Sandra Ruttan

Writing Pearls in Mud

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Sep 162013

 Last night, I watched what is arguably the best film of the year, and undoubtedly one of the best films I’ve seen in several years.

 Ask Brian, and he’ll tell you how picky I am about movies, so this isn’t faint praise. I’ve had a tendency to refer writers to elements of TV shows for examples of different writing techniques, or to learn about character development, back story or plot execution. Now, I’ll be referring them to Mud.

 Here are some quick things you can learn about from watching Mud:

 1. The action of the story can originate in character. In reality, it should feel like the characters are acting naturally. Too often, I read works where it feels as though the characters are being forced to do something they wouldn’t really do, in order to serve the plot, because the plot isn’t evolving organically to encompass the actions of the characters. This story starts because two boys are curious. And willing to break the rules. Everything that follows feels organic, because the story follows the responses of the characters to the events unfolding.

 2. Natural curiosity should be exploited. There isn’t anything unbelievable about the idea of two boys breaking a few rules to check up on a rumor about a boat in a tree. The movie flows from there, but that natural curiosity that fits with their ages contributes to other events throughout the movie, and without utilizing that natural developmental component of characters their age, the movie wouldn’t have had the same outcome. When it comes to relationships, it would feel unnatural if the boys weren’t curious. The writer has used natural curiosity to add motivation for the characters.

 3. The setting should compliment the story. The story of Mud couldn’t happen just anywhere, and because the setting works to support the story, it’s almost a character in the story. Some stories aren’t location-bound, but this one is, and this is an excellent example of how the setting contributes to the evolution of the story.

 4. Characters need motivation. They need a believable reason to do what they do. I don’t mean ‘believable’ in terms of factually accurate. We need to believe the actions and reactions of the character fit the character.

 5. Character arcs should impact the outcome of the story. When the arcs of the characters intersect effectively, the actions of one character can prompt reactions from the other characters that will advance the plot.

 6. There are usually more characters in your story than just your protagonists. When those characters are on the screen or on the page, they should be interacting in such a way that reveals character, provides obstacles to achieving the desired outcome of the story, or providing information that helps resolve issues within the story.

 7. It takes a punch in the nose to grab the audience and it takes an occasional slap on the face to keep it. This doesn’t necessarily mean big action. In the case of Mud, the audience is quickly asking themselves questions. Where are they going? Why are they going there? As those questions are answered, they begin to ask more questions. How did the boat get in the tree? Then, more importantly, another question arises. Who’s living in the boat? More questions follow. Why is he living in the boat? Who is he? Is he telling the truth?

 8. Coincidence can be believable, given the right variables. In this case, it’s a small, closed environment, and given the nature of the local area, the idea that most people know each other is believable. Do your job, and the connections won’t feel far-fetched, but earned.

 9. If you establish the history of a character, you can connect it to your ending. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. Watch Mud. See how even a minor character like Galen fits neatly into the narrative, contributing to the revelations in the end of the movie.

 10. If you know your characters and your plot, you know when to change POV. Very little of this story is told from Mud’s POV, but that contributes to the sense of doubt, curiosity and mystery surrounding him. We’re given just what we need to satisfy, when needed, and the scenes pack an extra punch because of it.

Brian tells me there’s Oscar buzz around this movie already. I don’t really know anything about that, but I think it would be tragic if it didn’t earn a nod for the writing.  There’s so much more I haven’t even touched on; the use of subtext, opposing character arcs, etc.  Mud is a movie that’s packed full of writing pearls, just waiting for you.

It feels odd to even try to reduce this movie into advice. The best advice I can give you is to watch it. Then watch it again, and look at the mechanics of the story development and the character arcs. I would be inclined to say that any writing student of mine who hasn’t got a few hours to watch this movie and analyze the structure of the story and character arcs isn’t serious about learning the fundamentals of craft, regardless of genre.

Never Underestimate Your Audience

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Aug 062012

We’ve been watching Heroes with the kids.    I’ve never seen beyond season 1, and we’re almost at the end of the first season now, so all I know of the show is limited.

However, as we were watching the last episode we saw together, Patrick asked a question.

“If Peter can regenerate how come he has a scar?”

As it turns out, this had been the subject of online debate and discussion long before our viewing with the kids, but I’m not really concerned with the answer at this point.  What stood out in my mind is the simple truth that if you don’t maintain your own internal consistency, or explain a significant change, the audience disengages from the story.  It loses some of the intrigue and adoration of fans when they’re pulled out of the story and legitimately think the writer has made a mistake.

I think, if you’ve been reading everyone’s posts on The Dark Knight Rises, some might argue that the final installment of the trilogy lost the plot.  I didn’t see it that way, but it took seeing the movie a second time to be able to fully explain why.  There was one critical detail near the end I hadn’t really processed the first time around, but it made the end make sense to me.  I take no conclusion as absolute – not that Bruce wouldn’t return, not that “Robin” wasn’t about the become the next Batman – and so I’m not as bothered by the ending as some have been.  In fact, I liked it, and the audience in two packed theaters both times I saw the movie cheered. 

They were certainly satisfied.

That said, I think it’s often easier to have the audience overlook character consistency and some plot holes in movies, and to a lesser extent, on TV.  In books, readers are far more likely to skim back and double-check.

My advice to writers is simple.  Don’t underestimate your audience – we have a ten-year-old and eleven-year-old critiquing book and TV stories in this house, and no, just because they’re kids doesn’t mean they’ll read anything and think it’s okay.  If they think it’s crap, they’ll tell us why.  That’s how a huge fan of The Hunger Games ended up giving up on the third book in the series.  It didn’t hold up.

The other tip I have is to know what the core of your story is.  If you do, it makes it harder to lose the plot… If an 11-year-old can notice when it doesn’t hold together and make sense just imagine what an editor or agent will say if your story doesn’t stand up against its own established internal truths.

Starting Points

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Jul 022012

Last month, I shared that on the first Monday of the month, I would share writing (and publishing) advice to those with specific questions. I’ve been privately tutoring writers for some time, and I’m familiar with just how wide the range of questions can be. With that in mind, I picked what should seem like a simple topic to kick off this monthly feature.

Where do I start? This is a question that could apply to so many things, and I’m going to break it down into some main subcategories, referencing things I’ve been told or asked.  

Ideas You have to tell me what to write about.

No, I do not. A lot of people tell me they want to be a writer but don’t know what to write about. To put it bluntly, it’s nobody’s job to tell you what to write about. Not even your college professor if you’re in a MFA course, or your spouse, or your writing group, or anyone else.

I’m amazed by the number of people who want to be freelance writers, but say they need someone to tell them what to write about because they can’t think of anything. Ideas are everywhere. If you can’t come up with ideas on your own, you aren’t meant to be an author. You could be a ghost writer. You aren’t meant to be a freelance writer, although it’s possible you could work as a journalist.

That said, journalists need a nose for news and the ability to see a story without nobody telling them, “Go write about this.” If you’re starting out writing, and feel it’s something you want to do, you should be able to come up with your own ideas. Read the newspaper, look at people around you, let your mind create scenarios.

Coming up with an idea isn’t hard, but it is critical. A lot of writers think that writing is easy, and all they need is the next million dollar idea, and they’ll be rich; typing it out is the easy part. Anyone who thinks that way is in for a rude awakening. Writing is work, and it’s harder than people realize. It’s your love for idea, your passion for the story you want to tell, that will sustain you when you hit a wall, when you don’t feel motivated, and when the entire plot shifts sideways on you and you have no idea where to go next.  

For Love or Money? Another starting point for aspiring writers involves establishing your motivations. Be honest with yourself. If you have an idea and want to develop it, the love of the idea is going to motivate you, and your motivation for writing (at least at this point) is clear.

A lot of people say they don’t care if they make money, or if they’re traditionally published. Most of those people are lying. Most secretly want to complete the story they’re in love with, have someone in the publishing industry fall in love with it, and be able to walk into stores a few months later and see their book on store shelves. If you’re in love with the idea and proclaiming it’s all about the art but secretly want to see your book traditionally published, then you need to at least be secretly realistic enough to research the publishing industry.

Figure out the genre, or subgenre, and find editors who champion those types of stories. Make sure you fit their guidelines and tailor your story to a workable form so that it can be published. If they only take manuscripts up to 70,000 words, don’t send them 100,000.

 If you want to be a successful author, make enough money to quit the day job and write full-time, then you need to learn the business of publishing. You’d be well advised to spend as much time learning about the industry as you invest in the craft of writing. Go to conventions and conferences, meet authors and agents, and humble yourself enough to assume you don’t know everything and actually listen to everything they’re willing to tell you.

And then, get it right. Easier said than done, but that’s a whole other blog post. However, I couldn’t resist sharing this photo. Some idiot actually put this in print, and reproduced it on thousands of calendars. They may be nameless. I can’t publicly humiliate them, or I would.

Sound cruel? As a Canadian, I’m totally offended at such an appalling error. It would be the equivalent of Canadian stores selling calendars that marked July 5 as Independence Day. What does that have to do with writing? If you make a factual mistake, be prepared to own it.

There are days I feel like I’ve heard it all. Getting it right doesn’t matter because this is my art. Fine. Then I don’t need to pay for it, compliment you, or indulge you. The writers I respect treat this like a business, they act professionally, they invest time in research, and they work hard to produce clean material. Anyone who wants to be published, particularly anyone who wants to have a traditional publisher, needs to treat their writing seriously and recognize that it’s their job to get their material right. God bless the editors who take error-ridden material they’ll edit, and the typesetters who have time to fix things when files are completely messed up. Bless ’em, but don’t count on them.

For every author who’ll see their book published this year, there are thousands who received rejection letters. If you seriously want to know where to start, writing is as much about acting like a professional and presenting the best possible material to publishers as it is about telling a story.

Submitting your manuscript is like going on a first date. If you showed up at my door with ripped, dirty clothes, bloodshot eyes and a green hue to your skin from the hangover you haven’t quite shaken off yet, breath smelling like stale beer and a cigarette hanging from your fingers, the first date would have been the last before it even happened. As a writer, submitting your manuscript is like wooing an editor. You’ll have a much better chance of winning their love if you show you’ve made an effort to get to know what they like, and give them exactly what they’re looking for.  

Have something specific you want me to tackle next time? The comments are open.

Trusting The Source

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Jun 042012

By Sandra Ruttan

I tutor post-secondary writing students in diploma programs. Recently, a student asked me about my experiences as a debut author. I started thinking about what it was like, how I felt, how things worked…

Or didn’t work. It took me several days to compile a cohesive response that didn’t recount the entire history and drama of that event. As I was trying to figure out what to say, and what not to say at this point, one of the things I kept going back to in my mind was the wealth of bad advice that’s available online. The blind leading the blind, and how often people stay silent and stand by and watch others make disastrous mistakes.

That’s part of the reason I tutor. I have a chance to help people avoid the pitfalls and navigate the terrain successfully. I actually have a chance to help make a difference that can help someone be successfully published. I guess I’ve always been one of those people that thinks you should do for others what you would have wanted people to do for you. Sometimes, my faith falters, but generally speaking, I’m a stickler that way.

I think that’s why I don’t get along with a lot of people. I had a recent conversation with someone about a clear abuse situation with an individual, but the witness wouldn’t pick up the phone and report it. They didn’t want to get involved. I saw that when I worked in the schools. I’ve seen it in daycares and preschools. It’s just so damned easy to sit back and do nothing. We wonder why the world is the way it is. All it takes is one apathetic individual after another doing nothing for nothing to change.

Then people bitch about all the ignorant aspiring writers out there, doing stupid things… And it seems to be equally easy in the writing world is to spout bad advice, to disregard the possibility of your influence and mislead people, either because some people genuinely don’t think about how bad the advice they’re shelling out is, because they’re wannabes themselves, or they just don’t care.

 I’ve always weighed the tone of discussion lists and forums, and as long as the general good advice outweighed the occasional insanity, felt that as long as the list was recommended with the caveat that you source the suggestions, and know your sources are reliable, that they could be more helpful than hurtful. I made a decision recently to stop recommending to students that they join certain forums or discussion lists. I’ve gotten pretty good at just walking away from a useless conversation with idiots spouting idiocy… but I’ve found that when the sites involved are ones I’ve recommended in the past, I have less tolerance for it. Undoubtedly, someone will come back to me citing horrific advice from some unknown nobody on the site who’s never had anything published, and I’ve got to try to undo the damage.

Now, I could have turned this into an extended rant about something recently that did totally piss me off. However, that’s not what I’m concerned with. What I really got thinking about was why it was so easy for people to follow bad advice. And I finally realized, as I was typing up a response to a student’s question, the answer. Because in the early days, it’s just the writing. Correction. It isn’t even the writing, it’s the storytelling. Aspiring writers are often just in love with the idea of writing. They don’t think about the mechanics of publication, and why different things matter. I certainly didn’t when I signed my first deal. Commas? Paragraphs? Formatting? Distribution networks? Print on demand? Retailer discounts? Why would I be thinking about any of those things?

Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones. You’ll get a good agent early on. You’ll get a fair deal and have generally positive experiences in publishing, and have no reason to really learn the nitty gritty, or come to a point of regret where you wish you hadn’t signed your deal.

Maybe. But it’s more likely that you’ll be one of the ones that experiences the ups and downs of publishing, to greater or lesser degrees, and finds yourself wishing you’d known more about the business before you you realized you were off course.

Early on in my writing ventures, I got into a spat with an author who’d had a few books published, with limited distribution. Not someone who was ever going to top the bestseller lists, and only had a few titles, but a known name in blogging circles and on discussion lists. The person told me I didn’t know enough about the business of publishing. At the time, I suggested if they thought I had things to learn, why not tell me? The response was that they’d tried guiding new authors before, and new authors just don’t listen. Now, at the time, I looked at the fact that this information was coming from someone who had three books that had been published, and behind the scenes had a pretty bad reputation, and blew them off. It was easy to justify, since they made it clear they weren’t going to waste their time on me anyway.

I was wrong. So were they, but I’ve come to understand their position. I did need to know more. I was definitely frustrated by people like that one, who held their knowledge close and rubbed your lack of access to it in your face. I now understand the other side of the coin. I understand making the effort to try to be informative and helpful instead of counterproductive to people’s writing. And I know what it’s like to be ignored.

What I’ve learned is to move on. I’m not sticking around on sites that have an unending chorus of stupidity that dominates the discussion. I’m not banging my head against a wall or losing sleep about anyone who ignores sound advice (be it from me or anyone else). But once a month, I’ll throw things open here to answer questions. Got one? Leave it in the comments.

First Monday of the month I’ll tackle publishing-related questions, and if I can’t answer them, I’ll try to find someone who can. This gives everyone a fair shot to get insight on issues of importance to them. Take it or leave it – I won’t lose any sleep over that either. I had to learn a lot of things the hard way. I’m doing this because the number of forums and discussion lists that I’ll recommend has shrunk to nothing, and the blogging world isn’t what it once was, although there are still a few blogs I recommend. If you do know great sites/lists, drop the recommendation in the comments. Otherwise, drop in your questions, and I’ll see you in a few weeks.

Amateurs Need Not Apply: Being a professional writer

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Mar 192012

In January, Nick Mamatas wrote about advice people should stop giving to writers, and #1 on the list was a kick in the gut to many.

1. Don’t Give Up
Consider your audience. Who are you telling not to give up? The illiterates, the douchebags, the certifiable graphomanics, the people who think watching a movie is the same as reading a book? Some people should give up. Most people should give up. Find out whether someone has any potential first before arbitrarily telling someone to waste years of their lives, and worse, moments of the lives of editors who have to look at their nonsense.

I agree with some of Nick’s points wholeheartedly. Other points, I can only agree with within a certain context. Initially, I thought about responding to some of the points I didn’t completely see eye to eye on, but over time, I realized that the real issue with advice to writers is that it often lacks common sense. Nick’s first point underscores that. Why are people running around, telling aspiring writers to follow their dream, to fight the good fight, to not give up, when they often haven’t read anything the person’s written? I think it’s often because we don’t want anyone to burst our bubble or tell us that our dream is just that, and will never be reality.

Look at the faces of all those people on American Idol who get told they’d be better off sticking with flipping burgers. Who would want to be responsible for making someone feel that way?

And yet it’s often an inherent unwillingness to be honest with people, to tell them the harsh truth when necessary, that keeps people from correcting mistakes, from learning, from improving when possible and from switching gears when it makes sense.

The intent of this post isn’t even to focus on aspiring authors and whether or not they should pursue their writing dream. I’m just going to give a few tips to avoid burning bridges.

#1. Write clean. If you’re going to write a cover letter, write sentences. Spell the words properly. Be appropriate with the content. If you can’t write a cover letter properly, chances are I won’t be reading your story. No, it ISN’T my job to read whatever you send me, and read all of it, and see the genius through all your mistakes. It’s YOUR job to demonstrate that you take your writing seriously enough to convince me I should publish your story, instead of another submission. Or, in our case, instead of dozens of other submissions.

#2. Did I mention that you should be appropriate in your communication, and with your content? Guys, stop sending your photos to my author email account. I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE. That will not change whether I like your story or not, or publish your story or not. And I’m married, so not only is what you look like NOT relevant, this is really inappropriate.

#3. Don’t argue with an editor over a rejection. Everybody gets rejections. Telling the editor they’re wrong and you’ll show them is only going to ensure you’re remembered for all the wrong reasons. Be polite, even if you’re silently calling them a $@!%head.

For heaven’s sake, people, the writing world is a small world, especially within genre fiction. Editors change publishers all the time. And we talk.

#4. Follow through on your contracts unless you have legal or legitimate grounds not to. If your story is accepted for publication, and an editor takes time to edit the story with you, and it’s about to be published, and you’ve even provided a release selling the rights to the story for publication, do not pull the story from publication so that you can enter your edited-for-free story in some writing contest. Maybe some editor won’t care that you wasted their time. I mean, there might be one in the known universe someone. But it’s more likely that your name will go straight to the top of their shitlist. (And yes, Spinetingler has one. We have a manure file.)

(I’m not saying this applies when you haven’t signed a release or been edited. If a publication has been sitting on your story for months with no word, you have the right to follow up on it, and even to withdraw it. Just understand reasonable timelines. It’s not uncommon for work to sit for a year before publication. Don’t email someone a month after you’ve submitted a story and flip out on them because you haven’t heard anything. If your story was accepted but you haven’t done a contract or edits or heard anything for ten months, you should definitely follow up with them.)

#5. If you sold your story and it was published, accept that fact. Say you sold your story to a magazine, anthology or ezine. You provided a release agreeing to terms. You received payment for your story.

YOU DON’T GET TO ‘UNPUBLISH’ IT AND GIVE IT AS AN EXCLUSIVE TO ANOTHER PUBLISHER. It’s not an exclusive. It’s been published. It’s been read. YOU WERE PAID. Do I really have to explain this?

And why the hell aren’t you celebrating your publication, and mentioning your publication credits?

#6. Even if something that was published is out of print, or off the internet now, it was still published. That means that if someone reviewed your work and wasn’t favorable, and you subsequently badger the publisher to remove the story, that doesn’t mean the reviewer will take their review down. It doesn’t mean it’s an unpublished story that you can submit as a new story to a publisher, either. And if you’re such an idiot that you use publication online as a means of editing, suck it up. You put your mistakes out there for the world to see, and the only person in the world who’s likely to think sunshine springs from your arse is your mother.

You can’t ask people only to like you, and not expect an honest response from them. It doesn’t work that way. You have the right to dislike a book or a movie or a short story or a play or a song or TV show. Other people have the same right.

People, this is why when you start to be published you learn to critique the work and not the person. If someone gets personal and dirty with you, being upset is understandable. If someone doesn’t like your story, learn to deal with it. The world is a big place. There are people who don’t like Harry Potter, either, and JK Rowling did just fine with her sales.

#6. Respect people’s time. Wasting the time of editors or agents is never a good idea. Time is money. Every person out there has obligations. Don’t impose on people and assume they have all the time in the world to give to you. Don’t waste people’s time. This connects to #4 and #5.

#7. Follow the submission guidelines.

The next person who emails me to tell me their story isn’t formatted properly, who submitted it without formatting it according to our guidelines because they thought they were such hot $!@& that the guidelines didn’t apply to them, because they’re special, will have their emailed author photo that was sent to my personal email printed and tacked dead center in our dart board.

#8. Make the most of every opportunity. Every person you’re in contact with is a potential contact. Every encounter with them contributes to your reputation. If you have a bad reputation, you’ll miss out on some opportunities. It’s even possible you’ll miss out on a lot of opportunities.

#9. Be careful about publicly criticizing publications. Don’t look down your nose at any legitimate publication venue. I remember when people told me being published online wasn’t really being published. Then, I was told Spinetingler wasn’t a real publication. Spinetingler is MWA-approved and what we publish can be submitted for the Edgars. Not really published my ass. And we pay.

I’m sure there’s a lot more I could say, but there comes a point where people stop processing it. However, under all of these tips, there’s a fundamental principle at work, and if it’s the foundation of your behavior as a writer, you’ll be fine. Be professional. Treat your writing professionally, and treat all your communications professionally.

On a personal note, I’ve realized I can eventually overlook or forgive most things, especially if a mistake is made by a new writer who’s still learning the ropes. However, there’s one thing that’s unforgivable, and it ties to this final tip:

#10. Be willing to learn. Especially when you’re starting out, at least try pretending to be humble. If you respond as though you know it all, it’s a sure sign you don’t. The smartest people in this business take advice, process it, and then decide if it’s good or bad. The dumbest ignore everything because they already know it all.

And I’ll tell you right out that if you aren’t willing to learn, there isn’t a thing I can do to help you.

In the end, every writer sinks or swims based on what they put on the page. There’s no amount of good advice in the world that will help you if you won’t listen to it.

There might be some who read this and think I’m a real bitch. I’m mean.

This is my personal time. This is when I could be writing my own work, or playing pool with my husband or walking the dog. I’ve chosen to take the time today to give some blunt, practical advice, so that the people who really do want to succeed and are willing to learn will hopefully avoid making a few mistakes along the way.

If all you come away with after reading this is that taking my personal time to provide some common sense suggestions for aspiring authors makes you think I’m mean, well, there probably isn’t anything you ever need to hear from me anyway.

Why Your Debut Novel Shouldn’t Be Self Published

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Feb 132012

What sustains writers in the start is the naivety that allows them to believe their work is brilliant and their story must be told, against all obstacles.

What sustains the career of an author is the ability to swallow your pride, identify and learn from past mistakes and grow as a writer.

I’ve had to think about this a lot lately, for a number of reasons. For one, I’ve worked with a lot of aspiring writers, and sometimes, they’ve still got the blinders on. They can’t see through their love of the ideas and their own words to correct common mistakes. Another reason is that I recently re-read my debut novel, to format it for trade paperback publication.

Suspicious Circumstances was not self-published, yet the re-read was a critical learning experience. I’ve talked to authors who go over their books with a red pen after they received the published copy.

Serious writers understand that, considering the volume of words in a novel, mistakes can slip past us all. Professional writers also understand, as I’ve learned over the years, that sometimes the mistakes come in after you’ve finished with your part of the editing process. Barry Eisler is a serious writer who makes every effort to get his books right. He takes corrections so seriously that he has a whole section on his website devoted to explaining mistakes. Personally, I think that’s commendable, and realistic. Authors who try to pretend they never slip up will probably continue to make mistake after mistake, because they’re unteachable. In Barry’s case, I do recall questioning a point of confusion in my review of The Last Assassin. On his website, he explains:

Four times on pages 22-23 of The Last Assassin, Delilah thinks of her first love, a man called Dov, but the text says Dox. A proofreader screwed this one up after I’d signed off on the final pages. It’s fixed in subsequent printings.

Yes, sometimes the author isn’t responsible for the mistake. It’s not uncommon for people to try to squeeze things in, change a word that they think is wrong (and as a result, as in the above case, become responsible for a mistake that affected thousands of printed copies). And yes, there have been times when I’ve read something of mine that’s been published, and checked against my files, and realized something was changed after I’d signed off on it, making a mistake in some cases, or making the text more confusing.

At the end of the day, the author stands or falls, and this is why having the best team of professionals behind your book – particularly your debut – is critical. Typically, the greatest part of the learning experience for writers is over the course of the first few books they write and publish.

And part of that learning experience happens when you work with an editor who can identify weaknesses in your writing style and text and help you improve.

I did not start out as a self-published author, but I did have such a small press, it no longer exists, and inexperienced editors. In particular, they lacked genre experience necessary to help shape the story into the best story for the genre audience. They were okay with a story being over-told. On my own, with guidance from another author as a major motivator, I cut over 20,000 words from the text.

Did I cut too much? Not enough?

I also learned a lot from the review process after publication. I learned what worked for readers, and what didn’t.

The entire process was a learning experience, and remains such.

In re-reading Suspicious Circumstances, I came to a lot of conclusions. One is that I’m glad that I can look back and identify weaker spots in my writing that I know I’ve improved since. I may wince a bit when I read SC, but it isn’t necessarily because what I did was bad or wrong. I can just see how my own writing has matured.

I can see that Lara was a bit more smart-mouthed than I really thought of her being. And I can see how my use of past tense and present tense was one of my critical weaknesses.

As I reviewed the master files, I realized that in some, the issues had already been addressed, but in the print file I needed to use for the trade paperback version, there were mistakes that hadn’t been corrected.

Since all these files were made from the same Master that came back from the publisher, I don’t know how that happened, but it did, and at the end of the day, I take the credit or the blame for what went right and what went wrong.

I’m my own worst critic. I can look back on just about anything I’ve written and consider a different way to say what I wanted to say.

Part of being a professional writer is knowing when what you’re working on is a mistake you need to keep revising, and knowing when what you’re tinkering with is subjective, and you need to let go.

In the end, re-reading Suspicious Circumstances was ultimately reassuring. I was afraid it would be humiliating. I liked the characters, I liked their development, and I believed in them. I’d started that manuscript with only a few specific goals.

1. To finish a manuscript.
2. To see if I could make a book about the kind of people who really could live next door, that would be interesting to readers.

Literally thousands of readers later, I can say I succeeded with both goals.

My goal each time I go back to my computer to work on a project is to write a better book, to tell a more compelling story, to try to stretch myself as a writer and grow, and I don’t think I would have grown at the pace I did if I hadn’t worked with a number of editors from book two on, who not only pushed me to do my best, but explained things to me about story development, character development, dialogue, etc.

I didn’t get to book 5 on my own. The writer I am is the result of years of good teachers, who actually did teach grammar in school, a school system that rewarded students for perfect spelling, English teachers who weren’t willing to say that better than everyone else was good enough, but pushed me to do my very best. Thanks Mr. Denomy – I may have been frustrated by you in grade 11 but when I got As in your class in grade 13, I knew just how much I’d improved.

Yes, I’ve made mistakes. That isn’t a news flash. Nor is it a reason to ignore an assessment by me if I’m asked for a critique. It’s because of the mistakes I’ve made along the way, and learned from, that I can give constructive guidance to writers who don’t know what mistakes they’re making, or how to improve. I’ve heard authors talk about their first book being a fluke, they didn’t know what they were doing with it and it turned out to be a success, and they go on to try to write a second book with the fear that they won’t be able to match that first book. It’s why some authors talk about the ‘sophomore slump’. Some don’t even know what genre they’ve written in and then find out about reader expectations and try to juggle those pressures along with the demands of writing another novel, knowing that you have editors and readers waiting to see if your efforts will measure up.

The best writers know they still have things to learn, and continue to push themselves. The best aspiring authors don’t put the cart ahead of the horse, and seek guidance from people who are going to push them to tell the best story they can.

Nobody wants the first impression they make as an author to derail their career. The end of your first book needs to sell your next book.

I said that I’d been thinking about this recently, for a lot of reasons. One is the writers I work with. Another was my own experience of going back to the beginning. And another was seeing a writer posting about another round of corrections they were making on their self published title after readers had contacted them about mistakes.

At least they were fixing them, but we should all be trying to ensure when our work is available to purchase that it’s worth paying for. I had this happen as a reviewer once. I was offered a review copy. After I’d started, I received an email from the author, stating that due to comments received from reviewers they’d re-written the first chapter and attached it to the email and wanted me to print it and consider it with the rest of the book instead.

I stopped reading and didn’t review the book. I wasn’t asked to edit it for free. I was asked to review the printed review copy I was given, and I was annoyed.

Readers are going to be even more annoyed if they pay for a book that has a lot of issues. That doesn’t even mean 1 star reviews on Amazon are a fair indicator that the book is bad. Some readers are impossible, and sometimes it’s a question of taste.

But what you put out under your name reflects on you. Even as an author, I know – and other author’s know – what it is to discover mistakes that weren’t yours that ended up in your text, so this isn’t about perfection.

It’s about making it as good as it possibly can be and not getting ahead of yourself. In the early days, we’re too close to our work to see through it clearly, and the temptation with the ease of self-publishing today is to press ‘publish’ before the work has been finished.

Surround yourself not with cheerleaders but with motivators who want to see you reach your potential as a writer, and put the time and work in before you make your work available to the world. Yes, work. Writing can be a hobby, writing well can be a talent, but if you’re writing to be published and expect people to pay for the privilege, you have a job to do, and you need to take it seriously if you want people to invest in your career, not just buy one flawed book that will turn them off forever.