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My Top Ten List of Things I Never Want to See in a Book I Read (recognize any?)

Let’s face it, I was a reader (and so were you) before we became writers. In fact, most of us became writers in part BECAUSE we were such devoted readers. At some point in that process, the thought occurred to us, ‘I can do this too, and I have a story I want to tell’. And that’s how we ended up here …

As part of my journey to a writer’s paycheck, I have for years read, analyzed and edited others writers’ work. On one hand, it’s a wonderful way to be reminded of what’s good in the writer’s life (and to read some terrific new work); it’s also enough, on my bad days, to make me want to run screaming from the written word – and part of that, I have to say, is because of the way others choose to write it. (Remember, if something bothers you, it’s never YOU – it’s always THEM.) ūüôā

Today I’d like to talk about some of those no-nos on which I turn a firm thumbs down (2 thumbs, if I’m feeling especially ornery). ¬†Here’s my Top Ten List of Things I Never Want to See in a Book I Read:

10. ¬†The word ‘stated’. This is one of the toughest words to use well, because ‘stated’ implies that whatever you’re ‘stating’ has immense weight. About the only way I think it works is “Here are God’s Ten Commandments,” Moses stated. And even that is dicey. Whatever happened to plain old ‘said’?

9. Over-stating (or melodrama). The more overblown your prose, the more silly your words will sound. And if you then compound that error by writing metaphors and similes as old as the hills (there’s one), you have no one but yourself to blame if your readers put the book down. Do any of us really need to be exposed to stuff like “wrapped in a voluminous shimmer of white tulle, feeling as though the night will never end”? C’mon. There has to be a more original way to say this stuff.

8. Dialogue that goes on forever and says nothing. “What do you want to do?” “Oh, I don’t know. What do you want to do?” “I’m not sure.” “Well, what should we do?” Don’t laugh, but there are writers who have PAGES of this stuff, in which characters discuss their options and never quite make up their minds. This makes for a long, drawn-out and exhausting ride for the reader. I’m a big believer in dialogue, IF IT HAS A POINT AND IS ALSO SHOWING CHARACTER. Make your dialogue work to be included. Give us story information AND show us how the characters feel about it; dialogue should have at least two functions in order to make your final cut. And if you can write wonderful dialogue, feel free to lean on it heavily to tell your story; it’s easier for a reader’s eye to absorb than pages and pages of narrative.

7. Characters we’ve already seen somewhere else. I’m not suggesting here that if you want your romance hero to be, say, a blacksmith, that you have to check every romance novel ever written and give up if someone else has used that profession before. What I am saying is that sometimes characters have EXACTLY the same personal qualities that other characters you’ve written or someone else has written already has. Do we really need more romance heroes with chiseled features, staunch independence, a maverick streak and a tough-but-tender persona? (I know I have NO CHANCE of persuading you of changing this, because that’s what sells – sigh – but it gets SOOOO old after awhile.) For the record, my favorite author actually did this all the time – but he did it cleverly. Dick Francis essentially wrote the same hero over and over again — smart, strong, courageous, someone who took quick action and defended those who were weak. BUT – he mixed up their backgrounds, their professions, their interests, etc. So while the heroes all definitely had qualities in common, they were so well drawn, and seemed like such individuals, that nobody cared.

6. ¬†Cardboard characters. This is usually a result of an author not asking enough questions to draw the character distinctly in his or her mind before writing him. Don’t go with the easy answers on character questions; usually it means you’re copying someone else, even if you can’t recall whom. ¬†You can have two characters who are strong, brave, romantic, etc. – but one can be cardboard and the other can be breathing and real. Judith McNaught did this very well in her historical novels. ¬†Sure, they were mid-list romance novels, but the heroes had had enough worldly experience that they had become cynical through exposure to the wrong people. Their first instinct now is to mistrust any women they meet who seem guileless and innocent, and as the twists and turns of the plot unfold, they genuinely decide at some point that they were right; the girl they love is not who she seemed to be, and they’re right in mistrusting her. (I’ll also admit that Ms. McNaught is guilty of #7 – she writes the same people over and over – but frankly, there’s so much dimension in her stories that I tend to overlook it. Shoot me.)

5. The easy ending. Easy endings aren’t satisfying endings. This one is a mistake usually made by a new writer, who either runs out of invention or decides his characters have suffered enough and throws in something ridiculous and coincidental to make things turn out okay by page 300. The point of any story is to have the hero or heroine face a challenge and have to WORK (and change internally) in order to overcome the challenge and achieve their goal. If you make it easy, you also make it unnecessary for the hero to change – and without that, there is no satisfying story. Put up a high wall, not a low one. Make your hero work.

4. The straw villain. This is related to #5–having a villain it’s easy to defeat makes life very easy for the hero, and makes the story not worth reading. C’mon, make that hero sweat! (That’s how we know he’s a hero worth rooting for.) Your bad guys – whether it’s a blizzard, a group of drunken Cossacks or the landlord about to evict – have to be formidable. They don’t all have to be wielding swords, but they absolutely have to hold a significant threat for the hero, something he’ll have to work like crazy to overcome. ¬†You build character (in your children and your fictional characters) if you make them face real challenges. Make your bad guy REALLY bad.

3. Horrible (or no) editing. I side firmly with Stephen King here: I think if you’re a writer, part of knowing your craft is knowing how to spell and punctuate, and which usage is correct. When you turn in a draft, it should have been spell-checked and gone over meticulously (and yes, I mean every word). Every good writer I know does it, even if it means going through the same manuscript ten times during the final editing and production. Hire an editor, if you can, before your book goes out to a publisher, and know that a traditional publisher will bring in an editor as well. Be open to what they tell you, including suggestions for word changes because yours are wrong. DON’T take the attitude that you’re a creative person and therefore not bound to silly rules as lesser beings should be. If your book goes out over your name, YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE. Do you want people to notice you for being a brilliant storyteller–or put the book down because they can hardly understand what you’re saying, your usage and grammar are so atrocious? If you don’t know this stuff, pick up a style book and learn it. Authors learn what they need to know in order to put out a superior product.

Before my books go to my publisher, I’ve edited and re-edited, spell-checked and sometimes brought in my own editor. Then my publisher brings in an editor. Once I’ve dealt with their notes, the formatting and typesetting begin, and the publishers look to catch more errors. THEN I ask for the book back, to do my own final check–and I inevitably find more errors we all missed. It’s my last chance to go through it again, for which I’m always grateful. Be prepared for this; it’s not fun, but it’s part of the writing life.

2. Sloppy research. I’m treading lightly here, because I have myself made some errors of fact (fortunately just a few and most of them were totally hidden in the story). But I don’t like getting things wrong historically; it’s too easy for someone to step forward and pull the curtain on our ignorance. Unless your story has a reason for mixing up historical facts, and that’s part of the style of the story, don’t do it. ¬†I love reading historical stuff (fiction and non) and look forward to learning when I do. So when an author says Bonnie & Clyde died in 1936 (uh, no – they were killed in 1934) or Henry VIII had 7 wives, I see red. Get your facts right, ok? (That said, Kevin Finn and I have a doozy of an error in our novel, FORWARD TO CAMELOT, which we only learned of after the original edition had been published in 2003. But because it’s an error that drives our plot, we dealt with it by keeping it and then writing an Afterword in the new version, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition.¬†) On the other hand, the original edition had about 6 small errors of fact that we fixed in the new edition. This pleases me; I do NOT like getting caught in an error of fact. Writers should be able to get the research right!

1. TYPOS!!!! Sorry, while I do sympathize with how hard it is to get them all, I think you should make every effort to keep typos to the absolute minimum. It’s sloppy, it’s unprofessional and it brands YOU as not a very serious writer when you let them slip through. Remember always that YOUR name is on the book; is that how you want to present yourself? (Would you go to a job interview without ironing your shirt?) For a lot of readers, the book they’re holding (or reading on an eReader) is their first introduction to you. If you sprinkle enough typos throughout the story, it will be the last time they read your stuff.

Sophisticated readers welcome good new writers and will often read and review them again and again (which is great–a built-in cheering section!) If you put them off with bad grammar and spelling, sloppy usage, awful formatting and a mass of typos, don’t count on their being in your corner again. ¬†You’ll have branded yourself, all right — and it won’t be a brand you’ll enjoy carrying.

What are YOUR Top 10?

Look for a JFK-related post from me on Thursday, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination, which I’ll be doing for the next two months.

Now back to the keyboard, and watch those typos …

The OTHER Side of the Writing Life

Hello again, and welcome back to the writing life. And I want you to know that while no, I haven’t written a blog post here for awhile, and no, I also have to admit I haven’t done any further work on an upcoming novel, I HAVE BEEN WRITING EVERY DAY. Isn’t that what Billy Crystal said in THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN (anyone remember that movie?) “Writers write every day.”

I have been, Billy, I swear I have been.

What have I been writing?

Well, a variety of things, and they’re all related to the production or promotion of my two latest novels, STEALING FIRE and FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION. STEALING FIRE is now available on Amazon and Smashwords (¬†and will be published officially on August 31st. CAMELOT will be published on October 31st.

So in no particular order, here’s what I’ve been writing (steadily) for the last 2 months:

1) EDITS. When I finished with the final minute editing details of STEALING FIRE (and there were hundreds, which involved going through the entire manuscript at least 3 times, line by line), I went on to more edits on FORWARD TO CAMELOT, which Kevin Finn and I wrote and published 10 years ago. CAMELOT is about a third longer than STEALING FIRE, and going through it word by word was quite a chore. Ask Kevin. He went through it too, and now our publisher is going through it for formatting and typesetting. What made me happiest about editing CAMELOT, apart from cutting the word count down by 4,000 words, is that I also got to correct some historical errors I’d had to live with in the novel for 10 years, and which made me wince every time I saw them. Bonus: in the process, I found one error I hadn’t even realized was there, and fixed that one, too. (Fortunately, NO ONE has caught or seen these errors, but knowing they were there always bothered me.) Now I don’t have to live with them anymore. Yeah!

2) ESSAYS. Since CAMELOT is being re-published, I thought it would be fun to write a short Afterward to give readers an idea of our experience as authors with CAMELOT and its previous readers. This is entirely new, and included our chagrin at learning, after the book had been out for four or five years, the truth about the MacGuffin on which our plot turned–the Bible owned by JFK that was used to swear in Lyndon Johnson as president on November 22, 1963 and which disappeared immediately afterward, according to William Manchester, author of DEATH OF A PRESIDENT. Turns out it had NEVER BEEN MISSING. It wasn’t where we had expected it to be–and we did conscientiously go looking for it–but would never have guessed it to be where it is now. (Don’t worry; we tell you in the Afterward where it is.)

3) PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL. Since CAMELOT was originally published, the world of publishing–and publishing promotion–has turned upside down, and what was unheard of in 2003 has become commonplace in 2013. Facebook didn’t exist in 2003, nor did Twitter, or LinkedIn or Google +. Now, you can’t have a writing career without them. Having an online presence is more important, and varied, than ever, and it’s not just about having your own website: Amazon’s Author Central is a fabulous place to consolidate all the pieces of your promotional arsenal in one place, on a website that gets more daily hits than probably any other on the planet (you can find me there at, if you’re interested). In addition, the VIRTUAL BOOK TOUR has become the weapon of choice for a lot of authors, allowing us global reach via tour companies who link our books up with blogs which get lots of traffic and are aimed squarely at our target audience. You want to talk about saving shoe leather? Whew!

I’m booked for four virtual book tours, back to back, which will run from September and October (for STEALING FIRE) to November – January (for CAMELOT). What that means for me is, the tour operators send me requests for material from each blog that will host me for a day, and that material varies: some blogs want a short blog post, others send interview questions they want answered, which will be posted, along with my book cover, author photo, book blurb and bio, on their site the day I ‘visit’ them on the tour. Each interview or blog post must be original and tailored to the individual blog, and alas, brevity is not my long suit. I’ve found that my answers to 8 or 10 interview questions run typically around 2,000 words. I hope it’s entertaining for the blog site visitors, but it takes time.

I don’t mind it. Mostly, it’s fun, and I think I’m helping the books by trying to be engaging and entertaining (and in the case of writers’ blogs, helpful with writing advice). Fortunately, the writing I’m doing now will be done, for the most part, by late August or early September, and all I’ll have to do during the tour is stop by each site several times during the day to respond to comments from readers. I’m told it’s a fabulous way of starting buzz about the books, and I’m looking forward to the whole experience. I’ll post my tour schedule for STEALING FIRE once it’s finalized, and hope you’ll drop by and see me at least once!

4) UPDATES. Having an online presence means keeping it updated regularly, and in my case, that hasn’t happened for awhile (as I haven’t published a new book for awhile). SO…update Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Amazon Author Central, and completely revamp my website. Some are finished; some are in process. All will be completed by the end of August. But writing and posting new material for all those sites, plus joining new sites and posting original content there, takes time that I think will eventually pay dividends: readers need to know who you are NOW. And I haven’t ‘gotten current’ with my online presence in some time. It’s a little like spring cleaning, and it’s just as good for you.

This is part of the writing life too, even if I’m not currently adding new pages to my next project. ¬†Maybe next year, when I’m smart enough to be publishing only one book at a time (!), I’ll be able to turn in a manuscript to my publisher and immediately turn to the next work in progress. This year it just hasn’t happened, but it doesn’t worry me. This has been a seminal year in my career, and it needed more preparation than any other year. My plan for the month of August is to complete production on CAMELOT and finish the promotional plans for both books, update my website (in the process now) and turn in the rest of the requested material for my tours. In September, while promoting STEALING FIRE, I’ll go back to work on the next book. (I spent part of this week looking over the manuscript and chapter notes, to begin preparing myself.) Not sure what month next year that book will be published, but I should have a finished draft by the end of the year and spend the early months of 2014 rewriting and polishing.

Meanwhile, though, give me some credit: I HAVE been writing every day. I’ve ¬†also been living other parts of the writer’s life: photo shoot with photographer Vicki Faith for my new author photo (which is posted here, on Twitter and on my Amazon Author Central page); hiring a PA to assist with promotion (I’ll keep you posted); reviewing book covers for THREE books (the third, REALIZING YOU with Ron Doades, will be out this fall); writing bio material and book blurbs. And you know what? On some level, it’s all fun. Either way, it’s part of the life; I might as well enjoy it.

Maybe the biggest thrill so far came last week, when I received the proof copy of STEALING FIRE in the mail on Monday, and a copy of REALIZING YOU on Friday. They’re beautiful, and they look just as I hoped they would. Holding those in your hands makes you realize that there IS a reason for all the crazy stuff you’re doing and the hours after midnight when you’re still on email, and the thousand times you re-read the same lines looking for errors and cutting for clarity.

And that’s the reason, I’m sure, that while eBooks continue to gain in popularity (I love ’em too), we’ll never entirely cut out physical book publishing. Being able to hold that achievement in your hands is a miracle, something you just can’t experience with an eBook, and speaking for this writer, anyway, I’m not willing to give that up.

Hope YOUR writing life is going well–

Talk again real soon.