I recently discovered a Christmas tradition from Iceland called “Jolabokaflod” (which roughly translates to “Christmas book flood” in English), wherein folks give each other books on Christmas Eve, and they all spend the evening quietly reading their new treasure in front of a roaring fire and sipping cocoa.
Sounds like heaven, right?
The tradition began in World War II. Because paper was one of the few things that was NOT rationed during this time, books became the one present that Icelanders could count on being readily available.
Since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has sent a catalog of the newest available books to every household in Iceland (can you even imagine??), starting in mid-November so people can start planning which books they will order to give as gifts on Christmas Eve. Though I obviously cannot read Icelandic, I still had a blast looking at this year’s Bókatíðindi.
Obviously, as a reader and a writer, I LOVE this tradition and very much plan on starting it at my house. I’ve chosen books for each member of my immediate family, and it’s been great fun thinking of their personalities and what they like the most, and then trying to tailor my book choices to those personalities. For example, my husband is from Wyoming, so the next book he’s yet to read in Craig Johnson’s Longmire series will work for him. My son, who has never been one for fiction but loves facts and curiosities, will receive this year’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not annual book. I will search out a fantasy novel for my son-in-law, who loves Tolkien, and find a quirky novel for my daughter, whose tastes in books are usually much like mine. I also very much look forward to opening the book my family decides fits ME, too!
If White River Red: A Novel fits the bill for someone in YOUR family, well, it’s available in several formats. It’s also very easy to wrap, and is 100% calorie-free! 🙂
And hey! If you’re in reasonable driving distance of Siloam Springs, AR, I’d be more than happy to personalize a copy of my book for you. Adding a “Merry Christmas” from the author makes the gift even more special, right? Just drop me an email and I’ll see what I can do!
My oh-so-talented daughter made the following book trailer for White River Red: A Novel. There is an exciting announcement at the end; I’d be grateful if you’d watch it, like it on YouTube, and share in on whatever socials you frequent the most. Word-of-mouth is how books from small presses grow!
And as a side note: Books make GREAT calorie-free holiday gifts, and they are super easy to wrap! 🙂
As a writer, a writing teacher, and now an editor for TPP, I can tell you that no matter how good your story is, it can always be better. (My theme for my first-year college composition class is, “There’s no such thing as good writing—only good REwriting,” and I believe this in my core.) Once your magnum opus has been freed from the confines of your skull, the hard work begins—polishing, cutting, adding, cutting some more, and polishing again until that baby shines.
Then, if you’re lucky enough to get published, you’ll receive an editor who will go in with a machete and hack away, all for the benefit of your darling sweet baby. It stings—indeed it does—but it’s so worth it when your book goes in as a frog and comes out as a prince. It’s like childbirth—you’ll forget the pain when you gaze in wonder at what you wrought.
So my first piece of advice is this: Don’t be precious about your work. I’m sure it’s splendid, I know YOU’RE splendid, but honey, I’m here to tell you right now that it can be splendider. (Yeah, I just made that word up. My editor would totally get rid of it.)
So how can you polish your own work in a way that catches a publisher or agent’s eye? Having caught said eye, how can you make life easier for both you and your editor?
Here are some practical tips I use to make my manuscripts better, and I urge you to keep them in mind as you transform yours.
First, use the following Microsoft Word tools:
*If you have not formatted your document accordingly, please CTRL-A to highlight the entire document. Start at the “Home” tab and format your manuscript to Times New Roman, 12 pt. font. This makes it much easier on your editor; we don’t need or want fancy formatting right now. That will come later, in your galley proof!
*Go to the “Paragraph” block and click the little symbol in the corner. In the dialogue box, find the “line spacing” dropdown and choose “double.”
*Make sure you insert your last name/title of the book, and the page number in the top right of the page (double click in the header). It should look something like this:
*When it is time to start a new chapter, go to the “Insert” tab and then choose “Page Break.” Indicate your next chapter on that new page. Don’t just hit “enter” to get to a new page, as this does not always stick.
*Go to “Review” on the tool bar and run the Spelling and Grammar Check. Check, too, any spelling that you are using as “slang”–in creative writing, slang is fine, but it still should adhere to basic spelling rules. If you’re not sure, type the word into Google real quick and see what Merriam-Webster has to say.
NOW FOR MY FAVORITE EDITING TOOL OF ALL TIME. Seriously, how did I write before I found this? I honestly don’t know! It’s called the “speak” function (called “read aloud” in Office365), and I cannot tell you how vital it is as an editing tool you can use for yourself. There’s something about hearing the robot voice of the machine reading your words back to you that helps you catch so many common writing errors: repetition of words and phrases (we all do it!), awkward sentence structure, grammar issues like too much (or too little) comma use, inconsistencies in plot . . .
Other than spell-check, this is the ONE tool I’d love for all my writing clients to use on a regular basis. (Side-note: I used it before I hit “post” on this blog. I mean, I use it for everything!)
The best technique for catching some of your own writing problems using “speak” is to highlight one paragraph at a time and read the words with your eyes as the computer reads aloud. This way, you can focus on the paragraph (instead of glazing over and running ahead), and you can catch and fix problems as you encounter them. I suggest you proof your work using this method in little chunks of time—perhaps ten pages per day.
You can add the “speak” function to your tool bar; this handy little video walks you through how to do this:
It’s good for EVERYONE, y’all!
So that’s Word and all its glory. Now let’s talk grammar and punctuation, shall we?
Yes, we shall.
Grammar/Punctuation Issues to Check For:
*Ellipsis: An ellipsis is used to mark an omission from quoted speech or text, signal an incomplete or unstated thought, or a pause or gap in speech or text. It consists of THREE dots, with a space before each one. It is NOT written like … or like. . . . It is . . . (space, dot, space, dot, space).
*Dashes vs. hyphens: Hyphens separate actual letters in a word that belong together; for example, straight-up, mid-week, switch-task. They are the short dash on the keyboard and require no spaces.
In terms of editing, the important thing I would like you to remember is that 1) you create an em dash by hitting the dash button TWICE (–) AND 2), you do not add spaceafter the last letter of the word before the dash or before the second letter of the word after. In Word, if you will just write the word, hit the dash button twice, and start the next word, it will automatically and helpfully change your two dashes to one long one—this is the em dash!
*Numbers: Spell out numbers unless it is a time (10:00, 10 o’clock) and/or you are writing a.m. or p.m. (10 a.m./ten a.m.), date (October 4th, 2022), or if the number is longer than two words. (Two billion = correct; one thousand, four-hundred, and eighty two pennies = incorrect. In that case, is should be 1,482 pennies).
Now onto content work:
Passives: Avoid them when you can. Always try to find your active voice. In other words, something should do the action of the sentence, not have something done TO it. For example: Instead of saying “It was inferred that Jack was thirsty,” say “Jill noticed that Jack was thirsty.” (JILL is doing the action.) One neat little trick to catch passives is this: If you can add “by zombies” after the verb, it’s passive and you need to change it (because nobody wants zombies doing the work). Back to the above example: “It was inferred BY ZOMBIES that Jack was thirsty.” Mm-hmm. Fix it.
Italics: Inner dialogue, direct thoughts, dreams, visions, things the character reads should all be indicated in italics.
Repetition: Watch out for “pet phrases” or repeated words. One thing you never want to do is wake the reader up from what my favorite expert on writing, John Gardner, calls “the fictional dream”—in other words, you don’t want him/her remembering that this is a book written by a person. You want your reader to disappear into your words and once she’s there, you don’t want to wake her up with clumsy writing. It is a truth universally acknowledged that repetition can make even the best story seem tedious. The perfect tool to catch this problem, again, is the “speak” function in Word.
Dialogue: Be careful with your “dialogue tags.” Remember: The speaker of the dialogue must be the subject of the dialogue OR the action tag that follows it.
“Good morning,” Trish said, glancing up at Shannon from her chair by the fire. (dialogue tag)
“Well, good morning to you!” Shannon plopped down in the chair next to her. (action tag)
“Have you seen the sales at McCloud’s this week?” Trish passed the catalog she’d been reading to her friend. (action tag)
“Chuck Taylors are half off? I guess I know where we’re going tomorrow,” Shannon said, tapping an ad with her index finger. (dialogue tag)
What NOT to do with the above (we’ll keep the first line the same and correct):
“Good morning,” Trish said, glancing up at Shannon from her chair by the fire. (dialogue tag)
“Well, good morning to you!” Trish smiled as Shannon plopped down in the chair next to her. (Now it’s Shannon’s turn to speak, so she should be the subject of the action tag—not Trish.)
“Have you seen the sales at McCloud’s this week?” Shannon grabbed the catalog Trish was holding out to her as she asked the question. (Trish is asking the question here, but because Shannon is the action tag, it is confusing to the reader who is saying what. Even with “as she asked the question” added, the reader doesn’t know for sure WHO is asking the question—Shannon or Trish?)
ALSO: Give each person his/her own line for response in dialogue, indicated by a paragraph break!
Dialogue helpers: Use other words for “said” sparingly. Sometimes speech words can indicate a mood or action, but overuse them, and you run the risk of waking the reader from your fictional dream. “Said” is a generic term that does not interrupt the flow of the sentence like other speech words may. So avoid things like:
“What are you doing,” she queried.
“I’m taking the dog to the vet,” he growled.
“Why?” she wondered.
“Because he won’t stop barking,” he shouted.
“But he’s just excited to see you,” she cried.
“That’s why we’re going to the vet—he needs some calming pills,” he insisted.
Do you see how these speech tags piled on top of each other slowed things down (and started to sound pretty ridiculous)? Think of them as salt in a soup—a little is great for flavor, but too much and it spoils the taste! Use “said” the most—trust me, you’ll have plenty of other places to get fancy with your words.
I will probably add to this post as things occur to me, but this is a healthy list to start with. If you do these things, you’ll find your manuscript is more polished-looking, and you won’t have so many things to fix after your editor gets her hands on it.
Happy writing, y’all—and have a great Thanksgiving! I’m thankful to our great and good God for you, my faithful readers and splendid friends.
I love when book clubs choose White River Red: A Novel as their pick to read. I doubly love when the members of those clubs invite me to visit them after they have finished the book; this is a strange phenomenon, as I am the world’s biggest introvert and I typically dread talking to strangers. But maybe because I love and appreciate my readers so, they don’t seem like strangers to me, and I can put my weird anti-social tendencies in a box in my mind for a while.
I’ve now attended five book clubs of all sizes (from four people to fifteen), in person and on Zoom, locally and further afield (all the way to Tulsa!). One thing I have discovered is that each group has some of the same questions; for example, every group wants to know about the real White River Red and how I came up with the idea to turn her story into fiction. They want to know which parts were real and which are made up. and it’s fun for me to see if they can guess. However, I have also realized that each group brings its own spin on the evening. One group, filled with aspiring writers, had a lot of questions about how I found a publisher. Another, hosted by a local librarian, delighted me in the very astute discussion questions she had created about the book’s content. She asked the group to reflect on aspects of the books, and I listened, charmed and somewhat thrilled by their answers. After spending so much of my life discussing and looking for meaning in other people’s works, it was a surreal experience to be in the room while others did the same for my book. It allowed me to see what resonated with the readers, and it brought home to me how we all really do see fiction from different perspectives, depending on the personal baggage we bring to the table. There were several times I had to happily admit that the person speaking about my book had ascribed a deeper meaning to the scene than I had intended–I told the group I appreciated that they saw me as smarter than I really was. 🙂 Then, when they zeroed in on something I HAD specifically meant to be seen and read a certain way, I wanted to sing because the point had landed, the connection had been made. They liked me, and I liked them, and we ALL liked Forrestina. That was the most important part for me—because I love Red, and Rocket George, and Ruby, and Sarah—these pieces of my heart—I was thrilled that they loved these characters, too.
Last night, I had the great joy of attending a book club in Tontitown. This club is BIG—there were about eleven ladies in attendance, but a lot of the members were unable to attend because they had an important function at their church that night. Most impressively, the group has been meeting for fifteen years—an absolutely stunning amount of time! Once I was there for a bit, though, I could see why the club has endured so long; the host, Bonnie was all gentle warmth and kindness. Her home was comfortable and cozy, with a fire blazing in the fireplace. She’d decorated the tables with carnival-themed food and decorations—we started the evening supping on hot dogs, nachos, and corn dog bites. The ladies all sign up to bring food each meeting, so the dessert table was loaded with fall deliciousness such as pumpkin cake, peach pie, and, in a direct nod to the book and Red’s “Forrestina Campbell Day,” blackberry shortcake!
After supper, we had a wonderful conversation about the book, and I loved getting to know these precious readers a little more personally, as they shared struggles and triumphs in their lives. After I signed some books and rose to leave, I was given a “parting gift” that delighted me to no end—the three plastic rats that had graced the coffee table as part of the night’s decorations! As I drove home in the rain, my favorite line from Tolkien’s The Hobbit flitted through my mind: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” I was certainly feeling merry! I put my gifts of Peter, Paul, and mean old Judas on my book shelf in my office. As I sit down to work on my new book, I know I will glance at them often and smile.
Side note: If you are part of a book club, and you decide to read White River Red: A Novel as a club pick, holler at me! I would be overjoyed to hang out with your group—after all, my readers are not strangers; they’re friends! ❤
One of the questions I’ve been asked the most by readers and aspiring writers is, “How did you find a publisher?” I understand this enquiry deep in my marrow because before my book was published, it was the question I also had for every person I’d ever met who’d been lucky enough to see his or her work transformed into ink and paper. Sometimes I’d ask the question out loud, but most of the time I just kept the question on the tip of my brain and gazed intently at the charmed creature in front of me, trying to see the glitter and magic that had moved the work of pure imagination into the realm of public consumption.
Now that I’M one of those charmed (lucky) creatures myself, and my first novel is traditionally published, sitting still-stunned-to-be there in stores, on bookshelves, and in libraries all over the place (hard copies of my book have even made it to Senegal, West Africa, and New Zealand),
I can tell you with certainty that it wasn’t magic pixie dust that got me here. It was an old-fashioned, stubborn belief that my story was a good one, and someone, somewhere would figure that out and take me on as a client. It was also, through trial-and-error, a realization about what I wanted for my book, and what I was willing to gain and give up when I chose to stop sending my queries to agents and instead began focusing my attention on smaller-scale traditional publishers.
For those who don’t know already, there are many, many avenues to publication. One avenue which I did not choose and so therefore have nothing of value to contribute, is that of self-publishing or hybrid publishing. With the advent of eBooks, self-publishing has taken on a new life, and for some, this is the path that makes the most sense. With this choice, the author pays to have his book published, sells and markets the book himself, and keeps all the profits from that book. For people who are naturally good at sales, who have a built-in audience (like teachers of certain subjects or innovators of business with tips to share), or who don’t necessarily care whether their books make it into libraries or some bookstores, this is certainly a viable option. None of the above describes me, however, so I started with the agent route and then switched to looking for a small traditional publisher. If you are interested in self-publishing, there are tons and tons of articles about what to do and which self-publishing companies are the good ones, so get to Googling and get to reading, and the best of luck to you!
Back to my own journey, though: In this post, I’m going to talk about the most well-known avenue to publication, which is to query and gain a literary agent. Once the agent accepts you as a client, he or she will begin working to sell your books to a publisher. One misconception I think a lot of authors have is that an agent will get your book to the “big five” (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan). That’s simply not true. Agents may try for the big five, of course, but they will also often try to sell your book to a smaller publisher that may be more accessible. As you well may imagine, getting a “big five” contract is extremely difficult; I recently read a statistic that editors and publishers only accept 1-2% of the manuscripts they receive. That’s a figure from ALL editors and publishers, mind—not just the big five. So the first thing you have to come to terms with is that for MOST writers, this is going to be a long, discouraging road.
But remember: It only takes one yes.
When I finally finished White River Red: A Novel , I first took this well-trampled road of trying to find an agent for my book. I began by scouring Duotrope, which I had used for years to help me find magazines to submit my short stories to, setting my parameters to agents who I felt might be interested in my book. And here I stop to offer my first piece of advice:
When it is time to start look for publication, figure out which key words fit your book best.
I decided that my book fell into the following categories: “general fiction,” “women’s fiction,” “historical fiction,” and “Southern fiction.” It was not “young adult” but nor was it “adult fiction” (that means something else!); it was not “horror” or “literary” or “romance.” There are hundreds of genres, and the first thing you have to do is figure out what your book’s genre is. This will help not only with the selling of the book to an agent or publisher but will also come in handy when you’ve sold the book and it’s time for marketing–these genre words become important hashtags for your social media sites.
I also Googled “agents looking for historical fiction” and visited MS Wish List, which is, as the title suggests, a site dedicated to the manuscript wish lists of agents and publishers. This brings me to advice number two:
2. Do your research homework!
This step takes SO. MUCH. TIME, y’all! I can’t even describe how many hours I spent clicking on agent sites, scribbling down what they wanted and how they wanted it (see my post on query letters). I created a Word document (because I just don’t get Excel!) and, in alphabetical order, listed the agents’ names, their websites, and what they wanted in terms of querying. I had read somewhere that you should only query about five or six agents at a time, so that if you get five or six rejections right out of the gate, you will know you need to tweak your query letter or your first chapter and not have exhausted all your possible sources with a “bad” first impression. Here’s the thing, though–it takes some agents FOREVER-AGES to respond back to you (to be fair, they are drowning in submissions). So I sent out about ten at a time, and when one came back rejected, I’d send out another one to replace it. I also very carefully used the strike-through function in Word to cross the agent off my list but did not delete him or her because I didn’t want to accidentally query the same agent twice.
3. I said it once, I’ll say it again: Wear that tough skin and keep going.
Rejection is just part of the process. It hurts, it discourages, but unless you’re very lucky and a super-star, it happens to all those who want to write. (Again, visit the post about query letters and pay attention to the part about all the famous folks who got rejected.)
I did the above for about a year. I had a lot of rejections from agents, and a few interested requests to look at my full manuscript, which in and of itself is a big deal because of the large rate of automatic rejections (take every win, guys!). I sent those agents my manuscript, and while I waited for them to read the book and get back to me, I started snooping on them. I looked at their public Twitter accounts and read things they’d written in blogs for the industry. What I discovered in reading these was that many agents have vastly different worldviews than I do, maybe because of the area of the country they live in, or maybe it’s just the nature of the business. I’m not going to paint anyone with a broad brush here because I know folks are different all over, but the ones I was looking at were not people I really wanted representing me. This sent me into a quandary–did it matter if my agent believed some things that went against my own beliefs? I mean, he or she would just be selling my book, right? The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how personal a relationship is between an agent and an author. I decided I wanted someone I could trust to care about my work like I did, and that meant someone who would not ask me to change vital aspects of my book just so it would sell better. Please understand me when I say emphatically that I’m sure there are thousands of great agents out there; I simply started to question if this path was what I really wanted for myself personally.
As I was reading more and more about the industry, I happened upon an article about choosing to go straight for a publisher and skipping the agent altogether. I started investigating the subject more and resolved to look at that option. I knew that the “biggies” in publishing didn’t accept queries from authors (only agents), but I started wondering if that was okay with me. As I mentioned before, I didn’t want to go the self-published route–I still wanted a traditional, royalty-paying publisher–but was I willing to adjust my thinking on having to have an agent?
The answer to that was “yes.” How I shifted and began looking for (and finally finding) the perfect publisher for me will be addressed another day. Until then, please stay healthy, keep your wits about you, don’t succumb to fear or despair, ask questions, demand answers, and for goodness sake, laugh every once in awhile. As Julian of Norwich wrote while living through The Black Death (the bubonic plague):
I know it has been a hot minute since I posted last; sorry about that. It’s due to the whirlwind of activity I’ve been engaged in since the launch of my book–and I’m not complaining, y’all. I’ve been having FUN! 🙂
Here’s a quick recap of all the doings and goings on since my launch:
Public readings: I was able to share a chapter of my book at the college where I teach AND at the library I worked at briefly as a page before COVID went and ruined that. (I got too busy having to shift my classes to online and then having to figure out how to teach face-to-face while still keeping everyone six feet apart. Nightmare.) The audience at my college was mainly English majors, aspiring young writers, and faculty from the English department. Everyone was gracious and kind, and I was in my element, since teaching there has been my bag for lo these many years.
The audience at the library was made up of community folks, many who still remember the REAL White River Red and were happy to tell me stories about her after I read my chapter. I loved that part! I got to meet Charlotte Steele, whose late husband, Phillip, wrote the short biography of Forrestina that I relied on heavily for my research. I was also able to meet Karen O’Connell, the Arkansas State Library Coordinator of the Arkansas Center for the Book, and she said she would be adding White River Red: A Novel to their Book Club Collection so that libraries around the state would have access to it for their book clubs. So that’s pretty cool!
2. And speaking of book club picks . . . White River Red: A Novel has now been chosen for SIX book club picks so far, and I’ve offered to visit with all of them! I just recently dropped in via Zoom for the first one, and it was great fun answering questions and getting a feel for how people interpret my book. I’m looking forward to hanging out with the other groups, whether in person (my favorite) or on Zoom. If you are looking for a book for your book club, I reckon mine is a popular choice; if your group does choose my book, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to check in with y’all however is handiest!
3. Bookstores: In addition to being available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble online, I really wanted my book to have a place in physical stores. There’s just something magical about “brick and mortar” shops! And hurrah! My book is slowly finding its way into some great places. It’s now available at Barnes & Noble in Rogers and Chapters on Main, in Van Buren. (Both in Arkansas.) It will soon show up in Daisies & Olives in Prairie Grove and Oli + Meg in Bentonville, also both in Arkansas. I guess I need to start working on the Oklahoma market now, eh? 🙂
4. Movie treatment: Before we get TOO excited, this is just an early stage, feeling-it-out process. I’ve been told by multiple folks that my book would make a great movie, and truth be told, I’ve always personally thought that Forrestina’s life was big-screen worthy. So with my publisher’s encouragement, that’s what I’m working on right now. (Actually, I should be working on it instead of writing this blog!) Stay tuned!
So there it is, friends and readers. Two months in since the launch, and I’ve been having the time of my life. And now can I ask a huge favor of you? If you have read and enjoyed White River Red: A Novel, would you take a quick minute to leave a positive review on Amazon? The more reviews, the more likely that my little book catches broader attention, and I’d love for Forrestina’s story to be known all over. Asante!
When I was mired in researching publishers and agents, reading about how to catch the eye of the aforementioned publishers/agents, writing query letters, and dreaming of that elusive, “Yes, we’d love to publish your book!” reply, I used to peruse published authors’ sites and sigh in jealousy over their launch parties. “Someday,” I told myself, “that will be you, Becky, and what a fine party it will be.”
Well, someday came last Sunday, and it was very fine indeed. I was surrounded by a vast number of friends and family in a friend’s event barn, and I felt overwhelmed by the love they all showed me in attending and cheering me on. I was able to practice my first reading, and I only cried twice (note to self: no more reading the dedication and acknowledgements aloud because you CANNOT HANDLE IT); afterwards, I had my first book signing and felt like the real deal.
Next up: A reading at the college where I’ve taught for thirteen years:
It’s finally that day–the official release day of my book, White River Red: A Novel.
To celebrate, I went out to Friendship Cemetery in Springdale, Arkansas, where the real-life heroine of my book, Forrestina Bradley Campbell, is buried. I left her some thank-you flowers and wondered how long it’s been since she’s had flowers left at her grave.