FROM THE RIVER BANK…COVER REVEAL!
An Occasional Newsletter by Kay Jennings
Topic - Code: Tsunami Cover
It is with great pleasure that I present to you first (well, actually, my husband got to see it first so, technically, that makes you second) the cover for the third book in my Port Stirling Mystery series. Ta Da:
New Yorker Claire Brown is the designer. Claire is also producing five-generation family trees for two families in my story whose history is intertwined back through time. And, in a really fun project, Claire and I have designed an illustrated map of Port Stirling, featuring places prominent in both Code: Tsunami and in my previous two books. The family trees and the village map will be placed at the front of the book for easy reference as you read along.
I still have some work to do on the book, and I can’t give you the exact publication date yet. I’m still hopeful for late May, but it could go either way. My editor requested some fixes, and I’m working on those now. At this point in re-writes, when I change one thing, it often leads to more changes down the road. Truth be told, I dislike this part of the process. It’s much more rewarding for me to tell my story from beginning to end than it is to go back and tinker with it.
There are also choices to be made at this stage. If I like something and my editor, or my husband, or my three wonderful beta readers don’t, do I bite the bullet – because I trust them all – and delete it? Or, do I get all snooty about it and say “It’s my story”, and leave it alone? The truth usually falls somewhere in the middle.
Here’s an example: I am by nature an optimistic person. My new editor leans a bit more to the darker side (she would say ‘serious’ side, I suspect). A big part of Code: Tsunami is about a major natural disaster that wreaks havoc, chaos, and widespread destruction on Port Stirling. I deal with it and then I move on, but she wants more misery, fear, and complete devastation in the story. The truth is that if what happens in this book ever really happens, her version would be closer to the reality. But me being Pollyanna, I question if readers in this current environment really want more misery? I’m working hard to find the right balance.
Here’s another example: One of my excellent readers of my first book, Shallow Waters, didn’t like it when I inserted brand names like Columbia Sportswear and Nike into my characters’ lives. But years ago, I worked in tourism for Oregon, and I’m still a promoter of my great state at heart, so I stubbornly left in the references. Besides, my main character would definitely wear Nike running shoes because he’s a former athlete.
However, one of the first things my new editor said was “Delete all references to brand names – it’s just not done.” That remark from her made me feel like an amateur, sooo…out they’re going in this book. There’s a phrase in this biz: “Kill your darlings”, and sometimes you have to.
FROM THE RIVER BANK…An Occasional Newsletter
By Kay Jennings
Topic: My Garden
Before I get to the important stuff (plants!), a quick update on the progress of Code: Tsunami, book 3 in my Port Stirling Mystery series. I expect to get feedback from my developmental editor by March 26, and I will begin revisions immediately. The cover design is in its final tweaking now, and it looks great. Unless my manuscript requires extensive rewriting, I hope to get it out to my team of beta readers in early April. Still on track for a late May publication, I hope.
So, what am I doing while I wait for my editor? It’s March, silly – I’m planning, prepping, and planting my vegetable garden. For those of you who are new – thanks for signing up! – I write and I garden. In normal times, I also travel, and hope like heck that kicks in soon. But for now, it’s all about the garden.
My vegetable garden covers over ¼ acre, and is divided by grass paths into four planting plots. It’s in full sun, and is located in the upper meadow of our five-acre property in Estacada, Oregon. Because I started it from scratch last year – our first year here after moving out of the city of Portland – I had to dig up the grassy meadow and add a truckload of organic compost.
Last year’s garden was a success beyond my wildest dreams, and told me that our soil is very, very good. I had overplanted, expecting failures, and ended up supplying friends and the Estacada Food Bank with lovely produce all summer. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the grass keeps coming back, and it’s a constant struggle to keep it away from my veggies. So, late last fall, I covered most of the planting area with cardboard, topped by another truckload of compost, and covered it with black tarps that I stapled down with large garden staples. I’m happy to report that as I began to remove the tarps this month, much of the grass is dead, the cardboard has decomposed, and I now have beautiful, loamy soil ready for planting. I’m a realist and understand that my war with the grass is not over, but I have won this freakin’ battle.
We’ve had an unusually chilly spring so far in western Oregon, with most days wet and the temperature not breaking much over 50 degrees. It should be inching closer to 60 by now, but it is what it is. However, my soil thermometer (a crucial tool) tells me that the ground temp is 48-50 degrees overall, and about 52 under the remaining tarps. Many cool-season crops can be sown directly once the soil temp is 40 degrees. So I’ve begun!
I drew up my new plan during the inside winter months, accommodating a crop rotation plan for the four plots. I will rotate on a four-year basis. The strategy behind rotation is to kill off any pests or diseases that like particular vegetables. Gardeners can get really anal about crop rotation (“You must follow Legumes with Brassicas!”), but I think life is too short to get too hung up on it, so I just go in a clockwise direction and hope for the best.
First to go in were Walla Walla onion starts. Peas were next, and Oregon Sugar Pod II seeds are my choice, year in and year out. By the way, I buy the majority of my seeds from Territorial Seed and Nichols Nursery – both Oregon companies – and some additional seeds from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. For the warm-weather crops like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, I buy plant starts from Territorial instead of seeds to give them a head start. Yes, I could start the seeds myself indoors, but see above “life is too short”.
Also in the ground as I write this are Spinach Winter Bloomsdale, Gondar Iceberg and Red Sails Lettuces. Going in this week are Watercress, Radishes, Romaine and Butterhead Lettuces, Arugula, and Seed Potatoes. And, because woman can’t live on vegetables alone, I will plant three packets of Sweet Peas this week as well.
Before this season is over, I will plant almost every vegetable you can think of that will thrive in Oregon, plus add to my herb garden and cutting flowers garden. I’m happy to answer your questions about gardening. Currently I write in the morning and garden in the afternoon, but that will flip when it starts getting hotter outside.
It’s a good life.
FROM THE RIVER BANK…An Occasional Newsletter
By Kay Jennings
There is something about finishing the first draft of a new novel that is simultaneously amazing and completely overwhelming.
The amazing part is “OMG…I did it again!” Yay, me. The overwhelming part is “Now what?” Well, the ‘now what?’ part is easier this time, as I know what I’m doing. However, I am also making some changes in my support team on this third book, so there is uncertainty on that front.
One thing I’m NOT changing – ever, I hope – is working with one of the best cover designers in the business, Claire Brown. Claire lives in Manhattan, and we’ve never met, but somehow this artist knows what I want even before I know it. Claire was the art director at Hachette Book Group for 14 years before starting her own design firm, and she has worked with some of the big-name authors in my field. I am very, very lucky to be working with her. Very, very, very lucky!
Last week, she sent me three possible designs for the Code Tsunami cover, and all three were brilliant. Claire, my marketing whiz hubby, and I all agreed and chose one of the three. This is a difficult part of the publishing business because my cover has to do a lot. First, it must be immediately identifiable as a mystery/crime novel. I can’t go with a sunny teacup and kitty cat cover, for example, because that would say to readers it’s a ‘Cozy’ mystery, which my books are not. I can’t feature a romantic couple, because even though there is a romantic subplot in my books, they are not classified as ‘Romance’. My cover must be genre specific or I don’t stand a chance with the 9 million other books out there currently.
The really tough part is the series angle. I want A Port Stirling Mystery book to look like it’s part of my series. But, at the same time, I don’t want them to look identical to each other. Because of my settings on the Oregon coast, water has been a theme on the first two covers, and I wanted that to carry forward in book 3. But for this story, the water needs to look ominous. Claire nailed it.
While this is going on, I’m simultaneously going through the book again and re-writing, correcting errors in spelling, grammar, and/or story facts and timelines. I’ve worked professionally as a writer and editor, so my first drafts are usually mostly clean on typos, etc, but I can and do goof up on story facts, characters, and timelines.
After I write ‘The End’ of the first draft, I set the manuscript aside for a couple of days – that’s the phase I’m in currently. I’ll begin the rewrite tomorrow or Saturday, and then it goes to my editor on March 5. While I wait on the editor to work her magic, I write the back cover blurb and advertising copy, update my author bio and photo, and tweak my book marketing plan. My editor will have it for three weeks, and then I’ll spend as much time as it takes incorporating her feedback and doing another rewrite and polish.
After that, I have four people who have been beta readers on my first two books, and I hope they will take on Code Tsunami as well. They are sharp-eyed, and have caught both hilarious and egregious mistakes that got by both me and my editor.
Once I’m satisfied that all eyes on the manuscript have caught every error, it goes to a book formatter, who prepares paperback, hard cover, and e-book versions for publication. Many indie authors do this part themselves, and I could probably learn it, but I don’t want to. I’d rather spend my time on the two things I’m good at – writing and growing vegetables. But I do need to look into producing audiobooks; they are a growing, important part of book delivery.
If I had to guess today, and I will for you, dear friends, Code Tsunami will likely be ready to publish by early May, and I’ll be doing the cover reveal soon!
FROM THE RIVER BANK…An Occasional Newsletter
By Kay Jennings
First, I want to welcome all the new subscribers to my newsletter. There are only two rules for this newsletter: Only write when I have something to say, and don’t be boring. Topics are all over the map, and generally about whatever is on my mind. Today’s topic is about the writing process, but that’s unusual. The next newsletter will be about killing moles, but I didn’t think that was a particularly nice topic to welcome my new subscribers.
NaNoWriMo stands for “National November Writing Month”. It’s a national writing “contest” that has become quite popular, and is now international in scope. The contest is with yourself to see if you can write 50,000 words on your work in progress between November 1 – 30. I’ve been tempted to participate in past years, but I’ve never been at the right place in my work.
This year, I had just published Midnight Beach, book 2 in my mystery series, and was beginning to tinker with book 3 when November rolled around. I was mourning the end of gardening season here in Oregon, and knew it was time to make myself stay indoors with my butt in my writing chair as the rains came down.
I had the idea for book 3, and knew it was the best story yet in my series, and I also was spurred on to join NaNoWriMo by some of the writing organizations I belong to, particularly Sisters In Crime. SINC is a national writing organization for mystery, suspense, and thriller writers, and I belong to the local chapter. They urged members to join in NaNo, and started a thread on our Facebook page where we could post our daily word counts and share in the experience.
So, here I sit on December 1. Did I make the 50,000 word goal? No, I did not. Not even close. I’m a competitive person by nature, so it was a bit of a blow to not meet the challenge when others did. But I do have 20,000 more words on book 3 than I did on November 1. And they are good words, not garbage thrown in just to get the word count.
The idea behind NaNo is to just keep writing forward. Don’t go back and review what you wrote yesterday, don’t edit as you go along, and don’t research when the story throws something at you (how do walkie-talkies work, for instance) – just keep writing and see where your story takes you. I see the beauty in the approach, but it doesn’t suit my writing personality, and it didn’t suit this particular work in progress.
Book 3 has to accomplish several things to move my series forward, and it needs to be more structured than just writing a stand-alone book. Plus, this one is more complicated than my first two books, with three distinct storylines: a major natural disaster, a decades-old murder, and a relationship. All three stories need to tie together in the end, and so plotting this book is more important than in my first two.
Having said all that, I still loved being a part of NaNo. It was motivating at the beginning of the day, knowing that I had to post my word count for fellow authors to see. It was clear from November 1 that many writers were going to accomplish the goal…and that many more would not. My favorite post was from a writer yesterday morning (November 30) who wrote “I’m starting now!”
Best of all was the camaraderie with other writers. The daily posts were inspiring, often hilarious, sometimes tragic, and highly motivational. Writing is a lonely pursuit, and this challenge brought us together from all across the globe for thirty days. Priceless.
And, the national president of SINC wrote 14,000 words and noted that without the challenge, it would have been 0 this month. So, at least I beat her.
FROM THE RIVER BANK…An Occasional Newsletter
By Kay Jennings
EVACUATION – September 24, 2020
It had already been a stressful day. My publisher had informed me that the formatting and trim size of my new book was off just a fraction, and needed to be fixed. I’d been working with my designer in New York to get it right, and she was stressed, too, trying to home school her two teenagers. (My second novel, Midnight Beach, is now available to purchase from Amazon, or at your favorite local bookstore.)
We have a large picture window that overlooks our pond, the meadow beyond, and Clear Creek – the southern border of our property – from the house’s elevated position. As the window is between my home office and the kitchen, I walk by it many times a day, always pausing to check if there are any visitors to our pond, like Harry the Heron.
Increasingly as the day wore on, the hills to the southeast which rise beyond Clear Creek became clouded with smoke. It was a hot, hazy day. As I was putting a chicken and vegetables in the oven to roast at about 5:00 p.m, I noticed that the sky was becoming orange. By 6:00 p.m. it had turned a more ominous dark orange/purple/brown color, and seemed to be advancing toward us.
Steve was downstairs working in his home office, and I knew he was on a call with potential investors, so I called our closest neighbor and asked him what he thought about the sky off to the southeast. They have lived here 40 years. He said not to worry, it was just some smoke from a wildfire that was miles and miles away from us. But he did say that his wife was keeping a wary eye on it, too.
As I worked on dinner, the sky become more threatening. Steve came upstairs and we stood looking out the window together. Steve is the calm, rational one in our marriage; I am the more boisterous, excitable one, but on this night, I was the sensible one. I asked him if we had signed up for any emergency alerts since we’d moved to Clackamas County. We hadn’t. We did so now, on both of our phones.
I also remembered that good friends of ours who live closer to the metro area had gone to the coast that morning for a vacation. I texted them, asking if we needed to, could we get into their home to spend the night. They graciously gave us their garage code.
As we ate our chicken and vegetables, our phones started going off within a split second of each other. Clackamas County emergency system. Our area was now a Level 2 wildfire threat, which means “Be ready to evacuate”. There is more language in the alert, something about children, animals, medications, phones, and so forth. I didn’t bother to read it. I said, “We’re going now.”
Steve argued with me for a bit, saying it was only Level 2, not 3, which stood for “GO NOW!” Calmly, I said “What if Level 3 comes in the middle of the night? Do you want to try to figure out what to do then?” Finally, at about 9:00 p.m. he could see that I felt strongly, and our sky was a hideous color with a strong smoke odor, and he agreed to go. We packed a few clothes, enough for a couple of days, computers, phones, medications, and drove both cars to our friends’ house.
As we were getting ready for bed in our friends’ guest suite about midnight, our phones beeped. Level 3, “GO NOW!”. We looked at each other, and I started to cry. There was nothing we could do now in the middle of the night but try to get some sleep, and see what tomorrow would bring.
“Tomorrow” was the worst day of my life. Although we were terrified, we had to go back to the house and see what was going on. Plus, wildfires were things that happened to other people – not us – and we had left without considering what was important to us.
Our road was barricaded, but we could go around it on one side, and we watched while one of our neighbors drove around it, and then did the same. It was noon, but it was very dark. We drove into our driveway and got out, wearing our Covid masks. Ash was falling on our home, and the power was out. Inside was dark, and I was wailing. Now it was calm Steve’s turn to take over.
He said “Grab what we can’t replace.” We hurriedly grabbed family photos that weren’t stored on our computers, art we had bought from travels around the world, jewelry, clothes, Steve’s bagpipes handed down through his family, my grandmother’s silver. We filled up the minivan to the top, and made a run for it. I looked back as we drove out our long driveway to the road, and saw our two 150-year-old majestic oak trees adjacent to the house. I said “You’re on your own, boys.”
Then, we waited for six agonizing days, safe at our friends’ house. The fire eventually touched down about ½ mile from our property, and the firefighters were able to contain it at the road. Yesterday, after 16 days, the county lowered our threat to Level 1, and the other side of our road is now “Normal”.
Today we will unpack the minivan.
FROM THE RIVER BANK…An Occasional Newsletter
By Kay Jennings
Topic: How to Grow Vegetables – August 13, 2020
I don’t just sit here all day writing and reading – no sirree…I also grow vegetables. Lots and lots of vegetables. Some people think I’m good at it, so I thought I’d share some tips today, as more people are interested in growing their own food since the pandemic started.
We all know our economy has cratered, but the one retail category that’s up is ‘Garden Supplies’, not surprising with people stuck at home, and some shortages in our food chain. I always order my vegetable seeds in January, and thank goodness I did so this year because many favorites are sold out. Plus I moved from a small, too-much-shade plot to a one-half acre, all in the sun, with amazing garden potential. I ordered more seeds than usual because I wanted to try different varieties to see which performed best in my new space, and I’m now starting to see some results of these tests.
But, first things first. In addition to plentiful sun, the single most important thing to your ultimate success or failure in growing vegetables is soil. I inherited a big-ass meadow in the space I wanted to use for my vegetable garden, so the first thing I had to do was kill A LOT of grass…and I had to do it in a hurry in order to get a spring 2020 garden underway. I won’t use pesticides because I grow organic food, so I knew killing the grass would be a challenge in just the couple of months I had.
I made a ‘lasagna’ in the meadow. First, we rototilled up the garden space as best we could. Then had a dump truck load of organic mushroom compost spread over my four plots (we left intersecting grass paths). The compost was covered with cardboard, and then plastic tarps. Yes, it was a very difficult job, and more days than I care to remember, I was out there in the pouring rain and wind trying to secure the tarps.
Mostly it worked. I say ‘mostly’ because I will battle grass for another season in two of the four plots where we didn’t do as good a job laying down cardboard. But in all four plots, my soil is amazing. Compost is the critical factor, and you MUST add it if you are starting a new garden.
Now, the fun part – what to grow? Grow what you like to eat. Duh. But I also consider value; what can I grow more cheaply than what it costs in the grocery store? The third consideration is your plant zone. I live in Oregon’s Willamette Valley – zone 8b – where I can grow most vegetables and fruits, but I still consider my best options for success. No pineapple, in other words. If you don’t know your plant zone, it’s easy to find online.
We eat salads almost every night, so lettuce is a no-brainer. It also aces the value test; I buy my seeds from Territorial Seeds, and a packet of lettuce ranges from $2.95 to $4.65. My five rows of lettuce have fed us, friends, and two trips to my local foodbank so far this summer – that’s value. Some of our favorites are: Buttercrunch, Red Sails, Forellenschluss (also called Flashy Trout’s Back), Gondar, and Milagro. I also planted two rows of Rhodos Endive, which I’m addicted to.
The big winner so far this season has been Swiss Chard ‘Five Color Silverbeet’, an Australian heirloom chard. It’s absolutely gorgeous in my garden, prolific, and delicious. I’ve always planted ‘Bright Lights’, and I’ve got some of that coming in my chard succession, but it’s going to be tough to beat ‘Silverbeet’.
Radishes are quick and easy, and my favorites are ‘French Breakfast’ and ‘Cherry Belle’. But I’m about to have a new favorite, I think – Daikon. I planted ‘Minowase Summer Cross’, which I think is a Japanese variety, and yesterday I harvested two 8-inch beauties. I’m going to take Territorial’s recommendation and make a salad tonight of Daikon, Bulb Fennel and Parsley (both of which I also planted).
My other veggie addiction is Lemon Cucumbers, and I went a bit overboard with four plants – these I buy as plant starts, along with my tomatoes and eggplant, instead of seeds because of the length of time in the hot sun we have. Where possible, I buy grafted plants in these three categories, because they combine vigorous growth with wonderful heirloom taste. I’m eating the Lemon Cukes as fast as I can, but each plant is loaded.
Here’s a list of what else I’ve planted – remember I have ½ acre: sweet corn, broccoli, cabbage, kale, celery, carrots, spinach, onions (both bulb red and green salad onions, which I eat every day and is why I will live to 100 like my grandmother!), artichokes, asparagus (my first ever asparagus bed), beans (Romano, my favorites, and French filet), beets, potatoes, zucchini (one green, one yellow) peas, and a lovely herb patch with dill, oregano, thyme, lavender, and cilantro…so far. I’m happy to tell you the varieties I chose and the performance on any of these.
Now, you tell me what you’re growing.
FROM THE RIVER BANK…An Occasional Newsletter
By Kay Jennings
Topic: What I’m Reading Now – August 1, 2020
Even before I was a published author, friends regularly asked me for reading recommendations. So, to kick off this newsletter, I’d like to share some new-to-me authors and some old friends with you.
My reading tastes run to fiction, sprinkled with an occasional non-fiction like ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama – whether you love her or not-so-much, the book is a terrific read. For fiction, I gravitate to mysteries and thrillers because I like to keep up with the best writers in my genre. I’m often inspired by them, sometimes depressed by their brilliant writing, and fess up to ‘borrowing’ an idea once in a while.
My definition of ‘mystery’ is broad, and includes books like last year’s ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles, which was one of my favorite reads of the past few months. The story was so unexpected, and the writing is beautiful in every single paragraph. I also loved his first novel ‘The Rules of Civility’, which I read after ‘Moscow’. Some of my author friends didn’t like ‘Rules’ as much, but I really enjoyed reading it. Towles is now in my whatever-he-writes-I-read category.
I belong to an online British book club, as I’m a sucker for a good British mystery, and have discovered a surprising number of wonderful British authors I’d never heard of previously through member recommendations. My current favorite is Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway mystery series. I was instructed to read them in order, which I’m doing, and advise the same to you. If you love a complicated (some might say flawed) female protagonist, and a rugged English setting, this intelligent series will be nirvana to you.
Before I go any further, I have to ask you: You’ve read all of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series, right? If not, stop reading this newsletter, and get ‘Still Life’, the first book in this penultimate series. While Penny’s books do tend to be more stand-alone, if you’re just starting (lucky you!), I would read these in order as well. And, you should sign up for Penny’s monthly newsletter, too – it’s always informative.
Additional authors to look for in the mystery/thriller category are Tana French, Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), Ann Cleeves, Martin Walker, and Daniel Silva. I have lots more, but this will get you started in fine fashion.
Now, you tell me what you’re reading!
If you are like me, you’re always looking for a good book to read next. I’ve been reading a lot this year, primarily due to a prolonged period stuck at home before and following major back surgery, and I want to share some of the best reads that got me through the year from hell.
But first, a quick update on my debut novel, “The Port Stirling Secret”. I have finished the second draft/rewrite, which was more extensive than I’d planned. Being new to this process, I was surprised at how much more difficult the revision is compared to breezing through the first draft. Live and learn.
My book is now ready to face the world, and I have begun the search for the right literary agent to represent me. I have a list of a few agents I met at a writer’s conference last August who expressed interest in my book concept, and I will start with them. I hope to get an agent and go the traditional publishing route. However, I have an internal rejection meter – no, I’m not going to tell you the number – and if I reach my rejection limit, I will self-publish on Amazon, and start work on the second book in the series, which is titled (for now, to get me going) “The Secluded Inlet”.
Now, for some recommendations for your summer reading.
One of the cleverest hooks I’ve read in years was English writer’s Ian McEwan’s The Nutshell, which is narrated by a baby-in-the-womb. I know, I know, it sounds weird, but it’s so smart and funny. It’s a play on Hamlet, with the fetus overhearing his mother and uncle plotting to kill his father. The baby develops a love for his mother’s wine-drinking, particularly a fine Sancerre. You just have to trust me on this one; it’s a delightful, enchanting book.
Another terrific English writer (this may be a trend) is Fiona Barton, and her novel “The Widow” is a taut psychological thriller. Be sure you read this one all the way to the end!
O.K, one more English writer and then I promise to move on to other nations: Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. If you haven’t been introduced yet to the Cormoran Strike novels that Rowling writes under the pseudonym of Galbraith, I envy you, as I sit here waiting and waiting for the next one to be published. Read these devilishly-good-fun mysteries in order – The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil. If I’m honest, The Port Stirling Secret was inspired as much by detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, as it was by the real-life murder that first caught my attention.
Rebecca Sherm’s Unbecoming pissed me off, because it’s her debut novel and it has no right to be as good as it is. Harumph.
If you tire of mysteries and psychological thrillers, try Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling, and laugh your head off. Seriously.
While we’re in the travel vein, I also enjoyed Elaine Sciolino’s The Only Street in Paris: Life On the Rue Des Martyrs. Sciolino, the former Paris Bureau Chief for the NY Times, is not my favorite writer in the world, but her view of her pet Paris street will have you packing your bags.
One of my favorite writers is Louise Penny. Penny is Canadian, and her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries are all set in small-town Quebec. As a budding mystery novelist, I aspire to be half as good as Penny, both from a characterization standpoint, as well as delivering a sense of place to her stories. Do yourself a favor; go to her website and pick the first in the series, pour a favorite beverage, and find a good place in the shade.
I was probably the last person in the country to read Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall, but if it’s really you, what are you waiting for? This suspense story was one of the biggest thrill rides of my year.
Fans of literary fiction will want to pick up The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. It’s not the book you think it is, but I guarantee it will charm you and leave you feeling warm…after quite the adventure.
I’ll have more reading recommendations later on, but this should get you through summer. Happy reading!
April 18, 2017
Why You MUST Hire a Developmental Editor
If you’re a first-time novelist as I was – or a first-timer at writing anything you want published – you must hire a developmental editor or literary consultant to provide you with feedback on your completed first draft. Even established writers could benefit and learn from a good independent editor, as they could be making the same mistakes over and over again and are unaware of it.
When I sat down and began writing my first book, I knew I had a good story, or “hook”. However, as a debut novelist, I really didn’t understand some of the mechanics of how to construct a full-length book. Yes, I read a lot, and have during my entire lifetime, and some of the lesser books I read got me thinking “I could do this, and perhaps do it better”. But if you’re reading good books, the mechanics are seamless and not necessarily noticeable.
In an earlier blog I mentioned attending the Willamette Writer’s Conference, where I met with literary agents and pitched my novel’s concept. One of those agents gave me the name and contact information for Selina McLemore, an experienced developmental editor who had recently moved from New York to my hometown of Portland. The agent said “Call her. You’ll be glad you did.”
That was the understatement of my year. Before moving to Portland and establishing herself as an independent editor and consultant, Selina worked for twelve years in the publishing business in New York, including more than six years as a senior editor at Grand Central Publishing, a subsidiary of the Hachette Book Group, one of the largest publishing companies in the world. She’s also worked for HarperCollins, another big player in the industry, so she knows what gets published and why (and, more importantly, why not).
She ripped my first draft to shreds.
My protagonist – who I plan to write a series around – was weak, and didn’t lead the crime investigation. I was trying to make him nice, so y’all would love him, but the result was he was too wimpy. And, I gave you readers almost 40 pages of backstory on him upfront so you would understand him. Ugh. I didn’t get into my story fast enough, and I didn’t tell it in proper order. The dialogue was terrific (!), but the wrong characters were saying the best stuff, not to mention solving the crime.
There was positive feedback too. My setting is atmospheric and well-rendered, most of the characters feel real, the story is all there, and my writing is clean.
I’m old enough to realize that I don’t know everything about everything, and so, I took Selina’s constructive criticism and made my book better. It helped that she is so delightful to work with. Her evaluation of my manuscript was thorough and intelligent. Yes, some of it was difficult to read, but I never doubted that she was all about helping me make my book the best it could be. Without her guidance, I would have embarrassed myself sending my first draft out to agents.
Now, as I’m about to finish incorporating Selina’s story-shaping ideas into my second draft, I know I’ve improved my craft, and my book has a better shot at being published. I got lucky in finding Selina, but how should you go about finding the right developmental editor to help you? Following are some do’s and don’ts from Selina. If you want to talk with her, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org:
Do ask for her professional experience. Most editors are quick to say they’ve worked in publishing for however-many years, but “working in publishing” can mean a multitude of different things. Did she work as an acquisitions editor? Was she a production editor? Was she in publicity or marketing? Does she have a specialty in any particular genre? What does she know about self-publishing? Is she a published author herself?
One professional history isn’t necessarily more relevant than another, but knowing an editor’s background can help you find the editor who is best for you. If your goal is to sell to a traditional publisher you might prefer an editor who has recently worked for one. Or, if you want to go the indie route, you might prefer someone with a heavier marketing background, or someone with personal experience navigating that path as an author.
Do ask her to explain her process. Never assume that your experience with a developmental editor will be identical to your friend’s or to that of someone in your writing group. Every editor—and every book she works on—is unique. Most editors have their own standard process and the degree to which they are willing or able to tailor that process to your specific needs varies.
Always ask an editor to describe her process to you. How does she send you notes? What is her timeframe for completing the edit? How does she handle questions you have after you receive your notes? It’s okay to ask an editor to do something a little differently if you feel you need it—she might say no, but it’s still okay to ask-- but do so up front, before any work begins, so that everyone is on the same page.
Don’t fall for false guarantees. Over the years, I’ve heard editors promise authors that hiring them will lead to a publishing contract or get them signed by an agent. It makes me furious. There is no sure thing in publishing, and anyone with actual experience in the industry knows that. If an editor tells you that working with her is a guaranteed path to publication, tell her you’re ready to sign—so long as she’s also willing to guarantee a 100% refund if that book deal doesn’t happen.
The best reason to work with a developmental editor is to improve your craft. The right editor can help you unlock your story’s full potential and help you become the writer you want to be.
To Selina’s advice I would only add that you should like and respect your editor. For one thing, life is too short to work with people you don’t like, and two, the criticism would be hard to take if she was mean. Our relationship worked because we are both direct and honest, but with an element of kindness. In fact, the single thing I can think of about Selina that bothers me is that she’s a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan.
But nobody’s perfect.
Coming next time: What to Plant In Your Spring Vegetable Garden (or something about the writing process; I haven’t decided yet).
So, it turns out that writing a book is hard. Difficult. Really hard. But I did it, and it seems that I did some things right and some things wrong. Following is a user’s guide for you if you are contemplating having 2017 be your year to write a book.
I did two things right from the get-go. First, I had a terrific idea for my book’s concept. A real-life murder decades ago in my home county was the loose inspiration for the book’s story. I say “loose” because other than my novel’s setting, the story quickly diverged from the real case. But because I was familiar with the territory – people, geography, culture, weather – the writing of the first draft was, dare I say it, easy. Story comes first.
The second thing I did right before I began my work was to read Stephen King’s “On Writing”. Aside from the highly entertaining account of King’s life, his advice and “how to” on the craft of writing proved invaluable to this novice. My primary takeaways from his practical advice were to:
“On Writing” is loaded with tons of other writing advice and inspiration. Don’t even think about turning on your laptop until you’ve read it.
One thing I did wrong was not read other great books on the craft of writing. Here are two more I wish I had read before I wrote my book instead of after: Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel” and Robert McKee’s “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting”. Even though McKee’s book is technically for screenwriters, his writing advice can also be adapted for novelists. Both of these books helped me when I started my rewrite. You should read them before you start.
What else did I do right along my journey? I attended the Willamette Writer’s Conference in Portland, three days of unrivaled knowledge, inspiration, and networking. I was only two-thirds of the way through my first draft at the time of the conference, and hated to spend the money (it’s not inexpensive). Looking back now, I realize I wouldn’t be anywhere near as far along on this process as I am if I had skipped this conference.
Not only did I make contact with five literary agents who expressed interest in my story, I also got a lead on a developmental editor in my hometown, whose hiring was the single most important thing I did correctly (more on that coming in my next blog). Add to those crucial contacts, the workshops that seemed to be specifically designed for what I needed to know precisely at that point in time, and being inspired by successful writers from all over the country, and, well, it was the best investment in my new career I could have made.
What did I do wrong? You’re waiting for this, I know. Several things, but none – thankfully – turned out to be unfixable.
I made one “new writer” mistake that, as I now know, almost every new novelist makes: Info dumping. Instead of jumping right into my plot action, I spent wayyyy too many pages giving the reader the complete backstory on my protagonist. I wanted you, dear reader, to love him as much as I do. But I have now learned that the correct way to introduce readers to your main characters is to layer in their backstories a little at a time. Introduce your plot action, your characters, and their conflicts in chapter 1, but dribble out their backstories until you’re at least halfway through your story.
My other mistake was to take a lengthy break from writing when I was approximately halfway through my first draft. It was brought on by real life demands, but still. Stephen King was right: Write every day and keep your story momentum going. I lost my mojo, and it took me a while to find it again. I’m finishing the second draft of "The Port Stirling Murder" now, and will soon start the second book in my series. It's my intention to write every day if at all possible.
I will still have time to attend to my life, including, most importantly, planting my spring vegetable garden. Peas are in the ground; spinach and lettuce this weekend!
COMING NEXT: “Why you MUST hire a developmental editor for your debut novel”. Yes, I’m looking at you.