writers experience isn’t related to this usage. To avoid confusing pique with the other homophones, remember that it’s the only one with an i in it, which stands for irritation.

I hope I’ve clarified the meanings of peak, peek, and pique for you and provided useful tips for keeping them straight. Now when you need to choose the right homophone in your writing, you’ll no longer experience confusion or succumb to fits of pique!

A Short Guide to Handling Speeches in Fiction

Whether they take the form of lectures or diatribes, speeches are rarely enjoyable to listen to–unless they happen to combine the talents of a gifted orator and a skilled speechwriter. But this combination is rare. The average speech is, well . . . average. This is generally true in real life and especially true in fiction.

Yet many aspiring novelists think it’s a good idea to include speeches. They appear either as formal addresses to a captive audience or, more commonly, informal monologue. Here’s an example of the latter.  During a coffee break at the lab, Dr. Saurus, a mad scientist who’s secretly recreating extinct creatures in test tubes, lectures his colleagues about the natural history of the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods. But more about the good doctor later.

The problem with speeches is that your plot typically goes on vacation during them, so everything grinds to a halt. The grave danger is that the reader will get bored, impatient, or exhausted and will consign your book to the trash can. Obviously, you don’t want that to happen, so what should you do about speeches?

First, consider the purpose of each speech. What does the speaker want to achieve? Cut out anything that’s irrelevant to that purpose. If, for example, Dr. Saurus wants to reveal the nature of his experiments to his colleagues, he should confine his words to those experiments. He shouldn’t ramble on about the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods; the scientists know about them already, and he comes off looking pedantic. He’s also committing the terrible sin of information dumping, which brings me to my second point.

Include only information that’s vital for the reader’s understanding of what’s happening. Anything beyond that is extraneous. If readers want an in-depth discussion about the Jurassic period, they’ll google it or pick up a book on the subject. Don’t pummel them with paragraph after paragraph of facts and figures. When you do, they forget they’re even reading a novel and imagine they’ve mistakenly wandered into a textbook. Remember that few things destroy the fictive dream like a big information dump in a speech. A far better approach is to eliminate such speeches altogether and weave their content bit by bit into the narrative instead of depositing it all in one place.

But if you’re still committed to keeping a speech in and have done your best to rid it of irrelevant material, it may still be too long. If so, there’s a lot more you should be doing. Try interrupting the speech. Consider for a moment that many authors write speeches without properly supporting them with narrative. Reading this is much like listening to the radio; you hear a voice, but you can’t see where the speaker is or what he’s doing. This results in an incomplete sensory experience for the reader. Interrupt monologue with lots of supporting details about characters’ actions, gestures, and expressions. In the Dr. Saurus example, one of the scientists might jump up and down excitedly after hearing about the experiments and spill coffee on a colleague. Remember that the speaker isn’t talking to zombies (well, not usually) but to actual human beings who react to what’s being said, so interrupt using questions or comments from listeners as well. Another of Dr. Saurus’s colleagues might ask him why he wants to recreate extinct creatures and accuse him of playing God. Dialogue and interaction are inherently more dramatic than monologue, which is essentially static, so don’t hesitate to turn speeches into conversations.

As well, you can briefly summarize many points of a speech in narrative form while giving your character choice lines highlighting the most important or dramatic points. For example, you could summarize Dr. Saurus’s experimental procedures in a paragraph but allow him to talk about the exciting results of his work: a baby stegosaurus hatching in his lab right before his very eyes!

Much like Dr. Saurus, you as an author get to play God. You’re in control of everything that happens in your book, so unruly characters needn’t get away from you and run the show. You probably wouldn’t let someone drone on and on in real life uninterrupted, so why let it happen in your fiction? Use the above techniques to more effectively handle speeches. They may take work, but the payoff is prose that will keep readers thoroughly engaged in your work.

 

Lumbering to the Editing Phase: Draft Four of Virginia’s Ghost Begins

I recently finished my third draft of Virginia’s Ghost, the novel I’ve been working on for longer than I can believe. Without a doubt, I’m a putter-inner, not a taker-outer, as my first draft was a bare-bones one and came in at a very slim 30,000 words, while this most recent draft is an impressive (to me, anyway) 61,000 words. I printed it out and discovered that it’s got physical heft if nothing else.

Seeing my book all in one big pile almost made me weak at the knees, and in a reckless moment I almost passed the thing on to one of my trusted editor colleagues. But after rereading it, I realized that it’s almost where I want it to be, so I’m not ready to relinquish it just yet to editorial scrutiny. Almost isn’t nearly good enough for me, nor should it be for any author. I refuse to embarrass myself.

So what’s my next step? Instead of diving directly into Draft 4, I decided to write a summary of each chapter. It’s my way of stepping back into a more objective mode of thinking and ferreting out all the things that need to be fixed: the little timeline glitches, the things that are missing, the events that don’t quite add up or that feel contrived, and the stupid things that sometimes come out of characters’ mouths when you least expect it of them. I’ve written suggestions as to how I’m going to fix these things at the bottom of each chapter summary. The blue writing identifies my main storyline, while the red is a second storyline. I’ve also done some hard-copy edits right on my draft.

Chapter summaries for Virginia's Ghost

But aren’t you supposed to do all the outlining and summarizing stuff at the beginning? Certainly a lot of writing books suggest drawing up an outline well before you write the book, and I often suggest it to clients who seem to be struggling with an unruly plot. But I began writing the book well before I knew very much about outlines, but more importantly, I think that my initial outline probably would have been nearly as skeletal as my first draft. In other words, my writing process doesn’t seem to lend itself to the outline-before-you-write approach. I find myself layering new stories into each successive draft, adding richness and complexity (I hope) to the storylines. There are things going on in the third draft that would have seemed inconceivable to me when I was writing the first or even second draft.

All this reminds me that there are probably as many ways of going about writing a book as there are writers. We each find our own way of getting from that first blank page to the end of that final draft. Our path may be straight, swift, and sure as an arrow heading toward a bull’s eye, or it may be more like that of a meandering, lumbering bear apparently not heading anywhere in particular. The choice is ours, and there is really no right way. The only thing that matters in the end is that the book itself is everything we want it to be.

 

New Book Release: Under the Skin by Nick Hahn

Under the Skin book cover

 

Nick Hahn is the author of the recently released novel Under the Skin, a political thriller set in Uganda. As this interview demonstrates, he is passionate about both the issues confronting third-world countries today and the craft of writing. Check out Nick’s blog, Nickspeak, as well as this link to Under the Skin, now available on amazon.com.

CK: I know that you spent some time in Uganda. What took you there, and what experiences did you have that prompted you to write the book?

NH: I lived and worked in Uganda for several months in 2008. I was there on a consulting engagement, retained by a nonprofit consortium of three organizations evaluating the organic cotton supply chain from small farmers in the North near the Sudanese border to commercial yarn spinning factories in the South near Kampala, the capital of the country.

The consortium partners, Invisible Children, Inc., the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Edun Apparel LTD. were interested in sourcing a women’s apparel line in Uganda produced from 100 percent organic cotton. Edun, owned by Bono and Ali Hewson, collaborated with their consortium partners, both prominent NGOs, in an effort to support economic development for Uganda and add a measure of relief to poverty-stricken cotton farmers.

In my work I observed abuses of human rights, especially those of women, perpetrated by local authorities and self-centred politicians. Their refusal to acknowledge the disparity between the traditional role of women in tribal societies and advancements made by women in contemporary Western societies kept Ugandan women in a subservient role within the family. In Uganda, and much of Africa, women are forced to accept genital mutilation, prepubescent marriage to men many times their age, and abject slavery in their spousal roles.

My objective in writing this book is to build awareness of these abuses and do so within the context of fictional storytelling. I want my readers to be entertained, educated, and motivated. My hope is that some will be moved to action and make a difference within their own sphere of influence, whatever or wherever that may be.

Under The Skin is my first novel. The message is there but so is the emotion, tension, and entertainment.

CK: In the book, a young woman of very humble origins, Nabulunghi Kibugu (Nabby), becomes educated in a Western university and returns to her country to seize political power. We tend to think of East Africa as dominated by corrupt politicians and vicious warlords like Joseph Kony. In the Africa of today, how common are female leaders like Nabby? Would you say that African women are now emerging from the shadows of oppression? What are some examples of women in this part of the world who are making a difference?

NH: My lead character, Nabby Kibugu, is fictional but her story could easily be true. Today women of all races, religions, and ethnicities are making their presence known in the world. Educated and motivated, women in all fields including politics, education, arts, science, and business are making a difference. In Africa this is particularly prescient. The role of women there has changed dramatically with the emergence of Nobel Prize winners like Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to receive a Nobel Prize. This advancement is still in the incubation stage. When we see progress growing from a base of zero, we tend to overcelebrate it. Africa, the Middle East, and Muslim countries around the world are still generations out of step.  I’ve lived and worked in most of these regions and have seen up close the devastating effect on women, whose lives are controlled by cultural and religious traditions created and enforced by men.  My hope is that through the medium of fictional storytelling I might add a small voice in opposition to these abuses and lend some weight to a movement toward equality with men, if not full parity. The real tragedy here is the loss of intelligence and intuition that women bring to problem solving; life for men would improve exponentially with educated and trained women in their midst.  My dream is that real-life Nabby Kibugus and Maggie Kincaids [Maggie is another character in the book] will emerge as thought leaders and role models, inspiring a new generation of women from the developing world.

CK: Nabby forms a powerful alliance with a wealthy American, Maggie Kincaid. The unlikely friendship that blossoms between the two young women is really at the heart of the novel, and the way they forge ahead in single-minded pursuit of their goal against overwhelming odds is quite incredible.  Who or what inspired these two fearless females?

NH: Maggie was inspired by Nabby’s true grit and determination to change her world. Nabby’s youth was destroyed by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when she was raped at age eleven. This experience exposed her strength in ways she wouldn’t have known otherwise. Her acceptance of the scholarship to St Andrews University and her successful career there made a lasting impression on Maggie and her wealthy parents in New York. When Maggie arrived in Uganda and became involved in Nabby’s political campaign, it changed her world from one of luxury and excess to one of purpose and resolve. Together these two young women changed more than a country’s leadership; they changed the course of each other’s lives.

My book is written primarily from a woman’s point of view. I can’t explain this except to say that I’ve been blessed in having strong women in my life, women who have inspired me with their strength and discipline. I believe that if women held positions of authority in all fields, but especially government, there would be less conflict in the world and the rights of women and men—human rights—would be recognized. Women understand the power of moral authority in society and know how to exercise it. They appreciate that passive resistance can be stronger than armed resistance, and that we should not be defined by race, religion, or territory.  One looks at political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Camilla Vallejo of the University of Chile Student Federation, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund, the late Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of England, or Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and likely candidate for US president in 2016.  These women and others like them are changing their worlds in positive ways, both large and small. The title of my book, Under The Skin, drove much of my thinking. The notion that skin colour should make a difference in our perception of people and their worth to society strikes me as absurd. As shown in my novel, our hearts beat the same under the skin, regardless of our colour.

CK: The book really opened my eyes to the desperate struggles the Ugandan people face, and I’m sure it will for other readers as well. What do you hope people will take away from reading your book? Is there any particular message you want people to understand?

NH: The message is simple; we’re all members of the same race, the human race. For some unfathomable reason, men have insisted on defining themselves by race, religion, and ethnicity rather than the common spark of humanity that separates us from the beasts. That spark should be joining us, not dividing us. If we can put men on the moon, put the entire world’s knowledge base on a smartphone in the palm of our hand, and discover cures for “incurable” diseases, wouldn’t you think we could find better solutions to world problems than armed combat? Social, economic, and territorial conflict is real and requires thoughtful solutions, but not those found in the barrel of a gun or rooted in a dictator’s nepotism. I’m not suggesting that women have all the answers; I am suggesting they have more of the answers than history gives them credit for. My hope is that women like my character Nabby Kibugu, languishing in the backwater of some third-world country, will find their voice and aspire to education and training. We have no idea how many Nabbys are out there, waiting for another Maggie Kincaid to discover their genius.

CK: How long have you been writing? Who are the writers who inspire you and why?

NH: I started writing in high school. I had a disciplined English teacher at a strict Jesuit prep school in Cleveland, Ohio, who thought my writing showed promise and that I should pursue a career as an author. That was the age of the great American writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. They all inspired me, but I must confess that Hemingway was my hero. I loved his work and, truth be known, loved his macho lifestyle as a war correspondent, bullfight enthusiast, and deep-sea fisherman. Hemingway lived as he wrote. His stories were more than figments of his imagination; they were fictionalized memories of a man who lived his dream. It was his love affair with life that drove him to end his own. Once his health failed and he was no longer able to live as he wrote, he could no longer bear the alternative.

I carried this romanticized view of becoming an author into my college years at the University of Notre Dame. It was there that I skipped a beat, maybe more than one, if truth be known, and succumbed to the real world of earning a living and raising a family. My writing dreams went on the back burner as I pursued a business career for forty-eight years. Time and circumstance reignited my love of writing. I started by recording and publishing commercial audiobooks for Audible and soon realized what I had been missing. With a career behind me and a family on their own, I went back to where it all began. As T.S. Elliot reminds us, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

At heart I’m a writer, have always been a writer, and will continue to write as long as my physical and mental health allow me.

CK: Now that Under the Skin has been completed, what do you hope to write about next? Are there any particular issues you want to explore?  

NH: The issues that concern me are many, but there’s one in particular, and next on my writing agenda is human trafficking. This is one of the most deplorable evils in human society and one most of us know little about.  Many people aid and abet traffickers by hiring illegal aliens at substandard wages, procuring the services of underage prostitutes, and paying access fees to pornography websites. Human trafficking has an estimated annual turnover of $32 billion, with far more unaccounted for. My next book, Drone, addresses this issue through the eyes of a female undercover agent working for Interpol, the secretive international police organization. Again, the story is fiction, but the subject matter and circumstances our lead character confronts are true, and the message is clear. Drone, like Under The Skin, will entertain and frighten you and stimulate your emotions, but you won’t finish the book without gaining a new perspective on human trafficking and sexual slavery in the US and around the world. Like my first book, this one is being written from a woman’s point of view. The lead character, Cosita, will stimulate your conscience and move you to a heightened awareness of one of the world’s most misunderstood crimes and its degrading effect on women.  Drone is a story about another courageous woman and a friendship formed in a tempest of mutual need and respect.

CK: What has the process of completing your first novel been like, and what sort of advice do you have for writers? 

NH: I’ve never had a baby, Caroline, but the fourteen-month gestation period for this novel and the labour during the days preceding its release to the public gives me some idea of what that’s like. For me, as with mothers, it was a labour of love. I never wanted to let it go; every time I reviewed it, I saw areas needing improvement. It was like, “How could you have said it that way, dummy? You can write better than that.” And so it would go, day after day, until my editor convinced me I had a book and to let her smooth out the rough edges.

I have so much advice for new writers, I hardly know where to begin, so I guess I’ll just restate the obvious: begin. Put words on paper, i.e., your word processor, every day. Find your creative sweet spot, that time when ideas seem to flow effortlessly. Mine is early morning, but for others it’s evening or the middle of the night—whatever works for you. But do it. I might also suggest that you not read too many books on writing. At the end of the day, your storyline will carry your book, not your sentence structure or preoccupation with the beginning, the middle, and the end. I find that the words come to me scene after scene, but I must confess—and my editor reminds me—that I have problems with chronology and time sequence. I tend to worry less about that and let my editor fix it. I concentrate on the creative process of developing a story that first entertains, but for me, always with a message. As a first-time author with one published book to my credit, I don’t presume that my advice to writers will be all that impressive. Find your own style, your own story, and make sure you fall in love, deeply in love, with all your characters. They will become the most important people in your life for the duration of the book.

For me it’s all about narrative and dialogue. I want my readers to feel the emotion, the tension, the anxiety, all the demands of life wrapped up in the character’s role. I’m a storyteller first and a writer second, if that makes sense. There are passages and whole scenes in this book that bring tears to my eyes each time I read them. I welled up when I wrote those words, but they weren’t my words—they were Nabby’s and Maggie’s and those of other characters in the book. Maybe that’s the litmus test for a writer; maybe it’s about human emotion and finding the right words to express it. In Under the Skin, I found the right words.

 

The Name Game: Character Names in Fiction

The other day, my friend and colleague Arlene Prunkl and I were comparing notes about how authors sometimes treat character names, and our discussion sparked this post (a good thing, since I’ve been short of inspiration lately). I’d wanted to write about the dos and don’ts of names but realized that what not to do was my chief concern. Here are some name-related pitfalls that are best avoided.

First of all, avoid duplication. Particularly in large, sprawling books, authors are prone to forget that they’ve already used a name, and they may accidentally use it again for a second character, which confuses the heck out of readers. Let’s say two characters have the same surname; readers will inevitably wonder if they’re related. If there’s no explanation of the connection between Dr. Harbinger and Dorothea Harbinger, readers will either keep scratching their heads or assume you mistakenly used the name twice. Either way, it’s a distraction that’s going to pull readers out of the flow of your narrative. Although you may know two people named Harbinger in real life (and they may even be unrelated), it’s best not to have two characters with an identical surname unless the relationship between them is made clear from the get-go.

Similarly, avoid names that sound too much alike or that rhyme. In most contexts, it just sounds silly and makes readers giggle (which is only fine if you want them to). When I was in high school, I had a friend whose parents were Victor and Victoria, which was even funnier when the film Victor Victoria came out. I’m sorry, but Denise and Dennis should probably not be wandering around in your book, let alone having a secret love affair, although certainly Denise and Bryan could be. And Miles, Giles, and Niles should not be let loose unless they are actually triplets and appear in nonsense verse for children.

There’s also the issue of overuse of names. I frequently see this sort of thing in dialogue:

“Well, Miles, how was work today?

“It was fine, Giles, but Niles is going to have to start delegating more work to junior colleagues.”

“I agree, Miles.”

I exaggerate here, but you get the point. When this is overdone, it can feel as if a pair of robots are speaking. There’s something stilted about constantly addressing other characters by name in dialogue. And after a while it just grates on your nerves. If you listen to real people talking, you won’t hear anyone doing this. Think about when you would actually use someone’s name in conversation. It might be when you’ve just been introduced or when you’re saying goodbye. Or it could be when you’re angry with someone or trying to get her attention. Limit usage of the name to these types of instances, and your dialogue will seem much more fluid and realistic.

Also avoid using a character’s name when you could simply use he or she and him or her without sacrificing the reader’s comprehension of what’s taking place in the scene. Consider the following:

Griselda looked in the mirror and admired her reflection. Griselda then carefully applied dark blue mascara and dabbed her favourite perfume, Shalimar, carefully on her wrists. It was a shame, Griselda reflected, that Hank would not be at the banquet to see how she had transformed herself from an ugly duckling to a graceful swan. “It’s his loss!” Griselda said to no one in particular.

Of course this snippet would be better with only one Griselda; the others add nothing except unnecessary repetition. By all means use the name when it’s needed to clarify who’s doing what. If there were two women in the room, for example, you would need to use names more often to help readers distinguish the action of one from the other.

If you avoid these name-related pitfalls, you’ll avoid confusing and annoying readers– and your prose will be seem livelier and more natural too!

No First Drafts, No Fancy Formatting: Tips for Keeping Editing Costs Down

Last month, I gave a workshop aimed at self-publishing authors about hiring editors, and naturally we covered pricing. I told the workshop attendees that many editors charge by the hour. In estimating costs, they’ll first determine how many pages per hour they can edit by reviewing a sample of the author’s manuscript. (By “page,” I mean a standard double-spaced 250-word page.) Seven to eight pages per hour is quite brisk, whereas two to three is deathly slow. I went on to describe what makes an editor’s pages-per-hour rate plummet, thereby causing editing costs to rise.

What factors can add to editing costs? An obvious one is the quality of the writing. I’ll be honest–truly awful writing is mind-twistingly difficult to edit and time-consuming. The reasons for awful writing vary, of course. Sometimes the author’s first language is not English, which results in incorrect spelling, cumbersome syntax, and a sometimes amusing mangling of English idioms. If ESL isn’t the issue, the writer may have been daydreaming through English class, never learning the rules or thinking they’d be needed. Whatever the cause of awful writing, an experienced editor often has a knack for figuring out what these writers are trying to say and can edit their work. In extreme cases, bad writers need to go back to school to learn the basics of expressing themselves before they can even be edited.

One thing I told my workshop attendees was to always submit the best work they’re capable of, as this will save them money. Submitting your best possible work means slaving away at multiple drafts to work out structural issues before getting any line editing done. (By the way, if you’re a writer and don’t think you need to work hard, I urge you to reconsider your chosen path.) Under the category of disheartening are those clients who submit their first drafts for line editing. No first draft is ever ready for such late-stage editing. It’s a different matter if the editor is providing a manuscript evaluation, as direction for a rewrite can be based on the initial draft. Remember that no matter who writes them, first drafts are invariably lousy. But like some sort of unattractive foundation garment, they need to exist before anything else can be layered on top. Once they’ve served their purpose, though, hide them away at the back of the drawer!

Aside from submitting your most polished prose, how else can you cut costs? For one thing, keep your formatting standard. Use a standard font such as 12-point Times New Roman or Courier. As well, double space your text and indent your paragraphs. Take out any extra line spaces between your paragraphs. Keep the left margin justified and set margins all around to one inch. Start new chapters on new pages. Keep spacing between headings and body text consistent throughout the text. If you don’t do these things, your editor generally will, and it does take extra time.

Avoid the temptation to design your book in Word; a professional designer will do this after the editing phase is finished. Some authors love to play with multiple fonts in Word, resulting in a dog’s breakfast of bizarrely incompatible text styles. As well, it’s not unusual to find authors using multiple formatting tools–colour, bold, underlining, and all caps–to emphasize particular words. (Italics are all that’s needed to emphasize words, and even those need to be used judiciously.) Don’t festoon your manuscript with this sort of garish window dressing–it only distracts the editor from the content of your writing. As well, don’t do quirky things with your margins. Once, and for no good reason that I could determine, a client insisted on starting certain paragraphs about three-quarters of the way across the page, near the right margin, and I couldn’t dissuade her. Leaving such wildly unconventional stuff in your manuscript will only make it look amateurish, and your editor will need to spend a great deal of time undoing it. Simplicity of presentation is what impresses editors the most, and what makes your work appear professional.

The bottom line is this: you’ll save money on editing costs if you submit your most polished work and format your manuscript in standard, simple ways.

Toronto Workshop for Self-Publishing Writers about Working with Editors

Well, I’m finally doing something I couldn’t have imagined a few months ago–I’m giving a two-hour workshop about editing. The folks from Writers and Editors Network (WEN), a group to which I belong, asked me to give the workshop. Though it’s hardly as terrifying as skydiving, I must admit that I had serious reservations when I was first approached. It wasn’t that I was afraid I couldn’t come up with enough material; it was simply the old fear of public speaking rearing its head. But as I’ve become immersed in preparing, a remarkable thing has happened: the terrified introvert within me, which normally looms so large, has dwindled, and my reservations have been replaced by excitement. That’s what happens when you enjoy what you do for a living and are eager to share what you’ve learned over the years.

So what are we going to do for two hours? The title of the workshop is Working with Editors: What Writers Need to Know. We’ll be exploring a number of topics, including how editing makes your manuscript more publishable, finding editors and choosing the best one for you, how editors charge, understanding the different types of editing and what they involve, determining what sort of editing your manuscript needs, and developing self-editing skills to save you time and money. Writers will develop a real understanding of the process of working with an editor, will learn to speak the language of editors, and will walk away knowing much more about how editors can help them create their best possible work. It promises to be a fun, interactive morning!

If you live in the Toronto area, I’d love you to come out. Here are all the pertinent details:

Working with Editors: What Writers Need to Know

A Writers and Editors Network (WEN) workshop presented by Caroline Kaiser

Saturday, April 27th, 10:00 a.m. to noon

Metro Hall, 55 John Street, Toronto, Room 304

$10 for WEN members, $20 for non-members

Preregistration is required by contacting mcappa@rogers.com. Prepayment is also required. Please send cheques to WEN, c/o Maurus Cappa, 251 McKee Avenue, Toronto, On, M2N 4E2.

Bring your red pen and your curiosity. Hope to see you there!