Category Archives: Says the Editor

Says the Editor: Respect The Reader

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I had picked up a book while it was on sale. No big deal; I do it all the time when the book sounds good. As a single parent who runs a microbusiness and has a mortgage and one college tuition staring her in the face, plus needs a second car and to fund a second college tuition, these sales — and I’ll admit it, the freebies — are a gift.

Yes, I leave reviews to say thanks. I suggest the really good ones to my friends, too. Why do you ask?

But this isn’t about the debate over free and sale books, and it’s not about the need to leave reviews. It’s about the responsibility of the author and/or publisher to respect the reader.

Now, this book had a number of big red flags. In the first four percent, we learned twice, in depth, about the main character’s need for anonymous sex. We spent a couple pages of info dump about the other main characters. And there was no clear opening to the book; I could have sliced off the entire four percent and the book would have been better for it.

So… already, it’s suffering from poor editing. Not a good sign.

And then, the grammar. And there’s a difference between uneducated — lots of him and me went together to that place — and sloppy.

I get that lie/lay is a hard construction. I still struggle with it, and I’ve been editing for HOW many years now? (The answer: about as long as my son’s ultimate coach has been alive.) But I’ve learned, because that’s what an editor does. She learns and grows and gets better at her craft.

Just like writers are supposed to.

So we had rough grammar, which didn’t completely complement the author’s voice and stuck out and made me wince. We had grammatical errors.

Clearly, no professional editor worth their salt was involved with this book.

But when I got to the place where a zero was used in place of the letter O, I was done. Now you’ve crossed the line from ignorance, which can be fixed, to a refusal to respect the reader.

Respect your reader.

At this point, it’s not even about editing. It’s about respect. It really is. Because if you can’t be bothered to at least run spell check to make sure something this massive hasn’t crept in, what else can’t you be bothered to do? Learn the craft of writing? Put your best effort on the page? Care about your project, your consumer, your future career?

It’s about respect. Respect the reader. Bring your best. Every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every word. Even if you can’t afford a professional editor, you owe it to yourself and your reader to run spell check and make absolutely certain that you’re not going to leave in an error that shows you don’t care about the product you are selling. There’s a difference between him and me stood there and stared and thr23 people approached. What does that last even say? How many people are involved in this approach?

If you can’t respect the reader, maybe you shouldn’t be publishing.

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Says the Editor: The Hard Work

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Been doing a ton of samples lately. Prospective clients. Summer approaches.

Noticed a trend. Big one.

Sending a lot of samples back with message: “I can work on this now, but I think your money’s more wisely spent if you take some time and fix these sentence fragments. If you’re stuck and need help, let’s talk about a pricing structure and coaching sessions that’ll help you improve this area of your craft.”

I don’t know where this trend is coming from, what’s fueling it. If authors are in such a rush that they aren’t paying attention to the simple formation of a sentence (and really, there’s rarely anything truly simple about a sentence). If their beta readers or critique groups or partners aren’t calling them out on this, whether from expediency or because they think it’s not their job (it is), or from simple ignorance of what constitutes good writing.

I can come up with a million reasons for why this is happening.

Ultimately, I don’t care what those reasons are, to be honest.

I want to see good writing crossing my desk. The kind that the author has worked on, paid close attention to, done his/her/their absolute best by, and then they’ve taken the time to learn some more, rolled their sleeves back up, and went deep yet again.

It’s not because I’m a snob. That I only want to work with the best. That’s not it at all.

Far from it. Some of my favorite clients are the ones who bring me a rough manuscript and then, as we work together, their craft improves. They do the hard work, and their pages reflect that, and the story reflects that, and then their readership reflects it, too.

Do you see the key? Have you picked up on what I’m stressing here?

Doing the hard work. Learning the craft. Doing the hard work.

Doing.

The.

Hard.

Work.

That means writing in full sentences. Sentences are powerful things, but if you cut them off at the knees, if you truncate them, you’re taking their power away. And in a novel, sentences are all you’ve got. They are the everything. The only thing more important are the words, themselves, that make up those sentences.

So yes. I’m trying to give these authors choices. I’m trying to save them some money — editing isn’t cheap, and I am a not cheap editor within the field. If you want to work together in a coaching situation, I’m more than glad to. Not because it’s lucrative for me, but because it’s important that you learn these skills, especially the basic ones. And because as you master them, your money is better spent when my editor’s eye can turn from the basics of writing to the more nuanced use of words and other elements of fiction: Plot. Setting. Pacing. Characterization. And the detail work, the timeline, the grammar, the echo words, your character’s eye color, the unusual spelling of your main character’s father’s name…

Slow down. Take your time. Don’t rush to publication; that never goes well.

Do the hard work. Work on your craft.

But if you need help, ask for THAT. Don’t pay me for an edit in which I have to call out 75% of your manuscript because the sentence fragments don’t work, even stylisticly. It’s a poor use of your money and a poor use of my time.

Do the hard work.

If you need help understanding how/why sentence fragments are a problem, ask. I’ll answer. I’m glad to work with you and teach you how to spot them, how to remove them, how to write better prose that readers will love.

Do the hard work.

Good luck.

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Says the Editor: Half the Story

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So here’s the scenario, ripped right out of my own life.

Student goes to the head chef at dining services. Asks if the dining staff will be making Kosher for Passover food next week.

He says no.

Doesn’t say anything else.

The student is, not surprisingly, upset. How can the dining hall not honor one of the major religion’s major holidays?

It’s a valid question. And a lot of people, especially the parents, quickly become upset.

But a little bit of digging reveals the answer: the chefs won’t be cooking Kosher for Passover food because the university is having it catered off-campus and brought in.

The chefs had been truthful. But they’d only had part of the truth.

So what’s this got to do with fiction?

Think about it. Think about how characters routinely ever learn only part of the whole picture. This is what fuels Big Secret plots, for instance, where part of the obstacles facing the characters’ relationship is what isn’t said.

Think about how withholding part of the truth can influence the direction a mystery takes.

You with me?

Take a look at your WIP. Are your characters being TOO forthcoming? Are they holding too much back? How does what each character chooses to say — or NOT say — influence and affect the plot?

It seems simple, but… it’s not. We authors often have impulses to tell what we’ve shown, and sometimes, we let that spill into the words that tumble out of our characters’ mouths. On the flip side, we think our characters are being oh, so clever when we have them withhold certain stuff. But are we doing justice to our fiction when we do either?

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#SaysTheEditor Why Isn’t Hell Proper?

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So I’m reading a book. It’s a good book. It’s a crazy book, actually, full of slapstick comedy and subtle humor and there’s a LOT to like about this book. It turns out to have been the third in a four-book series, and you bet I’m going to go back and find the first two, and then probably the fourth.

It is not a book I edited. It’s one of the approximately 35 I’m going to so-called leisure read. But when you’re wired the way I am, leisure is an odd choice of words.

And that’s the problem with this book. I’d recommend it in a heartbeat. I would. I have been, in the few days since I finished it.

But… I’m wired the way I am.

And in this book, Satan’s a character. And Hell is that place for immortal souls and suffering and all that.

Hell is a place. An actual place.

Now, Disneyland. That’s a place. Mars. That’s a place. Paris. Pittsburgh. Carnegie Music Hall. Buckingham Palace. The Louvre. Miami University of Ohio. Costco.

See anything about all these words? Notice anything at all?

That’s right. You use capital letters at the start of each of them. They are what we call proper nouns. They identify a specific place.

In this novel I was reading, Hell was a specific place.

But not once was Hell capitalized.

Drove me up the freaking wall. Three hundred pages of Hell being an important location in this novel, and never once was it accorded the dignity and propriety it deserves.

Hell is a place. In this use, it’s a proper noun. Give it a capital letter.

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#SaysTheEditor Functional Fitness

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I was reading an article the other day. It said that triceps dips were an exercise no one should do because they aren’t a move replicated in real life, and therefore aren’t functional fitness. And if it ain’t functional fitness, don’t waste your time doing it.

That’s like telling a writer not to write in first person if everything they’ve ever written and published is in third person.

And… I don’t agree with that advice.

First off, I kinda like doing triceps dips. When you do them right, your whole body is being propelled up and down by these three skinny little muscles in your arms, and that’s pretty damn amazing to think about. And when you do them right, they are hard. Really hard.

I don’t know about you, but I like them just for the pure fact of the challenge.

Same for writing. Rise to the challenge. Don’t focus on the outcome.

Push yourself. Try new things. Stretch yourself — physically, mentally, and creatively.

Because when you focus only on the outcome, you limit yourself. You focus on the destination, not the journey. You never get to sit back and smile and tell yourself you’re amazing; that you’ve just done something you’ve never done before, and dammit, you CAN.

Maybe triceps dips really aren’t your thing. That’s okay. Try them anyway. See where the journey takes you.

Same for your writing. Maybe this isn’t directly going to get you published.

What you’re seeking is the indirect.

Go for it.

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#SaysTheEditor It’s December First!

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If you’re a writer, today, the first of December, means one of a few things:

1. Nothing special
2. Something special that has nothing to do with writing
3. A return to social media of a lot of writers you follow
4. A win
5. A loss

If it’s that last one, let’s talk about why it’s a loss.

Did you show up on November 1, intending to write 50,000 words last month? Are you kicking yourself for being a failure because you didn’t hit that 50k mark? Now that it’s December first, is all hope of winning gone?

Be kinder to yourself. You tried.

Yeah, sounds lame to me, too. So let’s talk about the REAL value of National Novel Writing Month — showing up to the page.

Kudos to you if you showed up for thirty days straight. Even if you wrote one word on a few of those days, you showed up. That’s what forms the basis of habits, and now that it’s December, just a generic month in the writing world, you shouldn’t stop. Keep that habit going.

Maybe you burned yourself out during November, struggling for those 50,000 words. You’re probably glad it’s December. If that’s the case, take some time off to recover and come back as soon as you can. Your fictional friends need you.

I remember when NaNo started and they’d tell you to go ahead and write garbage words, include stage directions for yourself – whatever it took to hit that 50,000-word mark. The intent was to show yourself what it would take to write a short novel.

But then NaNo changed, as everything does, and it became about being the month in which you’d draft a book you intended to publish. Hopefully you learned all about the art of revision.

Now, I think the value of NaNo is that it establishes (or RE-establishes) the habit. That practice of showing up every day, of staring at a blank page, of thinking about your characters, their struggles, their growth, the consequences they face.

And if you sat down on November 1, intending to write every day, but you found that because you’re a child, a parent, a friend, a lover, a boss, an employee, a coach, a mentor… a WHATEVER, you can only write on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays… that’s great, too! Make sure you show up on those days. Sit down. Stare at the page. Write at least one word. Two’s better. Ten’s an improvement. So’s eleven.

You get the idea.

Just because it’s December doesn’t mean you need to stop writing for the next eleven months.

Winning, in terms of being a writer, isn’t getting 50,000 verified words written on a page. Winning is showing up and doing the hard work of writing. It’s making a habit of working on your craft.

That said, though, while December tends to be a slow month for editing projects for me, don’t send me your NaNo attempt this year if you haven’t revised it extensively yet. Always send your editor your best work, so that s/he (I!) can give you the best feedback possible. The idea is to get yourself as far along the path as you can, and then bring in the big guns.

Good editing ain’t cheap. Remember that.

But maintaining your writing schedule? Rolling through the bumps that invariably pop up, interrupting your sacred writing time?

That costs you nothing — but will pay off down the road.

Keep writing. THAT is what makes you a winner. Not some random word count that is, to be honest, short for a good novel.

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Says the Editor: Authenticity

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You guys know I love Rock Fiction.

But lately… I have found myself disillusioned. Disgusted. Annoyed. Frustrated.

Because the authors aren’t bothering to do their research. There’s a HUGE difference between a band manager and a tour manager. Massive headlining tours don’t come together in days or weeks. And for crying out loud, know the difference between poetry and the structure of song lyrics. My favorite was the band who slept in their dressing rooms in the arena — umm… WHAT?

There really isn’t any excuse for this lack of research. And sorry, but, “I copied what someone else did,” or “I asked someone on Facebook” isn’t doing research. You need to talk to people who’ve worked in the industry, people with hands-on experience, people who’ve been there and seen it. Make sure what you want to have happen is plausible. If your star is the darling of the moment, can he REALLY take off to the beach and have a bonfire? Won’t there be security issues? No one notices and posts it to social media? He’s not too tired from all the touring, which is hard, exhausting work? If his alcohol problem is really truly that bad, can he spend that time without a bottle or can at hand?

Notice how my issues of authenticity begin to sway away from only the details of the music world.

That’s because, having found a string of errors, the author has broken the contract between us. I can’t trust what the author is presenting.

And therein lies a bigger problem, doesn’t it?

If you, as the author, can’t be authentic and therefore credible in your writing, why should I, as the reader, spend time with your book?

Think about it. A few small details is one thing. But the bigger issues… that’s undermining yourself. Your career. And, unfortunately, it hurts the entire genre or category, too.

If you love something, don’t hurt it. Build it up. Take the time. Do the research yourself. Check the facts. Build your authenticity. Get firsthand knowledge, even if firsthand knowledge means watching YouTube videos that established bands post of their tour busses or finding articles that describe busses that strain believability before you network your way to the people who can confirm and/or deny what you’re seeing.

Put the time in. Because if you don’t, why should I, as a reader, put the time into your book?

Increasingly, that’s the question I’ve been asking myself.

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Says the Editor: A Million Words of WHAT?

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If you’ve followed me for these past 12 years, or if you’ve ever taken the time to wander through my archives, you may get an inkling of one thing about me that I don’t overly try to hide: I live life large. I’ve done all sorts of crazy and not-so-crazy things in my life. Of course, that leaves me with a lot of scars, a lot of painful memories I don’t talk about. Most, I don’t like to revisit. I’ll be honest about that.

Sometimes, something comes out of the buried ether to torture me, amuse me, or give me perspective.

What happened recently was the latter: all about perspective, baby.

It was right after I’d graduated from Pitt with my BA. I was taking graduate-level classes, trying to figure out if grad school was what I wanted or where else I might turn my face to a new path. We were meeting in the professor’s house because, hey, we were grad students and this is what we did. (Come to think of it, all these years later, that was the only time I had class at my professor’s house, which was quite a shame) We were a small group. Diverse, but not in the way you might think. One of Chuck’s favorite students had paid for her undergrad degree as a phone sex worker. Her writing never met my expectations, which was that I wanted to see that she’d lived life large.

Anyway, we were sitting around one night, and I’d put up a few chapters of a novel I was working on. It… got panned. Like really bad. That was the day that Chuck told me he wanted a German satellite to drop on my main character. And as much as it stung, I had to jab my tongue into my cheek — I still remember this moment clearly — and nod and agree. “When you put it like that, so do I,” I told him.

And then Simon spoke up. Simon was a Brit, he was a few years older than most of us, he had long brown hair, and I can’t remember if he had bangs or not. He was both scruffy — a ton of razor stubble, but not in the sexy way men wear it now — and polished. He would sit cross-legged on the floor and when he wanted to speak, he’d straighten out of his slouch and somehow rock on his crossed knees, raising himself up a good six inches. It always reminded me of a cobra, uncoiling from the basket the charmer kept him in. He’d tuck his hair behind his ears. His eyes would sparkle, and he’d weave his torso, purse his lips, move his hands (when they weren’t tucking his hair, which he’d do repeatedly while he waited for a break in the conversation) until he got to speak. We always liked it when Simon spoke; he was smart as hell. I bet if I could remember his last name (which I maybe never even knew, so maybe there’s nothing to remember), I’d discover he’s got a backlist of publications that puts my 15 to shame and he’s probably got some awards on top of all that.

Needless to say, I respected Simon. I was a little scared of him, but I respected him. When he spoke up in workshop, he tended to be right on.

“I believe,” he started cautiously, and I steeled myself, “that all of us writers need to write a million words of crap before we find our writer souls. You’re clearly talented, Susan, but…”

I winced.

“I believe this is part of your million words of crap.”

Ouch. And, like always, he was right.

“You are young,” he continued. “Get your million words of crap out of you. Write as much as you can. All of you,” he said, eyeing the room. “We all need to write as much as we can. Make sure those million words of crap are out of you. I know mine are.”

That was many years ago. I am not sure I believe that all writers have a million words of crap in them. I’ve met too many really good writers who knock it out of the park on their first attempt. (I’ve edited a number of them, too.) And while I agree that the project I was working on at the time was a mere seventy thousand of my million words, I’m not sure I ever hit a million. (Although, of course, there are some who’ll gleefully disagree.)

That memory got dredged up a few weeks ago, and hasn’t left me yet. I was working with a new author who didn’t take kindly to the realities of the editorial process.

But even now, all these years later, Simon’s words and assessment were right on. Even when I’m not consciously aware of it, his words are the basis for my belief that authors have to give ourselves permission to write utter crap for our first draft. Feel out the work. Get to know the characters, the setting, the message. Embrace the million words.

Not everyone can do that. It’s hard to embrace crap. I learned that day in Chuck’s house, sitting one person over from him and with Simon about five more to Chuck’s left. Because the comment about the German satellite, and Simon’s comment about the million words — they weren’t meant to be mean. They were meant to tell a writer to cut her losses and move on to something better. That if I could admit this was bad — which I did, right there, because everyone who’d spoken up had made great points about how and why it was crap — I could let go of the emotional attachment I had to the work and move on to something better.

I know I did, although I don’t remember what that was. It, too, wound up being trashed, stuck on a floppy disc somewhere, maybe a hard copy stuffed away in the cabinets here in my office. (I think I have the one that was so roundly trashed, too.)

The point is that it’s okay to write a million words of crap. It’s okay to write a million words of not crap.

But be a big enough person to realize that writing is a craft and it’s not a waste of an editor’s time to hire him/her/me and ask for help — but you gotta take that help that you’re given. Even when it hurts. Give it time. Go write something else. Live a little bit larger than you had been. And then come back to the page and make it better.

That’s the beauty of writing: for every million words of crap, there’s ten million of good stuff.

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Says the Editor: Righty or Lefty?

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Are you a righty or a lefty? And why does it matter when you write fiction?

I just realized this, as I’m communicating with a client. The sentence was something along the lines of The blast came from one side, causing him to fall over to the other side. (Wow, is that a horrible interpretation of what’s on the page, but you get the idea. I hope.)

Now, yeah, it’d help if we knew which side things came from. Maybe this isn’t an issue of righty or lefty in terms of which is your dominant hand, but maybe it’s an issue of righty or lefty in terms of which side you skew toward. Maybe handedness and eye dominance plays a role. I’m not sure!

So. On the page, I’m envisioning that the blast comes at the character from the left, and s/he falls to the right. I’m also envisioning that the character is right handed.

The question I have for you is twofold:
1. Do you envision it the same way I do?
2. Are you a righty or lefty — both handedness and eye dominance?

Let’s see how this shapes up.

In the meantime, when you’re writing action scenes and things are coming at the characters from the sides, maybe throwing in a left or a right every now and then isn’t a bad idea.

Make note of the every now and then in the above sentence. That’s important, because if you overdo it, you wind up in the realm of information that’s important for you as the author but not so important for us as the reader.

Getting back to Steve, my client whose character got hit from one side, I suggested he change it up to let us know which way the character falls. Thinking more about it, I’d like to know how that fall affects her, too. If she falls toward one side or the other, does it change her reaction, both physical and mental? Does it change the flow of the action scene? The outcome? Would it be different if she were a righty or lefty? And most importantly, how does knowing these few simple details — which is her dominant hand, and which way did she fall — affect how the reader interacts and absorbs what’s happening here? Does it recast their mental picture of the scene? Or does it shore up what they’d envisioned up until they got to that word?

Lots to mine in here, huh?

That’s what you guys pay me the big bucks for. To sit and think these things through, so I can help you enrich your fiction and help paint those mental pictures that readers need.

As always, I’m here when you need me, so never be afraid to speak up.

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Says the Editor: Speech to Text

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Do your hands hurt? Are your wrists too sore to type? Thinking of switching over to a speech to text program?

I have a number of clients who use it now. Personally, I imagine them standing behind a desk, narrating away, pacing as they do and occasionally stopping to frown at the screen. “That wasn’t what I said!” I can hear them thinking. Or saying… as it prints on the screen.

Yes, you can tell I haven’t yet played with speech to text as a writing method. I’m curious about it, though. I’ll admit that.

That’s not what this post is about. Nope. It’s about the need for those of you who do use these programs — and most of you seem to use Dragon, so I’ll just come out and name them, but feel free to leave a comment if you use another one — to make sure you go over your manuscripts carefully. Like all computer programs, it’s not perfect. It’s not great with nuance.

And if I don’t know you’re using it, I’m going to assume — as I did last week — that you’re simply being sloppy and not respectful of either yourself or me. This is never a good thing, for obvious reasons.

I know… you may not always have the time or energy to sit and make sure past didn’t come out as passed. Or that the names in your fantasy novel were interpreted wrong. Or that “excuse me while I kiss the sky” didn’t come out as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

But believe me, while I’m willing to go an extra mile when I know you’re using Dragon (or whatever program you prefer), even I have limits. I don’t want to be paid to correct a machine’s inadequacies. I want to help you be a better writer, and there’s a big difference in those two actions.

That said, there was one day where a character’s name was misinterpreted so badly that the text made ZERO sense and I stood at my desk and scratched my head and read the bizarre phrase out loud until I got it. And yes, there are times when I fix a Dragon mistake and laugh at how absurd the interpretation was. Those are my favorite times, to be honest.

But I need to know going in that you’re using it. So, you know, I don’t think you’re being sloppy and disrespectful. Because then I get cranky and let me tell you, my kids hate it when I’m cranky. So do I, although now it’s summer and I can jump on my bike and take a ride to chill out, albeit a shorter ride than I’d like.

So. If you’re going to switch over to speech to text, let me sum it up again:
1. Look over your manuscript before you send it to your editor.
2. Tell your editor you’re using it so I can blame the program and not you.
3. Be prepared to laugh at some of the stuff I’m about to uncover and reveal. Because let’s face it: some of it is darn funny.

Got it?

Talk to me, not just to your speech to text program. And keep on getting those words on the page, no matter how you have to do it. I keep saying it: I have the best clients ever. You guys keep proving that to be true.

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Says the Editor: Are you Tired?

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It was in an email from a friend: I’m tired. So goddamn tired.

And maybe it was because I know him, or maybe it was because I know the exhaustion he was speaking of, or maybe it was just that word choice, but in those five words, I could hear the deep weariness he was expressing.

That’s the key here: the deep weariness. It came out in that second phrase: so goddamn tired.

It’s all about the word choice.

Because think about it. If he’d said so fucking tired, there’s anger in there. You hit that f-word hard when you speak it. It’s a word of anger or frustration. A hostile word, which is why it gets used as often as it does. It’s meant to affect the listener, to evoke an emotional response that echoes what the speaker is feeling. Yes, even if that intention is subconscious, it’s still there. I mean, there’s a reason we call them f-BOMBS, right?

So enter the softer word choice: goddamn instead of fucking. And it changes the entire dynamic. Gone is the white-hot anger. Because it’s added as a modifier, or as an afterthought, the exhaustion creeps out: it’s too much to say in one sentence. It’s gotta be broken up, so the speaker can stop and breathe. Maybe even work up some courage to admit something. Or find the energy in all that tiredness to express it.

I couldn’t do much to help my friend. He works near me, so I offered up the house if he needed to sneak out of work and take a nap, but beyond that, all I could do was commiserate — because, like I said, I’d been in that particular situation before — and so I did.

But I also wrote a blog post because his word choice was just so spot-on perfect.

Which leaves me with this dare for you: can you replace a convenient f-bomb with something else? Something that conveys a bigger, broader meaning? And even more importantly, can your characters?

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Says the Editor: Build Your Writer’s Group

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A good writer’s group can be really hard to find. I say that having been a member of many that weren’t great. There was the guy who took my manuscript one week when it was up for critique and, instead of being helpful, wrote lovelorn poetry to a girl he’d known in college who had shunned him. (I can’t say that I blamed her, but not because the poetry was bad.) Or the man who told me that I was marketing a different work to the wrong audience and should target it toward teenagers.

It was a Young Adult project, and it actually eventually landed me an agent.

So, yeah. I get it. Finding the right critique group or partners can be really hard.

But making the effor to build your own personal writer’s group is so, so worth it. When you have a group of motivated, like-minded people — and by like-minded, I don’t mean you’re all writing in the same genre or category. I mean you’re all interested in learnning as much as you can about craft and how to improve your own writing — you learn more. The group lifts each other and themselves, all at the same time. Maybe one has a great eye for detail and can help the others learn which details in a scene are important or vital, and which aren’t. Maybe one understands pace and tension.

Most groups, though, don’t operate on such a specific basis. They are simply groups of writers who seek the same goal: to improve. And maybe they don’t have the experience or language or desire to talk in technical terms. That’s okay, too, so long as they can say, “I don’t know what you’re referring to here,” or “I don’t believe this character would do this. Back in chapter 3, she did the opposite.”

Anything that makes you think, stretch, grow as a writer is a bonus. Yes, even the guy who talked about the audience for my then-project was helpful because at times, he could identify when the characters would act too adult. (The rest of the time, we’d hand him our cards for free cookies at the local grocery and let him make multiple visits to get multiple cookies because, hey, it was one cookie per visit, and one visit ended when you set foot outside the store.)

These days, it’s both easier and harder to find good groups — easier because there are so many. Start with your local library. Most have writer’s groups, and many have multiple groups, often with differnet areas of interest, but sometimes, they only have different instructors. The library can also help you find amazing writer’s groups. Some, like Romance Writers of America, are national, with local chapters. Some, like Sisters in Crime, are for both writers and readers, which is a good reminder that readers can be part of your own writer’s group. You don’t have to confine yourself only to writers.

And then there are smaller, regional groups. I continue to love and recommend Pennwriters to my clients; their resources are deep and their conferences top-notch. Best of all, when the conference is in Pittsburgh (which happens in odd-numbered years), you might get to hang out in the hospitality room with your favorite editor. Pennwriters isn’t just a local group anymore, by the way. We have members from across the nation.

Groups abound on Facebook. They gather among hashtags on other social media. They form in bookstores.

Get out. Get networking. A writer’s group can be as small as two people who exchange manuscripts and read and critique. They can be as large as the members can manage, with some offering vocal support, others offering critiques, and still others helping market when you have a publication.

There’s no one-size-fits-all, so get out there. Network. Build your writer’s group, and use that group to learn your craft. Let them help you take your manuscript as far as you can; learn as much as you can. Lean on your network to help you learn and develop as a writer.

No, a writer’s group can’t take the place of a really good freelance editor like me. (Even the groups I’m part of don’t get the full benefit of my abilities, much as they try to pry it out of me.) But what a writer’s group WILL do is help you maximize the investment you make into your editor.

After all, why are you paying me to teach you how to punctuate grammar when you can learn that for free? Wouldn’t you rather have your money and my time be spent on the bigger, deeper issues that will lift your manuscript from good to something more?

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Says the Editor: She Noticed

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Didja notice?

Yes, noticing things is the topic for the day. I find I’ve been making a lot of comments to my clients of late, asking them why someone notices something right then. What happens to trigger the character’s attention?

I get it: authors often use she noticed as a way of drawing the reader’s attention to something.

But she noticed is telling. It’s reporting what the character does, instead of letting us share her discovery. It could work, when used sparingly — and with reason.

She looked the gorgeous attorney over, head to foot, and noticed a stripe of fur across his shins, about two feet up. Small dog, or a cat? The difference would either increase or decrease his desirability in her eyes. That was a given.

So here, she’s looking him over. There’s your precipitating action, the prompt for her to notice.

Contrast that with

She was thinking about how hot he was, hotter than the coffee she’d bought that morning at Starbucks. She took a drink of her coffee, feeling the flavor spread across her tongue in that way only a good latte could, and was glad she’d taken the few minutes to stop in before the meeting. She noticed that a bird had pooped on the office window.

Umm… huh? Where’s the connection? What prompts her to shift from the hot guy and her coffee, and over to the bird poop? (Because this entirely made up story is going to turn into something akin to Hitchcock’s classic, the poop turns out to be important later on. Just so you know that — because many times, what I’m seeing with these odd, unprovoked instances of noticing, is that they are vital to the story somehow.)

Hey, did you skip over that parenthetical? There’s important stuff in there. The jist of my explanation, in fact: These odd, unprovoked instances of noticing are almost always vital details.

Remember: writing is a craft. Go and let your characters notice things all over the page in the first draft. Absolutely.

But when you revise, make a mental note to revisit all the times you use the word notice and make sure that what’s noticed is an action that’s prompted.

And, as always, holler if you need help.

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Says the Editor: What Year Did That Enter Our Speech?

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So I’m reading this book. It’s too early to say if it’s a good book, but the author is well celebrated, and I’ve followed her on social media for years. She’s had a hell of a career, the sort that anyone would be envious of and strive to emulate, even when writing in other genres and categories.

But… the second chapter is set in 1999. As in the year 1999. And something I encountered stopped me cold.

I laughed because why not.

What’s wrong with that, you ask. People talk that way all the time.

Except… in 1999, they most certainly did NOT. That construction is much, much newer than 1999. I’d say it’s newer than 2009, even. I’d cautiously put money down on the year 2012. Somewhere in there.

Regardless, pulling your reader out of your story isn’t exactly what you want to be doing if you’re the writer. And you really don’t want them jerking out for something so… small.

I know… most people won’t catch this. Even more won’t think it’s a big deal. You may be among those.

A lot of readers don’t care that certain historical fiction authors aren’t even close to the facts. That doesn’t mean authors can willy-nilly abandon their obligation and the readers’ expectation that their historical fiction is accurate and authentic.

But there are readers who do care. About phrases that were and weren’t used at the end of the Twentieth Century. About the accuracy of historical novels. About authenticity and the trust they put into an author to present the world as it was in whatever year they’re writing about, be it 1999 or 1899.

So who do you cater to? How do you choose?

Well, you do your best. You make sure you’re working with a team who will catch these small things. If you can’t be sure your editor will, do your best to find beta readers who will.

All you can ever do is your best. Sometimes, it’ll bite you. Sometimes, it’ll save you.

Do your best. And yes, stop and think about how people used to talk. You’ll be surprised to see what’s entered our language over the past few years alone.

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Says the Editor: Tom Swiftly

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I love that you guys are reading my posts and interacting with me and with them. This one, about dialogue tags, in particular has raised a number of questions and responses.

We’ve already talked about asks versus said.

But, another author asked, what about the Tom Swiftlies? Or maybe she spelled it Tom Swiftlys, which I suppose is actually more accurate, if we pretend that SWIFTLY is Tom’s last name.

At any rate, she’s got a point. When we’re talking dialogue tags and the power of the verb we use — ask, said, demanded, emoted, swore — we should also talk about those pesky little adverbs. You know: He said softly. He yelled loudly. He swore aggressively. He stated belligerently.

Notice how these are all TELLING words. They tell us how the speaker did his verb (said, yelled, swore, stated). But do they show?

Go back to the time-worn canon: show, don’t tell. Now, we all know that by and large, this is a truth of fiction. Show, don’t tell.

But we also know there are times when it’s okay, or even better, to tell, don’t show.

How do you know which is the right thing to do when writing dialogue?

For me, this one’s fairly easy, but it involves a lot of trust in your reader (which is where I think a lot of this breakdown occurs. That, or bad sixth grade teachers who thought adverbs with dialogue were all that and more). Can the reader figure out how something is conveyed if you remove the adverb? Yelling is a loud thing. You can’t yell quietly. (Admit it: you tried.) You can be forceful and strong but quiet, but you can’t yell. Even Webster’s agrees:

Definition of yell
intransitive verb
1 : to utter a loud cry, scream, or shout
2 : to give a cheer usually in unison
transitive verb
: to utter or declare with or as if with a yell : shout

Look at that top definition: to utter a loud cry, scream, or shout — see it? By definition, a yell is loud. There’s no need to tell us!

Sometimes, it’s not that cut and dry. You can state things calmly, quietly, belligerently, aggressively… the list goes on. So how do you still convey your meaning yet remove the adverb?

Two ways, and they don’t have to be exclusive of each other. The first is via word choice. Someone being aggressive is going to use a different set of words than someone who is being calm, or even someone being diplomatic. An aggressive lover versus a persuasive lover — “Come here.” versus “If you come over here, I’ll make it worth your while.”

The second way can be a little more challenging, and that’s by showing your speaker’s body language. “Come here” might be accompanied by a hand on a hip and a finger curling in and out, or pointing at the spot in question. The head might be held a little higher, the chest held upright in perfect posture. Contrast that with someone trying to persuade, where the posture won’t be so assertive: the shoulders might be hunched, the head drawn down on the neck. Instead of pointing at the partner or at the space the speaker desires the listener to occupy, maybe the speaker pats the couch beside him (or her). Maybe s/he is sitting, not standing.

There are a million ways to convey body language, and of course, this is a spot — just like those darn pesky adverbs — that can trip you up. Why? How? Didn’t I just say body language is good?

Yes, but too much of it, or when used at the wrong time, and you’ve undermined yourself.

I know. It’s hard. It’s confusing.

Remember, folks, that writing is a CRAFT. Sometimes, what seems vitally important in the early stages of a manuscript’s development becomes fodder for the delete key later on. And often, the reverse is true as you get to know your characters and the situations they find themselves in.

So give it a try. Take a hard look at your writing. Are you a Tom Swiftly? Do you over-adverb your dialogue tags?

If you need help, you know where and how to reach me. I’m here to help, after all. And in the meantime, keep the questions and good stuff coming!

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Says the Editor: Are you Asking me or Telling me?

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So my post last week spawned some questions.

The first was about the word ASK. When do you use it, and when do you use SAID?

The author asking that is a writer of wonderful romances and women’s fiction. Her books resonate. They’re best-sellers. They win awards. And yet… she’s brave enough to ask this.

Yay for brave authors who are always striving to improve their craft!

I’ve stalled long enough, haven’t I? I’m not stalling because the answer’s not easy. It actually is relatively easy, for fiction — because you’ll notice that near the end of this, part of my answer is going to be all about context and nuance — but of course there’s a BUT. And this BUT is the tough spot. It’s a current belief that you should never use ASK and always use SAID.

I disagree. Here’s why, and it’s pretty simple.

Webster’s defines ASK as:

Definition of ask
asked play \ˈas(k)t, ˈäs(k)t, ˈask; dialectal ˈakst\; asking
transitive verb
1 a : to call on for an answer

She asked him about his trip.

b : to put a question about

asking her opinion

c : speak, utter

ask a question

2 a : to make a request of

She asked her teacher for help.

b : to make a request for

She asked help from her teacher.

3 : to call for : require

a challenge that will ask much of us

4 : to set as a price

asked $3000 for the car

5 : invite

She asked a few friends to the party.

intransitive verb
1 : to seek information

ask for her address

2 : to make a request

asked for food

Almost all of these definitions involve an inquiry (yes, even an asking price!). Therefore, ASK. ASK is the word of inquiries. And while Webster’s doesn’t specifically mention dialogue, it comes close with that top definition. To call on for an answer; to put a question about; to speak, utter. Those all require ASK.

Let’s bring it to dialogue:
To call on for an answer: “Jane, do you know the answer?” the teacher asked.
To put a question about: “Jane, what is your opinion?” the teacher asked.
To speak, utter: “Jane, am I asking you a question?” the teacher asked.

Notice what these sentences all have in common?

Yes.

Question mark.

That’s a tell-tale sign that you should ASK instead of use the more generic SAID.

But what about when the question comes at the start of the dialogue, and declarative sentences follow it?

Now you’re seeing what I meant by context. Look:

“Jane, do you know the answer. It isn’t hard. It’s black and white and read all over, and I know you know it,” the teacher said.

She’s buried the question in front of a bunch of simple declarations. The question isn’t lingering; our focus as readers has moved on to the teacher’s repetition. Maybe the teacher’s prompting here, but she could also be a bit irritated. (As an aside: this is also where you want to be careful with your dialogue tag. You might be tempted to use prompted and tell the reader how the teacher is speaking. Or you might be tempted to use an adverb: the teacher said snappishly, again telling us what’s going on rather than SHOWING. But we’ll get into detail about adverbs in our next post.)

Back to the issue at hand. Look at this example.
“Jane, do you know the answer? It isn’t hard. It’s black and white and read all over and I know you know it. C’mon, Jane, please show me you know,” the teacher asked.

That’s because this final statement is a request. Or, to think of it more organically, if the teacher is prompting, which she seems to be, it’s not a stretch for the reader to imagine the inflection rising at the end of this comment, as if she’s letting an unspoken question hang in the air.

And that’s your difference: is there an unspoken question hanging in the air? Does the speaker’s inflection rise at the end in the classic speech pattern of a question? If so, use ASK.

So… are you WRONG if you prefer SAID over ASK?

No, not technically, because SAID is a catch-all. But yes, I think it does affect the way a reader interacts with the text. I think a reader who doesn’t see ASK in the tag is less likely to mentally add that inflection, and that removes a layer of texture to the narrative. ASK is an easy way to reinforce to the reader that a question is being posed. And like its friend SAID, it often becomes unobstrusive in the prose, there as a cue to the reader in how to interpret the words being spoken, not calling attention to itself while doing an important job.

Because let’s face it: if you have Mikey over here who is incapable of phrasing anything as a question, whose delivery is always flat and devoid of emotion, don’t you have a hard time understanding when Wouldn’t that be fun? is a question and when it’s a rhetorical device, or even sarcasm?

I sure would.

And that’s why I like ASK. It’s got a good friend in SAID, but it adds just a bit more oomph and helps the reader interpret the text.

Let me know what questions this spawns… I’ll keep answering if you keep asking!

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Says The Editor: Dialogue Tags

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Take a good hard look at your dialogue tags. They’ve been a raging inferno of opinions for many, many years now. Probably as long as kids were taught in third grade that it’s better to tell us that Johnny exclaimed, rather than show it. Or, let me put it this way: Probably as long as kids were taught in third grade to both show Johnny’s exclamation AND show it via word choice and exclamation point.

I’m thinking about this because I read a book a bit ago that made me cringe almost the entire way through it. Almost every single attribution — a fancy word for dialogue tag — was something fancy, some word that told us what was going on, even if it had been clearly shown via dialogue and punctuation. And context. In that book, I even came across my all-time favorite, “Shit!” he swore.

People.

Dialogue tags exist for many reasons. Only ONE of those reasons is to let you know how the speaker delivers his or her words.

Sometimes, tags call attention to themselves, and that’s bad. Words shouldn’t call attention to themselves. Not words on their own. It’s the pictures the words create, the mental images, the impressions, the emotions. Words are supposed to cooperate and paint pictures. They’re not supposed to be all grabby, demanding of the reader’s attention and praise. “You’re such a pretty word — who says that? Seriously?

But when you get Jennifer clutched her clenched fists to her chest and jumped up and down, her eyes sparkling and her cheeks flushed. Her cheerleader’s skirt wiggled with her excitement. “Jason, that is so super-duper!” she emoted, well, yeah. That’s overkill. All that imagery… it vanishes, swallowed whole by that one word, emoted.

And that book I was reading? Full of words like that. Weird words, like the author had raided a thesaurus in order to sound fancy and smart.

Truly, using said is sometimes, often, your best choice. It’s unobtrusive. It can remind us who is speaking. It can slow the pace of two people talking, buy the reader time to digest or catch his or her breath. It can let us focus on the other words around it, thereby contributing to that painting that the best writing plants squarely in the reader’s imagination.

And yes, more often than not, we say things. We don’t emote, yell, scream, bellow, holler, grate.

I get that the authors are striving to be great writers. But the thing about great writing is that it doesn’t call attention to itself. Like this, from my buddy Michelle Hazen:

My eyes are as round as greedy gold coins. I have no idea why he just told me that, and I don’t care. I want that collection, want to shoot it into my veins and roll naked in it and drown in the gorgeous, classic sound of song after song brought to life by the needle of my beloved antique turntable.” (A Cruel Kind of Beautiful, Chapter 6)

Yeah, there’s no dialogue in there. But that’s not the point, believe it or not. The point is that this beautiful writing. It evokes.

Your dialogue tags need to work with beautiful prose like this, not against it. Your dialogue tags need to complete a multitude (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration) of tasks. Don’t burden them with the sort of action that ultimately undermines your book.

If you need help with this, holler. Sometimes, dialogue tags toe a fine line. But most of the time, remember: simpler is better.

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Says the Editor: A Sea in Your Belly

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It was a hot and heavy sex scene, right in the opening of the book. And it was a good one, too, written with sensitivity and in a way that made us care about these characters even though it was, in their minds, nothing more than a meaningless hookup — although the reader knew it would be the start of something bigger.

And then the hero kissed his way down her body and stopped at her naval and…

WAIT.

WHAT?

I’m sorry, but WHAT THE FUCK?

From Webster’s:

Definition of naval
1 obsolete : of or relating to ships or shipping
2 a : of or relating to a navy
b : consisting of or involving warships

THIS IS A SEX SCENE, PEOPLE, NOT WAR ON THE HIGH OCEAN.

(And while war on the high ocean could be a metaphor for sex, in this case, it certainly was NOT. No warfare happening here. Just a lot of mutual lust.)

Believe it or not, I finished the book. It was a good book (although it should have had a much better editor because yes, that was only the beginning of the issues), hard to put down even though I did more wincing than any reader should ever have to.

But I’d have liked it more, I’d be telling people to go pick it up and read it, if the team behind it had been more careful.

Just in case you’re confused — because it does happen, and I’ll forgive you for an honest mistake (because you’re not an editor being paid to know the difference. I hope.) — they should have used NAVEL.

Again, from Webster’s:

Definition of navel
1 : a depression in the middle of the abdomen that marks the point of former attachment of the umbilical cord or yolk stalk
2 : the central point : middle

In Delphi’s golden age, when the ancients held it to be the navel of the world —Henry Kamm

Sigh.

It’s on you to put out the best book possible. And while the best editors are human, even humans make mistakes. Remember that no editor is 100% perfect and that Microsoft Word loves to insert typos just to fuck with the heads of conscientious authors everywhere.

Make sure the editor you’re hiring really IS the best you can hire. I’m always open to new clients, and if my rates are too high for you — I do have a mortgage to pay — let’s talk. It’s about making the best book possible, right?

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Says the Editor: More Verbal Abuse

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It was fourteen months ago that I first brought up the subject of verbal abuse and warfare.

I’ve been studying it ever since then, learning it, recognizing it, calling it out when I see it — usually privately.

But this last time? Well, not so much.

Like last time, it started with a phrase. This time, it was, “It goes without saying.”

Now, taken by itself, that’s not such a bad thing. If you’re having a dialogue and both people have the same body of knowledge, it’s a very safe phrase to use. It shows harmony between characters (or people, but do think of this in the context of fiction and fictional conflict ’cause it’s way more fun that way), a shared history, and even a similiar mindset. Oh, not every time; I’m generalizing here. The point is that there is a way that this phrase can be used to show parity between characters.

And then there’s the verbal abuse and warfare. The times the phrase is used to get one up on another, when it’s used to show that the speaker is lording their knowledge over someone who may not have the same breadth of experience and knowledge about a subject. And that’s how it was being used the other day.

As an editor, I deal with writers all day long. I am also a writer. Put those two things together, and I understand the writer mentality pretty well. We are, by dint of the massive amount of rejection we face, a pretty insecure lot. Add in the fact that we’re working in a field that relies 100% on subjective judgments by others, usually complete strangers, and I’d say we’re allowed to be.

So long as we support each other and help each other, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it feels pretty good to help out a fellow writer and watch them grow and gain success.

But that’s not what was happening here. One writer was using “It goes without saying” as a way of lording it over others in the group that the topic of discussion was basic knowledge.

Remember: I work with writers daily. Writers who aren’t myself. The subject at hand didn’t go without saying; it was stuff I say to my clients and my friends and even casual acquaintances I’ve run across at various meetings and workshops. The scenario usually goes like this:

“I used X publisher and I wasn’t happy with how they handled…” they’ll say.

“Is it in the contract?” I’ll ask as gently as I can.

“Well, no. But they said…”

“Specifically? Did you ask? Did you ask if they could put it in writing? Did you talk to other authors who’ve used that publisher?”

“Well… no…”

I’ve had variations of this conversation more times than I can count. And each time it kills me. They didn’t know to ask. They didn’t know they could ask. They didn’t know they should.

“Lesson learned for next time,” I tell them and encourage them to contact me if they need to be walked through any steps along the way. I’ll hold their hand, I’ll give them suggestions based on my experience, I’ll let them bounce ideas off me. Many do. Many get referred to lawyers or others who I think can help them make informed decisions, too, because Lord knows I don’t have all the answers. Just hopefully experience and contacts to people who do have more answers.

And that’s the scenario I keep flashing back to as I consider what was going on between me and the other writer. She had experience she could have been sharing with the group, supporting them and helping them make really smart business decisions. Instead, she chose to lord it over them, needing to raise herself up over them. The discussion did need to be had, the questions did need to be specifically stated. Making a statement like “That goes without saying” to an observer who didn’t realize this set of questions should have been second nature makes their IWI kick up something fierce. That writerly insecurity… it’s a vicious little bastard. There’s no need to feed it, and a phrase like, “It goes without saying” turns into verbal abuse the second someone feels bad about themselves because they did need the information to be discussed.

I knew we’d crossed the line between simple lack of audience awareness (which is not a good thing for an author to do! Know who your audience is often gets cited as a top rule for a writer to consider) and into verbal warfare with a potential for abuse when she explained to me that “It goes without saying” was a phrase.

Wow. Ya THINK?

Of course, this wasn’t the first interaction with her, either. She’s been making a point of one-upping me for a couple months now. Until this, I ignored her. But this time, I called her on it. And what do you think happened?

Refer to the end of the last post about verbal warfare and abuse. Because it was the same damn thing: a clumsy attempt at a classic redirect, gaslight, and abuse.

So. As you work on your fiction, unless your character needs verbal warfare, unless he or she is a gaslighter, unless you’re willing to deal with abuse, be mindful of the phrases you use. Both “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again” and “It goes without saying” are common phrases in our lexicon. Think about the message you’re sending when you use them. Are you speaking to someone on the same level? Or are you engaging in verbal abuse and warfare?

And if it’s the latter, why?

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Call for Submissions: Pizza People!

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I am not certain about this one, but it’s too funny not to tell you about. And if you decide to go for it, you HAVE to tell me, and if you are accepted, you HAVE to tell me so I can cheer and buy you a pizza and pick up a copy and read it, cheer some more, tell everyone to read it, and then cheer YET some more.

Because, dude. This one’s fun.

Ready? It’s from Dark Moon Digest, and… it’s called…

Ready?

You sure?

It’s worth my teasing you like this. It really is.

Unless you don’t like cleverness, or puns, or any of that fun stuff. But if you do, why are you hanging out with the likes of ME?

Okay. Fine. Here goes.

You sure you’re ready?

“Tales From the Crust: An Anthology of Pizza Horror.”

I KID YOU NOT.

Pizza horror.

And they are taking it seriously. (How seriously can you take pizza horror? And is there anything more horrific than gluten free pizza?)

Now, this anthology has some editors picked out, two folk named David James Keaton and Max Booth (no, both of them do not have the same name. One is David and one is Max and c’mon. You could figure that out yourself). And it’s a paying market, too.

The submission deadline isn’t until June 1, so you have time to think up some serious pizza horror. Have at it!

Here’s the link again, just in case you didn’t notice it above.

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