Wednesday, August 28, 2013


This will be another short post (Do I hear someone say, “Good”?) Because this week I’m swamped with writing work I must finish.

1. Polish the woman-in-jeopardy mystery my friend and I wrote together a long time ago. It’s been sold twice (contracts from MWA approved publishers) and had to be cancelled, and now we’re trying again.

2. Put a backlist romance novel on Amazon all by myself. (Well, hubby helps since I am tech-illiterate.) At the last minute I decided to change the cover picture so am waiting for the artist to do that for me. After that comes the hard part, promotion.

3. The editor of a major publisher (not the Big-5 but I never send to them) has asked to see the entire manuscript of the first book in my cozy mystery series. I never send a book out without reading it from the top to be sure there are no typos or other problems, so I’m doing that right now.


I was amazed recently to find that copy editors can be so different. I’ve heard that, as a cost-cutting measure, publishers - even major ones - are out-sourcing, or eliminating those jobs. That would explain why the same book went to two different places and was copy-edited with vastly different results.

The first editor, although overlooking two typos I found later, made no changes except to take out the asterisks I had placed in the text to separate scenes within chapters. As you know, those separations are made when there is an important change from one scene to the next, for example, time or day, location or setting, or viewpoint. Mine were viewpoint and time changes, and, if the book had been published that way, imagine the confusion of the reader when she was transferred to another world in one paragraph.

The second editor, reading the identical book a couple of months later, wrote comments and changes on 325 of the 350 pages of the novel. This person professed to know everything about movie and television production, law enforcement, police procedures, child custody, judges, restaurant operations, medicine and hospitals, even fashion and food.

Yes, that’s the book I mentioned in the beginning of this post. My co-author and I were so confused, we pulled the book and are querying another publisher. Oh well. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


The legendary Elmore Leonard passed away yesterday, and I am not the only person, or even author, who will write about it. My two cents is that I’d read several of his books before I actually met him at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 1991. He signed a copy of his novel GET SHORTY for me, and it lives in a special place in a cabinet, not on the bookshelves in my living room, bedroom, guest room, office and kitchen. (I keep lots of books.)

What did I learn from him? I can’t do better than quote Leonard, whose 10 RULES FOR WRITING will be touted a lot this week.

1. Never open a book with weather.
He qualified this by adding something like, unless you’re very good at it. I’ve never done it, so I suppose I felt I had nothing original to say weather-wise.

2. Avoid prologues.
I have only one published book (CHOICES, a mainstream novel) with a Prologue, and I considered it necessary at the time and still do. I started a few other books with prologues but soon decided they were unnecessary and eliminated them.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
I think we’re allowed to use “asked” if appropriate, but I once read a book that used “opined” and nearly gagged. These days I hardly use “said,” preferring to indicate who’s speaking by putting action in the same paragraph.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
My writers’ group used to play a game called “Tom Swifties,” in which we tried to come up with the worst combinations, like Leonard’s “he admonished gravely.” Or, “‘I’ve struck oil,’ said Tom crudely.” Thanks to my computer’s Search feature, I can find and remove any unnecessary words ending in “ly.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
I admit I was guilty of using too many until Leonard advised no more than one per 100,000 words.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
I’ve seldom used the former and never the latter, and, thanks to Leonard, now I never will.

7. Use regional dialogue, patois, sparingly.
I guess I’ve always been too lazy to try to describe speech phonetically. Yet, I confess I’ve dropped a final “g” sometimes.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Leonard allows it if you’re really good. Trying to bring my characters to life without much description is still a goal I aim for and, I hope, getting better at. In one of my books, I wrote, “His face was plain except he had more than his share of nose.”

9. Don’t go into detail describing places and things.
Another rule you can avoid if you’re really good at that. I try to find a few “telling details.”
In my latest novel, THE ITALIAN JOB, I wrote: “I knew that old hotel. The windows were French doors and led to outside balconies...but the balcony was two stories above the street, too far for jumping, even if I were an Olympic athlete instead of someone whose only exercise is changing the sheets on her bed... However, the next balcony being merely a foot away, I decided to swing over to it, enter the next room by way of that French door and return to the hotel hallway... The next room seemed dark and empty, and I reasoned that even if someone were staying there, chances were slim it would be another man bent on hanky-panky.”

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
In my opinion, he means big blocks of description or narration. Readers prefer dialogue and, fortunately, people tell me I write good dialogue, so I use a lot of it.

Finally, Elmore Leonard is supposed to have said, “If it sounds ‘writerly,’ I rewrite it.”
I take that to mean things like purple prose, too much description and similes and metaphors that sound like the writer was trying too hard to impress someone.

Elmore Leonard
Santa Barbara Writers Conference
CHOICES by Phyll Ashworth

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Last week, having finished reading a cozy mystery, I began a book some call a “classic.” Either the author, or that book, made the New York Times bestseller list, so I hoped to learn something useful. However, as for priorities, which Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote about in her blog last week, having a book of mine become a bestseller on the NYT is not even on my list.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that almost everything I’ve learned in the thirty years I’ve been writing was ignored by that author. I won’t divulge the name, but it is a woman, and the book was first published in the early 1970s (forty years ago) by one of the Big Six (now Five) publishers. It’s apparently a backlist title reissued for the current market.

So what are the writing lessons that I’ve been learning since the 1990s that weren’t observed forty years ago?

Let’s start with Viewpoint. One could call this book omniscient, although there were times it seemed mostly in the viewpoint of one woman. However, it didn’t stay in her viewpoint. It head-hopped from time to time into her husband’s, her mother’s and her boss’s. Often within paragraphs.

Whether because of that problem or simply lack of character development, I had no interest in that person. I didn’t like or dislike her. I just didn’t know her enough to care. I had no emotional attachment. She was a mere paper doll, being pushed here and there, all “tell,” no “show.”

Backstory. Yes, there was lots of that and it was right in the first few chapters. I almost gave up reading then, but reminded myself this was supposed to be a great book and I should stick with it awhile longer to get to the good parts. Never happened. True, the character did some slightly interesting things: married and had children, got a good job, had an affair, got divorced. Not exactly Wonder Woman things, but maybe people liked to read about commonplace domestic life back then.

The setting of the novel was a period even earlier than the 1970s and the author managed to drop in every detail of the era, whether relevant or not. From who was president, to what went on in other countries at the time, to fashion, hairstyles, food, films and books. Her research was impressive. Did I care? No.
Dialogue: Very little, and that irrelevant or amateurish.

I’ll sum it up and give the reading experience a grade with points from one to ten. For Plot: five points (I’m being generous here.) Characterization: two points. Reader involvement: zero. Sometimes old novels should just be left to die in obscurity. Even as a mere $2.99 e-book.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
New York Times

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


This will be a short post because I had cataract surgery this morning and am not seeing too well at the moment.

Speaking of surgery, it’s amazing how even a procedure that takes a mere ten to fifteen minutes requires a Pre-op appointment four days before with multiple tests. Then on the chosen day you have to be at the hospital by six a.m., change into a gown that “ugly” doesn’t begin to describe, tuck your hair into a bonnet and slip your feet into plastic booties. A machine monitors your blood pressure, patches and a finger clamp keep track of your heart, and an IV goes into a vein in your arm.

The next thirty minutes disappear and you think nothing has happened, until you realize you’re not in the operating room anymore and someone is offering you apple juice. The good part is you go home right away, see the doctor again the next day and then rejoice at how much brighter the world looks.

A day later I can watch TV or work on my computer without eye glasses and even read most print. Being a cataract surgeon must be the best specialty for a doctor, because patients are so happy with the outcome.

Like actors, they get paid for doing what they love and people thank them besides. Come to think of it, that’s true of writers too. We love what we do and readers buy our books and even ask for autographs. In addition, better than either doctors or actors, we writers can work in our slippers and jammies. And as long as we want.

Happy writing!