Losing My Grip

Heya Kittens. I’ve missed you. I haven’t been around so much the past few months, mostly because I haven’t really known what to write. The fall my dad took on November 4, 2019, the little spill in his bedroom we thought was no big deal, has turned out to be a very big deal indeed. He isn’t “perfectly fine” like I wrote he would be. He’s in skilled nursing care and may very well be there for the rest of his life.

I haven’t written about this stuff not because it hasn’t been a horror tale worth telling but because the story really isn’t mine to tell. Bless his sweet heart, I owe Dad at least that much dignity and privacy. And besides, this is Lucy Blue’s blog, the on-going saga of my writer self–my brand, if we can stomach the word. Beyond my being too tired and heartsick to write because of it, Dad’s story didn’t seem to have very much to do with that.

But in one way, it kind of does. I’ve read a lot of articles and op/ed pieces lately about how pretty much nobody makes a living writing fiction any more. Everybody has a day job, a safety net, another side hustle that pays, a spouse who earns well. The people who make it are the people who can afford to invest the money, time, and effort required to outdazzle or just simply outlast the crappy marketplace and reach an audience, whether that means paying for conferences to make connections or just keeping the lights on at home. And kittens, I’m sorry to say it, but it’s absolutely true. As much as I cherish the story of Jo Rowling writing Harry Potter in a cafe and becoming a billionaire, I know there had to have been a lot of steps in between that don’t get talked about, a lot of support from elsewhere that kept her and her child alive not only while she was writing her masterpiece but while she found a publisher for it. And waited for her advance check to show up because publishers and agents prefer to pay out twice a year. I’ve been in that system for a while now, and I know how it works.

My safety net has always been my dad. I’ve always had a day job. I’ve never had the luxury of writing full-time. But the day jobs I have had have been the kind that let me write. I haven’t had to be a teacher or a copywriter or any of the other careers that would have paid me enough to live but demanded so much more of my time and energy and commitment, and I’ve only ever had one job at a time. And my dad is the one who has made that possible. Any time I needed extra cash to get the toilet fixed or buy a stock photo for a cover, he has always come through. So even though with the exception of a few years writing about sexy Highlanders for Pocket Books, I’ve never made much money as a writer, I’ve always been able to keep writing. I’ve been able to read all those memes that say, “The ones who succeed are the ones who don’t quit,” and think, hell, yeah, that’s me! I’ve been able to keep chasing the dream, keep believing it’s going to happen if I can just hold on. Believe my stories are worth what I give them even if they don’t really pay.

But Dad can’t be my safety net any more. He needs his money, and he needs my time. And frankly, kittens, I don’t know how much longer I can keep on holding on. I love my work. I love the process of writing. I love the stories I tell. I love my publisher. I love being a part of the writing community. All of those things feel vitally important; they have been at the core of my identity for so long, I can’t even picture who I am without them. But the sad, cruel truth is, I’m not sure I can afford it any more.

So I guess my point is, in the wise words of my beloved publisher, buy my shit. Review my shit. Recommend my shit to other people. Because if somebody doesn’t soon, I’m powerfully afraid I might be done.

 

Ways to Keep Writing When You Can’t

american starlet

This fat-ass novel started life as a free-write I did when I couldn’t find the groove writing vampires. 

Sometimes real life gets in the way. Sometimes there’s just no physical way to walk away from the house fire that is your mundane domestic life and get to your desk or your laptop or Starbucks or the picnic table behind the Circle K or wherever it is you do your writing. I’m not talking about that; in that case, take care of your business and get back to it when you can. You officially have my permission as a fully-vested badge-carrying member of the Writer Police.

I’m talking about the times when you’re staring at the blank page or screen with an outline or an idea already in mind and the time and will to make stuff up, but the words just don’t want to come. Writer’s block, yes, but that’s too big a word for it and way too scary. Writer’s block is something novelists in novels get that makes them hear voices and axe murder the neighbor’s cat. Say it with me: I do not have writer’s block. What you have is a momentary numbness of the crazy brain. It’s not gone for good; don’t panic. It happens to everybody. It happens to me all the time. And when it does, these are some of the ways I’ve found to deal with it.

1 – Write Shit Anyway

Just keep writing or typing down words even if you know they suck, even if they make no sense, even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with your work in progress. Even if they don’t belong to you. Many is the time I’ve resorted to transcribing song lyrics I remember from high school—I can write out the entirety of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album if you ever require that service.* And sometimes just the physical act of writing words wakes up that sense memory and makes my own story float back to the top. (FYI, writing fan fiction totally works.)

Think about it this way. Writing is an art and a calling and a mystic practice, but it’s also a job. And when you have a job, you do it because you’ve promised to do it whether you feel like you’re doing it well or not. If you owned a doughnut shop, you’d go in every morning and make the doughnuts. You’d follow the recipe, go through the motions, and at the end of the process, you’d have doughnuts. They wouldn’t always be the best doughnuts, but you’d have something to sell. Writing is different; the personal stakes for the individual product are higher, and the recipe is always changing. But sometimes just going through the motions is enough to put you back on track.  Just remember, just because you write it doesn’t mean you have to keep it. And many, many times, you have to write your way through that shit draft to find the golden one behind it.

2 – Absorb Somebody Else’s Art

If I’ve been banging away at #1 for a while and still nothing’s clicking, I stop trying to be a creator and give myself permission to be the audience. I spend the time I would have spent writing reading somebody else’s book or watching a movie or a TV show or listening to music. I give it my full attention, guilt free, because I know sometimes this is as much a part of my process as the actual writing. Sometimes I try to find something that’s sort of in line with what I’m trying to do, something specifically inspiring. But honestly, what usually works best for me is to dive into something completely different that has nothing whatsoever to do with my story’s genre or action or mood. I will say, reading or watching other fiction works better than something like the Food Network if I’m trying to jumpstart my brain. But I will totally jump-start a gothic romance by watching Rick & Morty. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories almost always get me rocking and rolling again, regardless of what I’m working on. But sometimes I do better with something completely new.

One very important note: My hubs the gamer gets this kind of juice playing RPGs with complex stories, but Candy Crush won’t work. That’s not stimulating your brain, that’s sedating it. I love phone games, too, but if what you’re after is a brain that makes story, they won’t ever get you there.

3 – Give Up And Play Candy Crush

Some days, it just ain’t gonna happen. And that’s okay. No, really, it is; I swear it is. If I’ve tried and tried and still feel like every word on the page is a drudgery that I’m just going to have to throw out, I give up. I give myself permission to give the f*ck up. Because I know it’s temporary. I know that story is still perking away in my subconscious; I know it won’t ever let me go completely until I get it told. But sometimes it needs to grow and evolve without me watching it. I know that sounds crazy. (I promise my neighbor’s cat is safe.) But almost every time I throw up my hands and just let myself not be a writer for a day, by the next day whatever story problem I was having solves itself. That plot knot comes undone. That character snaps into focus. Because I’ve been writing for a really  long time and because I do try to write something pretty much every day, I know when I can’t, there’s a reason. I know it’s going to be okay.

So say it with me, kittens. It’s going to be okay.

*The screen door slams/Mary’s dress waves./Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

Taming Plot Bunnies and Getting It Done

plot bunnyOne of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019 was to be more productive and disciplined in my fiction writing. I’d spent the last three months of 2018 finishing a project that I’d been working on sporadically for years and ignoring everything else, and that had taught me that I actually produce more and better story if I stick to one at a time.  But going into the new year, I knew I had at least three novel-length projects in my pipeline that needed to get written for Falstaff Crush. All three were in sketchy outline, ready to roll, but I felt like I had fallen behind and needed to catch up. Under my old protocol, I would have worked on one until I got tired of it (or got bogged down in a plothole), then switched to another, rotating my way through until I finished something and adding in something new in its place. But again, I had figured out that this methodology was just making me feel tired and stressed all the time—I was constantly juggling, constantly working, but I never felt like I was making any headway.

So I resolved to line them up and work on them one at a time—a paranormal medieval romance with a dragon in it that was my heart’s desire at the moment first, then the second Stella Hart mystery, then a super-smutty gothic horror romance I’d been talking about since ConCarolinas 2018. I would give myself three months for each and try to write in chunks of 1000 words as many days of the week as possible.

And lo and behold, y’all, it’s working. I finished the submission draft of The Wizard’s Daughter around March 15 and Stella 2 by mid-July, and I’m well underway on the gothic. The first two books are about 50,000 words each, and the gothic will be at least that long, maybe a little longer. For me, this is HUGELY productive—I have NEVER been able to finish more than 1.5 full-length novels in a year. That alone would be enough to make me call this method a success. But I’ve noticed a few other benefits, too.

I’m a lot more relaxed when I’m writing. Writing fiction is my major stress-buster in and of itself; when I don’t write, my anxiety explodes through the top of my head like turning off the power grid at Ghostbusters Central. But knowing that I only have to produce actual word count on one story at a time focuses that energy and helps me shut out the static of all the other stories I’m not writing yet. When plot bunnies hop up, I can think about them, even jot down some notes, but then I pat them on the head and send them away because sorry, kid, I’m busy. And I have no guilt about that—I am cloaked in the righteousness of productivity.

I’m a lot more relaxed when I’m not writing. This is a benefit that only really came into play as I finished The Wizard’s Daughter. I have a day job; I have a husband; I’m an editor of other people’s stuff; I have to market the stuff that’s already published; I read other people’s fiction; I have research to do which may or may not ever be a part of my word count; I have episodes of Lucifer and The Great British Baking Show to watch. All best intentions and soul-deep commitment aside, I know there’s no way in the world I’m going to actually write 1000 words a day every single day. It’s just not going to happen. But I still finished a book in a little more than three months. I proved that even with my schedule, when I focus on one story and live in it until it’s done, I can do the work; I can finish. Finishing Stella 2 by the end of June just reinforced that. So going forward, when I miss a day, I don’t freak out or beat myself up or—and this one is the killer—use that momentary setback as proof of inevitable failure and let myself completely off the hook. I know now if I stick with it, I can take a day or a weekend or a week with the flu away from my story and still finish it in a timely fashion.

I don’t get stuck as often, and when I do get stuck, I wriggle out of it a lot faster. When I’m working on the first draft of a story, I’m never NOT working on it. That plotline is running like a background task in my head continuously, day and night, even when I’m sleeping. This is why it takes me an hour to take a bath and can take as long as twenty minutes to put my sneakers on. As soon as I’m holding still and not talking, I get lost in my story. And every fiction writer I know is the same to greater or lesser degree, and don’t let them tell you any different. (I don’t drive, but I suspect a lot of novelists find themselves miles out of their way on the way to the Wal-Marts because that story brain took over.) When I was working on multiple projects simultaneously, that part of my brain was working out all those plots all the time, attacking multiple knots at once. And every time I sat down to actually write, I had to somehow silence everything else to put myself completely into the manuscript in front of me. I wasn’t just tuning out the bills I had to pay and the itch on the back of my knee and the barking of the neighbor’s dog, I was also tuning out those other stories. By keeping that part of my brain focused almost completely on the one story all the time, the knots unravel on their own, and I don’t get paralyzed. I’m not trashing and rewriting nearly as much or nearly as often as I was before. I’m more confident when I put pen to paper, and when something isn’t working, I recognize it a lot faster. So while I still have a bazillion distractions from outside my writing process, the time I do spend physically writing is more efficient and productive.

I can work smarter with my publisher. The question I’ve dreaded the most from publishers since I first started getting paid to make up stuff is, “So when will the book be finished?” Like authors, publishers want to be responsive to the market; they want to release stuff that’s new and fresh and of the moment. But they’re also having to plan their release calendar years in advance. So yeah, they want your newest genius idea, but only if they can have it now—or at least know when they can expect it. (This is why most publishers won’t accept proposals and sample chapters any more from new authors; they want the product in hand before they agree to buy it.) And I’ve always been crap at accommodating that; I think that’s been one of the major things holding me back as a professional fiction writer. Now I know, all things being equal, if I have a reasonable plan mapped out (my outlining process is another whole post) and can stick to a reasonable schedule, I can expect to finish my product and have it ready for editing in three months. The books I’m writing in 2019 will hopefully show up on the Falstaff Crush calendar in 2020—and my publisher can make that determination with confidence because he has the books in hand.

This protocol won’t work for everybody. I know a lot of talented writers whose best defense against writer’s block is working on multiple projects simultaneously. I don’t even know how long it will continue to work for me. Once I run out of outlines, the whole system might fall apart. But for right now, this is how I’m doing it, and I have to say, I’m pleased.

ConCarolinas 2019!

ConCarolinas 2019It’s that time of year again – ConCarolinas is back, and I’ll be there! I only consistently show up for one fandom and writing convention a year, and ConCarolinas in Charlotte, North Carolina, is it. And this year’s slate of guests and events is particularly excellent. The people in charge have worked their collective cabooses off making this the best ConCarolinas/Deep South Con ever.

And I can prove it. They invited me. I’ll be there all weekend, Friday, May 31 through Sunday, June 2. I’m officially launching not one but two new books, and I’ll be appearing at the following panels:

bury me notOn Friday, May 31:

3:00 – Whose Story Is This? (in Walden): We’ll be talking about fan fiction; loving it, hating it, what it means, how to do it, what it can lead to. And I’ll actually be the moderator on this one, so batten down the hatches.

7:00 – ConCarolinas Short Takes (in a 3rd floor room, follow the noise): I’ll be one of a whole slate of author guests reading bits from their latest works. It’s a choice crowd, and we’ll all still be giddy with first-night-at-the-con glee. So a good time is pretty well assured at this one.

On Saturday, June 1:

11:00 – Tired Tropes of Women (Keynes): Parsing, bemoaning, and offering alternatives to the timeworn cliches of chicks in space and fantasy and horror, from the sexually voracious pixies who get confused tying their shoes to all those dead-but-loyal superhero girlfriends inspiring their men to greatness. If you’re a woman writing speculative fiction or a guy writing speculative fiction who wants to write better women, hit this one up.

12:00 – Historical Fantasy (Keynes): Ways to write the fantastical while keeping it real–and why it matters.

1:00 – Choosing an Editor (Keynes): You know you need an editor, but what kind of editor do you need? All the basic species will be on display and ready for your questions.

6:00 – There Is No Finish Line: Maintaining Energy and Momentum (Walden): Whether you’re just starting out as a writer or writing Book 27 of your bestselling series, you’re gonna have days when you think you might just quit. A panel of authors who’ve been at this for a while will offer war stories and advice on how to beat those urges and keep going (and why you must). I’ll be the moderator, and I can’t wait to hear what everybody else will have to say.

eat the peachOn Sunday, June 2:

SF/F: Are We Ready to Lighten Up Yet? (Lakeshore 2): A discussion of “Hopepunk”–what it is and why we might really, really need it. Or why we don’t.

I’m Not Bad, I’m Just Written That Way (Walden): Let’s talk about antiheroes, baby. (Why yes, I probably WILL mention that new season of Lucifer on Netflix; why do you ask?)

When I’m not on panels, I’m sharing a table with Alexandra Christian in Authors Alley, and I’ll probably stop in to annoy John Hartness and the rest of the crew at the big Falstaff Books booth. Get all the scoop about ConCarolinas 2019/Deep South Con 57 at their website here: https://concarolinas2019.sched.com/ Can’t wait to see you there!

 

Protect Your Through Line. Be Batman.

My fiction writing teacher in college told us there are only two kinds of stories: character stories and situation stories. In a character story, the protagonist evolves over the course of the action from one thing into another—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rocky, and “The Ugly Duckling” are all character stories. In situation stories, the protagonist(s) is/are dropped into a negative situation, and the action of the story is how she or he or they deals/deal with it—Moby Dick, Twelve Years a Slave, and Night of the Living Dead are all situation stories. Most stories have some crossover back and forth—the hero of a character story evolves by dealing with a series of situations; the poor saps in a situation story might well be changed forever by their harrowing experience. But the spine of the story is one or the other; the reason the story exists is to demonstrate either how this person evolves or how this person or these people get out of the mess they’re in.

My fiction writing teacher in college was wrong about a lot of stuff, but I think in this case, he was right on the money because what he’s actually talking about is a through line, and every good story has one. The greatest hook, the most interesting characters, the most mind-blowing world-building fiction has ever known won’t save a story that wanders all over the place and takes forever to figure out what it’s trying to say or, worse, never seems to figure it out at all. Yes, you need to grab the reader’s attention; yes, you need to show them something they haven’t seen before or haven’t seen in quite that way before. But more important than all of that, you have to give them something to hold on to at the very beginning that they can keep clutched in their fist all the way to the end. They have to know what or whom to root for and why. Otherwise, they are just not going to care.

From my reading, I would say the biggest and most common problem talented and hardworking new and indie writers have is their through line–either not knowing what their through line is or not making it plain to the reader early enough to do them any good or not following it through to the end. This is the single most common reason why they aren’t getting paid for the stuff they’ve worked so hard to write, why they aren’t getting accepted by publishers, why the stuff they publish themselves isn’t selling. (Untalented and lazy new and indie writers don’t sell because they suck.) And it feels really complicated; it feels like a hard fix—I actually had to look up the definition of through line before I started this because it’s such a vague and floofy concept. But you can train yourself to recognize the through line in other stories pretty easily, and once you’ve done that, it becomes easier to find your own.

So how do you find it? Step one: is it a character story or a situation story? Step two for a character story: how does the character evolve? Who are they in the beginning? Who are they in the end? How do the different things that happen in the story change them from that first thing into that second thing? Step two for a situation story: what’s the problem? How do they fix it? At first glance, the situation story looks simplest, and it can be—there’s a reason why murder mysteries and Godzilla movies never go out of style. But a good situation story can be incredibly artful and complex, and a good character story can be packed front to back with action. Every origin story about every superhero ever written is a character story—mayhem does indeed ensue, but only so Superhero can deal with it and thereby become the Superhero she or he is meant to be.

Actually, the best example I can think of to demonstrate what I’m talking about is the trilogy of Batman movies written by Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Because they are action movies about a superhero, they might all three seem like situation stories. But in fact, both Batman Begins and  The Dark Knight Rises are very much character stories that exist primarily to show the evolution of the character of their protagonist. In Batman Begins, every incident that occurs leads Bruce Wayne further down the path to becoming Batman. It’s not a single situation to be managed but a series: Escape the audience of an opera about bats; survive the mugging; try and fail to make a new life as an orphan; try and fail to get revenge on his parents’ killer; go off to Asia to feeeeeeel something; take the blue flower to the top of the mountain; etc., etc., etc.—this is why haters like me think this movie takes foreeeeeeeeeever to get started, but in fact, it’s a very carefully and deliberately crafted character story that begins with Bruce Wayne as a child and ends when Batman saves the day and becomes a superhero in the imagination of Gotham City.  The Dark Knight Rises is almost the same story in reverse. Batman begins the story as a feared and hated public figure and through a series of incidents that thwart his efforts to be a superhero at every turn evolves back into private citizen Bruce Wayne. Only The Dark Knight is a situation story—it’s Godzilla, and the Joker is the monster. It’s complex, beautifully crafted, and has amazing character work throughout, but the point, the spine, the through line is, the Joker appears, and Batman has to deal with him.

But what’s all this fannish movie commentary got to do with the writing we’re doing now? Picking the spine out of a story that’s already grossed a couple of billion dollars is easy because that story already exists; how do we apply this mind trick to our own stuff? By doing it in the second draft. Every how-to book on fiction writing in the universe will tell you every story starts with a “what if?” Your first draft is for exploring that, following it down all the dark alleys and squiggly forest paths, spending half a chapter inside the head of the villain “remembering” childhood abuse, getting to know the characters, finding out shocking secrets you never dreamed they had when you started, letting them lead you along, letting the incidents lead you along, cause and effect. Your first draft is an organic, growing, evolving, mutating monster, and it’s your precious baby, and you love it, and you should, every little morsel of it. But in the second draft, after you’ve put that baby away long enough to forget just how hard it was to make, that’s when you find that spine, that through line. That’s when you look for evolution in your main character and look at the situations they survive and decide which one is more important for your story—what does your story spend more time and energy pursuing? Where do you start? Where do you end? What exactly are you trying to say? Are you all about your character, or is it all about the situation? Define that through line. (And by the way, if this story is part of a series, you have to do this for every single installment. Telling yourself it will all make sense by Volume 3 is the primrose path to disaster.)

Then comes the REALLY hard part. You have to jettison every single freakin’ thing that does not serve that through line. ALL OF IT. If you start out with an aaaaaaa-maaaaaaa-zing action hook about two kickass characters who create the MacGuffin then disappear for the rest of the story, guess what? They’re outta here! And if you finally figured out in Chapter 9 that the protagonist is really a werewolf trying to find a cure, guess what? Chapter 9 just became Chapter 1 – or at least some elements of it have got to be moved to the front. Again, if I had to pick one problem that I see over and over again, that would be it—stories that start in the wrong place or wander off across cool but pointless pastures of narrative in the middle. And it’s all because the writer skipped that second draft. Before you start worrying about typos or commas or markets, you have got to deal with that. Find your through line. Polish it up, make it so shiny your reader can’t help but grab it and hold on to the end. Be Batman.

Lucy Blue Edits!

librarianLooking through my bills for last month, it suddenly occurred to me that I really, really missed freelance fiction editing. For anyone who’s interested, here’s what I charge and how I do it and why I think I’m qualified:

Proofreading: $0.005/word ($250 for a 50,000-word novel; $50 for a 10,000-word short story)

I’ll read for typographical errors, spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and minor formatting problems. I won’t correct grammar, word choice, passive voice, continuity errors, or make any suggestions as to content. If I think your manuscript needs more than a proofread, I’ll let you know after the initial read (see below), and you can decide if you want me to go forward and how.

Copy Editing: $0.01/word ($500 for a 50,000-word novel; $100 for a 10,000-word short story)

In addition to proofreading (see above), I will also read for problems with grammar, word choice, and continuity and mark corrections. I won’t make any suggestions as to content such as plot, characterization, pacing, etc. If I think your manuscript needs more than a copy edit, I’ll let you know after the initial read (see below) and tell you why, and you can decide if you want me to go forward and how.

Substantive Editing: $0.02/word ($1000 for a 50,000-word novel; $200 for a 10,000-word short story)

In addition to copy editing your manuscript (see above), I will point out any problems I see with plot, characterization, pacing, etc., and make specific suggestions for rewrites. As part of the substantive edit, I might also engage you in a developmental dialogue to help you refocus or sharpen aspects of your story that don’t grab the reader. I will also read at least one rewrite if you choose to do one at my suggestion at no additional charge. All substantive edits will also come with a full evaluation of the manuscript—what I loved, what I didn’t love, and any thoughts I have about potential markets and your work going forward.

Initial Read: First 10 pages only; no charge

Regardless of what level of editing you want, I will do an initial read of the first ten pages (2500 words) of your manuscript and let you know: 1)if I think I can help you; and 2)what level of editing I think your manuscript needs.  I reserve the right to refuse any job that I think is beyond me, for whatever reason. Manuscript evaluation is subjective; if I don’t think I can help you make your book or story better, I won’t take your money. But if I tell you I think you need a substantive edit and you tell me, um, no thanks, I’m just looking for a proofread, I will absolutely do a proofread.

So what do I know anyway? Credentials:

I’ve been a paid, professional fiction writer since 1998. I’ve published novels with two major publishers (Berkley/Penguin and Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster) and novels and anthologized short stories with three independent publishers (Purple Sword Publications, Mocha Memoirs Press, and Falstaff Books) in addition to running a micro-press, Little Red Hen Romance, with my sister, author Alexandra Christian. In doing so, I have gone through the editorial process as a writer with many different editors with many different styles, and I know just how painful a bad edit can be—and how much a good one can help bring a story to life.

I have an M.A. in English from Winthrop University, and I’ve taught English composition at Winthrop and at York Technical College. I was the fiction editor of Winthrop’s literary magazine my senior year as an undergraduate, and I have been doing freelance editing off and on for the past three years for small presses and self-published authors.

Nuts and Bolts:

Once we decide I can help and what kind of help you want from me, I’ll send you an invoice for the full amount of my fee based on your word count. I’ll need at least half of the fee paid to me through PayPal at lucybluecastle@gmail.com before I start work.

All manuscripts will need to be submitted in Microsoft Word. I hate Microsoft, too, and I’m sure all those other software suites are charming beyond all measure, but I want to spend my time as your editor editing your art, not wrestling with your software. Any manuscripts submitted in anything but Word will be returned unread.

To get started, email me your manuscript as a Word attachment to lucybluecastle@gmail.com. In your cover email, give me your name and your snail mail address and tell me a little bit about your manuscript—genre, etc. This isn’t a query for a publisher; I just want to know what to expect when I read your first 10 pages. I only plan to do a handful of manuscripts every month, so if I’m swamped, I’ll let you know.

Final thought:

I can’t promise that if you hire me, you’ll get published, no matter how much I might love your book. But I do promise to do everything I can to make it the best book it can possibly be.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Comma

chasing the dragon coverAs a lot of people know, my sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are pretty much the entire standing staff of Little Red Hen Romance. We both write stories and novels for the press, and we edit one another. There are many advantages to having your beloved sister as your editor. But there are times, particularly for Lexie, when it’s a real pain in the ass.

Lex has just finished a truly amazing Sherlock Holmes novella that should be coming out in the next few weeks, and I’ve been working on the copy edit. Lex is one of the most amazing, original, intelligent writers I know, and her grammar and punctuation are almost perfect. But that girl will party hearty with a comma; she gets it drunk and lets it sprawl naked in the most ungodly places or forgets it entirely and leaves it dead in a ditch. As a former composition instructor, I tend to lose my mind about this on a regular basis. And since this is apparently becoming a hot topic issue (see here: Daniel McMahon for Business Insider 5-2-16), we thought it might instructive or at least entertaining to see our latest exchange on the subject:

THE SAME STUPID COMMA MISTAKE THREE TIMES, ALL FROM THE SAME PARAGRAPH!!!!!!!

Okay, you’re gonna learn how to do this if it kills us both.

Example Number One:

As written by the brilliant Lexie Christian:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

This sentence is two independent clauses joined by the conjunction “and.” As are all of these examples. And it’s the EASIEST FREAKIN THING IN THE WORLD TO IDENTIFY!!!!

So, what are our two clauses? How do I know we have two? We start with the verbs. What are the verbs?

1) offered

2) managed

Okay, so who or what offered? The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat – so there we have the spine of clause number one, “coat and hat offered.” Everything that tells us information about the coat and hat (whose it was [the doorman] and what he was like [unfortunate]) and what they offered and how [an easy disguise]) are part and parcel of that clause. So Clause Number One is:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise.

So our next verb is managed. Who or what managed? He, Sherlock, our intrepid hero. Everything about him and what he managed is Clause Number Two:

This time [when he managed] he managed [there’s that spine] to pass through the doors [what he managed to do] without incident [how he did it].

Because neither of these clauses begins with an adverb like when or as or because or anything else that would turn it into a dependent clause/super-adverb supporting the other that can’t stand alone, these are two independent clauses joined with nothing more than the most common and beloved of all conjunctions, and. So you put a FUCKING COMMA IN FRONT OF THE AND!!! And thus after edits it becomes:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

SIDE NOTE ON DEPENDENT CLAUSES WHICH YOU ALMOST NEVER USE AND USUALLY GET RIGHT WHEN YOU DO: To make these the joining of a dependent clause to an independent clause, one of these clauses has to become a super-adverb. If it comes at the beginning, you need a comma:

Because the unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

But if it comes at the end, you don’t:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise when this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

Your way, the two independent clauses is MUCH BETTER; it’s stronger and gives the reader chunks of easily visualized information. It was Mark Twain’s favorite sentence construction. AND HE ALWAYS PUT THE DAMNED COMMA IN IT!!!

So on to Example Number Two. As written, thus:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What are the verbs:

1)had been set up

2)had been moved (accommodate is also a verb, but by adding the “to” to it, you’re using it as part of an adverb modifying had been moved; it tells why the moving was done. Lesser minds would be confused by this; I know you can see it.)

What had been set up? Stage

What had been moved? Chaises

So our two clauses are:

1) A small stage had been set up along the back wall.

2) The cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What is joining them? There’s our lil buddy and again.

So our edited sentence becomes:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall, and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

And finally, coming to you live from the exact same descriptive paragraph, I bring you Example Number Three:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Verbs?

1) was swathed

2) hung

What was swathed? Room

What hung? Musk

Two clauses then?

1) The entire room was swathed in red and gold.

2) The heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Add our friend and and the comma it should have rode in on:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold, and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

If you could ever just absorb that this is WHY this comma needs to be there, I promise, you’ll just put it there naturally without having to go through this half-assed diagraming of the sentence. But just saying, “Fuck it, I can’t do commas; sue me,” looks like a consistent, habitual amateur mistake, the kind of thing that can make less imaginative editors who don’t love you and your writing like I do dismiss you as a lightweight. And that just is not acceptable. Every one of these sentences is brilliant; you’ve compacted massive amounts of vibrant information into just a few words and created a whole scene. So just get the commas right!