Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Recently, a writer/teacher friend of mine from another state sent me a letter in which she complained that writing is getting worse every  day. She called it “the dumbing down of America” and she fears that critics of self-publishing might be right to blame this problem on writers who hit “Send” before their work is really ready and error-free. I was reminded of Anne R. Allen’s article a few years ago, titled, “Kindle no book before its time.”

Some writers are better than others when it comes to punctuation, grammar and other writing rules. In that case, however, as has been pointed out many times, those who are not proficient in the language need to hire an editor or proofreader. Whether I mostly read well-edited writing or somehow “missed” seeing the things the teacher finds appalling, I don’t know. So, I decided to pay attention for a couple of weeks and see if I find evidence of what she complains about.

And I did.

To be accurate, I didn’t find the exact problems she mentioned in her letter, but there were enough “boo-boos” that I began to think she has a point. Notice, I’m not naming any specific authors or the material I found the mistakes in. If any of my readers are guilty of similar errors, I hope they’ll use this opportunity to try to avoid them in the future. However, in a little over two weeks, my casual reading (not the two novels I was reading at the same time) turned up the following.

Like other languages in the world, English has rules we learned in school which helped us (helped me anyway) remember which word to use for present tense, past tense or past-perfect tense. One such list is “drink, drank, drunk.” In other words, the correct use is, “I drink, he drank, and they had drunk.” So the line, “...she’s already drank too much...” leaped out at me. The word “she’s” is a contraction of “she has,” which makes it past-perfect and therefore “drank” should be “drunk” instead.

A similar mistake occurs in the line, “...his cell phone chimed, and it hadn’t rang in a few days.”  Again, a past tense verb was used instead of past-perfect. The word “rang” should be “rung.”

A word I often see mis-used is “loose” when the writer means “lose.” “Loose” is an adjective meaning the opposite of “tight.” “Lose” is a verb indicating someone is no longer in possession of something. Minor, perhaps, but, if an author makes that mistake often, he might be turning off agents or editors from accepting his work.

Another common error is not knowing the difference between “its” and “it’s”. One is a preposition and the other is a contraction of “it is.” In the sentence, ”Blame technology for it’s lack of popularity,” “it’s” is wrong and “its” is correct.

In the phrase “...she should have staid home...“ staid” is a perfectly good word, but not when the author meant to write “stayed.”

An even worse mistake is in “...companies that have went out of business...” Please, dear writer, replace “went” with “gone.”

To finish, I found two instances of writers apparently not knowing the difference between “affect” (a verb) and “effect” (usually a noun, although there are times it becomes a verb, which may explain some mistakes in its use). In “ long as it didn’t effect the outcome...” Change “effect” to “affect.” The same is true in “... the knowledge of how scenes effect your book’s impact...” where “effect” should be “affect.”

As I mentioned earlier, the material in which I found these errors was not necessarily fiction or other prose the author hoped to publish, but authors do need to respect English and use it correctly. In most cases, it’s the only language we have. Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


For as long as I’ve been writing, some 40 years now, authors have pondered the question, “Should I use a Prologue?” Some writing teachers approve of prologues, but others do not, often arguing against them on the theory that literary agents don’t like them, and to use one would hinder chances of your book being published.

Well, times change and publishing, especially mainstream fiction publishing, has changed dramatically. Today, very few authors care what agents think because they have no intention of trying to get agent representation. These days, many writers are self-publishing. Those authors are cutting out middle-men such as agents, and even traditional publishers.

However, even if you don’t plan to try for an agent, knowing if you should use a prologue or not can be important for the success of your book with readers. Their acceptance of your work is the ultimate goal. Besides, many authors believe that readers don’t actually read prologues, so what’s the point?

From my reading about the topic, as well as these 40 years of experience writing fiction, I believe there are few reasons to use a prologue and many more not to. For instance, don’t use a prologue if:

1. It’s only there to give your book an interesting “hook.”
If your reader won’t read your prologue, it’s wasted, and you’ll still need a “hook” for chapter one.

2. It gives information which rightfully belongs in chapter one. Try doing it both ways, and see which works best.

3. It’s there only because your book is a mystery and you’ve seen many published mysteries which have prologues. For a long time, mystery prologues were almost considered necessary (certainly they were a cliche), but aren’t used that much anymore.

4. It’s long. The most successful prologues are only one or two pages. Certainly, the shorter they are, the more likely they’ll get read.

5. It’s an information dump. Authors who use prologues to insert lots of backstory instead of weaving that information into the text gradually - when the reader needs to know it - can sabotage their work.

But, guess what? Backstory introduced via a prologue can actually work and is one of the few reasons to use one. However, the operative word here is “relevant.” Make sure it fits and is really necessary. Another reason to use a prologue is if there’s a significant time difference between that and the main story.

With my own work, I didn’t use one in COLD APRIL, but the author of DANGEROUS AFFAIRS, another book about the Titanic, started with the iceberg developing off the coast of Greenland and eventually coming into contact with the ship. THE GREEN BOUGH, my memoir about Aunt Gladys, has, not a prologue, but a Foreword, a short letter from Gladys to me when I was writing the book. My mainstream novel, CHOICES, has a prologue because I needed to start the story in the cockpit of the airplane before it crashes into the Pacific. And that’s all. If I can publish sixteen other books and four novellas without one, perhaps they’re not needed.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Writing Fiction, especially historical fiction, requires research. Even contemporary fiction requires a certain amount, especially if the setting of your book is unusual or far away. This is the part many writers dislike, but I find it fascinating and rewarding. Yet, only two of my books are historical.

Of course, I was lucky, in that my husband and I traveled to different countries, and I took notes in order to describe those places accurately. At the same time, I didn’t want my book to sound like a travelogue, so I tried to limit descriptions to actual sights my characters would encounter or interact with.

Our most recent trip was to Italy, where we had the opportunity to visit Rome, Florence, Venice, Pisa and Lake Como. Naturally my character did the same thing (I made my female protagonist a travel writer so I had a good excuse, but I hope I didn’t overdo it. See THE ITALIAN JOB.) In addition to actually seeing the sights, I purchased a book on Rome, Florence and Venice beforehand, and bought one about Lake Como while there.

We visited England several times because we had both relatives and friends there. Bits of that area can be found in FINDING AMY and DEAD IN THE WATER (A cozy, humorous mystery to be released October 6th). Because we owned condos on Maui, we traveled to Hawaii many times, and those books include STRANGER IN PARADISE and CHOICES. A train trip from New Orleans to Washington D.C. sparked the plot of NORTH BY NORTHEAST, and two weeks on a friend’s yacht resulted in SOUTHERN STAR. Aunt Gladys told me all about being a schoolteacher in a logging camp in Oregon in 1913, (THE GREEN BOUGH) and the many books I accumulated about the Titanic told me much of what I needed to know for COLD APRIL.

I was born and grew up in Illinois (very flat and dull), but I also lived in Phoenix briefly. However, most of the last fifty years I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and that helped me to write ONCE MORE WITH FEELING, FREE FALL, DEAD MEN’S TALES (coming in 2016) and the novella, THE WEDDING GUEST. Also, three other novellas, under the name P.J. Humphrey, A STUDY IN AMBER, THE SIGN OF FIVE, and THE RED HERRING, are set in the “city by the bay.” A fourth in the HOLMES AND HOLMES Series is THE MISSING MAN, of which I’ve written two chapters so far.

The woman-in-jeopardy mystery, EYEWITNESS, set in New York, is due October 15, my mystery novel set in Phoenix is written but not yet published, as is BEATING THE ODDS (about horse racing in Kentucky) and a YA novel, A YEAR IN PARNEL.

Wait! I still haven’t written stories about Mexico, Germany, Canada or Africa. Hold your breath about Africa: I need to go there first. Isn’t  writing the best occupation for travelers and we who wish to travel?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Like most writers, I get far too much e-mail these days. About once a week, I delete a bunch, but sometimes, before deleting, I make a note about a new market I’ve heard of through those messages.

That’s especially true of one e-mail I get regularly and really like. It’s CINDI MYERS MARKET NEWS, and I just can’t say enough about how valuable that has been. This week alone, she gave out information about a publisher I will probably submit to, plus a short story site that will pay a substantial amount for stories of 1000 to 4000 words.

Cindi attends the Romance Writers of America annual conference and, while there, goes to all the Publisher Spotlights meetings. For weeks afterward, she publishes lengthy articles on these publishers, one at a time. She includes who spoke, how long the company has been in business, what they publish (as well as material they DON’T WANT to see), and full details on how to submit to them.

I also follow certain blogs because they, too, offer industry news, marketing information and insights from their many readers. The comments section alone is often worth hours of my time. The blog posts don’t come to my Inbox - I have to find them - but there are some I never want to be without: The Passive Voice, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, Hugh Howey, J. A. Konrath’s “A Newbie’s guide,” and (a new one for me) The Insecure Writers Support Group.

Do you, my readers, have favorite sites or blogs to recommend? Passing on worthwhile information is one of the ways I “Pay it Forward” to writers who may come after me, in thanks for all the writers before me whose help I appreciate more than I can say.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


I’m waiting for the next report from AUTHOREARNINGS.COM (September?) And hoping to see even more progress by Indies versus Big-5 Publishers. Those reports don’t indicate what’s happening to literary agents’ earnings, but it stands to reason that the more Indie authors there are, the less money flows to agents. Signs that it is happening are definitely in the air. Examples:

1. WRITERS DIGEST MAGAZINE. The October 2015 issue arrived last week, with a cover story boldly announcing: “38 Agents Seeking New Writers Now!” Inside the magazine, eleven whole pages are devoted to “What They Want and How to Submit.” That’s in addition to their monthly “Meet the Agent” page, which features one agent, and their usual ”Breaking In” article in which four writers discuss their debut novel and “Enter the agent” gives credit to an agent every time.

WD also has a book, “Guide to Literary Agents 2016,” available for sale. I didn’t read the article because I’m no longer interested in having an agent. In fact, the only reason I’m still subscribing to WD is because, many years ago, I learned that, for a mere $10, I could get a lifetime subscription. And I’m still alive.

That was a good deal at the time, but long before Amazon and self-publishing, I gave up on agents because (1) 39 agents didn’t even have the courtesy to reply to my query (even with my SASE enclosed), despite my already having five novels published by romance publishers. (2) The agents I did work with often ignored my wishes and followed their own agenda, and (3) they all colluded to raise their “standard” commission from 10% to 15% - a 50% raise for themselves - at about the same time.

2. THE WRITER MAGAZINE. Their October issue carries not one but two lengthy articles touting agents, plus recommending readers download the digital edition of the magazine in order to get “agents’ exclusive tips.”

3. A WD writer, who edits the “WD Guide to Literary Agents” contacted the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of Mystery Writers of America offering to give talks at chapter meetings.

4. The recent RWA Conference (July, NYC) offered two workshops (Thursday and Friday) featuring agents. I believe they always offer at least one such, so this year wasn’t unusual. However, I can’t help wondering how many other agent-centric workshops they didn’t include.

If I were an agent, I’d probably do the same thing, trying desperately to save my profession when, in today’s climate, agents are no longer needed or wanted. Many are already changing the services they offer to writers including helping them to self-publish. I predict we’ll know for sure they’ve seen the handwriting on the wall when a few begin to offer to cut their commission back down to 10%.