Helen, what have you found to be the worst mistakes writers make, whether novice or experienced?
A common mistake novice writers make is to start the story by settling the readers into the book’s “world.” For example, the writer puts us into the head of John who’s in Cabo San Lucas on a fishing excursion. He’s sitting at the back of the boat, fishing pole in hand, waiting for a tuna to latch onto his bait. His best friend, Jack, stands beside him. They watch the water and talk about how long John has wanted to go on this trip and how they’ll ship the tuna back to the States. John anchors the pole and walks around the deck to loosen his tense muscles, then grabs a beer before buckling himself back into his seat. They stare out at the water frothing behind the boat and John licks his lips, tasting the salt in the air.
By this time, readers have fallen asleep and agents have already tossed aside the manuscript. Sure, all that lets your readers see the setting, smell the water, know John, but what good is it if they don’t continue reading? It used to be that you had the first chapter to hook your reader. Then it was the first page. Then the first paragraph. Now it’s the first sentence. Okay, I’ll give you the first page to hook us, but from the opening sentence you better give us a tingle that says, something’s going on here, keep reading. By the end of the first page, you want the reader to quickly turn the page and read on.
Writers may not like it when they turn to page 16 and find a note from me that says, This is where your book starts. But that’s better than getting a rejection from an agent that says, Not for me.
What in your background prepared you to edit other writer's work?
Like most writers, I’ve written since I was a child. In college, I double majored with Bachelor degrees in English and in Speech Communication, and a Master’s in Oral Interpretation. I also worked as a grader and assistant for my English prof, Dr. Steadman. It’s easy to see how the English degrees factor into editing. The Speech degrees taught me how to hear the words, not just write them, to understand how sentences are put together to create a flow, a rhythm, and how to construct pictures through words.
In addition to being in many critique groups, both small and large, I started a screenwriting critique group of working screenwriters. Screenwriting is a great way to practice writing dialogue. You have to get down to the core of expressing hidden meaning and coming up with the fewest words possible to convey what you need to get across.
I’ve been editing writers for years. Most of the time working via email. I also have started doing one-on-one coaching for beginning writers.
Does anyone edit your work? And does every writer need an independent editor?
I don’t belong to a formal critique group anymore, but I do have others who edit my work. Several of my friends are willing to read for me. I don’t usually ask them until I feel it’s ready to go to an agent since most of them are published authors who have their own deadlines and projects. I can trust them to tell me what works, what doesn’t, what sucks and what sings.
In my opinion, every writer needs an independent editor. Even best-selling authors have a house editor who bleeds on their manuscripts. Don’t ever think it only happens to new writers. If what you want is someone who will say they love your manuscript and you shouldn’t change a word, you can find someone to boost your ego that way. But when your book comes out with mistakes and problems, you’re going to lose readers and sales, both with that book and future books.
Whether you’re self-publishing or working with a small or big press, you need an editor.
Which types of books do you write and do you travel to promote them?
I have three books with TSTC Publishing. All non-fiction, all in their TechCareers series. Texas State Technical College (TSTC) hires writers to produce books for each career they teach. The research for each book is intense, since the timeline is short and the information broad. Included is the outlook for the career, all the schools in the U.S. that teach that career and what classes have to be taken for the degrees, and twelve to sixteen interviews and profiles with people in those careers across the U.S. and, in some cases, other countries. For each book, I have a four-inch notebook filled with research as well as hours of tapes.
I started by contributing interviews and profiles for Biomedical Equipment Technicians, then signed on to do three on my own: Automotive Technicians, Avionics, and Computer Gaming. My name is on the books, but I receive no royalties, since these were Work for Hire books. Although I don’t travel to promote them, I’m proud to have them on my bio and website.
Advice to aspiring writers?
Three things: Write, Learn, Share.
To be a writer, you have to write. If you can do a thousand words a day, write them. If you only have time to do fifty words on the train to work, write them. If you have no time to write, turn off the TV … and write.
To be a published writer, you have to learn. You have to learn to be a better writer, through practice, advice, editing, classes, tutoring, critiques, books, reading, mistakes, and successes. You have to learn to promote yourself. That means developing a platform, before you’re published, and building an online presence through a blog, a website, and social networking sites, and expanding your bio with contest wins, or published short stories and articles, or other ways to build your credibility. You need to be filling folders on your computer with information you gather about agents and small presses, bookstores and libraries, online sites, and other bloggers who can help you when you need to put together a virtual book tour.
To be a selling writer, you have to share. Yourself. Your time. Your knowledge. You share via your blog or your comments on other blogs. It’s a win-win. You learn as you share. And those you share with learn from you and about you. The more someone knows and connects with you, the more likely they are to buy your book when it comes out. At the same time, you’re meeting new friends, people who can help you, not just by buying your book, but possibly recommending an agent or an editor, or offering to read your manuscript or write a blurb for you, or encouraging you when you’re down and having trouble writing.
Do these things now. Don’t wait until that magical day in the future when you’ll be published. Develop relationships and skills as you grow from an aspiring writer to a best-selling author.