Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Writers

This is my last column of 2012. I like to spend a little time at the end of the year to take stock of what I’ve managed to do and to consider my plans for the next year. I’ll have to do some writing between here and January; there’s just too much to do for me to spend the next two weeks completely slacking off. But I really want to focus on winding up the year and getting recharged for the future.

Everyone’s got a preferred method for rejuvenating their artistic spirit. These are a few of my favorites.

Re-read something. It’s comforting to pass through familiar settings and turns of phrase in the company of characters who feel like old friends. Re-reading also reminds me of places in my own past. I have a Sherlock Holmes collection that reminds me of a snowy afternoon in Charlottesville on the weekend I decided to attend the University of Virginia. Each time I read Jane Eyre, I think about how much my life has changed since the first time I read it in middle school. Thinking about the full circles and broken patterns of the past often gets me thinking about the future, too.

Play games with the muse. I’ll probably have to work on some larger projects over the holiday, which means the laptop, my enormous stack of index cards, and at least two full-size notebooks have to come with me when I travel. But I’m planning to take one of my pocket notebooks with me, just to fool around in. I might run a few 15-minute exercises. (I tried two last year – 15 minutes starting with “I remember” and another 15 minutes starting with “I don’t remember” – that felt fresh and exciting.) I might dash off a character sketch or play “what if” or pull out one of my writing exercise books. When I switch it up with the muse, he often responds with a surprise of his own, which is very nice indeed!

Embrace a hobby. My personal favorite is knitting (my home is filled with partially completed projects, slowly stretching out on the needles), but I like to get into new recipes over the holiday, too. Once my hands are distracted, my mind is free to think of the writing in a less structured way. It’s easier to be positive about how I’ve been doing as a writer when I’m occupied with completely different projects.

Get out there. The world outside is just loaded with sensory stimuli – rocket fuel for writerly pursuits. Holidays are also great for people-watching; everyone’s off work and relaxed and enjoying the season. Being outside among other people is a reminder that the world is brand new and different every day. Each morning presents a fresh combination of random chance and individual planning, and there’s no way to really know what’s going to happen. How exciting is that?

How are you enjoying the end of the year? Share your invigorating secrets in the comments. Don’t worry – I will greet the first of the year at the top of my game, with lots of tough editorial love for everyone.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.



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Voice – Do you hear what I hear?

Recently I saw a video by a comedian who was poking some fun at the Christmas carol “Do You Hear What I Hear.” The comedian joked about the impossibility of the lyrics – like the second stanza: “Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy” – at which point he demonstrated his view of what the lamb “talking” to the little boy would sound like. He baaaah’d, and he sang the lyrics in various tones, depending on the verse. It was pretty funny, and I would probably stick a link in here except that that’s not what this blog is about.

This blog is about writing, for writers, and about giving writers tools and examples of what we believe is solid, compelling writing and story-telling. But it struck me as I watched the video that he was giving a great demonstration of “voice,” that elusive quality that, to a writer, is one of the most influential means of capturing a reader’s interest. What good is a great plot if the reader doesn’t want to keep reading? That’s voice.

That’s a big topic for this time of year, a time when most of you won’t have much of that commodity (time) to read about voice, or probably much else, so I’ll try to keep this brief (for me!) and tackle just my definition of “voice” for now.

I always think of singers first when I hear the word “voice,” but I think you can make a solid comparison between a singer’s voice and writer’s voice.  You know how some singers just grab you with the tone of their voice, like you could hear them singing the phone book and you’d stop and listen? Likewise, when you hear someone singing in a voice that isn’t to your liking, it doesn’t take you long to shut it off (or scream, “Stop the torture!”), right?

Don’t you find the same thing when you’re reading? I do. I can read just a few pages of anything (a book, an article) and know whether or not I like that writer’s style, or voice.  It’s something in the way he or she puts the words together that makes me laugh or cry, or makes shivers travel up and down my spine. It’s flow and pacing, it’s word choice, and above all, it’s personality, whether it’s the author narrative or a character speaking.

I’m not a great singer and have never studied vocals, but I’m pretty sure that some people are born with a natural voice that others want to listen to. Others learn to develop a singing voice; they learn to stretch their range and bring richness to their tone.

It’s the same with writers. Some hear a story in their minds (in continually flowing words that don’t want to stop…ever). They hear not just the words, but a rhythm, a cadence, and they’re able to transfer the shouting in their heads to paper (or screen…whatever) with relative ease. Others are more visual and might see a story rather than hear it, and I think they find it more difficult to give “flesh” to those stories, to find the right words. But I also believe they have the ability to develop a voice that others will want to read.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to dig down a little into the elements of voice. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What is your definition of voice?

Happy writing!


After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.


Filed under Voice

A Critique Partner for the Holidays … and Beyond!

Are you between NaNoWriMo and the new year’s fresh opportunities to renew your writing practice? Maybe you’re taking a month off from your writing routine to re-enter the so-called real world. In any case, December is a good time to consider the care and feeding of your writing career. So what do you need? A long-range plan? A fistful of USB drives? A workspace more conducive to actual work?

How about a critique partner?

Now, don’t take it personally. I imagine that most of you reading this column already have a critique partner. I think you’re here because you care about your work and you’re willing to put in the time and effort necessary to make sure it looks its best. Having said that, I think most of us know someone who needs a critique partner or who is looking for another critique partner. Maybe our acquaintance doesn’t know he needs a critique partner or doesn’t know how to find one. Maybe it’s time to expand to a critique network.

Finding a good critique partner is no simple task, but with confidence, patience, and a thick skin, it’s far from impossible. Hopefully, these notes will start you thinking about what you need and don’t need as you go looking for your new CP.

Your partner should understand your genre. This is not to say that your CP has to write in the same genre as you, or even that he has to write genre fiction. But if you’re writing romance and your partner openly disdains the genre as a whole, you’re not going to get as much as you can out of that relationship. Drill down as far into subgenres as you need to. You’ll want someone who isn’t squeamish about the specific mix of elements that brings your writing to life.

It’s a good idea to seek out a partner who’s going to challenge you. You shouldn’t feel like you’re being dragged behind your partner, but in any sound partnership, each of you will find something to admire about the other. When you admire your CP, you’ll want to stretch yourself as a writer so that you can get the most out of that relationship.

At the same time, your ideal partner knows your voice and your style. Like a good editor, your critique partner will help you to sound more like yourself. That’s not to say that your partner can’t share with you what he would do in a specific situation. If you’re finding that your partner’s critique consistently leads you to sound more like him at the expense of yourself, then it’s time to shop around some more.

So where do you find the ideal critique partner? If you were in NaNoWriMo, you’ve got a good place to start; the December forums have lots of great resources, as well as potential partners. If you look for partners online, you’ll find a large number of people to choose from, but seeking out critique partners in person can be just as productive. Try local writers’ groups (plug it into your search engine and go from there) and get involved in your local literary community. You might even try There’s a Meetup for just about everything. When you start to narrow things down, consider gathering a little group of critique partners, like the Knights of the Round Table or the X-Men (back in the day, before there were X-Men on each coast and overseas). You’ll keep your own skills sharp by critiquing several people, and you’ll have a group of opinions to choose from when the time comes. Plus you’ll have a lot of occasions to celebrate when each of you finds a new level of success.

I’ve been very fortunate – my critique partner is a genius! (And no, I’m not going to tell you who she is; I very selfishly am trying to prevent increases in demand.) When I was looking for partners, I found I kept more of her marks than anyone else’s. She bears my fits of pique with patience and good humor. She’s gentle and diplomatic and sticks to her guns. And as I work, I often catch myself thinking, “Oh, yeah. She’s going to mark that.” All of that has made me a better writer, and I hope I’ve at least been helpful to her as well.

I still think most of you already have critique partners. What does that relationship look like for you?

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.


Filed under Editing

No, no! No more NaNo!

I had intended to dedicate this week to homonyms, or synonyms…or one of those “nyms” that cause so much confusion in our language, but I changed my mind when I realized that we’d come to the end of November — otherwise known as D (deadline) Day to the thousands of writers who took up the annual NaNoWriMo challenge. So, in honor of all of you who so valiantly battled day in and day out to accumulate 50,000 words or more during a month already packed with Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and who-knows-what-else is going on in your lives, I dedicate this week’s blog to you!

First, I congratulate you for hanging in there, for making that lofty goal and giving yourselves some literary meat to tear into as you start the next phase in your story’s life. Even if you didn’t hit the 50K mark, I congratulate you for trying. And I can most probably guarantee that you wrote more words than I did (even if I count editing).

Which is why I vow, here and now, publicly, to never, ever….ever…put myself through that torture again.

I think there are some people who take to the annual writing challenge like fish to water. (See, that is a perfect example of NaNo writing. Everyone knows that’s an old and tired cliché. But I’m in a rush to get this post finished, and I don’t want to stop and think of a fresh way of saying the same thing. So I’m going to leave it, for now.) Those NaNo naturals must love writing fast and dirty, not caring whether their initial content is full of clichés, typos or other spelling errors. They just plow ahead and get the story down.

I believe this because for two years in a row, I attended a NaNo group write-off hosted by a friend on the first Sunday of November. During the afternoon, she tasks the group with several speed-writing challenges. She sets the timer for an unknown length of time, yells, “Go!” and we attack our keyboards with the ferocity of cub reporters trying to scoop the star of the cross-town paper who’s covering the same big story. The goal of these timed writings is to write, and write, and write, write, write, write, until we hear the ding!, signaling that time is up. Then our gracious hostess (who has stocked the room with enough goodies and beverages to give the entire student body of an elementary school a sugar high…God Bless Her) asks us for our totals, declares a winner, and hands out a small prize. Over the course of the afternoon, she varies the definition of “winner” so everyone has a chance at a prize:  highest word count, lowest word count, most improved word count…you get the picture. (She’s so good.)

Each time I’d gear myself up for the race, type my fingers off, and at the ding!, I’d look at my total (maybe 1050 words for five minutes) and think, Hey, that ain’t bad. That is, until I’d hear the totals of some of my peers. Like the two young women in the group who somehow cranked out something like 3,000 words in five minutes! I kid you not! When I heard their numbers, I mumbled to the woman sitting next to me, “They must be using an awful lot of short words!” (I know, not my most gracious moment.) She shrugged and replied that they’re probably super-fast typists.

Fast typists? Really? Heck, I’m a fast typist. I tested at over 85 WPM a couple of years back, and that was going slow so I wouldn’t make errors! How the he– How fast can they possibly type!?!

Then she added, “They don’t stop to make corrections.”

Oh… I get it. They don’t stop. For anything. And that, as I understand it, is the whole point of NaNo. You don’t stop to edit. You don’t stop to research a detail in your story (like the “live oak” trees that I’m researching for my WIP–aren’t all oaks “live”??). You don’t stop to find the name of the hero’s third-grade teacher that you mentioned three chapters back, even though skipping that fact might cause you complete confusion when you get to edits. You don’t stop to go back and fix a plot point in the prior chapter that could conceivably throw you off for the remainder of the book. You just write, period.

I think there are some people who work well with that model. They’re the same ones who probably believe you should never edit while you’re writing, who believe you should save editing for the official editing phase. That works well for some writers. (I know a best-selling writer who creates a messy first draft, then keeps adding and refining until she’s gone through something like 20 drafts to get to her final product.)

If that’s the way you write, fine. But if you’re like me, it’s not fine, and I really don’t care that I’m not following so-and-so’s advice, because the way I write works for me. I do edit while I write. I do fix my typos (when I catch them). I do research fine details. I do go back to find the names of characters or places I’d conceived on the fly (and try to scribble them down somewhere this time so I don’t have to go back again).  When I meander off my plot outline, I do take the time to make it fit, to reconcile hanging questions, because otherwise, I may never find my way back. (Believe me, my memory can’t take more than a couple minutes’ diversion. If I don’t fix it here and now, I’ll not only forget the solution, I’ll forget there was ever a question!)

If I decided to not edit as I wrote, the final product could be an editing nightmare, causing me and my editor more work (and probably confusion) than simply taking the time to get it right the first time. Over the past six or several years, I’ve culled my process down to three solid drafts before handing it off to an editor.) It works for me. NaNo does not. I’ve tried it twice now, and twice I’ve failed, miserably. It’s been several weeks since I’ve worked on my NaNo project, and I’m actually a little afraid to go back and look at what I wrote!

So, when it comes to these theories (fast and dirty vs. editing as you go), here’s my advice: Do what works for you. If you like the challenge of racing the clock (with or without NaNo) and you do well with smoothing out your rough edges and filling in the blanks during your edit phase, I applaud you. But if you’re like me, if you prefer to think and perfect while you write, embrace your style. There’s nothing wrong with doing what works well for you.

That’s what I’m going to do from now on. And when next year’s NaNo challenge rears its ugly– I mean, when the call to enter NaNo comes next year, I’ll happily sit it out and let the speed-writers have fun.

Happy writing! Happy editing!
(Hmmmm…I never did go back and change that cliché, did I?) 🙂


After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.

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Characters – Love them; love them not?

The other day my sister and I were talking about a book she’s reading. She said she was enjoying the book immensely, but the story’s main character was troubling her. “She’s heartless,” my sister said. “I don’t like her.” She almost spit the words out, like she’d just bitten into a bad tomato.

What a great reaction!, I thought to myself.  That author had done a terrific job of bringing that character to life. To me, that’s solid writing, when you can evoke a reader’s emotions – good or bad, love or hate – like that.

Much is said and written in writing circles and in reviews about a character’s likability, but I don’t think it’s necessarily relevant. When I read for pleasure, I’m not consciously calculating whether or not I like a character. I do subconsciously pick up on traits that I like, but more importantly, traits or behaviors that I can understand.

Let me clarify and make a distinction here. If you’re writing romance (as defined within the industry), I think it is vital that the main characters (the ones who fall in love) are likeable. It’s tough to make one character fall in love with another who’s a jerk all the time, after all. That’s not to say they should be perfect (quite the opposite), but they should be the type of characters readers can find themselves falling in love with, and the romance between the characters should be believable.

Aside from romance, though, I think it’s more important for a character to be relatable than likeable. Sometimes the “baddest” characters who do the most horrific things are the most interesting. (On a side note, I love writing bad guys. They’re my favorites. I love digging into their heads and trying to figure out what might have changed along that character’s life to make him or her a monster.) I think that’s what drives the popularity of some of the highest-rated TV shows and movies:  the fascination with the bad guy.

But “bad” isn’t enough. Some spark of humanity has to be present in that character’s profile, a reason that he/she turned bad. Why? Because can’t we all, in some deep, dark place in our psyches, at one point in our lives or another, imagine  being that angry, that self-focused, that we could almost understand the bad guy’s actions?

It’s that “almost” that keeps us fascinated, I think. We know we’d never go as far as these characters, but if they’re well written (acted), we can relate to or maybe understand, on some level, what they do and why they do it.

Look at one of our most beloved bad guys: Tony Soprano. He made New Jersey cool, didn’t he? (As a native Garden Stater, I say it’s about time!)

Tony could go from having drink at the sleazy topless bar that served as his headquarters (yuck), to having a fight with his wife or kids (most of us have been there, done that), from chasing off a bear in his back yard (yikes!) to ordering a hit on one of his competitors (no way), all without breaking a sweat.  But wait…he did break a sweat, didn’t he? In fact, Tony spent a lot of time on his therapist’s figurative couch. It was the therapist who served as the viewer’s conscience, I think – forced by her profession to try to help this man, this murderer, come to grips with what he’d done. I think there were times when she forgot who and what he was, times when she almost began to like Tony.

It was the same for me. Sometimes I sympathized with Tony and really pulled for him. And then he’d go and beat the you-know-what out of someone, or order the extermination of his nephew’s fiancée, and he lost me. It was a fascination with the yin/yang of his personality that kept me watching week after week. It’s the same reason I watch shows like Justified and Sons of Anarchy, shows that aren’t afraid to reflect the reality of life, that sometimes  good guys do bad things, and sometimes bad guys aren’t all bad.

People are people. They’re good, they’re bad. They’re strong, they’re weak. Characters should be the same, especially your main characters.  Even when drawing a character that’s (hopefully!) so far beyond an author’s reality – like a Tony Soprano – the author needs to incorporate the elements of humanity that readers will understand. With a full-dimensioned character like that, you can take your story anywhere.

So, to answer my sister’s complaint, I told her to keep reading. That character, like most people, had a lot of living, and growing, to do before the last page of her story could be turned.

Happy reading, happy writing!



After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.

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Go Low(er) Tech and Fight Robo-Editing

I like big editing jobs. I like moving the words around and standing back to see what they look like. I like taking a green pen to a thick, freshly printed stack of pages. Word by word, line by line, page by page, and chapter by chapter, that stack of pages takes on its proper shape, and it is beautiful to watch.

In this computer-driven time, it would be easy to let the machine do most of the work, if I didn’t love doing it myself quite so much. I can see how other editors might be tempted to rely on the various bells and whistles found in most word processing software. That temptation, like most temptations, has its place. Even I have given in to the seduction of Search and Destroy – I mean, Search and Replace – to deal with consistent misspellings. Complete surrender to automation, however, can lead to an unfortunate editing misstep, which I call robo-editing.

Robo-editing relies on two problematic approaches to editing. First, it uses troubling editing “rules,” usually the ones that depend on the word “never.” The rules of the editing road generally don’t rest on absolutes like that. Robo-editing also utilizes Replace All. There are very few situations in which the use of Replace All is appropriate.

An example might make things clearer.

Some schools of editing teach writers never to use the phrase “a little.” A robo-editor plugs the phrase “a little” into the Search and Replace (leaving the Replace part blank) and then clicks Replace All. This will eliminate any and all uses of the phrase “a little,” and that’s a bad idea.

The difference between seductive coaxing and a command is the phrase “a little.” A child putting on a brave face for a police officer might cloak his fear by admitting that he is “a little” scared. Someone trying to minimize a big problem will call it “a little” one.

Robo-editing doesn’t care. The Replace All function doesn’t appreciate all these nuances. Robo-editors only know that some person said never to use “a little,” and now that phrase has been expunged from the manuscript.

Robo-editing sends a message. It says, “I didn’t make the effort to go through your document line by line. I can’t be bothered to read your work and assess it for voice, context, and cadence. I won’t even follow Search and Replace to each instance of your target phrase and make individual decisions based on my judgment.” If you’re comfortable sending that message, by all means, go right ahead and robo-edit. At some point in the life of the manuscript, a human editor will notice the robo-editing and draw his or her own conclusions, none of which is likely to be pleasant. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, a reader will notice. The reader’s conclusions will definitely be unpleasant.

So what should you do, as a writer, if you want to make sure you get all occurrences of your personal problematic phrases? You’ve got a couple of options.

You can still use the computer to do it. If you’re using Scrivener, the Search function will count and highlight every instance of your target words or phrases, and you can pop through and handle each one individually. If you’re using something else, you can still use the Search and Replace – just don’t use Replace All. Don’t even use Replace. Stick to Find. Find Next will get you through the manuscript, one instance at a time. If I have to use the Search function, this is how I try to do it.

You could also go old school and read your manuscript out loud. This is a good practice anyway. Reading out loud identifies unnatural dialogue, awkward construction, and any number of other problems. As you’re reading, mark your trouble phrases as you go. It takes time, but excellence will do that.

Stand up for humanity! Don’t let the machine do your job for you.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.


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Beta readers ~ be careful what you ask for!

Some of you might know that I write commercial fiction under a pseudonym. As a grammar snob, I pride myself on generally clean manuscripts. Not that I don’t need editing — believe me, I do — but the edits usually aren’t for grammar or punctuation, at least not on a large scale. So when I pass my precious baby (manuscript) out to my group of loyal beta readers, I ask them to let me know of any glaring inconsistencies in the story (like my hero’s eyes are brown in the first chapter and blue in the second). These are the types of errors that are so easy for authors to miss because we’ve lived in the story for so long, and probably had multiple drafts where we’ve changed details like that, we tend to gloss over inconsistencies when we’re proofing.

A couple weeks ago I sent my newest story out to my group, and asked one person to share with her friend. I knew the woman to be an avid reader, and I figured it never hurt to have an additional set of eyes. It was probably two or three days later that that my friend sent me an e-mail asking, “Was the story edited yet?”

Immediately my writer’s “hackles” went up. “Yes,” I responded. “The edits are done.” I didn’t ask why, partly because I was rushed, and partly because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, or not until I had a chance to brace myself! (I do have a fragile ego at times.)

Another few days passed before I heard from my friend again. She said, “Susie (name changed to protect us all) wants to know, isn’t it incorrect to start the sentence with the word and?”

Ah…there it was, the reason for her earlier question: Susie was misinterpreting my request for a beta read as a request for proofreading. Of course I want my beta readers to let me know of errors and typos, but I don’t expect them (or want them) to turn into line and/or content editors. I need them to read the story as they’d read any story and let me know if anything makes them stop and do a mental head-shake.

I responded that in terms of academic or business writing, that’s the general rule, but fiction writers have leeway to play with sentence structure and rules. It’s called literary/poetic license. Authors use literary devices to emphasize or clarify. Like using clauses in place of a full sentence (when the meaning is clear). Like ignoring the rules of paragraph construction and sticking a sentence (or a clause) in a separate paragraph to draw attention to or highlight the point.

And, yes, even like starting a sentence with the word and.

When writing for academia or business, (I believe) you have to follow the rules of grammar because it gives your argument, your purpose for writing the piece, credence and authority.

When writing fiction, we’re telling a story, not writing a doctoral dissertation, or an editorial. In fiction, the writer’s job is to draw the reader into the make-believe world and keep him or her there, and the judicious use of those literary devices helps writers to do that. At the same time, we trust our readers to know the difference between those elements and grammar errors.

So after having this discussion with my friend, I passed on Susie’s kind offer to borrow her grammar book and vowed that when it comes to beta readers, to be careful who I’m asking, and to be clear about what I’m asking for. Not only had I probably wasted that woman’s time and energy, but she probably got little enjoyment from proofreading a story as a term paper.

Thanks for visiting with me this week. Hopefully sharing my goof will help others avoid this pitfall.

Wishing all a blessed Thanksgiving, filled with the laughter and love of family and friends. And maybe even a few spare hours to read a good book!


After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing.


Filed under Grammar